ACADEMIA SUPERIOR DIALOGUE with Univ.-Prof. Dr. Markus Hengstschläger and Anas Schak­feh, the for­mer pres­i­dent of the Islam­ic Com­mu­ni­ty in Aus­tria on May 2, 2012 in the south wing of Linz castle.

Anas Schak­feh was born in 1943 in Hama (Syr­ia). For his stud­ies of med­i­cine and Arab at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vien­na he came to Aus­tria in 1965 and became an Aus­tri­an cit­i­zen in 1980. From 1979 until 1989 Schak­feh worked as the direc­tor of an Arab lan­guage course for the Afro-Asian Insti­tute in Vien­na, lat­er on he was also a high school teacher for Islam reli­gion. Already in 1987 he was elect­ed the pres­i­dent of the Islam Com­mu­ni­ty in Vien­na, Low­er Aus­tria and Bur­gen­land. 1997 Schak­feh became the act­ing pres­i­dent of the Islam Com­mu­ni­ty and from 2000 to 2007 the pres­i­dent of the Islam Com­mu­ni­ty in Austria.

There is hard­ly anoth­er top­ic that has caused as much pub­lic uproar in the past years as inte­gra­tion. The rea­son is obvi­ous: Inte­gra­tion affects us all.

Mag. Michael Strugl opened the dia­logue by empha­siz­ing the rel­e­vance of lived inte­gra­tion as the only viable option way for a peace­ful coex­is­tence. For two things are beyond dis­pute: First, migra­tion is real­i­ty, and sec­ond, inte­gra­tion is an oblig­a­tion for both par­ties. This means that both the major­i­ty pop­u­la­tion and immi­grants need to active­ly work towards a com­mon future. While a large pro­por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion under­stands for­eign cul­tures as an enrich­ment of one’s own val­ue sys­tem, there are also many peo­ple in this coun­try who reject the issue of migra­tion. These peo­ple are afraid. There­fore a respon­si­ble pol­i­cy has to take the exist­ing fears and con­cerns of the peo­ple seri­ous­ly and make sure that a dif­fi­cult top­ic like inte­gra­tion is not left to pop­ulist firebrands.

The num­ber of Mus­lims in the EU is increas­ing. Rea­sons for this are big eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal changes. Peo­ple become more mobile, „we can speak of ‘mass migra­tion’,” says Schakfeh.

„We date the world before Sep­tem­ber 11 and the world after”

Before Sep­tem­ber 11, 2001 there was basi­cal­ly a friend­ly atmos­phere towads Mus­lims in Aus­tria, there were no note­wor­thy prob­lems or resis­tance. After 9–11 the world and espe­cial­ly the west became harsh and unfriend­ly, how­ev­er not so much in Aus­tria. How­ev­er, after the bomb­ings in Lon­don and Madrid, the cli­mate became worse. „In Aus­tria there were fears and con­cerns over these devel­op­ments, how­ev­er they were encoun­tered ratio­nal­ly and objec­tive­ly. Sig­nals were sent to show that we are dif­fer­ent, bet­ter,” the for­mer pres­i­dent of the Islam­ic Com­mu­ni­ty says. „In gen­er­al, Europe has dis­tanced itself from this rad­i­cal­ism and the Euro­pean Con­fer­ence of Imams posi­tions itself against fun­da­men­tal­ism and ter­ror­ism again and again. The rad­i­cals are a small group. It is dan­ger­ous if some­one with­out train­ing with the texts of the Koran inter­prets them. Rad­i­cal­ism devel­op when the­o­log­i­cal­ly untrained peo­ple become muftis.”

Schakfeh’s take on the Arab Spring: „Reli­gion and Islam are not an issue. Peo­ple demon­strate for their free­dom, equal­i­ty, for social jus­tice, against cor­rup­tion and tyran­ni­cal forms of gov­ern­ment from Kuwait to Tunisia. For me this is a nat­ur­al and very pos­i­tive development.”

On the role of women Schak­feh says that the cause lies not in Islam, but at the posi­tion of women in dif­fer­ent soci­eties and coun­tries. He also notes that there was not a sin­gle woman in the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment when he came to Austria.

Language as a key to integration

Markus Hengstschläger notes that the sec­ond gen­er­a­tion of immi­grants in Aus­tria is part­ly less inte­grat­ed than the first gen­er­a­tion. For exam­ple 21% of Turk­ish women of teh sec­ond gen­er­a­tion do not speak Ger­man. Schak­feh agrees that there is a lan­guage prob­lem and that it has become worse. „Peo­ple who do not speak Ger­man are not born here.” He sees the cause of the dete­ri­o­ra­tion of Ger­man lan­guage knowl­edge in the social devel­op­ment of this group of peo­ple and in the access of mod­ern infor­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nolo­gies (satel­lite chan­nels, Inter­net, etc.). Schak­feh pleads for an ear­ly inter­ven­tion for chil­dren to make the lan­guage acces­si­ble to them and for schools with bet­ter trained teach­ers in this respect in order to improve the devel­op­ment. For Schak­feh lan­guage is a key to inte­gra­tion. „We have repeat­ed­ly point­ed to the impor­tance of language.”

Schak­feh wel­comes the estab­lish­ment of the State Sec­re­tari­at for Inte­gra­tion, but notes that there is „impa­tience on both sides.” „Devel­op­ment takes time,” said Schakfeh.

„Mud­sling­ing is no policy”

Demog­ra­phy is chang­ing rapid­ly, which caus­es anx­i­ety and uncer­tain­ty. „Hate­ful preach­ers will prove to be false prophets. Pop­ulist par­ties have no solu­tions, they talk bad about every­thing and are not con­struc­tive, this is no way to do pol­i­tics. Still, whin­ing and slo­gans find open ears, they play with rep­e­ti­tions and speak people’s emo­tions.” Answer­ing the ques­tion of how to shape the inte­gra­tion of Mus­lims in Aus­tria over the next 50 years, Schak­feh is opti­mistic: „The Aus­tri­an soci­ety will man­age the future bet­ter than oth­er peo­ples and societies.”

The for­mer pres­i­dent of the Islam Com­mu­ni­ty wants that politi­cians from tra­di­tion­al par­ties do not remain silent when pop­ulist spread their paroles, he wish­es for ture inte­gra­tion instead of uni­for­ma­tion and invest­ment in edu­ca­tion and training.

As a final note, Anas Schak­feh sais that to be on good terms with your neigh­bors is of great impor­tance in Islam. This is def­i­nite­ly some­thing to build on.