Austrian President: We are very proud to have recognized Islam for 100 years
“Islam was officially recognized by the Austro-Hungarian monarchy in 1912, shortly after Bosnia and Herzegovina had been incorporated into the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Austria is very proud of its early recognition of its Muslim citizens,” President of Austria Heinz Fischer has said. In an interview with Today’s Zaman, Fischer praised Austria’s Muslim community for its contributions to the development of Austria.
He also shared his comments on the state of Turkish-Austrian relations, saying they are “excellent.”
“I am very much against right-wing extremism and am clearly for democracy, human rights and freedom of religion and expression. Populist nationalism or nationalist populism is a phenomenon that has occupied the discourse in Europe for several years and must not be associated with the French elections, the outcome of which was pleasing to me. I am convinced that right-wing extremism has no chance in Europe. Populism is a common side effect of democracy that has to be opposed by clear, firm positions,” he said.
President Fischer, who was in Turkey last week and also visited Ephesus on June 17, shared his opinions with us on a variety of subjects from the right-wing extremist threat in Europe to the prospects for eurozone economies and the crisis in Syria.
What does Ephesus mean to you?
I remember Ephesus from my childhood, where in grammar school it was taught as a symbol of one of the roots of European culture. About 30 years ago, as an Austrian minister of science, I also got to know Ephesus as one of the most famous and important archaeological sites for Austrian archaeologists. And a few days ago, in June 2012, I visited Ephesus as president in order to meet with Turkish President [Abdullah] Gül and, at the same time, to celebrate the 50-year anniversary of the discovery of the so-called terrace houses.
You also visited Turkey in your youth several times. Have you observed changes, or rather development, in the country?
My first visit to Turkey was almost 50 years ago, namely in the summer of 1963. I went by car with a school friend of mine and a tent from Vienna via Yugoslavia and Bulgaria to Turkey. Turkish President Gül had a good laugh when I showed him a photo of me shaving in a meadow on the outskirts of İstanbul with a brush and soap and using the shiny hubcaps of a car as a shaving mirror. Where there was grass then there are high buildings today. Of course, there have been profound and revolutionary changes in these past 50 years that I have been able to observe closely as I have been to Turkey at least 10 times since then.
Within a short period of time, the presidents of our two countries have paid visits to each other. What is the state of bilateral relations?
I think you can call bilateral relations between Austria and Turkey excellent. Growing economic relations and the fact that Austria is a leading country in terms of investments in Turkey show how excellent and cordial the relations between the two presidents are.
Turks living in Austria are also a link between our two countries. One must honestly add, though, that in the matter of the negotiations for the accession of Turkey to the European Union there is a range of opinions in Austria and we cannot at the present time predict the outcome of a possible referendum. But I feel the relationship is and would still call it excellent.
You have positioned yourself very clearly against right-wing extremism and in support of freedom of religion and expression. How do you see the social climate in Europe and Austria? The elections in France and Austria have revealed rising populism. Do you have any concerns in this sense?
You are right that I am very much against right-wing extremism and am clearly for democracy, human rights and freedom of religion and expression. Populist nationalism or nationalist populism is a phenomenon that has occupied the discourse in Europe for several years and must not be associated with the French elections, the outcome of which was pleasing to me. I am convinced that right-wing extremism has no chance in Europe. Populism is a common side effect of democracy that has to be opposed by clear, firm positions.
Would a good social and economic policy be to find a solution for dissatisfied citizens in order to stop the rising trend of right-wing populism?
The question is worded a bit imprecise. Of course certain populist movements would be less successful if the economic and social dynamics of today had the power they did in the ‘70s and ‘80s because then there would be fewer unhappy citizens. On the other hand, democracy must not be a “fair weather” democracy; democratic principles must be applied successfully even if the economic and social situations have become more difficult. And one last note: A good social and economic policy would of course make governance easier, but the problem lies partly in the fact that opinions as to what is a good social and economic policy and what is not are divided.
Austria is celebrating 100 years of the recognition of Islam. What role does the Muslim community play in Austria? What contributions has it made to society?
It is true that Islam was legally recognized by the Austro-Hungarian monarchy in 1912. The main impetus for this was that Bosnia and Herzegovina had just been incorporated into the Austro-Hungarian Empire and thus these citizens, who did not belong to the Christian religion but to Islam, had to be considered. But this recognition of Islam has proven itself in the past 100 years and we are very proud of it. And I am convinced that the Muslim community in Austria, which has in recent years contributed in valuable ways to the development of Austria, will continue to do so in the future and that the process of integration and religious tolerance will continue.
The European Union currently faces a lot of problems, particularly with countries that are affected by the current economic crisis. Expectations are very high, particularly from Germany. How do you see the future of the eurozone and the EU? What should policy do to get out of the crisis?
The European Union, and in particular the eurozone, is currently going through a sensitive and difficult time. The situation changes from month to month and sometimes even from week to week. I personally believe that the economy in the countries of the eurozone is strong enough to overcome the problems in the end. Important and indispensable, however, is that these countries in the area of the monetary union strengthen their cooperation on economic, budgetary and financial policies in a crucial way so that the financial markets are controlled more closely and that the ideas of solidarity, mutual responsibility and common European interests are reinforced against national self-interests. This would also be the best help for Greece, Spain, Portugal and other countries.
Many countries have been satisfied with Austria’s performance during the period of crisis. Do you agree?
Austria has also had a hard time making certain decisions in recent years and has followed certain developments — in particular the actions of the financial markets — with concern. But it is true that Austria has implemented a sensible policy and that our economic data is, in many areas, above the European average. We currently have the lowest unemployment rate of all EU countries, our budget deficit this year amounts to less than 3 percent, our export sector is very successful and our gross national product per capita is among the highest in the EU. What we must not do, of course, is to rest on our laurels; hard work and cooperation with other states are still necessary.
Turkey and Austria have taken a common position towards Syria. What do you see as the solution to the Syrian issue? What is your call to the Assad regime?
The developments in Syria are really depressing. I still trust in the mediation activities of [international envoy] Kofi Annan, but the situation is getting worse. I do not believe in military intervention in cases of internal crisis within a country. But, on the other hand, it has become more and more unbearable to watch the increasing death tolls in Syria while doing nothing. An appeal to the Syrian government and the Syrian ruler can therefore only be for a constructive response as soon as possible to a fair proposal by Kofi Annan and other international mediators. Because even a difficult compromise for the Syrian leadership, and certainly for the whole country, is 100 times better than a bloodier, more brutal civil war, which would then be beyond stopping.