Below is a report from our Austrian correspondent ESW on summer issues involving Vienna’s Muslim immigrants.
Reading Austria’s newspaper Die Presse, which caters to a conservative readership, one notices these days a sudden abundance of articles about Islam. This phenomenon usually takes place immediately after the Religion of Peace has shown the world what it considers peaceful action. This is not the case right now. However, there are the upcoming elections, which by nature make politicians wake up from their fitful sleep to call out to their potential voters. The potential voters are, in this case, the Muslim population.
The socialist-ruled city of Vienna has finally taken up the Burqini. There is great excitement among the female Muslim population, which has waited all summer to be able to show some, well, what can they show? Never mind.
The city of Vienna has grave concern regarding some women who wanted to swim in baggy clothing. They were in the pool fully clothed, one with leggings and a shirt, the other in a track suit made of silk.
This is prohibited for hygienic reasons: “If you can’t distinguish between street clothes and swimwear, there are problems with hygiene, “says Mr. Schuster, the superintendent of the Vienna municipal authority for public swimming pools. The women are of the opinion that this problem can be solved. One asked the superintendent what he considered appropriate swimwear for Muslim women.
The city council then began to do research on the internet and was successful in finding what the international media was already aware of. The Burqini, a word created by mixing the Burqa and the bikini, is already popular in Indonesia and Australia, where the producer of the Burqini can be found: Aheda Zanetti. Schuster says he want to make the Burqini popular among women within the Muslim population. He wants to enable women to go swimming in the public pools, those who until now have not felt comfortable in doing so. Vienna’s secretary for integration, Sandra Frauenberger, commented that she supports everything that furthers the integration of Muslim women into society.
The Burqini is not available yet in Vienna. However, a number of women have asked about the Burqini’s availability in shops. When asked, a shop owner replied that she knows of no shop that offers the Burqini.
The Islamic Community is excited about the prospect of the Burqini. Andrea Saleh, in charge of women’s matters, believes this to be of interest among younger women. Women wearing a face veil would not show even a toe. Others wear a bathing suit. Still others don’t want to be seen by barely clothed people at all because it is forbidden. Saleh says she is not sure whether the Burqini would even be accepted because women would be stared at as if they were aliens. She also thinks that this good idea might be construed as asking for special favors.
In Switzerland, there are no problems with the Burqini. Women have been swimming in public pools clad in a Burqini for the past three years. And there has been only one complaint so far and it was made anonymously.
Summer Camp in a Quran School
The Muslim greeting “As-salamu aleikum” already sounds good. “Wa aleikum as-salam” is the greeting returned by a choir comprising eleven children.
There are children who play on the Donauinsel [a popular recreation area near the Danube river in Vienna] in summer. And there are children who study the Quran during their summer break. Across from the Donauinsel, in the Islamic Center, Vienna’s only mosque which is recognizable as such, there are 80 children and teenagers taking part in a different sort of summer school in July and August: Arabic language courses, Quran reading, Islamic ethics and religiously correct behavior are part of the program. Four times a week for two hours.
The recitation of Quran suras can be heard from one room, while in another room — painted in yellow, very sparsely furnished — a teacher writes Arabic letters on a blackboard, and the children are practicing the alphabet. “Not all children can participate in (religious education) during the school year, “ says Farees Alkhotani, the director of the Islamic Center. “That is why they are studying now, during their summer break.” There is another reason why the medical doctor from Saudi Arabia considers this crash course on Islam important: “These children need to get to know their identity.” And for the devout Muslim this identity is naturally a Muslim one. While many politicians believe a self-confident Islam to be dangerous for social life, Alkhotani sees this self-confidence as the foundation for contact on equal footing. “If you don’t know who you are you can’t communicate.” Some children feel despised by their schools and the public. “They are torn between two cultures,” says one of the teachers, an Austrian convert.
Admittedly, they do not want to be seen as a closed community. Well-known politicians, Jewish delegations, all of them have paid a visit. There is a good rapport with the neighbors nearby. Still, not everyone feels comfortable with the interest of the media. “Quran school” sounds “dangerous” to Austrians, fears a supervisor. “It’s as if terrorists would be trained here.” No terrorist training. But the imams found in the mosques are not known for their liberal stances: they represent Saudi Wahhabism. The instruction still does not appear as “typically” Quranic. Yes, studying Arabic is important; there is hardly a book to be found other than the Quran. But it is not a strict and prayerful environment, more chaotic and loud. Many teachers have problems subduing the children entrusted to their care.
The children in the German-speaking group are between three and fifteen years of age. Today’s topic — correct behavior towards elders, and Islamic greeting — is not exciting and the children are unruly. “The level (of the children) is varied,” an Austrian teacher moans. The same goes for backgrounds: Many participants are from Arab or African countries; others are from Bosnia or Turkey. But there are also children from Austrian and German converts. It takes some time until a group can be formed.
Of the eight groups only one is for girls because young girls from the age of twelve follow their own program. Apart from studying the Quran, they learn how to cook, knit, do household chores; all very traditional. Upon reaching puberty girls should wear a headscarf, says Alkhotani. Just like Emine, 15, who is covered, but in a body-hugging fashion, all in yellow. She wants to “get to know” her religion.
This is Emine’s last free summer before she starts her training to become a pharmaceutical assistant. She is not very concentrated. But, and this probably also counts, “My friends respect my decision.”