Austrian Muslims name new leader

Thousands of Vienna-based Muslims will head to the polls this Sunday to elect a new representative of their community.Around 10,000 members of the religious community registered to participate in the ballot which marks the end of a round of votes across the country. Only 100,000 people will have taken part in all of the elections over Austria, according to officials. More than half a million of Austria’s overall populace are Muslims.Muslim residents of all but one province handed in their votes in the past months. The small eastern region of Burgenland did not participate as too few members of the denomination signed up.Muslims are asked to elect a successor of Anas Schakfeh. The Syria-born intellectual became president of the Austrian Islamic Denomination (IGGiÖ) in 1987. Schakfeh said some months ago he will not run for another term in office. Groups representing Austria’s Turkish community are tipped to win the current election. Final results are expected for next month.Schakfeh has been criticised as being too conservative by many. He became a household name when a statement made shortly before last year’s Vienna city parliament ballot caused a heated debate. Asked in an interview for his future vision for the denomination in Austria, Schakfeh said he hoped every provincial capital of the country will have its own mosque.There are just three mosques with minarets in Austria. While little controversy has accompanied the construction of Vienna’s mosque and the equivalent in the Lower Austrian town of Bad Vöslau, right-wing politicians and resident pressure groups forced planners of the mosque in Telfs, Tyrol, to downscale the size of its minaret.Schakfeh’s call for more mosques enkindled a discussion over how well the Muslim community is integrated in Austria. The statement arguably boosted the Freedom Party’s (FPÖ) Vienna city election campaign. The right-wing party – which puts its main focus on campaigning against foreigners unwilling to integrate and crime gangs from abroad – bagged nearly 26 per cent in the October ballot, up from just 14.8 per cent in 2005. All other main parties suffered bitter losses in the vote.The outgoing IGGiÖ president tried to put his statement into perspective at that time by stressing that he was asked to reveal his dreams and hopes for the long-term future of Austria’s Muslims.Viennese research group Karmasin polled 500 Austrians days after his initial appeal was published to find out that a majority of 52 per cent rejected calls for further mosques with distinctive minarets. Only 35 per cent supported the suggestion to build more mosques featuring minarets.FPÖ leaders felt confirmed by the result. The party’s General Secretary Harald Vilimsky infuriated non-government organisations (NGOs), left-wing opponents and many Muslims by branding mosques as “hotbeds of radical Islam.” He went on to call for an “integration stop” for people from “Islamic countries.”FPÖ chief Heinz-Christian Strache said days before last October’s city parliament election future referendums held in the capital city should focus on issues such as the construction of mosques. However, neither Strache nor any high-ranking party officials have become active in this regard ever since. The FPÖ boss has controversially tried to win over Austria’s Serbian community in recent years, while polls show that his party has barely any support among Turks.Meanwhile, a long-term study by theologian Paul M. Zulehner shows that 48 per cent of Austria-based Muslims consider themselves as religious as they visit a house of prayer or a mosque every Friday and pray five times a day.The survey also highlights that especially Muslim women have become a thriving force behind modernisation movements within the denomination, Die Presse newspaper reported today (Fri).