Austria’s Law on Islam and Its Implications for Difference, Minority Accommodation, and Islamophobia
Austria’s Law on Islam and Its Implications for Difference, Minority Accommodation, and Islamophobia
Purpose of this article is to understand the underlying factors behind the recent update on the historic Law on Islam of Austria. The article asks to what extent, measures taken by the Austrian government for the accommodation of Muslims really address their problems and priorities. It argues that the new law, although having some relevancy, has serious flaws and implications for difference and religious diversity. The law is also an outcome of Islamophobia.
On February 25, the Austrian Parliament passed a bill that replaced the Law on Islam (Islamgesetz) introduced by Emperor Franz Joseph in 1912. The amendments provide some extended liberties for Muslims. For instance, Muslims will be able to consult Imams in state and public institutions such as the army, hospitals, and prisons. Their religious diet is legally protected by the state. The law also allows Muslims to omit work on their religious holidays. In exchange of the extended liberties, the law also brings security-driven regulations pertaining to the Muslim communities. It bans foreign funding of Islamic institutions in Austria. From this point in time, Imams require training in Austrian higher education institutions and the Quran will be standardised in German. Although the use of the standardised German Quran is not required, the sermons at prayers are now to be in German instead of Arabic or Turkish. According to the Austrian authorities, the law aims not just to enhance Muslims’ religious liberties, but also to increase their allegiance and loyalty as good Austrian citizens. Apart from its justifications, however, the Austrian Parliament’s update on the law represents a significant shift from a state with indigenous Muslim minorities to a state with immigrant Muslim minorities. Yet this empirical change that results from demographic transformation is accompanied by a state-led suspicion directed specifically at Muslims whose diverse ethno-religious identities are seen as homogenous. Considering the preventive nature of the regulations, Islamic identity without state regulation is perceived to be intrinsically incompatible with Austrian and European values because it is conceived to be inassimilable. Although the recent law cannot be exclusively seen as a multicultural backlash, it amounts to erosion of a significant historic legacy, which recognises equal rights and liberties for all faiths. The law may even well be counter-productive for the accommodation of Muslim minorities in Austria where Muslims are the primary immigrant faith group.
Historically, the mosque did not function institutionally and autonomously by operating from a central point. In Islam, there was hardly an overarching authority. Although caliphate symbolically served as a unifying institution of the Ummah (the imagined, transnational Islamic nation), it was epiphenomenal to the state, especially after the rise of Islamic empires. Long before immigration became widespread and at a time when mostly travelers and traders were considered foreigner, Muslim minorities living in Christian-majority societies relied on local communal networks pertaining to matters in education, religion, and culture. Thus, initially having been deprived of financial assistance by the Christian states, Muslim minorities were either on their own or dependent on the Ottoman Empire’s assistance throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. Such circumstances gave indigenous Muslim populations, which lived under a Christian-majority state, a capacity for self-organisation and recognition of their religious liberties by the Christian host state.
In this context, the Romanov and Habsburg empires are the main examples for institutionalisation of Islam in places where Muslims lived as minorities. Russians and Muslims of Russia have lived together for centuries. The existence of Muslims in Russia goes back to the middle Ages. Once it became an empire, Russia for the first time officially recognised the Muslims as a minority during the reign of Catherine the Great. In a relatively similar fashion to the Ottoman Empire’s strategies to construct and maintain the authority over religious minorities, the Russian Empire aimed to co-opt the autochthonous Muslims politically and socially. It sought to acquire their allegiance to the state through bureaucracy and reform within the context of a civil and lawful state of affairs. For instance, during the reign of Catherine the Great, based upon her edict of 1773, “Toleration to All Faiths,” the imperial government took some initiatives in assisting to build mosques, controlling activities of the Eastern Orthodox missionary enterprise, and for the first time printing the Quran in original Arabic in 1787 (Bobrovnikov, 2006, p. 206). The first muftiate was founded in Orenberg and the state’s permission was required for appointing imams and muftis. The Russian Empire, just like the Ottomans, allowed courts of religious minorities to coexist alongside courts of the imperial state (Mostashari, 2001, p. 241). As historian Robert D. Crews comments in his book, “For Prophet and Tsar,” the model designated by the Russian Empire was a synthesis of the forms of the Eastern Orthodox Church and Ottoman religious institutions (2006, p. 50).
Institutionalisation of Islam is also seen in the Habsburg Empire in which indigenous Muslims of Europe were incorporated through the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Law on Islam that was introduced by Emperor Joseph officially recognised this religion within the Empire. Seen in this light, religious differences and recognition in non-colonial, classical empires were pre-conditions for governing vast lands with tremendously diverse populations and ethno-religious communities. Against this background, nation-states with immigrant religious minorities have relatively weaker capacity to absorb religious differences. Despite their relatively more limited capacity to digest religious difference and liberties, in post-imperial countries such as contemporary Russia, Turkey, and Austria, expression of faith, difference, and tolerance are founded on longue durée of imperial diversity in which religious liberties of indigenous ethno-religious communities were institutionalised and protected by the state.
Until recently, Austria had an exceptional place in the middle of Europe, where anti-immigration and anti-Muslim sentiments are on the rise once again. Unlike mainstream European countries that are distinguished by their historical record of hostility, intolerance of other faiths, and contemporary struggle to absorb religious difference, Austria comes from a unique historical avenue. In the nineteenth century, many European states considered themselves as civilised on the basis of a “Christian Family of Nations” and saw other states and populations with non-Christian ethno-religious identity as barbaric and savage (Mazower, 2012, p. 71). Furthermore, after the Treaty of Berlin of 1878 the Europeans saw the establishment of ethnic and religious homogeneity as a pre-requisite of nation-state building in the Balkans by displacing the indigenous Muslim populations (Yavuz, 2011, p. 28, 35). In contrast, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire as a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, and multi-religious classical empire avoided demographic configurations of ethno-religious communities in the Balkans because such policies would undermine its very political legitimacy. Its minority system bore close resemblance to those of the Russian and Ottoman empires. As early as beginning of the twentieth century, the Emperor Joseph initiated plans to construct a mosque in Vienna, which came to a halt due to the outbreak of the First World War (Mattes and Rosenberger, 2015, p. 143). Although modern Austria did not possess the same ethnic and religious diversity as the Habsburg Empire did, as the main successor state of the collapsed empire it continued to preserve the imperial legacy on religious difference and tolerance through constitutional arrangements that acknowledged the state’s responsibilities for immigrants’ faiths. With the new law passed, however, this country seemed to have receded from this path. In this regard, Austria’s recent laws regulating Muslim integration and practices should be considered as a strike against an important historical acquisition in difference, which not many nation-states were able to acquire. At this point, the timing of this decision is crucial to understand the underlying factors behind this event.
General Panorama in Europe
Many contemporary European countries, including Austria as well, received guest workers mainly from Turkey and some other countries during the 1960s and the 1970s. In the subsequent decades, coupled with the consequences of decolonisation, provisional status of the migratory groups most of whom were Muslims turned out to be permanent residents due to the labour needs of the host societies. At this point, it is important to note that back then a ‘Muslim question’ that manifests itself in terms of anti-Muslim sentiments and Islamophobia did not exist. It gradually emerged as the accommodation policies in most of Europe turned out to be a failure. The emergence of political Islam starting from the 1980s and its worldwide radicalisation in the subsequent decades definitely reinforced the negative perception of Muslims and Islam. However, the questions of what to do about immigrant Muslims in Europe in general and how to incorporate their diverse ethno-religious identities and practices into each specific society are more structural and deep-seated to date.
Thus far, main European states have been reluctant to adequately address and provide necessary institutional improvements for their immigrant Muslim minorities. Socio-economic inequality of immigrant Muslims could be considered a commonplace across Europe with varying degrees of high and low integration from country to country. According to one explanation, the main factor that retards immigrant integration in Europe stems from the fact that most immigrants, who were low-qualified in job market, flooded into Europe in the aftermath of decolonisation with little or no corresponding government assistance (Cesari, 2015a, p. 4). Similarly, Christian Joppke and John Torpey argue that failure of Muslim integration is not an outcome of institutional discrimination, but rather socio-economic exclusion, making a clear distinction between the two (2013, p. 11). However, the second approach takes a different angle. It maintains that it is religious discrimination and racial inequality that hinder Muslim integration (Cesari, 2015a, p. 4). Although both approaches are germane, the latter, institutional discrimination seems to be a more besetting factor that militates against the accommodation of immigrant Muslims. It can also be argued that there is a socio-economic exclusion of Muslims because there is an institutional/racial discrimination against them. For instance, in Germany Judaism is officially recognised as a religion whereas Islam is not. The French state’s high modernist civilising project in the name of laïcité fervently bans headscarf in public schools. Many immigrants in Europe economically constitute the underclass and are politically underrepresented. An experimental research conducted by David Laitin and his colleagues examines whether there is an institutional discrimination against Muslim immigrants in the French labour market. They find that if a job applicant is Christian as opposed to Muslim, the person will have 2.5 times higher chances for a job interview (Adida, Laitin, and Valfort, 2010, p. 1). It is such circumstances that worsen anti-Muslim sentiments. The institutionalised racial and socio-economic discrimination against the immigrant Muslim minorities simply provides suitable conditions for culturalist claims about Muslims, most of which neglect the broader contextual issues such as critique of neoliberalism and global capitalism, but instead, focus on the ‘Muslim question’ per se.
By 2010, the total population of Muslims in Europe was nearly 43.5 million and it is estimated that this number will rise to 71 million by 2050. Many European governments are caught up by a paradox: On the one hand, they lose votes against the rising right-wing populist parties, which increase their electoral support through agitation against immigrant Muslims and on the other, they have to incorporate Muslim immigrants into their national identity by accommodation rather than assimilation (Klausen, 2005, p. 2). As the issue of Muslim integration in Europe becomes more and more apparent, governments are faced with an urge to find solutions for matters such as foreign-exported imams, foreign-funded Islamic institutions and religious slaughter. Thus, debates concerning the accommodation of Muslim practices are a pan-European issue today and not exclusive to Austria. In the broader European context, including Austria as well, the governments feel pressures and demands from racist, anti-immigrant groups on the ground that the growing number of Muslims is potentially a threat to the national identity. Yet, such reactions may also find place even in the speeches of mainstream conservatives and politicians in recent past, like Silvio Berlusconi and Nicolas Sarkozy.
Austria within the European Context
Muslim population in Austria, just like in most European countries, steadily increases. Presently, number of Muslims constitutes 7% (574,000) of Austria’s total population, which is around 8.5 million (Kern, 2015). While the number of Muslims was 150,000 in 1990, it increased to 340,000 in 2001 (Kern, 2015). Some 12.5% of the Viennese population is Muslim most of whom, are originally Turkish and Bosnians as well as Persians, Arabs, and Chechens. Compared to native-born Austrians, Muslims face 1.5 times more discrimination in labour market, but unlike other European countries, ghettoisation is not prevalent for the Muslims of Austria. Despite some common problems such as socio-economic lag that also exist in other European countries, Austria’s unique trajectory in integration of the immigrant Muslims could be characterised as more accommodating than Europe. As I explained above, Austria’s imperial legacy is a major factor that accounts for this variation. In addition, the Austrian state’s institutional configuration of immigrant integration encourages democratic participation, provides better conditions for Muslim practices such as religious education, and promotes public presence of women in accordance with their religious life-styles (Abid, 2006, pp. 271-274). For instance, currently the largest associational Muslim community of Austria, the Islamic Community was founded in 1979 and it is officially recognised as the representative of all Muslims by the Austrian Constitution (Abid, 2006, p. 268). As such, the Austrian trajectory thus far has been different from a ‘Euro-Islam’ model, which blurs the boundaries between assimilation and accommodation. An organic “Austrian Way” (Abid, 2006, pp. 267-268) has allowed an autonomous Islam to grow within the country and co-exist equally with other faiths. With the update on Islam Law, this classical Austrian model of immigrant accommodation seems to shift to the ‘Euro-Islam’ model. As the Minister Sebastian Kurz expressed, the laws aim to create an Austrian/European kind of Islam, which would also be a model for other European countries. However, the problem with such a project is that an organic Austrian way of Islam sociologically already exists and Euro-Islam model may undermine the unique Austrian model by instigating more alienation from the mainstream society. As the spokesperson of the Islamic Religious Community, Carla Amina Baghajati remarks, “The old law was meaningful to Muslims. It gave us deeply emotional ties to Austria… After this new law is passed, I’m not sure if Muslims will still feel the same strong emotional bond.”
At the first glance, it is seen that the Austrian government intends to achieve some improvements both for its own sake and the Muslims. The new law aims to prevent outside Islamic influences and funding that come from abroad especially, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The Austrian government is understandably concerned about the rising danger of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the Middle East. In addition, it did not go unnoticed that the Austrian government was also concerned about the Turkish government’s political influence on the Turkish expatriates and immigrants living in Austria (Ince, 2015). The bill is also intended for issues pertaining to the accommodation of Muslims such as standard German translation of the Quran, the prohibition of export-Imams, and the requirement that all Imams speak German. Not just in Austria, but also in many European countries Imams, who are mostly employed by Turkish government on a provisional status, do not speak the relevant native languages. Thus, the law aims to improve such a shortcoming of immigrant integration. In addition, the Austrian government has a desire to generate a kind of Islam that is illustrative of Austrian and European values in order to curtail radicalism. However, a closer look at the issue reveals that these steps do not adequately and entirely address accommodation problems of Muslim minorities of Austria whose autonomy of religious institutions is sociologically unproblematic. For instance, today there are approximately more than 500,000 immigrants of Turkish origin in Austria. Some Turkish Islamic communities such as the “Islamic Federation” (Milli Görüş/National Vision) and the “Union of Islamic Cultural Centers” (the Süleymanci Community), which are distinguished by their conservative outlook in Germany, have a moderate position in Austrian society (Abid, 2006, p. 275). These communities provide curricular activities for women, promote German language thorough classes at mosques, and interact with secular public figures and artists for their community events (Abid, 2006, p. 275).
Some of the policy choices of the law regarding the Muslim integration, like ban on the export-imams and proficiency in German, may be helpful for the Muslim integration in Austria. In this sense, the law offers some solutions for the institutional needs of the Austrian state regarding the rules for foreign teachers at schools and training of Imams at Austrian universities. After all, no sovereign state would desire to see external factors having political influence within its borders. But, it creates resentment rather than loyalty when the law also singles out the Muslims among other immigrant religious communities such as Jews, Protestants, and the Eastern Orthodox Christians. For instance, it is a discriminatory aspect of the law against Muslims that the regulations ban foreign funding of Islamic organisations whereas Moscow and Jerusalem can conveniently continue to transfer funds to the Orthodox Christians and Jews in Austria. The law also brings Muslims under suspicion due to their potential affiliation with radicalism. It tends to present identity and faith as main issues whereas the underlying problems are deeply connected to the failure of integration policies in Europe and their diffusional effects on Austria. When asked, why other faith groups are not subject to foreign-fund restrictions, the Minister Kurz emphasised the egalitarian aspect of the law by claiming that the Austrian state has separate agreements with each religious community and foreign influence is prevalent only in the Muslim community. He also expressed that the state wants to create an Islam of the Austrian and European kind. This justification might be understandable, but the projection of a ‘Euro-Islam’ as an overall framework runs the risk of producing unintended consequences. The cure may well be worse than the ailment.
The Law on Islam reveals that the Austrian state is concerned with some misgivings pertaining to immigrant Muslims. It does not trust its Muslim minorities due to security reasons whereas evidence shows that ‘homegrown terrorist’ is a foreign concept to the Austrian society in which Muslim minorities are found to be decently loyal to the state. According to the passing law, Islamic organisations “must have a positive attitude toward society and state” or face closure (Kern, 2015). It is important to note that unlike France, Britain, and the Netherlands, where problems regarding integration of Muslims are more salient, Austria never encountered radicalisation of Muslims. Such a preventive action taken by the Austrian government with little counter evidence has no convincing explanation other than the emerging Islamophobia that creates fear where there is no logical, empirical validation to confirm it. In this regard, the form of Islamophobia illustrated by the Austrian government’s preventive regulations is different from the Islamophobia that emerged in other European countries in which cultural claims about Islam and Muslims mask the serious underlying socio-economic and accommodation problems.
Austria, just as most European countries, seems to be concerned with the emerging radicalism among the Muslim immigrants. And, the government offers a model of ‘Euro-Islam’ as a cure to radicalised version of Islam. Such reasoning, however, has strong linkages to Islamophobia. It presupposes that there are “good Muslims,” who embrace secular European values as opposed to “bad Muslims,” who follow their own combative and “anti-modern” political-religious agenda (Cesari 2015b, p. 803). Such a simplification has the same exact pitfall the radical Islamists make when they internalise a bifurcation between the “good Muslim,” who adheres to ideals of an uncompromising and orthodox interpretation of Islam such as conservatism, man-dominated gender roles, and intolerance toward non-Muslims and the “bad Muslim,” who is Western-toxicated (Cesari, 2015b, p. 803). Furthermore, an emphasis on “Euro-Islam” camouflages sociological conditions of European Muslims and instead sets false debates on the accommodation of minorities through a banal culturalism (Cesari 2015b, p. 803). Normatively, such a model of accommodation also lacks a mechanism of self-criticism for European countries since premises of European way of secularism and modernity are regarded as unidirectional and self-evident, rather than multidirectional. Since a Western version of secularisation is offered as the only game in town, Islam and its practices are seen as an anomaly (Kalın 2011, p. 5). Lastly, Euro-Islam model unrealistically promotes a transnational version of Islam in which ethnic, national, and socio-cultural identities are merged (Cesari 2015b, p. 803).
In addition, there are three more specific reasons for why the proposed actions by the Austrian government are problematic. Firstly, the law regulates Islam without recognizing its intra-differences for the Hanafi, Sunni, Shi’a, and Alevi branches whereas similar laws for Christians officially recognise their differences as Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox (Hafez, 2014, pp. 2-3). Thus, Islam is conceived as a monolithic unit. Secondly, the new law offers no financial assistance by the Austrian government in the absence of foreign fund (Hafez, 2014, p. 3). If the update on the historic law aims to improve the conditions for both the Austrian state and Muslim communities, it cannot turn a blind eye toward Muslims in the event of foreign funding ban. In addition, like Spain and Belgium, the Austrian state has nationwide councils to confer with Muslim communities about issues pertaining to their accommodation and practices (Klausen, 2005, p. 42). Although the Austrian policy-makers consulted Islamic communities, many Muslims express their discontentment about the law. Little is known as to under which specific circumstances the Austrian government reached out a sufficient number of Muslim communities and their representatives and established a consensus on the law. In fact, in its embryonic stages of the law as a draft only one representative from the Islamic Council of Austria involved in negotiations, and hence a major portion of Muslims were not represented in the first place (Hafez, 2014, p. 2).
As much as of the security and integration purposes, the recent Law on Islam is also an outcome of Islamophobic diffusion that has perilously haunted most Europe in the subsequent years of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It is further unsettling that the Islamophobic regulations taken by a country, where Muslim minorities are not poorly integrated, could be a model for other European countries whose immigrant Muslim minorities are already regarded with an overt suspicion and fear. Some leading scholars researching the accommodation of Muslims in Europe argue that while European supranational courts mostly protect Muslims’ religious and cultural rights, Muslim integration suffers from political backlash that stems from exclusionary policies of the states and the reactions of marginal groups and the Far Right in host societies (Joppke and Torpey, 2013, pp. 1-20). In this regard, the amendments for the historic Islam Law in Austria are worrisome since they were undertaken by a member state. Those who are skeptical of the concept of Islamophobia mention that Muslims are not alone in facing socio-economic and political discriminations, claiming that many other immigrant communities share a similar fate (Klausen, 2005, pp. 107-108). Similarly Jocelyne Cesari suggests that the rising anti-immigration sentiments in Europe cannot be readily translated into Islamophobia since it is not always clear what drives the fringe groups (Cesari, 2011, pp. 30-31). Such a position sees anti-Muslim sentiments as an outcome of anti-immigration and xenophobia, not vice versa. This may well be correct. However, Islamophobia needs not be openly expressed. It also manifests itself through a politics of indifference and institutional reluctance toward democratic accommodation of Muslim minorities. Moreover, Islamophobia functions as a “form of governmentality” in which aggregated discourses provide blueprints for how to deal with Muslims (Kaya, 2015, pp. 755-757). It is of little help to argue that the accommodation of Muslims is in discretion of each state within the European Union. The EU should pursue more concrete policies that effectively voice a common will to ameliorate the sociological conditions of minority accommodation through democratic participation. The European policymakers and politicians should abandon their sharp determinacy to create a “Euro-Islam” if the basic tenets of the overarching European identity take their essence from global, cosmopolitan citizenship rights. Otherwise, radicalisation and Islamophobia, as the two sides of a coin, are hanging over Europe like a sword of Damocles.
Hakan Erdagöz, PhD Candidate, Department of Political Science, University of Utah
Please cite this publication as follows:
Erdagöz, H. (June, 2015), “Austria’s Law on Islam and Its Implications for Difference, Minority Accommodation, and Islamophobia”, Vol. IV, Issue 6, pp.67-80, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=9093)
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It is true that during the Soviet Union regime, religion was eradicated from the public sphere due to the communist ideology. In addition, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reconstituted Russian state adopted stricter policies toward Muslims, Jews, and Buddhists. Anthony Gill (2008) The Political origins of religious liberty, New York: Cambridge University Press, pp.210-211. It is also known that after Putin’s accession to power, Russian nationalism emerged with an emphasis on Orthodox faith. Nevertheless, it is still safe to argue that different faith groups in Russia can peacefully coexist with the major Orthodox Christians.
Turkey religiously is a Sunni-Muslim dominated country and it pursued strict policies toward the religious minorities in the twentieth century. It recently initiated some reforms toward non-Muslim minorities. Although there has long been an obvious oppression on the Alevis, religious difference and expression of non-Muslim groups are sociologically embedded in society.
In hindsight, I am not arguing for an idealisation of this diversity and its legacy on contemporary Russia, Turkey, and Austria. That does not mean to deny the existing problems concerning rights of religious minorities. But, compared to many other parts of the world, the state of religious difference and tolerance is much more peaceful in these countries. For a comparative review of imperial diversity and politics of tolerance, see Sener Akturk (2013) Türkiye’nin kimlikleri: Din, dil, etnisite, milliyet, devlet ve medeniyet, İstanbul: Etkileşim Yayınları, pp.29-70 and Karen Barkey (2008) Empire of difference: The Ottomans in comparative perspective, New York: Cambridge University Press.
The colonial European powers also considered Russia and the indigenous Christians of the Balkans as uncivilised due to their Eastern Orthodox faith. Nevertheless, the fact that they were Christians created empathy for the Europeans. For a detailed discussion on this topic, see Davide Rodogno (2011) Against massacre: Humanitarian interventions in the Ottoman Empire, 1815-1914, Princeton: Princeton University Press. Although Russia was seen with disdain and categorised as uncivilised by Britain and France, it was a powerful state in realpolitik.
Rodogno expresses a similar view, but he also adds that the Janus-faced European-led humanitarian interventions on the Balkans to free the oppressed Christians from the ‘Ottoman yoke’ were a response to the massacres in the Ottoman Empire (2011, p.33).
PEW Research Center, [Accessed on 24 April 2015], Available at:
For a broad overview on the subject, see (Klausen, 2005, pp.107-122).
[Accessed on 24 April 2015], Available at:
[Accessed on 24 April 2015], Available at:
[Accessed on 24 April 2015], Available at:
The term belongs to Seyla Benhabib (2004) The rights of others: Aliens, residents, and citizens, New York: Cambridge University Press, p.23.