On Friday, the Austrian government announced that it plans to close down seven mosques and potentially expel about 60 imams from the country.
The announcement, which was made by Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, is rooted in a 2015 law that requires Muslim organizations to express a “positive fundamental view towards [the] state and society” of Austria, and bans foreign funding of religious institutions. “Political Islam’s parallel societies and radicalizing tendencies have no place in our country,” said Kurz at a press conference. His vice chancellor, Heinz-Christian Strache, added ominously, “This is just the beginning.”
At the conference, Austrian Culture Minister Gernot Blümel told journalists that the mosques had been shut down because of suspected “extremism.” All the mosques that were shut down were believed to belong to the Salafi tradition, a strict and literalistic school within Islam.
For defenders of the move, Austria’s decision was a necessary stance against radical religious extremism. For its detractors, it was an example of the kind of nationalistic Islamophobia many see as characterizing the current Austrian political climate. Austria is currently controlled by a coalition of the center-right Austrian People’s Party and the far-right, nationalist Freedom Party. Both parties campaigned on anti-immigration platforms. Approximately 600,000 Muslims, mostly of Turkish origin. live in Austria, which has a population of 8.8 million.
National and political considerations seem to be underpinning the move. Forty of the imams under investigation are formally employed by ATIB (known in English as the Turkish-Islamic Union for Cultural and Social Cooperation), an organization that manages Turkish mosques in the country and has close links with Turkey’s increasingly theocratically aligned government.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has condemned the move. His spokesperson Ibrahim Khalid decried the Austrian government’s decision on Twitter as “a reflection of the Islamophobic, racist and discriminatory wave in this country” and “an attempt to target Muslim communities for the sake of scoring cheap political points.”
1/Austria’s decision to close seven mosques and expel imams is a reflection of the Islamophobic, racist and discriminatory wave in this country. It is an attempt to target Muslim communities for the sake of scoring cheap political points.— Ibrahim Kalin (@ikalin1) June 8, 2018
The move raises wider, more difficult questions about the relationship of religion — particularly minority religion — to politics and national identity across Western Europe.
Throughout Europe, where debates over the relationship between church and state are far less clearly (or legally) defined than in the United States, questions of where religious freedom ends and national security — or national identity — begins have been raging for years, if not decades. In a number of countries, including France, Germany, and Denmark, the niqab and burqa — religious coverings worn by some practicing Muslim women — are partially or totally banned.
Underpinning these debates is the degree to which attitudes toward Islam have become conflated with populist and nationalist concerns about preserving “European” — read: Christian — identity. Recent Pew polls have found that, increasingly, Christian identity in Western Europe has strong nationalist echoes; churchgoing Christians in most Western European countries tend to have more extreme anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant sentiments than their non-practicing or non-religiously affiliated counterparts.
In Austria, freedom of religion is largely enshrined in the country’s constitution. However, its controversial 2015 laws on Islam — which require all imams to be able to speak German, ban foreign funding for mosques and other religious institutions, and generally seek to promote what Kurz, then the integration minister, called “Islam of European character” — placed limits on Islamic expression within Austria.
At that time, a poll found that 58 percent of Austrians felt that Austrian Muslims were being “radicalized.” According to a 2016 International Centre for Counter-Terrorism report, some 230 to 300 Austrian Muslims left the country to fight in jihadist groups in Syria.
Austrian authorities have insisted the latest move is designed to combat political Islam, not Islam in general. “It is not a contradiction to be a devout Muslim and a proud Austrian,” Blümel, the culture minister, said at the press conference.
It is difficult to assess the decision to close these mosques outside of the wider political currents in Austria. While some of the mosques that are closing appear to have been distinctly affiliated with jihadist and far-right political Islamic groups — the New York Times reports that one of the shuttered mosques is run by an organization called the Gray Wolves, deemed by the country’s main Islamic body to be illegal and illegitimate — it’s impossible not to see in (far-right Freedom Party representative) Strache’s words in particular a desire to encroach further on Muslim life in Austria. Given that Kurz and Strache alike ran on explicitly anti-immigration platforms, it is difficult to ascertain precisely where national security concerns end and more prosaic political concerns begin.
Anti-Muslim discrimination has been on the rise — in Germany, for example, the government recorded more than 900 attacks against individuals and mosques in 2017 — and European officials are concerned about increasing incidents of hate crime. Austria’s moves not only risk making an entire minority population feel stigmatized and unwelcome in their chosen homeland but can further increase tensions between Muslim and non-Muslim populations.
This kind of marginalization, in turn, may ultimately lead to radicalization becoming a more appealing option for disaffected youth. In England’s Birmingham, for example, from which a disproportionally high number of UK would-be jihadists hail, recruiters for extremist organizations generally target low-income, jobless young men from unstable family backgrounds.
While in some cases, the Austrian government’s decision to close these mosques may indeed have been motivated by legitimate national security concerns, it’s nonetheless important to be cautious. After all, Strache reminded us, this is only the beginning.