The Austrian government on Wednesday approved revising a century-old law on Islam in an attempt to modernize its provisions and diminish foreign influence — though some Muslim groups have condemned elements of the redrafting as distrustful, unfair, and unconstitutional.
The legislation, or "Islamgesetz," regulates the status of the 560,000 Muslims living in Austria, affirming certain rights while imposing new prohibitions.
It allows Muslims to miss work on Islamic holidays, establishes a university program for imams, and provides for access to Islamic clerics and halal food in prisons, hospitals, retirement homes, and the military. It also outlaws the foreign funding of mosques and Islamic organizations, requires imams to speak German, and certifies that groups representing Austrian Muslims must use a standardized German edition of the Qur'an.
Islam has been an official religion in Austria since 1912, when the original law granting Muslims the same rights enjoyed by the country's other religious communities was passed.
The overhaul — which follows several years of discussion and debate — is seen as a response to the increased threat of radicalization and extremism across the Middle East and Europe. Some 170 Austrians are believed to have to fight in Iraq and Syria, and the law's passage comes as an anti-Islamization movement called PEGIDA has gained momentum in neighboring Germany.
Austria's Minister for Foreign Affairs and Integration Sebastian Kurz says that the law seeks to codify what he describes as an "Islam of European character."
The minister has noted that many imams preaching in Austria come from abroad and don't speak German, and has spoken of fostering native imams who are more deeply integrated within Austrian society.
"The main goal is to make it possible to be a proud Austrian and a believing Muslim at the same time," he remarked in an interview with the BBC. "We don't want to have influence from abroad and we don't want our Muslim community to be dependent on foreign funding," he added, saying that this "creates dependencies."
Kurz pointed to Turkey and Saudi Arabia as examples of sources of funding that he had in mind.
"There's no problem with one-time donations," he said, "but we have problems with continuous financial support and with the dependency of our religious groups in Austria."
Michael Linhart, secretary general of the Austrian Foreign Ministry, tweeted that the new Islam law provided a "modern legal basis" for the country's Islamic community.
The Turkish-Islamic Union in Austria, which receives money from Turkey and arranges for foreign imams to preach in Austria, released a statement noting that it had consistently praised the "positive developments in the law," but argued that the provisions banning foreign financing and the singling out of Muslims are not consistent with Austria's constitution or the European Convention on Human Rights. It is expected to contest the law in court.
Muslims and non-Muslims alike have taken to social media to voice their criticism of the law, debate its merits, and satirize what it means to be an Austrian Muslim.
The law's passage has also provoked discussion elsewhere in Europe. Omer El-Hamdoon, president of the Muslim Association of Britain, told VICE News that while the legislation confers various positive rights, "it's actually drowning within a sea of negativity against Muslims, and that's because a lot of what's in this law is making Muslims be treated in a different way."
The growing threat of radicalization and extremism is undeniable, he acknowledged, but the law has the effect of alienating the Islamic community in Austria rather than assimilating it.
"The spirit of this whole law is a problem because it's trying to make Muslims prove their loyalty to Austria," El-Hamdoon said. "For any country in Europe to come out and say, 'Muslims need to show they are with us,' is obviously an appalling trend of behavior. It's making Muslims feel marginalized. It's isolating them, and when you do that you're actually contributing to the problem, because anecdotal evidence shows that the more you marginalize the youth the more they'll have the tendency to become radicalized."
He added that imams in Britain had also discussed how to effectively address the problem of Islamic extremism.
"Certainly some mosques will need some help and support," he said. "But let's not forget that radicalization isn't really happening in the mosques today…. People are spending their time on the internet, on social media — that's what's causing the radicalization. It's not the imams in the mosques."
European governments will monitor the situation in Austria with interest as they grapple with their own concerns about Islamic radicalization and how to prevent their citizens from traveling to join militant terror groups like the Islamic State. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls isamong those who have expressed interest in following Austria's lead by banning foreign funding for domestic Islamic organizations.
Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd