The selection of an ethnic Turk to lead the Islamic Religious Community in Austria (Islamischen Glaubensgemeinschaft in Österreich, IGGiÖ), the primary representative of Muslims in the country, is being challenged by Muslim groups opposed to Turkey's growing influence over the practice of Islam in Austria.
Ibrahim Olgun, a 28-year-old Austrian-born Islamic theologian with ties to the Turkish state, was quietly named on June 19 to replace 62-year-old Fuat Sanac, who stepped down after serving as IGGiÖ president for five years.
Sanac, also a Turk, was reviled by Turkish authorities for helping the Austrian government draft a new Islam Law (Islamgesetz) that aims to promote an "Islam with an Austrian character." The law, which was promulgated in February 2015, seeks to reduce outside meddling by prohibiting foreign funding for mosques, imams and Muslim organizations in Austria. It also stresses that Austrian law must take precedence over Islamic Sharia law for Muslims living in the country.
Observers worry that Olgun — a member of the Turkey-financed Turkish-Islamic Union for Cultural and Social Cooperation in Austria (ATIB), an influential group that has vowed to challenge the Islam Law at Austria's Constitutional Court — will use his new position both to undermine the Islam Law and to increase further Turkey's influence over Muslims in Austria.
At least eight Austrian Muslim groups (representing Albanian, Arab, Bosnian and Sufi Muslims) are challenging Olgun, who was selected by the IGGiÖ's Shura Council (Schurarat), a rules committee (Shura is an Arabic word for consultation) whose five members all happen to be ethnic Turks.
IGGiÖ statutes require a person to be at least 35 years old to head the group, but the Shura Council secretly annulled that stipulation last December, according to Hassan Mousa, head of the Arab Religious Community in Austria (Arabischen Kultusgemeinde in Österreich). He said that Olgun's selection was "undemocratic" and "illegal" and added that his ties to ATIB would shift IGGiÖ's balance of power further in Turkey's direction.
ATIB, an umbrella group that operates more than 60 mosques in Austria, is directly managed by the religious affairs attaché at the Turkish embassy in Vienna, and the imams of these mosques are Turkish civil servants. ATIB and its German counterpart, the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB), are financed by the Turkish government's Directorate for Religious Affairs, known in Turkish as Diyanet.
According to the Berlin-based expert on Turkey, Ralph Ghadban, the primary mission of ATIB and DITIB is to "install the Turkish government's official version of Islam" in Austria and Germany. He says the two groups are the "extended arms" of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who uses them to promote Turkish nationalism as an antidote to integration among the Turkish diaspora.
Ghadban warns that the Islam being preached in Turkish-controlled mosques in Europe is a "Sharia Islam with strong Turkish-nationalist overtones" that calls for a "strict separation from Western individualistic values." He also says that DITIB has been strengthening its ties to Milli Görüs (Turkish for "National Vision"), an influential Islamist movement strongly opposed to Muslim integration into European society.
Olgun, who studied Islamic theology at the University of Ankara, has vowed to represent all Muslims in Turkey:
"I myself have experienced what it is like to grow up in Austria and to question my own identity. What is religion and what is tradition? It is worthwhile to reflect on it and then do theological research. Today I feel at home as a Muslim in Austria, but I also do not forget my roots. Therefore I will build bridges."
Olgun insists that he will not be Erdogan's puppet and will not allow himself to be influenced by ATIB. Until recently, however, Olgun was ATIB's point man for "interreligious dialogue," a key method of spreading Islam in the West by portraying it as a religion of peace and tolerance.
In Austria, ATIB directly competes with the Vienna-based, Saudi-funded King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue, which, according to critics, is a permanent "propaganda center" in central Europe from which to spread the conservative Wahhabi sect of Islam.
Olgun also was an "inspector for Islamic religious instruction" (Fachinspektor für islamischen Religionsunterricht) for the IGGiÖ in Vienna, where he worked to ensure that Muslim children are being taught a version of Islam that presumably complies with standards established by the Turkish government.
The IGGiÖ, which represents more than 250 Muslim associations across Austria, supplies state-funded Islamic religious education at Austrian public and private schools.
In 2014, the IGGiÖ introduced new taxpayer-funded textbooks for the formal teaching of Islam in all public elementary schools across the country. According to the IGGiÖ, the new textbooks — called "Islam Hour" (Islamstunde) — are based on "secure and recognized sources of Islam" aimed at "embedding Islam into the lives of students."
Unlike previous versions of the books, which were criticized for being "overly martial in tone" and for not being "sufficiently oriented toward European values," the new books have been developed based on a "completely new didactic model for competency-based education."
In February 2016, however, the University of Vienna published a study which found that Islamic kindergartens in the capital are dominated by "intellectual Salafists and political Islamists" who are contributing to the "theologically-motivated isolation" of Muslim pupils. The report calls into question claims by the IGGiÖ that anti-Western textbooks have been removed from Austrian schools: "In many of their publications the Muslim Brotherhood and Milli Görüs reject the Western way of life as an inferior worldview."
Olgun rejects the criticism levelled against him: "They say that I am too young, that I am the extended arm of the Turkish state. That is not true. I was born in Austria. I grew up here and am an Austrian citizen. I am not a Turkish civil servant."
Olgun's supporters say it is time for a "generational change" at the IGGiÖ because Austria's Muslim community is young and growing fast. The Muslim population in Austria now exceeds 500,000 (or roughly 6% of the total population), up from an estimated 150,000 (or 2%) in 1990. The Muslim population is expected to reach 800,000 (or 9.5%) by 2030, according to recent estimates.
Muslim students now outnumber Roman Catholic students at middle and secondary schools in Vienna, according to official statistics, which show that Muslim students are also on the verge of overtaking Catholics in Viennese elementary schools. The data confirms a massive demographic and religious shift in Austria, traditionally a Roman Catholic country.
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter. His first book, Global Fire, will be out in 2016.