Beshir Abdel-Fattah

Islam is officially acknowledged in Austria and is considered the second religion in the country, after Catholicism. Among Austria�s population of 8 million, nearly half a million Muslims enjoy legal rights and privileges unmatched by those offered sometimes larger Muslim populations in other western countries.

One reason for this is the long period of interaction between Austria and Islam, stretching back to 1525 when the Ottoman sultans tried to invade the Austrian empire. Although these attempts failed, there were significant cultural repercussions, and many Austrians adopted Islam. Continual Muslim immigration to the Austrian empire from Turkey and eastern Europe increased after the 1878 Berlin conference, which assimilated Islamic populations into the empire, and the new arrivals were welcomed by the authorities, which allowed them to practice their religious rituals. A law issued in 1867, which guaranteed respect for all religions throughout the empire, gave Muslims the right to establish mosques and practice their religion. The country�s first mosque was built in Vienna in 1878 with the government�s assistance to service Muslims enlisted in the Austrian army. Following the second world war, Austria received new waves of Muslim immigrants, mainly skilled labour attracted to work in the country�s reconstruction efforts. Further immigration ensued as a result of the economic boom witnessed in western Europe during the 1970s and the disintegration of Yugoslavia at the beginning of the 1990s. Arab Muslims, meanwhile, have added a new demographic dimension to the Muslim population in Austria. The true start of the legalisation of Muslims� rights in Austria was in 1908, when the government proposed a draft law to acknowledge Islam as an official religion. This �Law of Islam,� as it came to be known after its passage in 1912, gave Muslims various rights and privileges, including the right to organise and manage their community affairs independently through municipal councils and to establish Islamic endowment funds. These rights and privileges were enhanced by the signing of the Saint-Germain agreement in 1919, in which the Austrian government pledged its protection for minorities and affirmed the right of each citizen to assume important national posts regardless of religion or ethnic origin.

In 1988, the government amended the �Law of Islam� to recognise all the Islamic theological schools in addition to the Hanafi school, which was covered by previous legislation. This led to increased rights and privileges for Austria�s Muslims. Women, for example, were permitted to wear the veil at work and in public ceremonies, students in public institutions too were permitted to veil, and Muslims gained the right to study Islam in state schools and in the army. Austria�s Muslim soldiers also gained the right to take paid vacations for the Islamic holidays of Eid Al-Fitr, which marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, and Eid Al-Adha.

Austria�s Muslims have established several Islamic institutions, including the Islamic Centre in Vienna in 1977 and the Islamic Religious Authority in 1979, which functions as the religious and spiritual representative of Muslims in the country, in the same way as the country�s leading Christian and Jewish bodies do for their communities. Islamic education institutions include the Islamic Academy in Vienna, founded in 1998, and the Al-Azhar Institution in Vienna, founded two years later. A 34,000 sq km Islamic cemetery has also been built, and there are various Islamic associations and unions sponsored by different Muslim countries. However, these institutional structures do not include any mechanisms for political action, and their activities are confined to religious and educational activities. Despite all this progress, a number of anti-Muslim campaigns organised by right-wing extremists and neo-Nazis left Muslims aware of their need for Islamic institutions to adopt their opinions and support their cause. The Islamic community thus made efforts to play a role in the country�s political life, and several Islamic figures qualified themselves to assume distinguished positions inside parties and governmental bodies, including Amr Al-Rawi, a Muslim parliament member for the Communist Party of Austria.

In April 2000, Vienna�s Muslims, in collaboration with various political parties and authorities, organised a campaign to counter the hostile attacks launched by the right-wing Freedom Party against them. As Austria�s Muslims gradually increased their role in political life they became more important for the leaders of the big political parties, who made greater efforts to win their political support and votes.

A major problem for Austria�s Muslims is the existence of theological and ethnic differences and discrepancies in their ranks that have led to social and cultural disharmony. The Turks, for instance, who represent 80% of Austria�s Muslims, live in a closed community with their own mosques and social life. Those of Bosnian origin have different traditions, affected by years of communist rule, while the Arab contingent, 50% of which is Egyptian, of course has its own traditions.

One issue for Austria�s Muslims that has yet to be resolved with the government is related to a law that allows hospitals and medical centres to take human organs from the recently deceased without the permission of their families, provided the deceased is not carrying documentation expressly forbidding this. For the majority of Austria�s Muslims this is a problem.

A rise in conversion to Islam in Austria, meanwhile, has angered extremist groups and led to hostility against Muslims. Several campaigns have been organised through mass media and intellectual and cultural forums to distort the image of Islam, and there have also been attacks against Islamic figures and institutions. To counter such campaigns, Austria�s Muslims, in collaboration with various political parties and authorities, organised a campaign to underscore the tolerance of Islam and its openness to other religions and cultures. During the campaign, various political leaders hailed the honourable role of Muslims in Austrian life.

In other efforts to promote integration and understanding, the Communist Party held an iftar (fast-breaking) banquet in Ramadan 2002 in which the party leader highlighted the importance of Muslims� participation in elections and noted their tangible role in Austrian life in general. The Austrian People�s Party held three iftar banquets in Ramadan 2003 for the Turkish Muslim community.

Following the events of 11 September 2001, Austrian officials expressed their rejection of all forms of terrorism � like their counterparts around the world � but they refused to link the phenomenon with Islam. Austrian foreign minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner, moreover, underscored that Islam is a religion of tolerance and peace and that it has nothing to do with terrorism. This stance runs in accordance with the broad lines of the Austrian policy of consolidating dialogue between religions and cultures with the aim of increasing comprehension and rapprochement.


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