The Austrian parliament has approved controversial reforms to the country's century-old Islam Law (Islamgesetz), governing the status of Muslims in the country.
The new law, which was passed on February 25, is aimed at integrating Muslims and fighting Islamic radicalism by promoting an "Islam with an Austrian character."
Among other changes, the new law seeks to reduce outside meddling by prohibiting foreign funding for mosques, imams and Muslim organizations in Austria. It also stresses that Austrian law must take precedence over Islamic Sharia law for Muslims living in the country.
The Austrian government says the new law is a milestone and could serve as a model for the rest of Europe. But Muslim groups say it is discriminatory and have vowed to challenge it in court.
The new law overhauls the original Islam Law, which dates back to 1912. The original law was passed in order to help integrate Muslim soldiers into the Habsburg Imperial Army after the Austro-Hungarian Empire annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908. The law recognized Islam as an official religion in Austria, and allowed Muslims to practice their religion in accordance with the laws of the state.
After the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed in the aftermath of World War I, the number of Muslims in Austria was reduced to just a few hundred people. After World War II, however, Austria's Muslim population increased rapidly with the arrival of "guest workers" from Turkey and the Balkans in the 1960s, and refugees from Bosnia in the 1990s.
According to data compiled by the University of Vienna, the Muslim population in Austria now exceeds 574,000 (or roughly 7% of the total population), up from an estimated 340,000 (or 4.25%) in 2001 and 150,000 (or 2%) in 1990.
The massive demographic and religious shift underway in Austria, traditionally a Roman Catholic country, appears irreversible. In Vienna, where the Muslim population now exceeds 12.5%, Muslim students already outnumber Catholic students at middle and secondary schools. Muslim students are also on the verge of overtaking Catholics in Viennese elementary schools.
At the same time, Austria has emerged as a major base for radical Islam. A recent report by Austria's Agency for State Protection and Counterterrorism (BVT) warned of the "exploding radicalization of the Salafist scene in Austria." Salafism is an anti-Western ideology that seeks to impose Islamic sharia law.
Due to its geographic location, Austria has also become a central hub for European jihadists seeking to fight in Syria. In addition to being a transit point for foreigners going to fight with the Islamic State, at least 190 Austrian citizens have become jihadists in Syria and Iraq.
In an interview with Austrian Public Radio Ö1-Morgenjournal, Austria's Minister for Integration and Foreign Affairs, Sebastian Kurz, said the rapid rise of Islam in Austria has rendered the old Islam Law obsolete. A new law is needed, he said, to stipulate more clearly the rights and responsibilities of Muslims living in the country.
The new law (nine-page text in German here) regulates at least a dozen separate issues, including relatively non-controversial matters such as Muslim holidays, Muslim cemeteries, Muslim dietary practices and the activities of Muslim clergy in hospitals, prisons and the army. In this respect, the government has met all of the demands put forth by Muslim groups in the country.
The new law, however, goes far beyond what Muslims had wanted. For example, the law seeks to prevent the growth of a parallel Islamic society in Austria by regulating mosques and the training of imams, who will now be required to be proficient in German. The new law also requires Muslim organizations and groups to terminate the employment of clerics who have criminal records or who "pose a threat to public safety, order, health and morals or the rights and freedoms of others."
More significantly, Paragraph 6.2 of the law seeks to limit the religious and political influence of foreign governments within the Austrian Muslim community by prohibiting foreign countries -- presumably Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states -- from financing Islamic centers and mosques in Austria.
The new restrictions -- including an employment ban for foreign clerics in Austria as of March 31, 2016 -- would apply especially to Turkey: 60 of the 300 Muslim clerics working in Austria are Turkish civil servants whose salaries are being paid for by the Turkish government's Religious Affairs Directorate, the Diyanet.
In an interview with the BBC, Kurz said the reforms were a "milestone" for Austria and were aimed at preventing certain Muslim countries from using financial means to exert "political influence." He said:
"What we want is to reduce the political influence and control from abroad and we want to give Islam the chance to develop freely within our society and in line with our common European values."
The Turkish government has expressed outrage at the financing ban, which it says amounts to "Islamophobia." The head of the Diyanet, Mehmet Görmez, said it was a "huge mistake" that would throw Austria's tradition of tolerance towards Islam "back 100 years." He added:
"Countries come together from time to time on the grounds of security concerns and try to construct a version of Islam peculiar to their own countries, rather than increase the freedoms that would lead to unity and remove obstacles before the religious education and services, and make an effort to remove anti-Islamic sentiments and Islamophobia.
"Countries cannot have their own version of Islam. Islam is universal and its sources are clear. Therefore, religion is not a matter of engineering. I would like to restate that efforts taken by state leaders to create a version of Islam that is particular to their own countries are futile."
Mehmet Görmez (left), head of the Turkish government's Religious Affairs Directorate, denounced Austria's new law and said that Austria should instead "make an effort to remove anti-Islamic sentiments and Islamophobia." Johann Rädler (right), speaking for the Austrian People's Party, said the law "guarantees Muslims more rights, and on the other hand it serves to counteract undesirable developments."
For many, however, the most contentious part of the law involves Paragraph 4.2, which states that Muslim organizations "must have a positive attitude toward society and state" or be shut down. According to the government, this formulation makes it clear that Austrian civil law has priority over Islamic Sharia law. Muslim groups say this is unfair because it casts a "veil of general suspicion" over the entire community.
Kurz has defended the clause: "In Austria there must be no contradiction between being a self-conscious Austrian, while at the same time also being a devout Muslim. That was always the intention behind this law."
Some say the law does not go far enough. The leader of the anti-immigration Freedom Party of Austria, Heinz-Christian Strache, says that the law is full of loopholes will be difficult if not impossible to enforce. He also expressed dismay that the law does not include a ban on minarets and burkas.
A spokesperson for the Austrian People's Party, Johann Rädler, said the law is the result of compromises that were made on both sides. He added:
"The goal of this law is to promote an Islam with an Austrian character, without being patronizing and without being dependent upon contributions from abroad. On the one hand, this law guarantees Muslims more rights, and on the other hand it serves to counteract undesirable developments."
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.