Such events are, however, bringing about a response from our politicians. I will be talking about one of them: Austria’s new Islamgesetz (Islam law), passed on the 25th February. While it is a law that has been on the table for a couple of years, its promulgation and its effects must be placed into Europe’s current context. This law, while including some very positive points, does not, however, solve the problem, and shows some ignorance of the reality of the situation facing Europe.
The law can be summarised in the following points:
Muslims will have the right to consult clerics in the army, hospital, retirement homes and prisons.
Muslims will have the right to eat halal food, including while in public schools.
Foreign funding of Islamic organisations and imams is henceforth forbidden.
Every imam must be educated in and have a good grasp of the German language.
This law is a modernisation of the 1912 Islamgesetz promulgated by Emperor Franz Joseph upon the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. According to Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, it is an attempt to curb negative foreign influence on Islam in Austria, and therefore create an ‘Islam österreichischer Prägung’, i.e. an Austrian-style Islam.
There are, without a doubt, some very positive aspects to this new law. The right to see a cleric in the aforementioned situations, and the right to eat halal food, certainly plays to the idea that Austria supposedly holds dear: that all religions within its borders are treated in an equal manner. The curbing of foreign funding to Islamic organisations within the country can also have its benefits: if an organisation is found to be receiving financial support (and the ideological influence that in this case may come with it) from a source that can in one way or another harm the country and the people, then the Austrian government has a duty to make sure such a thing comes to an end.
However, despite all of its positive points, this law fails not only to solve the problem, but it also shows a lack of understanding of Islam, something which can have unintended negative consequences.
Firstly, let us look at the fact that imams are now being required to speak German. This section of the law is undoubtedly a positive one…but this should not have to be underlined. Everyone in Austria, who lives there permanently, who works there, and who is a citizen of the country, and especially anyone who holds public or religious office, should speak German. So why single out imams? The idea behind it is the concept of transparency. In short, the Austrian authorities want to curb the propagation of extremist ideas that might be harmful to the people and the state. This aim is legitimate and understandable, but fails to realise that the spread of such ideas does not necessarily rely on a particular linguistic medium. Extremist ideas are not more likely to spread if someone speaks Arabic, or, taking into account Austria’s demographics, Turkish. They will spread even in German. So this part of the law not only fails to get to the heart of the problem, namely the spread of extremism, and has the added negative effect of seemingly singling out Muslim clerics.
According to this law, the attempt to curb the spread of extremism is to be achieved by restricting foreign funding. This would, to a certain extent, limit the influence of more extreme and/or puritanical sectors of Islam. However, this fails both to understand the nature of religion, and to take into account the nature of the world we live in today. Regarding the nature of Islam, this law sees an Islam of Austria and an Islam external to Austria. It believes that the Islam that is external is dangerous, while the one that exists within Austria’s borders, an ‘Austrian’ Islam in the making, is positive and should be protected. This is a highly inaccurate perception. Islam, like any other religion, transcends national boundaries. Borders do not define the limit between extremism and moderation. In light of this, there is no reason why an extremist form of Islam, or any other religion, cannot develop on European soil. Nor should we assume that all foreign sources of funding are linked to extremism. Placing them all in one basket, rather than assessing the sources one by one, runs the risk of alienating what we see as being moderate sources of influence that can have a positive effect on the development of the religion.
It should also be noted that while the flow of money can without a doubt help spread extremism, in light of the nature of the modern world, this is not the only way that extremism spreads. The exchange of ideas is something that, due to the nature of modern means of communication, also transcends borders. Curbing foreign financing by extremist organisations/countries is only a small step, and will not, in the long run, curb the spread/growth of extremism in Europe.
Ultimately, Austria, and Europe as a whole, must rethink their approach to curbing the spread of extremism. Singling out Islam, and indiscriminately treating it as a hegemonic whole, can actually help the spread of extremism. Extremist and puritanical ideologies that are harmful to our society must indeed be discouraged and, if linked to funding from an external or internal organisation or country, must be stopped altogether. But whatever approach is taken, the following must be a part of it: we must accept Islam as an integral part of Europe, because that is what it is. Such a move will lead to greater integration, more peaceful cohabitation and without doubt a brighter future for Europe.