Austria defends new law on foreign funding of mosques

Austria’s foreign minister has rejected criticism of the country’s new law on Islam aimed at cutting off foreign influence and funding, arguing that the legislation should become a model for the rest of Europe.

In an interview with the Guardian, Sebastian Kurz, whose role in the Austrian government also includes the portfolio for social integration, took particular aim at the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, suggesting Erdogan’s opposition to the law was motivated by fear of losing political influence on Austrian Muslims.

“I’m not surprised by the criticism from President Erdoğan. This was to be expected,” Kurz said. “In our opinion, imams should be role models for young Muslims and must show that it is possible to be a proud Austrian and a believing Muslim at the same time and so there will be no need for Turkish imams in the future.

[Imams] must show that it is possible to be a proud Austrian and a believing Muslim at the same time

Sebastian Kurz

“And this is maybe the point why Erdoğan is so critical about our Islam law. At the moment we have more than 60 imams from Turkey and in the future we will have our own Austrian imams,” Kurz said. “It will not be possible in the future to have imams employed by the Turkish government.”

The new legislation, passed last month, is an update of a century-old law establishing the legal status of Islam under the Habsburg empire. The reform strengthens protections for Muslims, giving official status to their religious holidays, recognising the status of Islamic graveyards and the right to have Islamic pastoral care in public institutions like hospitals. Kurz said that Austrian right-wingers were also against the law for those reasons, “so it seems we have reached a good middle ground in my opinion”.

The section of the law which has drawn the most ire from Muslims inside and outside Austria restricts foreign funding for Austrian mosques and Islamic communities. Critics point out that equivalent laws do not exist for the Orthodox Christian and Jewish communities who also have foreign links.

Kurz said the law allows for one-time payments from abroad, and only bans continuous foreign funding. He added that all religious communities are subject to a constitutional principle dating back to the 19th century requiring them to finance themselves from within the nation’s borders. However, the foreign minister conceded that the principle had only been reinforced with a specific law targeting foreign funding in the case of the Muslim community.

“We have different laws for every single religious community in Austria. There is a special law for the Jewish community, a special law for the orthodox, and a special law for the Muslim community,” he said. “In each community we have different needs as for example halal-food or circumcision, but also different problems. For example, the influence of foreign countries is a problem we only have in the Muslim community. We do not have this problem in the other religious communities.”

When he was appointed two years ago, at the age of 27, Kurz became Europe’s youngest-serving foreign minister. He claims that the legislation, negotiated over three years in cooperation with Muslim community representatives, establishes a model for integration that should be emulated elsewhere on the continent.

“It is important to say clearly that the Muslim community and Islam are a part of Europe and there is a need for the Muslim communities to have a clear legal status … Otherwise many Muslims would feel excluded in our societies,” Kurz said. “I think our Islam law could be a good example for other countries as well. Countries like Germany and Switzerland which have a similar approach and constitution to us and which have shown interest.”