Imam Abdulmedzid Sijamhodzic, a native Bosnian, is responsible for the pastoral care of Muslim soldiers, and he advises commanders and officers who need clarification on religious issues, as well as holding regular Friday prayers in German.
The 37-year-old told the Austria Press Agency that he has not noticed any radical tendencies amongst the Muslim soldiers he had come into contact with – saying that he had spoken with them about social and ethical questions and that some had told him “they were willing to die for Austria if necessary”. He added that they were all happy with the way they were treated in the army.
He also participates in various events with his Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox colleagues.
Sijamhodzic's main job is as a religion teacher at a secondary school in Vienna. His work as an imam is based on a contract between the Islamic community and Austria’s Armed Forces.
“It is a Muslim’s duty to respect the law. There is complete compatibility between the life of a devout Muslim and the democratic principles of a state,” Sijamhodzic said, adding that the Koran advocates “the right to equality, freedom of religion, freedom of the press and freedom of expression. These are things that unite us all.”
The establishment of a military imam was made possible by the new Law on Islam that gives Muslims the right to religious guidance in institutions such as the armed forces, prisons, hospitals and nursing homes.
800 Muslims are currently registered with the Austrian army, around 700 of them are conscripts. In Vienna, every fifth recruit is Muslim.
Devout Muslim soldiers are allowed to keep their beards and are given time off for important Islamic holidays and religious festivals – working on other days instead.
Sijamhodzic came to Austria in 2004 as a teenager, fleeing the war in Bosnia with his family. He urged people to treat refugees from war torn countries humanely: “Having experienced war I can say that it is the worst thing that can happen to people,” he said. “I see Europe as a peace project, and call upon all Muslims to contribute to this peace project.”
Roughly half a million Muslims live in Austria today, around six percent of the population. Many of them have Turkish or Bosnian roots.