Hannes Richter

Islam and Dialogue in Austria

Hannes Richter

Between burning cars on the streets of Paris and riots triggered by ‘cartoon wars,’ the debate about integration and multiculturalism in Europe has moved center stage with particular attention given to Muslim communities.

Austria, a successor state of the multiethnic Hapsburg Empire, can look back at a long tradition of different ethnicities and faiths living together. It was the first European nation to fully recognize Islam on the state level with the Islamgesetz of 1912. This recognition granted Muslims in Austria the right to free exercise of their faith, as well as complete autonomy in matters of organization. Muslim pupils are entitled to Islamic religious classes in Austrian public schools; some 170 teachers are being paid by the state to teach their religion. Demographic diversity exists among the Muslim community in Austria despite their common religious faith.

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Photo: HOPI Media

Based on the most recent census in 2001, Muslims today are the third largest religious group in Austria. The census data suggest that some 4.2 percent, or 340,000 individuals, are of Islamic faith and in the capital city of Vienna this percentage increases to 7.8 percent. We can assume these numbers to be slightly higher today. The majority of Austria’s Muslims are Turks (135,000), followed by Bosnians (80,000), Arabs, with the largest sub-group as Egyptians (10,500), and 6,500 Iranians. Some 80,000 hold Austrian citizenship.

While current affairs have shown societal tensions involving Muslim communities in some European countries, like France, The United Kingdom, The Netherlands, and Denmark, these lines of conflict between majority groups and minorities have remained relatively mute in Austria. This is not to say, however, that tensions and misperceptions do not exist. For example, in the aftermath of the July 2005 bombings in London the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia, headquartered in Vienna, issued a report on the impact of the bombings on Muslim communities in the EU.

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Ursula Plassnik with Clergymen. Photo: HOPI Media

Amidst rising levels of Islamophobia in Europe, the Austrian Muslim community reported only isolated incidents, including a stone thrown through a window of a mosque in Linz. The relative calm in Austria can be attributed to the longstanding official recognition of Islam in Austria, but also to an ongoing, positive intercultural and interfaith dialogue. For that very reason, Austria is a natural choice as a venue to further dialogue. In the age of globalization and European integration, isolationism is no longer an option. This dialogue must embrace and address issues and problems that often lie beneath the surface in order to produce tangible results.

“Today, simplification, generalization and reduction to a common denominator ‘The Muslims’ do not adequately address complex realities,” explained Dr. Elham Atashi, an interfaith dialogue facilitator. Immigrant communities of diverse ethnic background throughout Europe are facing a complex set of socio-economic variables, ranging from economic opportunity to education and also include historical circumstances and patterns of immigration.

Moreover, looking on the other side of the Atlantic to Canada and the United States, these differences are highlighted: there, Muslims tend to be middle-class and well integrated, while marginalization affects other minority groups. To address these vital questions, more dialogue and research are needed to combat misperceptions among populations and resulting phenomena like Islamophobia. In Austria, steps are being taken to foster this dialogue.

While this issue of Austrian Information is going into print, the Islamic Community of Austria is hosting an international Imam conference with some 150 Imams from 40 participating nations . The conference, which has been held annually in Austria in the past addresses not only theological questions, but emphasizes a broadened scope to include questions ranging from politics and job creation to the role of women in an effort to build a common understanding not only among European Muslims, but also with their fellow citizens throughout Europe. In her opening remarks, European Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner pointed out that “we are not dealing with Samuel Huntington’s famed Clash of Civilizations, but rather with a clash of ignorance.”

In November 2005, Austria’s Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik co-hosted, together with the Austrian Orient Society, a major conference entitled “Islam in a Pluralist World” in Vienna. Attendees included Afghan President Hamid Kharzai, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, as well as former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami. The event was a highly visible step to foster additional dialogue.

Ms. Plassnik remarked at the opening of the conference: “The cultivation of dialogue between cultures and religions has a long tradition in Austria and is an important element of Austrian foreign policy. We have developed an environment of cooperation based on trust with the Islamic Community in Austria. There are no grounds for complacency, however, since there are frictions and difficulties in everyday life that still have to be clearly addressed. But we also need to be wary of prejudices and sweeping judgments regarding the Islamic world and the Muslim population.” In addition, the Austrian Embassy will sponsor an international conference, “Immigration, Integration, and Identity: Managing Diverse Societies in Europe and the U.S.” on May 15, 2006 to be held in Washington, D.C.

Clearly, high-profile events at an elite level help to portray positive aspects in the media, but dialogue and understanding must also take hold in the everyday lives of everyday people, mutual understanding and respect has to engulf all levels of society in order to be successful. And this task is an important one, both from an Austrian and European standpoint. Such an undertaking cannot be achieved overnight, but with steps taken in the right direction, the people of Austria and the European Union will master the challenge.

Hannes Richter