ATIB: Cultural Association or Shelter for Islamists?

9 February 2011

ATIB, the “Turkish-Islamic Union for Cultural and Social Cooperation in Austria,” is a favorite target for anti-Islam activists in Austria. The far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) maintains that the goal of ATIB is to spread Turkish values and the Qur’an in Austria, while local activists such as the spokesperson for the Dammstraße anti-mosque initiative Hannelore Schuster believe that “naturally” there are Islamists active within ATIB, and that the goal of the Turkish state is to use ATIB to promote the domination of Europe by Islam.

Cengiz Günay of the Austria Institute for International Politics agrees ATIB is “definitely not independent” of the Turkish state, however he says that it represents a more moderate form of Islam, and that there are no “underground currents attempting to invade Austria.” Günay in general refutes the idea that Islamic centers promote parallel societies in Austria: “they exist already,” he says, due mainly to the fact that Turkish migrants occupy the lowest level of the social ladder.

Citizens Forge a New Alliance against “Islamicization”

9 February 2011

A number of neighborhood anti-mosque initiatives in Vienna are coming together to create a new anti-Islam federation, the “Pro-Austria Movement” (BPÖ), also called the “Federation against Islamic Multipurpose Centers and the Islamicization of Austria.” The new federation brings together four separate citizens’ initiatives (Dammstraße, Trostgasse, Rappgasse, and the “Garten-Gallier”) which had been fighting against the construction of Islamic cultural centers in their neighborhoods.

While in many cases, the Islamic associations in question have already received permits for the construction of their respective centers, these associations still hold out hope that they may be able to stop the construction before it begins. “As long as there aren’t any construction machines showing up, I still have hope,” said Hannelore Schuster, spokesperson for the Dammstraße initiative.

In general, these citizens’ initiatives have protested against the noise and the traffic that these centers would supposedly bring with them, however on their web pages the main theme is Islam itself. According to Cengiz Günay, from the Austrian Institute for International Politics, there is a growing “ethnicization of everyday conflicts,” and that there would not be the same problems were non-Muslim groups to be interested in building such centers. He says the centers function merely as a “village square” for many immigrants who do in fact come from villages, and are simply seeking a place in which to meet. Nonetheless, he says he understands the feelings of the local residents involved in the anti-mosque initiatives, and regrets that the situation has now escalated to an “all or nothing” mindset on both sides.

Compromise is increasingly unlikely in many of these local conflicts. In the Dammstraße case, the local Turkish Muslim association ATIB is no longer speaking with the citizens’ initiative, though the latter would not accept the building of a smaller center as a compromise in any case.

Schuster continues to believe that with the new federation they will ultimately win. She points to positive signs from politicians, and not only the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), who finance the federation’s website: following the Vienna elections, the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) has been increasingly “reasonable.”

Islamic Burial in Austria: “That is true integration”

In Vienna cemeteries have long been seen as “interconfessional,” and in 2008 a 3.4 hectare Islamic cemetery was opened. According to the speaker for the cemetery, Ali Ibrahim, “There is no longer an excuse to be repatriated to the homeland for burial, as Islamic rites are respected in Austria as well. When one is buried is the same place in which one has lived, that is true integration.”

On the other hand, Helga Bock, who works for one of the largest funeral homes in Austria, highlights that if a person wishes to be buried in one’s country of origin that does not necessarily mean that that person was not well integrated, and moreover, many such burials do not take place since the people in question might have already retired and moved back to their home countries. The repatriation of corpses itself is usually facilitated by mosque associations, such as the Turkish Islamic Union for Social and Cultural Cooperation in Austria (ATIB), while the costs are paid by years of contributions to a special fund of such associations.

All fourteen state-recognised religious groups are present in Vienna’s central cemetery, and the officials do their best to respond to the specific wishes of each group. In the case of Islam, this requires the ritual ablution of corpses divided by gender, as well as burial in a simple sheet, with the corpse facing Mecca. In Austria however, burial without a coffin is not permitted, thus Muslims are buried in softwood coffins – not dissimilar from Jews, who are also buried in coffins, but with a hole in the bottom in order for there to be direct contact with the earth.

Islamic burial in Austria: “That is true integration”

In Vienna cemeteries have long been seen as “interconfessional,” and in 2008 a 3.4 hectare Islamic cemetery was opened. According to the speaker for the cemetery, Ali Ibrahim, “There is no longer an excuse to be repatriated to the homeland for burial, as Islamic rites are respected in Austria as well. When one is buried is the same place in which one has lived, that is true integration.”

On the other hand, Helga Bock, who works for one of the largest funeral homes in Austria, highlights that if a person wishes to be buried in one’s country of origin that does not necessarily mean that that person was not well integrated, and moreover, many such burials do not take place since the people in question might have already retired and moved back to their home countries. The repatriation of corpses itself is usually facilitated by mosque associations, such as the Turkish Islamic Union for Social and Cultural Cooperation in Austria (ATIB), while the costs are paid by years of contributions to a special fund of such associations.

All fourteen state-recognised religious groups are present in Vienna’s central cemetery, and the officials do their best to respond to the specific wishes of each group. In the case of Islam, this requires the ritual ablution of corpses divided by gender, as well as burial in a simple sheet, with the corpse facing Mecca. In Austria however, burial without a coffin is not permitted, thus Muslims are buried in softwood coffins – not dissimilar from Jews, who are also buried in coffins, but with a hole in the bottom in order for there to be direct contact with the earth.

Portrait: the Turkish Islamic Union for Social and Cultural Cooperation in Austria (ATIB)

During the numerous controversies that have occurred with regard to the construction of mosques in Austria, one association is frequently cited: the Turkish Islamic Union for Social and Cultural Cooperation in Austria (ATIB). This federation, linked with the Turkish Presidency of Religious Affairs (the Diyanet) and similar to the German DITIB, brings together 63 mosque association and comprises 80 000 members, of which 70% are Austrian citizens. The spokesperson for ATIB, Nihat Koca, emphasises that ATIB is a reliable and open partner, and is not influenced by the Turkish state.

Other than offering religious services by means of imams sent from Turkey, ATIB also offers after-school tutoring for students, musical activities and German language classes. The repatriation fund for burial in Turkey, which counts 25 000 registered families, is also an important activity for the association.

Integration expert Kenan Güngör criticises some of ATIB’s programmes, such as kindergarten classes, which he says encourages parallel societies: “it is especially children who need to be socialised in a mixed environment as early as possible.” While ATIB tries to be inclusive and not raise controversy, Güngör concludes that it needs to distance itself more clearly from the antidemocratic and backwards image that many people have of Islam, especially since the terror attacks of 9/11.

Portrait: the Turkish islamic union for social and cultural cooperation in Austria (ATIB)

During the numerous controversies that have occurred with regard to the construction of mosques in Austria, one association is frequently cited: the Turkish Islamic Union for Social and Cultural Cooperation in Austria (ATIB). This federation, linked with the Turkish Presidency of Religious Affairs (the Diyanet) and similar to the German DITIB, brings together 63 mosque association and comprises 80 000 members, of which 70% are Austrian citizens. The spokesperson for ATIB, Nihat Koca, emphasises that ATIB is a reliable and open partner, and is not influenced by the Turkish state.

Other than offering religious services by means of imams sent from Turkey, ATIB also offers after-school tutoring for students, musical activities and German language classes. The repatriation fund for burial in Turkey, which counts 25 000 registered families, is also an important activity for the association.

Integration expert Kenan Güngör criticises some of ATIB’s programmes, such as kindergarten classes, which he says encourages parallel societies: “it is especially children who need to be socialised in a mixed environment as early as possible.” While ATIB tries to be inclusive and not raise controversy, Güngör concludes that it needs to distance itself more clearly from the antidemocratic and backwards image that many people have of Islam, especially since the terror attacks of 9/11.