‘Extremism prevention’: Austria to amend century-old law on Islam

‘Extremism prevention’: Austria to amend century-old law on Islam
Fear of extremism has led to Austria having drafted amendments to a 102-year-old law on Islam. Muslim organizations are to be banned from being financed from abroad, while the Koran is to get a unified German-language translation.

The amendments have already been criticized for singling out Islam, which has so far existed in Austria on equal terms with other religions like Catholicism, Lutheranism, Judaism and Buddhism.

Chancellery Minister Josef Mayer said that the new regulations were very carefully drafted based on discussions with the country’s Muslim community and that the changes to the 1912 law on Islam were needed as “a lot has changed” since it was adopted, according to Austria Press Agency.

Foreign Affairs and Integration Minister Sebastian Kurz was more specific on the purpose of updating the law on Islam.

"If you don't have orderly legal regulation... this can always bring dangers. In this sense, if you like this is maybe a part of prevention," he told reporters, as cited by Reuters.

Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz. (Reuters/Ray Stubblebine)

The amendments to the law are being worked out amid Austrians growing increasingly worried over reports of around 140 Austrians fighting alongside jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria. Austria’s counter-terrorism body also warned in August that Vienna was “attracting foreign fighters from all over Europe,” being a convenient stop on their way to Syria.

The fear of extremist groups could be the reason Austria has witnessed right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ) rising in popularity. An August opinion poll published by Der Standard showed the FPÖ had support of 28 percent of the poll participants, more than any other political party.

The new legislation on Islam will prohibit Austrian Imams from being employed by foreign countries and Muslim organizations obtaining finance from abroad.

That would outlaw the country’s 65 Imams currently employed by Turkey - roughly a fifth of all of Imams in Austria.

One of the two official Muslim organizations in Austria has already voiced its discontent.

"[The bill] mirrors in its overtone the spirit of the times we currently perceive, which is marked by blanket suspicion and mistrust against Muslims," said Carla Amina Baghajati, spokeswoman of the Islamic Community of Faith in Austria (IGGIO).

Critics of the law point at it being unjust in creating unequal conditions for different religions.

Austrian Muslims carry banners and shout slogans during a protest against a film made in the U.S. and cartoons published by a French magazine that denigrate Islam's Prophet Mohammad, in Vienna September 22, 2012. (Reuters/Leonhard Foeger)

"It will create an impression as if Muslims are a potential problem group,” Islam expert Thomas Schmid Inger told ORF. “I would have liked it better if you had one law for all religious communities and all religious communities in Austria were really treated equally."

Another thing the new law demands is a standardized German-language translations of the Koran. Austrian leadership believes that’s not going to be a problem.

"Am I skeptical when I hear this is difficult or not easily done? Fundamentally no," said Kurz, as cited by Reuters.

Meanwhile, representatives of the Muslim community argue that coming up with a unified translation of the Koran is against principles of the religion. The Arabic version of the Koran is perceived as the word of Allah in Islam, and no translation of it can be absolutely accurate.

That’s not the first legislative initiative in Austria inspired by the rise of extremism in Iraq and Syria. Austrian authorities announced in mid-September they were planning to ban terrorist-related symbols, starting with the flag of the Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS or ISIL) extremist movement.