The Official Islamic Religious Community in Austria

Integration by Participation

Islam has about 500.000 adherents in Austria. 6,2 % of the Austrian population are Muslim, 49% carrying the Austrian citizenship. 

Muslims enjoy the status of an officially acknowledged religion which presents them with the same rights like for example the Christian churches. This is quite unique in Europe and lays the ground for a situation that is seen as a kind of model when it comes to dealing with Muslim minorities in Europe. The recognition is formulated in the Islam law that goes back to the year of 1912 when Austria was a monarchy and Bosnia-Herzegovina with its Muslim population part of it.

The formal and material foundations for an Islamic community in the Austria of today were laid by the Muslim Social Service Society who applied for it in 1971. In 1979 the Islamic Religious Community in Vienna was constituted by approval of its constitution by the Federal Ministry of Education and Arts. On this basis the organs of the meanwhile four existing Islamic communities that cover the nine provinces of the country are installed, all of them under one head. Anas Schakfeh has been leading the community for more than ten years.

All organs of the Official Islamic Religious Community have to have an adequate religious education. These men and women must comply with the tenets of Islam, advise and instruct others with regard to compliance with these requirements and encourage others to observe them. They should also have a good command of the German language. Muslims in Austria originally came from different countries and German is the natural bridge in conversation.

The Islamic Religious Community favours the idea of Muslims being and getting part of Austria and its society. The participation of Muslims in society helps to overcome barriers that may arise when people of different origin and religion come to live together. It should be made visible that Muslims in Austria feel as part of the Austrian society. To share an identity where feeling Muslim and Austrian at the same time gets more and more common. Practising Islam and acting as an Austrian citizen is compatible. The principles of democracy, pluralism, human rights and constitutional legality are accepted by the Muslims. The declaration of Graz in 2003 mirrors this conviction in its clear definition of the relationship between Muslims and the states they live in in Europe. The declaration was announced after a meeting of imams of 35 European countries in Austria during June 2003 who agreed on this basis. It was confirmed in 2006 by sequel conference that went into defining practically needed steps in the integration process.

It is an important task to deal with the diversity in the Austrian Muslim society in a way that the richness of the cultural and theological approaches becomes beneficial for all and paves a way for integration. To install an Islamic infrastructure gets more and more important. To secure a high level of Islamic teaching at Austrian schools (thanks to the status of Islam religion is taught at the regular schools) the Islamic Religious Academy (IRPA) was founded in 1998. In 2002 there opened an Academy for those teachers that are already engaged in giving lessons to the approximately 40.000 pupils to improve their facilities constantly. This is the one and only field where financial contributions by the Austrian state are made. The some 250 mosques in the country are run by the Muslim organisations on their own costs. Without the aid of many helpers who share the work and costs as sadaqua, as a gift to society, many projects couldn’t work.

The social field longs for special attention. A service to visit ill people in hospitals is kept successfully. Contact to asylum seekers is sought for. Lately a prayer room in a prison could be opened as the headmaster was so convinced of the benefit the visits to the Muslim inhabitants have. The latest project is an Islamic graveyard in Vienna, opened in 2008.

These aspects give an example that the legal status of Muslims may open doors and possibilities in order to foster integration by participation. But it stays up to the Muslims themselves to take up these chances. One has to face the fact that the recognition in the legal sense doesn’t at all mean that the general public was approving Islam or the members of this community. This is why programmes to enhance the public image of Islam have turned to gain great recognition. The Official Islamic Religious Community is engaged in several specific projects like “Encountering Islam” at schools to get in touch with young people or making acquainted members of certain professions like policemen with Islam and the situation of Muslims in Austria, as they deal with this in their job. A media resort seeks to cover the need for entering dialogue by way of being present in the public discourse. The goal is to raise a spirit of mutual understanding and respect. Especially nowadays when Muslims all over the world seem to be watched with a look of uneasiness, the Official Islamic Religious Community hopes to make a contribution to the general view on Islam in a global sense and show Islam in its true light.

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