Austria’s Troubling Quran Law


Austria’s attempt to mandate a single German translation of the Quran reflects ignorance about Islam and the factors contributing to violent extremism, obliviousness to the nature of modern media, and an attitude of cultural imperialism.

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The Austrian government has proposed a new law to regulate the affairs of Muslims in Austria. While it is worthwhile that Austrians are looking for ways to update their 1912 law governing Muslim affairs, the proposed reform requiring, among other things, a single German translation of the Quran is ill-conceived.

This proposal for a government-mandated single German translation of the Quran reflects gross ignorance about Islam, ignorance about the factors contributing to violent extremism, and obliviousness to the nature of modern media. Last but not least, it smells of cultural imperialism.

Muslims believe God revealed the Quran to Muhammad in Arabic. Most Muslims consider versions of the Quran in other languages to be “interpretations,” not “translations.” So, the idea of a secular government mandating that a version of the Quran in German be “official” probably strikes most Muslims as bizarre.

The Diversity of Islam

Also highly problematic is the way the Austrian proposal ignores the diversity within Islam. The Austrian government currently recognizes the Islamische Glaubensgemeinschaft in Österreich (the Islamic Religious Organization in Austria, or IGGiÖ) as the official representative of Muslims in Austria. However, the IGGiÖ is fundamentally a civic organization that was formed to meet requirements imposed by the Austrian state. By its nature, it is not an organization that grew organically from inside Islam.

Austria has already had to come to terms with some of the disputes about who does and who does not qualify as “Muslim.”  The Alevi minority in Austria (not to be confused with the Alawites), who felt excluded from and under-represented by the IGGiÖ, established its own religious council and in 2013 received recognition from the Austrian government.

Islam is a diverse religion, and this diversity is present within the immigrant population and among converts to Islam within Austria. Moreover, while Sunni Islam has traditions of scholarly consultation and consensus formation, it is by and large unstructured. There are differences in the ways leadership is formed and recognized among the main sects of Islam—Sunni and Shia. There are also significant differences between sub-groups of these sects. In addition, there are smaller sects that self-identify as Islamic, such as the Ahmadiyya and Alevi, but who are often looked down upon, and in some cases considered heretics, by Sunni and Shia Muslims. There are also Sunni and Shia Muslims who view each other as heretics. Moreover, even some Alevis question whether or not Alevism should be considered a branch of Islam or not.

In Germany, where the Alevis also formed an organization separate from the main Muslim organization to serve as a representative body to the German government, the Alevis did so by changing their ways in order to meet the definition of religion as determined by the German government. For example, the German government required the Alevis to develop a written curriculum to teach about Alevism. Previously, Alevi traditions have been passed down only orally and with a wide range of interpretation among those passing them down. The codification required by the German government came from the German government, not organically from inside Alevism.

Expanding Government Power at the Expense of Religion

This trend of European governments imposing structures and standards determined by the state upon religious groups represents an unsettling trend of expanding state power at the expense of autonomy for religious groups. Moreover, this trend increasingly places states in the position of empowering one group of religious believers over others within a faith. In some cases, this may result in empowering those who may have a greater love for political activism than for religious learning and practice.

Just try to imagine if the US government told America’s Protestant Christians they had to decide on a single organization to represent the interests of all Protestant Christians in relations with the government at both state and federal levels. Imagine that the US government assumed this would include Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other disputed Jesus-centered religious groups. The resulting organization would probably lean in directions that would leave a significant number of Protestant Christians feeling excluded and unrepresented. Such an organization would belie the diversity and breadth of vitality among American Protestant Christians. And then imagine if Congress passed a law mandating that this organization settle on one translation of the Bible to become the “official” Protestant Christian Bible in America. Madness.

If the Austrian government were to go through with demanding one “official” German translation of the Quran for Austrian Muslims, the Austrian government would place itself in the position of becoming the arbiter determining what “true” and “untrue” Islam is. This is a highly problematic undertaking for a modern nation-state, especially one in Europe. I have written previously about ways that the German effort to have government-approved Islamic religious education in public schools could lead to “Mufti Merkel” being expected to decide just which Muslims would write this curriculum, and which would be excluded; Austria has a similar system.

Does Regulation Really Reduce Extremism?

One reason European governments give for reaching into the internal affairs of Muslim communities is that they believe government control would reduce extremist views—as if regulation were a proven solution. Regarding the proposed new law in Austria to regulate Islam, Austria’s Minister for Integration Sebastian Kurz claimed, “If you don't have orderly legal regulation … this can always bring dangers (of extremism). In this sense, if you like this is maybe a part of prevention.”

This raises the question: does regulation really help?

To help answer this question, I highly recommend the book God’s Century by Monica Duffy Toft, Daniel Philpott, and Timothy Samuel Shah. Their research about the relation of government neutrality toward religion and constructive engagement of religious communities in societies is very illuminating. At a common- sense level, it is unfathomable to me how Austrian government officials think that putting an “imprimatur” on a particular German version of the Quran mandated by an Austrian state law, selected by an organization formed in response to requirements by the Austrian government, would have an iota of credibility in the eyes of individual Muslims, especially rebellious youth.

Austrian Green Party Spokesperson for Human Rights Alev Korun criticized Kurz’s proposal, asserting that it is “boundlessly naïve” to assume “that rabble-rousers check first what a law says before they launch into their inhumane propaganda.”

Moreover, one wonders whether Minister Kurz has ever heard of something called “the Internet.” At a practical level, there is no way to imagine how this Austrian proposal to have the government mandate a single “approved” Quran translation just for Muslims in Austria would work. Today anyone in Austria with a smartphone or a computer has instant access to a variety of Quran translations in German (and English and French and Bosnian and Turkish and …). And oh, by the way, online there is also access to the Quran in Arabic.

On top of this, research suggesting that causality for Muslims joining violent extremist movements lies in which translation of the Quran one reads is, to put it mildly, wildly scant.  And as one author noted sarcastically,

Kurz is suggesting that only German Muslims become radicalized due to the wrong translations, while Arabic reading Muslims have direct access to the true and “peaceful” version of the Quran. According to this logic, Osama Bin Laden must have spoken perfect German and no Arabic.

Productive, Effective Ways of Countering Extremism

It is deeply troubling that the Austrian government could come up with such a highly problematic, poorly conceived proposal to counter violent extremism at a time when excellent resources are increasingly available to help both government and private-sector organizations develop effective, research-based efforts. Minister Kurz and his colleagues should be consulting the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland, which works extensively with foreign partners; the Hedayah center in the UAE, which is becoming a global hub for efforts to counter violent extremism; and the Against Violent Extremism (AVE) network.

Robert P. George has rightly concluded that,

in a world where religion matters, a key answer to violent religious extremism in the post-9/11 era is for governments to act in such ways to affirm and protect freedom of religion. It is not only a moral imperative—it is a practical necessity, empowering people everywhere to choose a better way.

“To choose”—this is essential to the entire enterprise of belief itself. Moreover, fostering independent thinking rather than blind obedience to authority would do more to counter violent extremism than could possibly be achieved by the Austrian government trying to insert itself as a would-be authority to be obeyed in matters of religion.

Religious freedom is both for the individual and for communities formed freely by free individuals. At the communal level, it is vital that private citizens have the right to form religious organizations on their own without the state mandating the structure, purpose, and conduct of such organizations.

Integration vs. Imperialism

I suspect this effort to mandate a unified translation of the Quran involves some degree of cultural imperialism. Austria is predominantly Catholic (73.6 percent as of 2001). The Roman Catholic Church is a hierarchical institution that has Church-approved translations of the Bible, at least in major languages such as English and German. The expectation that Muslims should have a single, “approved” German translation leaves the impression that Minister Kurz thinks the best way to be Muslim is to behave like a Catholic Christian, as if “integration” were only about enabling immigrants in Austria to become “more like us.”

This effort by the Austrian government also involves singling out Muslims for regulation while allowing other religious communities to govern themselves. Consider the diversity within Christianity. Austria has minorities of Protestant citizens, both mainline and evangelical, as well as a variety of Eastern Orthodox Christians. These Christian minorities (and probably more than a few individual Catholics) use any variety of translations of the Bible. Is the Austrian government going to tell them which German translation of their scriptures should be considered “official”?

An informational article about religion in Austria posted by the Austrian Embassy in Washington, DC, claims, “The tasks and objectives of the [Austrian] state are exclusively worldly and non-spiritual.” The article continues:

The exclusive right as a basic principle of Austrian state church law guarantees each legally recognised church or religious community the exclusive right to its designation and its doctrines as well as exclusive pastoral responsibility for its members.

This strikes me as generally sound, in contrast to the proposed new law in Austria. One can hope that after Minister Kurz discovers the Internet he will read some of the documents from his own government, including from the Austrian Embassy in Washington, DC.

Islam has no monopoly on disagreements over translations. As Scot McKnight observed in a recent overview of translation use across Protestant Christian denominations in the US, “The politics of Bible translation is a sad case of colonizing the Bible for one’s agenda.” But at least these Bible “politics” don’t involve nation-states trying to become the arbiter of which translation, or version, to use.

Jennifer Bryson is Director of the Zephyr Institute in Palo Alto, CA. She has a PhD in Arabic and Islamic studies from the Department of Near Eastern Languages at Yale University.

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