Austria debates democratic credentials of its Islam teachers
In the survey of 210 teachers, conducted as part of a PhD thesis, 21.9 percent agreed with the following statement: “I oppose democracy because it is not compatible with Islam.”
The public debate has worn on without asking a few crucial questions, such as how representative these findings are, how thorough the survey was and whether the questions steered the answers.
(Photo: A Muslim woman and a far-right election poster saying “Now it’s about us Austrians” in Vienna, 18 Sept 2008/Dominic Ebenbichler)
Instead, only days after the survey appeared in the weekly magazine Falter, the education ministry unveiled a five-point programme to be implemented by the Islamic Community overseeing the teaching of Islam.
Children in Austria can choose to study their own religion at school. Lessons are funded by the state and, until now, teachers were not required to have any formal education. Now, among other measures, Islamic religion teachers will have to sign a contract stating their adherence to democracy, human rights and the Austrian constitution.
“No teacher- in any subject, and of any religion — should express undemocratic opinions in Austria’s schools or disdain our constitution,” said Education Minister Claudia Schmied of the Social Democrats.
Members of Austria’s far right Freedom Party, which scored 17.5 percent in the Sept. 2008 elections, extrapolated the findings to the Muslim community at large. “For years, (politicians) have looked away and acted as if there were no problems with the integration of Muslims,” they said. “It is high time that the Social Democrats wake up out of their multicultural dreams.”
The author of the survey, Islam expert Mouhanad Khorchide, 37, said he had feared his findings could be misused by the far-right and Austria’s estimated 400,000 Muslims. The Palestinian-born Austrian citizen held back from publishing them until after the elections, in which the far right nevertheless garnered a record 28 percent of the vote.
(Photo: Muslims protesters pray outside Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral, 10 Feb 2006/stringer)
Khorchide said those saying Islam was incompatible with democracy were often older Islamic religion teachers, many of whom came from countries in the Middle East without established democratic traditions.
In a previous survey in 2007, he found that 97 percent young Muslims between 16-26 years of age in Austria felt that democracy and Islam were compatible. “This shows there is a change in attitude over the generations, younger people think differently, which is actually positive” he said.
Austria’s Greens party has criticised the government for not extending their new plan to teachers of other religions. A question like that raises another one, i.e. how many Austrians overall are dissatisfied with democracy and national institutions if so many vote for far-right parties?
Former British diplomat Henry Hogger was in Vienna this week to discuss two recent Gallup polls debunking some common misconceptions about Muslim communities. One main finding was that the generally higher religiosity of Muslims did not imply a weaker sense of national identity. On the contrary, about two-thirds of Muslims in London said they had confidence in the British government, for example, compared with just 36% of the British public overall.
Hogger pointed out that the formulation of the statement in the survey of Austria’s Islamic teachers could have been misleading — arguably, it already suggests that Islam is not compatible with democracy, something many Muslims might disagree with.