The far-right government in Vienna claims it’s due to “national security” concerns.
JUN 9, 2018 (DESPARDES/PKONWEB)– Central Europe’s German-speaking country Austria plans to shut seven mosques and expel five dozen imams in what it said was “just the beginning” of a push against radical Islam and foreign funding of religious groups that Turkey condemned as racist.
The country’s right-wing coalition government, an alliance of conservatives and the far right, came to power soon after Europe’s migration crisis on promises to prevent another influx and restrict benefits for new immigrants and refugees. In October, it became the only country in western Europe with a far-right presence in government.
The moves its far-right government claims is due to “national security” concerns, follow a “law on Islam”, passed in 2015, which banned foreign funding of religious groups and created a duty for Muslim organizations to have “a positive fundamental view towards (Austria’s) state and society”.
“Political Islam’s parallel societies and radicalizing tendencies have no place in our country,” said Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who, in a previous job as minister in charge of integration, steered the Islam bill into law.
Standing next to him and two other cabinet members on Friday, far-right Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache told a news conference: “This is just the beginning.”
At the conference, Austrian Culture Minister Gernot Blümel told journalists that the mosques had been shut down because of suspected “extremism.” All the mosques that were shut down were believed to belong to the Salafi tradition, a strict and literalistic school within Islam.
For defenders of the move, Austria’s decision was a necessary stance against radical religious extremism. For its detractors, it was an example of the kind of nationalistic Islamophobia many see as characterizing the current Austrian political climate.
Islam has been an official religion in Austria since 1912. The Islam law, the “Islamgesetz”, was brought in by the Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph, after Austria’s annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Under the law, Muslims, like Catholics, Jews and Protestants, are guaranteed wide-ranging rights, including religious education in state schools.
However, national and political considerations seem to be underpinning the move. Forty of the imams under investigation are formally employed by ATIB (known in English as the Turkish-Islamic Union for Cultural and Social Cooperation), an organization that manages Turkish mosques in the country and has close links with Turkey’s government.
Austria, a country of 8.8 million people, has roughly 600,000 Muslim inhabitants (6.82%), most of whom are Turkish or have families of Turkish origin and include Muslims of Bosnian roots.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s spokesman said the new policy was part of an “Islamophobic, racist and discriminatory wave” in Austria. His spokesperson Ibrahim Khalid decried the Austrian government’s decision on Twitter as “a reflection of the Islamophobic, racist and discriminatory wave in this country” and “an attempt to target Muslim communities for the sake of scoring cheap political points.”
The ministers at the news conference said up to 60 imams belonging to the Turkish-Islamic Union for Cultural and Social Cooperation in Austria (ATIB), a Muslim group close to the Turkish government, could be expelled from the country or have visas denied on the grounds of receiving foreign funding.
A government handout put the number at 40, of whom 11 were under review and two had already received a negative ruling.
ATIB spokesman Yasar Ersoy acknowledged that its imams were paid by Diyanet, the Turkish state religious authority, but it was trying to change that.
“We are currently working on having imams be paid from funds within the country,” he told ORF radio.
One organization that runs a mosque in Vienna and is influenced by the “Grey Wolves”, a Turkish nationalist youth group, will be shut down for operating illegally, as will an Arab Muslim group that runs at least six mosques, the government said in a statement.
The Austrian move raises wider, more difficult questions about the relationship of religion — particularly minority religion — to politics and national identity across Europe.
Throughout Europe, where debates over the relationship between church and state are far less clearly (or legally) defined than in the United States, questions of where religious freedom ends and national security — or national identity — begins have been raging for years, if not decades. In a number of countries, including France, Germany, and Denmark, the niqab and burqa — religious coverings worn by some practicing Muslim women — are partially or totally banned.
Underpinning these debates is the degree to which attitudes toward Islam have become conflated with populist and nationalist concerns about preserving “European” — read: Christian — identity. Recent Pew polls have found that, increasingly, Christian identity in Western Europe has strong nationalist echoes; churchgoing Christians in most Western European countries tend to have more extreme anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant sentiments than their non-practicing or non-religiously affiliated counterparts.
In Austria, freedom of religion is largely enshrined in the country’s constitution. However, its controversial 2015 laws on Islam — which require all imams to be able to speak German, ban foreign funding for mosques and other religious institutions, and generally seek to promote what Kurz, then the integration minister, called “Islam of European character” — placed limits on Islamic expression within Austria.
At that time, a poll found that 58 percent of Austrians felt that Austrian Muslims were being “radicalized.” According to a 2016 International Center for Counter-Terrorism report, some 230 to 300 Austrian Muslims left the country to fight in jihadist groups in Syria.
Austrian authorities have insisted the latest move is designed to combat political Islam, not Islam in general. “It is not a contradiction to be a devout Muslim and a proud Austrian,” Blümel, the culture minister, said at the press conference.
It is difficult to assess the decision to close these mosques outside of the wider political currents in Austria. While some of the mosques that are closing appear to have been distinctly affiliated with jihadist and far-right political Islamic groups — the New York Times reports that one of the shuttered mosques is run by an organization called the Gray Wolves, deemed by the country’s main Islamic body to be illegal and illegitimate — it’s impossible not to see in (far-right Freedom Party representative) Strache’s words in particular a desire to encroach further on Muslim life in Austria. Given that Kurz and Strache alike ran on explicitly anti-immigration platforms, it is difficult to ascertain precisely where national security concerns end and more prosaic political concerns begin.
Anti-Muslim discrimination has been on the rise — in Germany, for example, the government recorded more than 900 attacks against individuals and mosques in 2017 — and European officials are concerned about increasing incidents of hate crime. Austria’s moves not only risk making an entire minority population feel stigmatized and unwelcome in their chosen homeland but can further increase tensions between Muslim and non-Muslim populations.
This kind of marginalization, in turn, may ultimately lead to radicalization becoming a more appealing option for disaffected youth. In England’s Birmingham, for example, from which a disproportionally high number of UK would-be jihadists hail, recruiters for extremist organizations generally target low-income, jobless young men from unstable family backgrounds.
While in some cases, the Austrian government’s decision to close these mosques may indeed have been motivated by legitimate national security concerns, it’s nonetheless important to be cautious. After all, Strache reminded us, this is only the beginning. By 2050, according to PEW Research’s 2017 study, Austria’s Muslim population is expected to increase from 6.82% to 9.6% of its total population in zero migration scenario, and to 10.6% in medium migration scenario. In high migration scenario, the country’s Muslim population is projected to increase to almost 20% by 2050.
Even if all migration into Austria and other nations of Europe were to immediately and permanently stop – a “zero migration” scenario – the Muslim population still would be expected to rise because Muslims are younger (by 13 years, on average) and have higher fertility (one child more per woman, on average) than other Europeans, mirroring a global pattern.