Society and Islam: the case of Austria / Islam and Muslims in Austria

A characteristic of a strong and functional society might be its ability to understand current and to foresee prospective challenges as well as to find appropriate strategies for its political, cultural and economic survival.

In contemporary European societies, numerous societal challenges are identified and discussed earnestly. One of them is how to integrate Islam and Muslims into their societies. The accordant discourses are all too often of a populistic nature. The protagonists frequently try to downplay the historical influence of the Middle East, Islam or Muslims on Europe and vice versa. Medieval conflicts and wars between "Christendom and Islam" are reduced to religion alone while historical realities are often ignored. For example, it is brought up hardly ever that French kings intended to defeat the Habsburg Empire with the help of the Ottoman Empire. In short, European-Islamic historical as well as contemporary realities and relations are much more multifaceted and complex than the public discourse suggests.

Muslims living in Europe cannot be reduced to their religious identity alone. However, many Muslim immigrants and their descendants on European soil today are influenced by the diaspora policies of their parents' home countries. Therefore, European parties and politicians beyond the populist temptation have long since grasped this reality and are trying to create communality through joint initiatives. It is an attempt to fight on two political fronts at the same time. On one hand against the strengthening of right-wing populist parties and groups that label Muslims as a blanket danger. On the other hand, they seek to push back the influence of Islamic populist parties whose goal is to alienate the Muslim diaspora in Europe.

The challenge is to understand these highly heterogeneous perceptions, images and ideas of Islam and Muslims on European soil and to examine them separately. Needless to say, European nation states have found different ways to deal with this heterogeneity. However, every nation state case is interesting in its own right and bears important insights. Since I grew up in Austria, let us focus on Islam and Muslims in Österreich.

Islam has been a part of Austrian history and society since the time of the Habsburg monarchy. The annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1908 led to a large population of Muslims becoming new subordinates. Following the example of the Russian tsarist empire, the K.u.K. took the initiative to integrate Muslims and their religion into its legal system. The religious and cultural diversity of peoples in the Austrian imperial period came to an end with the outbreak of World War I and the European interwar period, as well as the rise of the National Socialists. At the end of World War II or the beginning of the Cold War, Austria faced the challenge of finding a new identity. The discussions about which identity was truly Austrian stretched from the 1960s to the mid-1990s.

The number of Muslims in Austria increased in the 1960s due to the immigration of Turkish and Yugoslavian guest workers. In the 1960s, Turkish and Yugoslav Muslims founded the Muslim Social Service Association (Moslemischer Sozialdienst), which took care of religious needs and also addressed legal matters. In 1971, the association applied for permission to establish a religious community and its statutes on the basis of the 1912 Islam Law. In 1979, the Islamic Religious Community in Austria was constituted as a public corporation.

In addition to religious institutions, political associations were also founded. For example, in the 1960s emigrant Democratic Party members in Austria and Germany found shelter in Turkish-Islamic associations. It is important to mention here that the first associations of Turkish migrants in Austria or Germany were a kind of hybrid between religious and political institutions. While Islamist parties in Turkey were repeatedly dissolved or forced to close by the Turkish military until the AKP came to power in 2002, the secularism in Austria, which is open to religion, allowed them to evolve more easily. This contributed to Milli Görüş or the Süleymancılar becoming important religious representatives and political representatives of Turkish Muslims in Austria and Germany.

From the 1980s onwards, an important change took place within the Turkish immigrant society in Austria and Germany. In the same period, right-wing populism also increased. The two developments are interrelated. The economic and educational advancement of Turkish immigrant children could no longer be overlooked. In 2011, more than 80,000 companies in Germany were owned by Turkish immigrants. German or Austrian politicians of Turkish descent have been an integral part of public life for several decades. The children of Turkish immigrants from the 1960s have also won their place in the entertainment sector. Nevertheless, there are still unemployment and poorly educated Turks in Austria and Germany.

However, these developments led to a change in the perception of guest workers. The rise and visibility of the Turkish immigration society is interpreted by right-wing populists as an infiltration of their own society. Apparently, guest workers who immigrated in the 1970s as well as their children in the third or fourth generation are assumed to be unwilling to integrate into the majority society. In other words, the skepticism as well as prejudice toward the guest workers also transfers to their descendants.

In summary, it can be said that within certain parts of the majority society and certain parts of the Turkish-Muslim immigrant society there is partly a one-dimensional and prejudiced image of each other. This is in no way intended to open the door to hopelessness. Rather, this is a reason to present a realistic picture of the coexistence of Turkish-Muslims and non-Muslims in different Austrian and German political and social contexts.

 

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