"An expression of institutional Islamophobia"

The most recent amendment to the Islam Law in Austria is also making waves in Germany. While some politicians at the conservative end of the spectrum would like to introduce a "German version" of the law, critics believe adopting it would be the wrong way to go. One of these critics is the Austrian political theorist Farid Hafez. Emran Feroz asked him about his objections to the new law

By Emran Feroz

Can you provide a general summary of the amendment to Austria's Islam Law?

Farid Hafez: To begin with, it should be pointed out that the "Islamische Glaubensgemeinschaft in Österreich" (IGGiÖ: the Islamic Faith Community in Austria) called for a new Islam Law in 2005. In other words, Muslims did intend to be involved in the formulation of a law. However, this suggestion was shelved again later the same year. It was only in 2011 that people started talking about an Islam law again. The reasons for this were political upheaval and an Islamophobic atmosphere in the party political spectrum. But this time, the suggestion came from the Austrian government, not the IGGiÖ. The government draft then became the cornerstone for the new Islam Law. In the end, it was negotiated with the IGGiÖ – albeit mainly with its president, not its democratically elected bodies.

In itself, this was a proper path for the government to take, although the IGGiÖ's democratically elected bodies were structurally excluded. Following the presentation of the draft law in October 2014, it became clear that Austria's Muslims, the elected functionaries of the IGGiÖ and the rest of the Muslim population were quite astonished by its content. During the period when the law was being reviewed, more than 150 comments were submitted; most of them were critical of the law. They were submitted by everyone from the OSZE and notable experts on religious law to members of civil society.

The absolute majority of suggestions for improvement were completely disregarded. Only very few of these suggestions were actually implemented; some points were even made worse. In February 2015, when the law was still before the Austrian constitutional affairs committee, the president of the IGGiÖ okayed it with the federal government. This approval had not been given in agreement with the committees of the IGGiÖ. In general, the process was not at all transparent. Now the Federal Council and the Austrian president have to wave the law through, which is basically just a formal process.

The Islamic Centre in Vienna (photo: dpa/picture-alliance)
Blanket suspicion of Muslims in Austria? "I believe that the 2015 Islam Law is an expression of institutional Islamophobia. It's the tip of the iceberg. There is this one paragraph that says Muslims have to subordinate themselves to the law of the land, and that religious laws stand below those of the state. This argument was fielded from the start in the public arena, including – and in particular – by political representatives," says Farid Hafez

What, in your opinion, is the main objection to the law?

Hafez: In Austria, there is a political culture of consensus, which is to say, you don't make a law against Muslims, but with the religious communities. In this country, Churches and religious communities are actually regarded as partners of the state. But in the case of the Islam Law, this didn't happen. The law was made against the will of Muslims. In the course of the Second Republic, there have been numerous laws on religion. However, this current law deviates sharply from the others. There are a number of discriminatory points, where the treatment of Muslims differs from that of other religious communities.

Up until the eleventh hour, even the IGGiÖ continued to criticise the law and its own president for his actions. Accordingly, the law did not represent the will of the religious community, but that of the federal government. You could take the recently amended law on Judaism from 2012 as a case in point here. At that time, the Jewish religious community and the federal government were in agreement on all points of the law. This was not the case with the Muslims. That is the main criticism, from which all the others follow symptomatically.

And what are these other criticisms?

Hafez: For example, there is the problem of the ban on foreign funding. There is no such ban for other religious communities. There is also the fact that the new Islam Law applies to all Islamic religious communities in Austria, including the Islamic Alevi Community. Although there is no unifying Church law for the Catholic, Evangelical and Orthodox Churches – because they simply have little in common – all possible branches of the Islamic faith have been simply lumped in together against their will.

Are there any positive aspects to this law?

Hafez: I think that the populism now being used to speak about this Islam Law is very dangerous. People are talking about Muslim pastoral care in the armed forces, graveyards, or "Halal" meat in the canteens. The fact is that all these rights already existed and were covered by statutory provisions and were part of political practice. Now they have been elevated to the level of a law. This is good and important. However, this populism means that things are being said that are irrelevant in terms of actual politics. For example, in Austria, graveyards are the responsibility of the individual federal states; a federal law has no business ruling on them. This is how people are making a populist attempt to paint the law in a good light and sell it to Muslims. It is also worth noting that those Muslims who are now trying to give legitimacy to the law are anxious to highlight the symbolism of these points.

Muslims in a mosque in Vienna (photo: Emir Numanovic/DW)
Like in Germany, there are a large number of Islamic associations and religious communities in Austria. Many of these communities do not feel that the only institutions so far recognised by the state: the umbrella association Islamische Glaubensgemeinschaft in Österreich (IGGiÖ) and the Islamischen Alevitischen Glaubensgemeinschaft (ALEVI: the Islamic Alevi Faith Community) represent them. They are therefore opposed to being lumped together into one Islamic community by the new Islam Law

Aiman Mazyek, chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, thinks an Islam law like the one in Austria is also conceivable in Germany. Other German Muslims in the public eye who consider that they and their organisations represent Muslims also welcome the law. Why is that?

Hafez: Since the end of the East-West conflict, there has been a hegemonic Islamophobic discourse. It is embedded in the predominance of the theory of the clash of civilisations, with which global conflicts are supposedly to be explained. This hegemonic discourse now runs through all possible fields, such as layers of society or political institutions.

In the course of this discourse, two different Muslim subjects were created in Europe. One is the submissive subject; the other is the autonomous subject. This is not foreign to any of us. We are familiar with it from public discourses. Agreement with this law is the expression of the submissive Muslim subject. He subordinates himself to the hegemonic discourse. This submissiveness is demonstrated even in quite fundamental issues like the compatibility of Islam and democracy.

We are all familiar with Muslim players adopting specific positions, all of which say: "Yes, Islam and democracy go together." I understand the intentions here, but this is a submission to the hegemonic discourse that expects Muslims to adopt a position on things. This constant adopting of positions means that Islam is perceived less and less as a religion, and starts becoming a political issue.

You believe that the law was influenced by the anti-Islamic mood. Do you think this mood will now further intensify because of it?

Hafez: I believe that the 2015 Islam Law is an expression of institutional Islamophobia. It's the tip of the iceberg. There is this one paragraph that says Muslims have to subordinate themselves to the law of the land, and that religious laws stand below those of the state. This argument was fielded from the start in the public arena, including – and in particular – by political representatives. This is derisory for several reasons. The government invokes this argument, claiming that this point can also be found in the law of 1912.

But this is 2015. If look at the Protestant Law from the 1960s and the Jewish Law from the 2010s, you won't find a paragraph like that. At the same time, you can observe in Islamophobic discourse that Muslims are always assumed to be more loyal to Sharia than to a constitutional state, and that they live in a parallel society. All these discourses suggest that Muslims are not loyal citizens of their country. They are shut out of the national collective. And that is exactly what is in this paragraph. The fact that Muslims, their organisations and their representatives have publically espoused the constitutional values in this country often enough already is not mentioned. Instead, the law is being used to try to stop voters leaning towards the right-wing populist and far-right parties.

The official line is also that the Islam Law is a "strategy against jihadism"…

Hafez: I think that this populist argument arose in connection with the discussion about "Islamic State". It was obviously not planned in advance and emerged in the course of the public discourse. It is an attempt to show that the government is strong and has the matter under control in order to score points with voters.

Interview conducted by Emran Feroz

© Qantara.de 2015

Dr Farid Hafez is a political scientist at the University of Salzburg, author, and editor of the "Jahrbuch für Islamophobieforschung" (Yearbook for Islamophobia Research). This year's edition of the Yearbook features a 30-page analysis of the new Islam Law.