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Austrian bill would ban foreign funding for mosques, imams

Eyüp Sultan mosque in Telfs, Austria.

VIENNA (RNS) Austria’s Muslim community is incensed over the government’s plans to amend the country’s century-old law on Islam.

The new bill, championed by Minister for Foreign Affairs and Integration Sebastian Kurz, forbids foreign funding of mosque construction or of imams working in the country and requires a unified German-language translation of the Quran.

The government argues the legislation, which Parliament will vote on this month, will help combat Islamic radicalism. Muslim groups and civic activists say it flouts the principle of equality.

“There is a general tone of mistrust toward Muslims,” said Carla Amina Baghajati, a prominent Muslim rights activist and spokeswoman for the country’s Islamic Religious Authority, referring to the bill. “The 1912 Islam law has set up a model of how state acknowledgment of a religious minority can help this minority better integrate. Muslims in Austria are proud of this law.”

The Islam law, or the Islamgesetz in German, was introduced by Austria’s last emperor, Franz Josef, in 1912 after the Austro-Hungarian Empire annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina. The law made Islam an official religion and guaranteed Muslims wide-ranging rights, including religious instruction in public schools.

Eyüp Sultan mosque in Telfs, Austria.

Photo courtesy of Hafelekar via Wikimedia Commons

Eyüp Sultan mosque in Telfs, Austria.

Austria’s 8.4 million people include half a million Muslims, many of Turkish or Bosnian origin.

Only Belgium and parts of Spain offer Muslims the same legal protections, said Farid Hafez, a political scientist at Salzburg University.

“But in contrast to them, the institutionalization of Islam here is much more advanced,” Hafez said.

Even so, both the government and Muslim groups agree the original law must be updated to keep up with the times.

“The old text does not reflect the practical questions of our time such as chaplaincy in hospitals or at the military,” said Baghajati of the Islamic Religious Authority.

But she fears the legislation may put at risk a “long tradition of interreligious dialogue and cooperation” fostered by the 1912 law.

The bill has other controversial parts besides the proposed ban on foreign funding and the requirement of a unified Quran translation. It expands the definition of Islam to include the Alevi, a religion of Turkish origin that combines elements of Shiite Islam.

Kurz, the foreign affairs and integration minister, is adamant the changes are necessary.

“We want an Islam of Austrian coinage, an Islam that is independent of influence from abroad,” he told an Austrian broadcaster earlier this month.

Up to 50 Austrian citizens have joined jihadist groups in Iraq or Syria, according to Austrian magazine Das Biber, which has close links to the country’s Muslim community. In a highly publicized case earlier this year, two Austrian-born Muslim girls reportedly married Islamic State fighters in Syria.

But critics of the legislation abound.

Political analyst Thomas Hofer said many Austrian organizations, including political parties, are financed with overseas money, and the proposed legislation is a dubious attempt to show the Austrian public that the government is trying to do something against extremism.

Hofer said the bill plays into the hands of Austria’s right-leaning Freedom Party, which has seen an upsurge in support over the past decade and came in third at the general elections last year.

Two weeks ago, the Freedom Party staged a protest against the construction of a Muslim seminary in a Viennese suburb.

Johannes Huebner, an official in charge of the Freedom Party’s international relations, did not deny the party’s critical stance toward Islam.

“People are suspicious of Muslims, of their different customs, different holidays, different approach to family, to the role of women and the role of religion in politics.”

He acknowledged a ban on foreign funding would never fly with Austria’s Jewish or Christian community but added, “Given the present problems, it is adequate.”


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Alexei Korolyov


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  • Seems like the only way this would be close to fair is if it banned foreign funding on all religions. And a ban on outgoing religious funding and missionary efforts as well. Even then, it would disproportionally favor the majority religion of the nation which would have the most resources to expand itself independent of foreign influences.

  • You are correct Fourth Valley, there is nothing remotely fair or proper in this bill.

    This is why the US has no “official religions”. The Austrian government does not have a long history of democracy nor do they seem to understand concepts such as sane immigration policies (“guestworkers, really??) or why sectarian based discriminatory policies are bad.

    Government which only respects “official religions” will by its nature engage in sectarian discrimination. Religious freedoms that are tied to positive grants by government (as opposed to an innate default position), will find new and interesting ways to undermine them when the political moves suit them. Nothing keeps a government from taking away the rights it grants in such a fashion.

    Laws similar to the 1912 one are what made it very easy for Austria and its neighbor Germany to suddenly declare certain faiths to be non-people. For example recognition of the religious freedoms of Jews in those countries came from government grant, which was rescinded in 1930’s. We know what that set the stage for. [This is not “Godwining”, we are talking about Austrian history here]

    Also it should be noted that demonizing Islam is a great recruiting tool for the fundamentalists the government is trying to hinder. Self-defeating stupidity.

  • Thanks Alexei, This is an excellent piece.

    “demonizing Islam is a great recruiting tool for the fundamentalists the government is trying to hinder.”

    Perhaps. But would I need to know more about this situation to judge it better.
    As in: What sort of Islamic funding is underway? How many mosques and Imams are we talking about? What has been the political role of these mosques so far?

    “Official religion” – this stinks. Completely problematic for modern societies for obvious reasons.

    “Foreign funding of mosques and Imams” stinks because Politics and Religion are not separate in Islam – that is the rub – it can be argued that the infusion of cash is a political act without representation. If it can be shown the activities of the mosque are running against the democratic process and decreasing the separations (whatever slight separation may exist in Austria) then there may be a problem worth at least discussing.

    Just as American Evangelicals send $100 Million per year to build settlements on the West Bank, religious activists in Islam seem to have an agenda to build mosques in other countries.

    No problem on the face of it – perhaps.
    Maybe there shouldn’t be laws against this sort of thing – or maybe there should. But it is a serious dilemma for people who want to live within rules of democracy instead of giving too much power to any particular religion.

  • A little background here:

    Austria, like much of continental Europe, does not have an inherent separation of church and state, or inherent free exercise of religion and a national culture identity which is frequently linked to race and religion. Laws attacking a given religion which would never be considered let alone debated in the US find remarkable traction over there.

    Right wing Austrian politicians has made a regular campaigning point about demonizing Muslims. They constantly try to use the government to specifically target them and limit their religious expression. Imagine David Duke with a more popular mainstream political base.

    Add to that are Continental European attitudes towards immigration. Thousands of people are brought in as “guest workers” with no idea how to handle them or their families in a sane manner. Guest worker programs never work as intended. People don’t simply go back to the country of origin. They tend to grow roots in a country, raise family, create new generations in their “host nation”. (The sane thing is create paths to citizenship and have citizenship by birth) Naturalization is almost unheard of for immigrants. Children born to immigrants, raised in the country and speak the language are treated like crap and subject to discrimination.

    Adding to the mix are rather stupid ideas as to multiculturalism. Rather than address discriminatory practices or adopt concepts such as those of our 1st Amendment religious freedoms or both, you get some half-baked deference to the culture of the immigrants that satisfies nobody. People complain the immigrants aren’t really integrating to the culture and the failure of multiculturalism. But the reality is the immigrants are being barred from the culture from the outset and treated like crap.

    All of this makes a great breeding ground for radicalism. Showing such naked hostility by the government to Islam in a general sense merely feeds into the radical fundamentalist agenda. That Europeans are waging a war against all Muslims. That survival and basic dignity as a human being must depend on opposing them through extreme measures (since no legitimate ones seem to exist otherwise) The Le Pens and Pamela Gellers of the world do more to further the goals of Islamicists than Osama Bin Laden ever could.

    It makes no difference what mosques or inams because the bill is making categorical limits for the entire faith in the country. No context required here because none is sought.

  • Its 2014 and a good chunk of the developed democratic world still doesn’t get a number of concepts which were put out by America in 18th and 19th century.

  • Larry,
    Yes. I’m familiar with the lack of separation of church and state in Europe – to my knowledge only America has it written into a constitution – as well as the non integration of the immigrants. In France, where I have spent a lot of time, the problem is very dramatic in some places. The Cote Azur is now very Islamic.

    But without instituting such church and state separations, Europe is heading for some kind of a conflict with Islam. And the religious Islamic culture is not integrating into
    these European communities:

    In Islam there is no pork, no wine, no beer, little music, few movies, little tolerance for infidel cultures – something as simple as banning western women’s clothing or beach wear – little acceptance of western education and public schools, etc. – not because of race or language barriers but solely because of religious adherence of Islam.

    Islamic observance is obviously clashing with these communities and it rejects reforms.
    In Islam, banks are not allowed to charge interest. So some Muslims will not take loans from European banks to open small businesses – I mean, jeesh.

    Imagine going to France and having to reject by religious decree any job which requires you to sell wine, serve wine, or borrow money from a bank or loan money to a Frenchman.

    I really don’t know as much about the Austrian situation – but I have not yet heard an argument which expresses how all of this is supposed to work to benefit Muslims and Europeans.

    The assumption was integration would lessen observance. The evidence coming from Austria is showing that this is not happening fast enough. And I worry about it.

    Religion poisons everything.

  • Max, you are focusing far too much on generalities (and stereotypes) of the religion and missing the big political/social elephant in the room.

    “The assumption was integration would lessen observance. The evidence coming from Austria is showing that this is not happening fast enough. And I worry about it.”

    Because the Austrians aren’t really trying very hard to integrate their immigrants.

    Countries like Austria invite multitudes of Muslims to act as cheap labor, but they treat them like crap, deny them an ability to become part of the country as well as their children and subsequent generations. The Muslim communities become ghettos in the original meaning of the term. A place where certain groups are forced to live. Europeans have a long history of doing that to people.

    France, and most of continental Europe intentionally antagonize and marginalize their immigrants. Muslim enclaves in France are close in nature to what black neighborhoods in the US were like in the 60’s and 70’s.

    The US has its fair share of Muslim communities and enclaves but they are far better integrated with the nation. This is because of several factors: citizenship by birth, separation of church and state, a national identity not linked to race or religion, and a legitimate naturalization policy. If Muslims in the US were treated like their European counterparts, Downtown Brooklyn, Northern NJ and Deerborn Michigan would practically be demilitarized zones. But quite the opposite. They are fairly sedate neighborhoods.

    Its not the religion thats keeping them from being integrated into society, it is society that is keeping them out.

  • @Larry,

    “The Muslim communities become ghettos in the original meaning of the term. A place where certain groups are forced to live. Europeans have a long history of doing that to people.”

    Yes. I agree with this completely.

    “The US has its fair share of Muslim communities and enclaves but they are far better integrated with the nation.”

    Yes again. I agree with this completely. I wish more Muslims would immigrate to America – only 1% of our population is Muslim and the record indicates they have been successful and productive citizens.

    “Its not the religion thats keeping them from being integrated into society, it is society that is keeping them out.”

    I can’t agree with that entirely. Islam is a very self-isolating religion. “Jihad” is an internal psychological/tribalist battle against outside influences and culture. That does not bode well for integration.

    Yes, European society deserves a share of blame… but groups like the Amish of Pennsylvania live by themselves because that is what they want – not because of society.
    Islam can be very Amish-like; self-isolating, limiting contact with ‘the other’.

  • The Muslim communities in the US and Canada belie the notion it is the religion itself which leads to the isolation.

    Muslims tend to separate themselves out in many ways but so do a lot of minority religions. Its also typical of a lot of immigrant groups. But when you have a society which is openly hostile and people deliberately antagonizing you under the color of law, it tends to create a “circle the wagons” attitude.

    Again, its not that attempts to integrate Muslims has failed in Austria, its that they never bothered to try.

    The contempt most Europeans hold for their immigrants is fairly obvious. For example, if you want to see a French person spew a stream of bigoted profanities, just ask them their attitudes towards Algerians.

  • @Larry,

    “The Muslim communities in the US and Canada belie the notion it is the religion itself which leads to the isolation.”

    You may be right. I don’t know. Seems the less religious a person is, the more likely they are to be functioning and integrated.

    My son’s doctor was Muslim. But barely observant. He is very successful and just moved to a New York Hospital to run the neurology department.

    My son’s first girlfriend was Muslim. She became Atheist and is today a physics major. Her parents were not too observant – they operate a software business. They make her bacon when she visits.

    My experience with Muslims is admittedly anecdotal.
    No religion is a problem… if it isn’t actually practiced.

  • “Muslim groups and civic activists say it flouts the principle of equality.”

    When Saudi Arabia and the rest respect the principle of equality, maybe this noise will become an actual argument for their position.

  • My local Walmart has a sale this week on halal turkeys.

    Turkey for thanksgiving, what is more American than that? 🙂

  • Why would anyone use an autocratic craphole like Saudi Arabia as an example to describe behavior of people living in a democratic nation?

    Do you realize many of the Muslims immigrating to Europe, US and Canada are fleeing the nonsense which is going on there?

    Its like comparing your average American Christian fundamentalist with Joseph Kony.

  • The specifics of the current situation are that abundant oil receipts in salafist states in the Middle East have funded salafist mosques, globally.
    Though not violent by nature, their literal interpretation of the Khoran is the basis for all fundamentalist hidjadist movements in the world now. Denying this problem seems not a wise strategy, not for moste more moderate Muslims either.
    The funding of salafist oriented mosques is a serious problem, not only in Europe but also in countries like Indonesia, India, Pakistan and Nigeria.
    Of course keeping church and state separated is a must. And of course other religions should be treated equal and in line with general principles. But the violent fundamentalist Islam is not an issue to neglect as a specific problem.

  • If you pick up a copy of the Koran and read some of it you may want to change your tune. Who wants a bunch of schemers in one’s city scheming to behead and cut off the fingers and hands of “unbelievers.” That’s not a religious text, it’s fascism. Europe had enough fascism. It’s time to stop extremist Islam, folks. Certainly angry, violent Islamists can and must be deported back to wherever they hatched.