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  • July 2021: Launch of ’Islam Map’ heavily criticised

The launch of an “Islam Map” by the governmental “Documentation Center for Political Islam”, which lists the addresses of the majority of Austria’s Muslim organisations, caused severe criticism.

Minister for Integration Susanne Raab (Austrian People’s Party), also responsible for religious affairs, presented a website which lists the contact details of over 600 prayer sites, associations, and private people as well as a description of their affiliation with different strands of Islam and international Muslim actors (e.g. Turkish Diyanet, Millî Görüş, Ayatollah Sistani, etc.). The website was presented as a publication of the newly founded “Documentation Center for Political Islam”, which defines political Islam as “ideology that aims to transform or influence society, culture, state or politics in a way that these actors perceive as Islamic but which contradicts democratic principles, the rule of law and human rights”.

Most Muslim sites in Austria are among the addresses listed in the Islam Map. For the main part, these sites are affiliated with the “Islamic Religious Community in Austria”, a religious body under public law. The addresses were collected by Ednan Aslan, professor of Islamic Theology at the University of Vienna, who has conducted in the past disputed studies for the Ministry of Integration. The Islam Map has been first published in 2012 as a research project, partly funded by the then-new State Secretariat for Integration. At the time, it did not receive comparable attention. The new launch in the context of the “Documentation Centre for Political Islam”, by contrast, caused wide outrage and severe criticism by scholars (such as political scientist Sieglinde Rosenberger), politicians (like from the Green Party, NEOS, Social Democrats), religious actors (for instance Catholic Archbishop Christoph Schönborn, Protestant Bishop Michael Chalupka), civil society groups (for example SOS-Mitmensch), the Council of Europe and many of the Muslim groups affected (among which the communities represented by the Islamic Religious Community in Austria). The University of Vienna prohibited the use of their logo on the website and dean Heinz W. Engl dissociated himself and the University of the Islam Map.

The points of criticism raised are manifold, and include the following aspects:
 The presentation of a nearly complete list of Austrian Muslim organisations in the context of the Documentation Center for Political Islam suggests that the listed addresses are affiliated with religious extremism, and causes general suspicion towards Islam.
 Most entries, though, are affiliated with the IGGÖ that enjoys numerous privileges and the right to autonomy in internal matters. The mapping of facilities associated with a recognised religious community and the qualification of certain entries in this context violates the guaranteed rights of recognised religious communities and raises concerns under equality law.
 The information about some organisations and individuals appears incorrect and was published without their consent.
 The publication of this data might not be in line with data protection legislation. The website also published contact details of private people. A Muslim youth organisation announced that they would sue Ednan Aslan and the University of Vienna for the violation of privacy rights.
 Experts (such as data protection NGO Nyob) pointed out that the data protection of website users was insufficient. This concern was addressed by a change of the website host, which caused the website to be offline for a couple of days.
 The scientific integrity of the research project has been questioned. When presented by Aslan and Raab, the website did not provide information on data collection and methodology.
 The original version of the website invited users to report information on Muslim groups. This was perceived as a call for denunciation (see the University of Vienna).
 The list of Islamic sites was used by right-wing extremists to start a campaign putting “warning signs” near mosques and prayer places. Both Ednan Aslan and Susanne Raab, as well as the “Documentation Centre for Political Islam” condemned this campaign and claimed that the Islam Map was misused. Other actors (like the NGO SOS-Mitmensch) argued that this misuse was foreseeable, following the presentation of the Islam Map as a publication of the “Documentation Centre for Political Islam”.

Despite this broad criticism, the website remained online. It was made available again after a change of the web host that followed the critique of data protection organisations. The call to report Muslim associations was reformulated and now asks users to report mistakes. In the beginning, no information on the project’s methods was given. Meanwhile, a nine-page pdf document has been made available for download. In the document, Ednan Aslan explains that the project is built on six other projects he previously conducted. Following the document, the data collection contains publications by the Muslim organisations and information from expert interviews, the methods applied include “documentation and discourse analysis” (p. 7).

Both Ednan Aslan and Susanne Raab insist that the Islam Map is a useful project. According to their argumentation, the website intends to demonstrate Islamic pluralism and allow Muslims to learn about the background of the prayer sites they attend. It was announced that both Aslan and Raab received threats because of the Islam Map. Muslim communities, among them the legally acknowledged Islamic Religious Community in Austria, claim that this project poses a threat to Austria’s Muslims and fuels general suspicion towards Islam.

Such a confrontational course of action is in line with the Austrian People’s Party’s new approach to religion. The party has Christian-democratic roots and used to opt for inclusive policies towards religion. This changed when Sebastian Kurz gained more power in the party and eventually took over the party lead. The party profile shifted to the right and adopted far-right anti-Islam stances. Furthermore, the longstanding alliance with the Catholic Church has been loosened. The Austrian tradition of inclusive governance of religious diversity that roots in the religion politics of the Habsburg monarchy is increasingly abandoned. The Islam Map is yet another example of confrontational religion politics in Austria.

D 27 July 2021    AAstrid Mattes AKerstin Wonisch

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