Sebastian Kurz, the world’s youngest foreign minister, thought he had found an issue that resonated with Austrian voters when he suggested having the government authorize an official German-language copy of the Koran to discourage interpretations that incite radical Islamists.
But the plan faced a storm of criticism from religious and political leaders, fearful of offending Austria’s half a million Muslims, who make up 6 percent of the population.
The row over the Koran proposal, which has since been modified, marked an ominous start to Austria’s most ambitious effort in a century to reform its legal treatment of Islam. The attempt has sparked a furious debate within the country and divided representatives of the Islamic community.
“There is no contradiction between being a faithful Muslim and a proud Austrian.”
Mr. Kurz, who also serves as minister of integration, has led the push to overhaul the 1912 law governing Islam. The reforms are aimed at providing Muslims with broader official recognition, acceptance and federal support in Austria, a predominantly Roman Catholic country, while at the same time trying to rein in the influence of radical Islamic elements that could incite hatred and violence. It is a dilemma for many Western European countries, including Germany, France and Britain.
Other elements of the draft law have also come in for criticism, including a proposal to ban the foreign financing of Muslim Imams, which could force many of them to leave the country.
For Mr. Kurz, who is just 28 but already has four years of ministerial experience behind him, dealing with one of the most sensitive political issues of the day is just another step in what has been an incredibly steep upward trajectory towards higher office.
“There is no contradiction between being a faithful Muslim and a proud Austrian,” Mr. Kurz said in an interview with the Handelsblatt Global Edition, conducted at the end of October by email. “It is important to me that the majority of the approximately 500,000 Muslims in Austria are well integrated. They make a valuable contribution to our society.’’
The reforms, which have been in the works since 2012 but were officially proposed in October, are currently making their way through the Austrian parliament and could come up for a vote by the end of January. Some modifications have been made along the way to address community concerns after dozens of groups submitted their own critiques during a public comment period.
Mr. Kurz’s initial proposal for an official version of the Koran was dropped after being questioned by the Austrian chancellery’s legal department. Regulation of the Koran has now been reduced to a simple reporting requirement: Publishers of the religious book will have to “disclose’’ the doctrines and underlying assumptions that went into their versions.
Mr. Kurz argued this is no different from what Christians, Jews and other religions denominations must provide the government in Austria. He insisted that the proposals are not meant to single out Austria’s Muslim population, which some in the community have charged.
“This is the same as other religious communities have already done,” Mr. Kurz said. “Under no circumstances should the error be made to put Muslims under general suspicion. That would be unjustified and the wrong reaction.”
Fuat Sanac, the president of the Islamic faith community group consulted by the government, called the initial proposal in October “naïve.” He has also said he was personally offended by the government’s decision to announce the draft while he was at the hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia: He had asked Austrian government to wait until he had returned.
Despite some of these early mishaps, Mr. Kurz has done his best to straddle a fine line. For example he has stiffly opposed the banning of the burka, as has been done in France. The proposed law does note that Muslim women should have equal treatment under the law.
“Under no circumstances should the error be made to put Muslims under general suspicion. That would be unjustified and the wrong reaction.”
The new law would for the first time guarantee a Muslim chaplain for federal institutions such as the Austrian military, prisons, hospitals and nursing homes, as well as setting up an Islamic theological studies program at Vienna’s university. It also for the first time Islamic holidays, including Ramadan, are recognized as official holidays, and the law highlights the fact that women are equal citizens.
Under Mr. Kurz, Austria has been aggressive – maybe too aggressive, critics say – in integrating its immigrants. In cities such as Ankara, Turkey, and Belgrade, Serbia, where many immigrants originate, two Austrian government integration officers work with applicants to teach the fundamentals of Austrian society.
Mr. Kurz, the son of a teacher and an engineer who grew up in Vienna’s Meidling district, a multicultural neighborhood known for its mix of lower middle-class and working class residents, is used to uphill challenges. He was admitted as a member to Austria’s center-right People’s Party, the ÖVP, at the age of just 16, having shown up at the central office after being turned away by its local chapter for being too young.
A rising political star, Mr. Kurz quit law school at 24 to become the country’s secretary for integration in 2011. His youth, casual air and down-to-earth political style – he insists people call him by his first name, rides the subway and flies economy class – at first perplexed Austrians.
His effort to foster the integration of immigrants into Austrian society mostly won him plaudits: he sought to help integrate Muslim immigrants into Austrian society by requiring children to speak German before entering school, established free German language classes for Muslim religious leaders and launched a forum for dialogue on Islam.
Following the last round of federal elections, in December 2013, he was nominated by the ÖVP party, the junior member in Austria’s Social Demorat-led coalition, to head the foreign affairs ministry. Since then, he has worked to raise Austria’s profile within the international community, meeting with Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.N. Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon.
At the same time, Mr. Kurz has actively tried to rein in the influence of radical imams in Austria, a country that like many in Europe is concerned that some of its immigrant youth could be lured to the Syria, Iraq and other radical Islamic causes, returning to pose security threats.
Mr. Kurz’s plan would stop foreign funding of Imams, the argument being that these are most likely to incite religious hatred and violence. But the plan has offended some Muslim leaders in Austria, who see it as overly broad and detrimental to all Muslims, who are overwhelmingly peaceful and non-violent.
There are about 300 imams in Austria, including 65 directly employed by communities in Turkey. These preachers would no longer be able to work in Austria under the government’s plan – they have been given until December 2015 to adapt to the changes and find domestic sources of financing, or leave the country.
Mr. Sanac of the Islamic community faith group, the IGGiÖ, told an Austrian radio program back in October: “If a law could control or prohibit these people, we would have already’’ used it. A group of 18 legal philosophers have also written a letter and argued the proposal amounts to discrimination.
Mr. Sanac’s group will vote on the draft proposal this Sunday. A “no” vote would be an embarrassment for the Austrian government but not oblige it to make any changes. Some leaders within the Islamic community this week already called for Mr. Sanac to resign for failing to shape the government’s reform plans more broadly.
One other Islamic group seemed to be more receptive. The Turkish Cultural Community, which represents about 200,000 Turks living in Austria, said they welcomed Mr. Kurz’s proposals, though they also complained they were left out of the consultation process in favor of Mr. Sanac’s group.
In addition to the law proposal, Mr. Kurz’ most recent campaign “Stolz Darauf” — or “Proud to be” in English — has been aimed at encouraging immigrants to feel more at home in Austria.
The campaign, backed by Austrian President Heinz Fischer, has been criticized for alienating foreigners and has sparked debates and some ridicule on twitter, with users posting unflattering images of public figures with the “stolz darauf” slogan.
Mr. Kurz said his proposal only aims to foster intercultural understanding and raise awareness for integration.
“It is important for me to improve cultural coexistence in Austria, increase tolerance and reduce prejudice,” said Mr. Kurz. “A common value base is very important to us.”
Hannah Brandstätter is an Austrian freelance journalist living in London. Christopher Cermak, an Austrian citizen and editor at the Handelsblatt Global Edition, also contributed to this story. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org