by FARID HAFEZ, 2009


Austria has the oldest tradition in Europe and the most extensive institutional structures for the integration of Islam. Muslim minorities have been in Austria since the days of the Habsburg Empire. And even though the first contacts were established in connection with hostile encounters (the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina with Austro-Hungary), in time a loyal fellowship evolved. The 1912 Islam Law dating from this period legally recognized Islam as a religion and in 1979 formed the basis for the institutionalization of Islam as a religious community alongside twelve other church and religious communities. An estimated 400,000 Muslims live in Austria today, about half of them Austrian citizens. The majority have their roots in Turkey, Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Albania. Small minorities come from predominantly Arabic or other countries or are converted Austrians.

Without a doubt, legal recognition was able to fulfill multiple dimensions. Among other things, government authorities can now turn to the Islamic Community in Austria as a liaison for Islamic affairs. Additionally, the status afforded to Muslims serves as a nice cultural ornament to support the little Alpine country’s economic ambitions in its relations with the Middle East. As such, it can be shown off in the context of international meetings like the European Imam Conference, which is organized by the Islamic Community in Austria and the Austrian Foreign Ministry. De facto, the government’s recognition also introduced possibilities for Muslims to participate and has protected them from discriminatory legislation. This aspect has become particularly relevant with the increase in public debates surrounding Islam and Muslims in the post-9/11 era. Against the backdrop of the recognition of Islam, a headscarf ban in government institutions is unthinkable in a system of consensual secularism as in Austria. Last but not least, this brief article will take a closer look at one more aspect: the question of identity.

The legal recognition of Islam is accompanied by several rights and obligations. One example is the availability of Islamic religious instruction in public schools. In a textbook case, such a recognition would have a dual effect. It demonstrates to the majority society that minorities need to be recognized and not only need to be given a place, but an equal place on the part of the Republic of Austria. Each of the 13 recognized churches and religious communities in Austria has the possibility to organize religious instruction with the financial support of the government and yet with autonomous decision-making. On the side of the minorities, this demonstrates to young students of Muslim faith that they are home here. Their religion is not perceived as foreign because it is accepted. They do not have to relegate their religion to their private life since it is publicly acknowledged in educational institutions. The Muslim religion is no longer different and foreign, but has become a “normal” religion and an integral part of society.

Of course the textbook function is also challenged. For decades, and for the most part to this day, the Second Republic transported an identity in public perception that relatively speaking was increasingly marginalizing after divesting itself of the identity of the Habsburg Empire. After years of struggling to establish an Austrian identity, one development was particularly damaging: The debate surrounding the “foreigner problem,” primarily at the instigation of Haider’s rightwing populist Freedom Party (FPÖ), became a problem of Islamophobia in the wake of 9/11 and the subsequent attacks in Europe. It is relevant to note that in the 1980s and 1990s, the majority of “foreigners” in Austria were of Turkish or ex-Yugoslavian origin and hence mostly Muslim. Around the world, the media conveyed images of an aggressive, violent, and destructive Islam. The former fear of a flood of foreigners faded, or rather expressed itself more specifically in a fear of the Islamification of Austria and Europe. The attacks in Madrid, London, and Istanbul, and in particular the murder of the artist Van Gogh (a descendant of his more famous namesake), had a very disintegrative effect. Suddenly, the media were on the lookout for their respective homegrown terrorists. These debates made one thing especially clear: political recognition does not necessitate social recognition in the sense of actually normalizing Islam and Muslims as a part of Austrian society.

Muslim Youth Austria was founded in 1996 by young persons of the second and third generation of Muslims and young converted Muslims. The central philosophy was to mirror their understanding that being Austrian and being Muslim is not a contradiction. This message was also addressed to two recipients: the public perception of the majority society, which viewed all things Muslim as culturally foreign, and the extreme fringes of the Muslim minorities who preferred a life in isolation. The idea was to promote what was tellingly referred to as the “Austrian-Islamic identity.” It was the expression of a self-perception leveled against right-wing, identitarian politics and advocated the recognition of multiple identities.

Addressing this issue will not be insignificant for the question of peaceful and prosperous progress in Austria. When people feel excluded, they withdraw, resign, or, in the worst case, attempt to react destructively. Political recognition is a potential that also needs to find its social counterpart and realization. Many sides have already contributed to the process.

This question will be emblematically decided in the context of the role of (Muslim) women in society. As so often in history, the position of women in society is an indicator for the development of that society. In the case of Muslim women, competing images are vying for recognition in the public sphere. The Muslim woman is not necessarily a woman wearing a headscarf. This is not what gives Islamophobic ideologues a headache. After all, they say, Muslim women are “integrated” in the sense of assimilation. What is at stake here, though, is inclusion \in the sense of the acceptance of differentness. Opponents of the headscarf codify it as a symbol of “political Islam,” a sign of the “suppression of women,” and hence a symbol of “Islam perceived as a threat.” Muslim women who chose to wear the headscarf, in turn, interpret it as a sign of the “freedom to withdraw from the dictate of the gaze of strange men,” as a symbol of their “autonomy,” their “freedom to make decisions about their own body,” and their “spiritual devotion to God.” While they are accused of failing to allow objectivity to prevail in public offices by wearing a headscarf, the charge dissolves as soon as the scarf leaves the head.

So far, it has not really been a burning question in Austria whether Muslim women are allowed to take the place they desire in the public sphere. This is above all a result of the fact that the first wave of female immigrants who joined their families in the 1970s included very few educated women. Most of them were mothers and housewives. And to this day, among the Muslim population with a migratory background, the level of education, the proportion of academics, and the number of people in leadership positions are still very low. But there is a new group of young Muslims, and particularly Muslim women, who no longer correspond to these clichés. They are crowding the universities and sooner or later will want to take to a visible position in public. Some of them wear the headscarf as a symbol of their spiritual identification with God and consider their profane aspirations at university and in the working world to be in harmony with this sacredness.

The question which position these young women are afforded is of decisive importance for the inclusion of Islam in the sense of community in Austrian identity. With respect to their working environment, then, these people are at a crossroad. One path heads in the direction of a social majority with socioeconomic structures in which young Muslims cannot resort to familiar continuities and have to rely entirely on their capabilities. After all, their parents came as guest workers and they are now looking to leave this milieu. The other path leads to specific substructures in our society. In the field of ethno-marketing, people with migratory backgrounds promote ethno-jobs to sell ethno-products to the minorities. Not being recognized as part of society would prompt people to build a little universe for themselves, and in the worst case a counter-universe. To a large extent, this development depends on which interpretation of the Austrian identity will prevail. It has to be an Austrian identity that recognizes the Muslim identity as part of its own and emphasizes a political identity apart from religious identity. It cannot be an identity that defines cultural aspects so rigidly that there is only room for white, Christian Occidentalism where Europe is constructed as uninfluenced by Islam.


FARID HAFEZ  is a founding member of Muslim Youth Austria. He holds an M.A. in political science and an MSc in civic education. He is a research fellow at the Department of Legal Philosophy, Law of Religion, and Culture, University of Vienna, and lectures at the Institute for Oriental Studies.