DAY TWO: Austria offers unique model for integration of Islam

Mariazell, Austria

Though Pope Benedict XVI has issued a clear defense of the Christian roots of Europe during his Austrian weekend, he hasn’t directly mentioned the primary force driving that concern in many quarters – namely, the rising Islamic presence on the Old Continent.

Few issues on the European scene are more explosive, and in that context, Austria actually offers a unique example of how Muslims can be integrated into the legal and social fabric of Western societies. Ironically, the Austrian model is less a result of recent political breakthroughs than a historical accident.

Today, the roughly 400,000 Muslims in Austria are the country’s second largest religious minority behind the Protestants, representing roughly 5 percent of a population of 8 million. A recent study by the Austrian Academy of Science predicts that the Muslim total will rise to between 8 to 12 percent of the population in 2026, and 26 percent by 2051.

The largest blocks of Austrian Muslims are composed of ethnic Turks, Bosnians and Kurds.

While other European states struggle with debates over which legal and political rights their Muslim minorities ought to enjoy, in Austria the situation is far less contentious. Under Austrian law, Muslims are a recognized religious community with specific rights – including the capacity to provide religious instruction to Muslim students in Austrian schools, and to receive proceeds from the government-collected “church tax.” (To date, Muslims have opted not to exercise the latter option.) The law also provides public funding for private Islamic schools, as it does for other religious schools.

Those legal privileges date from the era of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – specifically, 1878, when the empire annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina. Suddenly, ultra-Catholic Hapsburg officials found themselves governing a sizeable Muslim minority. In response, they adopted the Anerkennungsgesetz, or “Act of Recognition,” which granted legal rights and protections to the Islamic community.

According to Austrian sources, the Hapsburgs modeled the legal framework for the Muslims upon the rights and freedoms already granted to Jews. In general, most historians say that whatever its other flaws, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was unusually skilled at managing the complex patchwork of ethnicities and religious traditions living within its borders.

In fact, Catholic Emperor Franz Joseph had personally donated funds for the construction of a mosque in Vienna, but the project was sidetracked by the First World War.

The Hapsburg-era laws on Islam lapsed into disuse with the collapse of the empire after World War I, but they were never officially annulled. In 1979, in response to the growing presence of new Muslim immigrants in Austria, those laws were dusted off and put back into force.

None of this is to say, experts caution, that the integration of Muslims into Austrian culture has been seamless. As elsewhere in Europe, the growth of the far-right in Austrian politics has been driven to a significant extent by fear of the rising Islamic presence – an especially vivid concern in a country which remembers the siege of Vienna in the 17th century by the Ottoman Turks.

A recent survey conducted on behalf of the Austrian Interior Ministry found that 40 percent of Austrians regard Islam as “backward or dangerous,” while just 25 percent say they have a positive view of Islam.

A study conducted last month by Austrian sociologist Paul Zulehner found a growing constituency of “cultural Catholics” in Austria, meaning Austrians who may not fully accept Catholic teachings or go to Mass regularly, but who nevertheless express support for defending the country’s Catholic roots. Zulehner believes that strong growth in this category since his last survey in 2000 is related to concerns about Islam. “Cultural Catholics,” he said, today represent 27 percent of the Austrian population.

Despite the fact that there are only two mosques in Austria (along with an estimated 200 prayer rooms) to serve the entire Muslim community, proposals for construction of a new mosque in Vienna have been complicated by a “not in my backyard” form of local opposition.

Nonetheless, some Austrian observers say that conflicts related to Islamic immigration have been more muted here than in other European nations. There’s been no high-profile explosion of radicalism, for example, comparable to well-known events in Holland, France or England. The “Euro-Islam” website declares that, “Austria’s relations with Islam as a religion have been relatively unproblematic compared to other European countries.”

It’s a calm that many attribute to the country’s unique legal apparatus – a final legacy, some say, from Austria’s imperial past, as well as a reminder that Catholics and Muslims once worked out a modus vivendi on European soil, suggesting hope that it can happen again.

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