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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 18 August 2018

A tale of two countries gives opposing views of Islam in Europe

While Austria is closing mosques, one British community has rallied behind its environmentally friendly mosque project

The Vienna Islamic Centre, Austria. Joe Klamar / AFP
The Vienna Islamic Centre, Austria. Joe Klamar / AFP

Muslim life during Ramadan in Europe is much the same as anywhere else on the planet. The sun rises, the sun sets; people fast, others don’t; prayers are extended, families spend more time with each other and charity is abundant.

But there remain, alas, periods of tension – and at the same time, periods of great creativity, positivity and optimism.

It was most unfortunate that this Ramadan the Austrian government declared it was closing down seven mosques, including several in Vienna itself. But it was perhaps not altogether surprising.

The current chancellor sits on the right wing of Austrian politics and has a vice chancellor who is from the far-right extremist Freedom Party, which declared the move at a press conference as "just the beginning". It indicates how far populism has come in Europe and how we as Europeans have tolerated it in our societies.

It was only in the year 2000 that the European Union applied a series of sanctions on Austria, an EU member state, when the Freedom Party was admitted into an Austrian coalition government. The open justification for those sanctions was that such a coalition "legitimises the extreme right in Europe". Today, the extreme right is not just legitimised but mainstreamed.

Austria is one of the few European states that has a recognised, institutional structure that manages the affairs of its Muslim population. Dating back several decades, it finds its legal origins in a law that is more than a century old. The official Islamic Religious Community of Austria appears to have been sidelined in this move, which was apparently predicated on accusations that imams had foreign funding, which is now against the law in Austria.

Be that as it may, it is rather unlikely that this has nothing to do with the populist rhetoric that brought both the right-wing chancellor and far right-wing vice chancellor to power in Austria. Anti-Muslim bigotry and Islamophobia are not merely points of debate in Europe today – they are living, breathing realities that Muslim communities have to deal with daily.

But Ramadan in Europe is not all doom and gloom. In writing this piece, I spoke to Cambridge University academic Dr Timothy Winter, also known as Islamic scholar Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad, who has often been invited to speak in Austria as a guest lecturer. He agreed with the concerns raised about the rise of populism – but he is focusing his own energies on building and constructing institutions that will hopefully outlast such a phenomenon.

The Cambridge Mosque, currently under construction, is set to become something of a historical landmark in the UK. Mr Winter, chairman of the trust building the mosque, also established the Cambridge Muslim College, an institution set up to to train Islamic scholars.

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Read more from HA Hellyer:

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Why we should be angry at France for persecuting a Muslim for her beliefs

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The Cambridge Mosque, designed by the architects behind the London Eye and Kew Gardens' treetop walkway incorporates sustainable architecture, with large skylights and energy generated from ground source heat pumps. Indeed, it is one of the first mosques in Europe to be built as a green mosque with an environmental focus.

The Cambridge mosque has not met its funding target yet but the wider community has greeted it with a great deal of positivity – precisely because of the project's inclusive nature. Many donations have come from non-Muslim neighbours, who see the aesthetic beauty of the mosque and its facilities as a natural win-win for the neighbourhood.

After all, it is the first green, open space in a very urbanised area of Cambridge and its cafe and facilities will be open not only to worshippers but to all those in the surrounding area.

The wave of populism that currently besets Europe will eventually pass and Muslim communities in Austria and the UK, as elsewhere, will still remain.

The sustainability of those communities depends very much on the ability of those in power to see them as fully fledged and integral parts of societies at large. But their thriving depends a great deal on those communities also finding ways to make themselves more relevant, more intrinsic to reminding Muslims and non-Muslims alike of their positive and active roles in society.

As the green mosque in Cambridge slowly comes to fruition, one hopes that generations from now, the mosque will still be a landmark to inclusivity – and the populism of Austria's Freedom Party and other extremist movements in Europe will be a long forgotten footnote in history.

Dr HA Hellyer is a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute

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