Faces were solemn at Saint’s Stephens Cathedral, that Tuesday evening, for the memorial service for the victims of Vienna’s Nov. 2 terrorist attack. Socially spaced because of the pandemic, there was little conversation, as Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen and the other officials and dignitaries awaited the arrival of Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, who would lead the service.
Then all heads turned as he entered from the transcept, accompanied by the representatives of the other four major religions in Austria: the Evangelical-Lutheran Bishop, Michael Chalupka, the Greek Orthodox “Metropolitan”, Arsenios Kardamakis, the President of the Islamic Community of Believers (IGGÖ), Ümit Vural and the Vice-President of the Israeli Cultural Society (IKG), Claudia Prutscher.
To an outsider, the scene might have seemed like a miraculous convergence of faith, a kind of ecumenical peace summit. But in Vienna, the devout have long lived peacefully shoulder to shoulder with one another, no matter their religion. That is why the recent attack had come as such a shock to many, especially the Muslim community.
The major Muslim organizations in Austria issued statements condemning the attack and offering their condolences to the families of the four victims.
Over the Austrian Press Agency (APA), IGGÖ president Ümit Vural condemned the extremists as perverting the teachings of Islam. “They don’t share our values of peace and freedom, our faith in a pluralist society,” he added. “We, the official representatives of the Muslim community in Austria, are branded [by terrorist] as traitors,” he says. “With these actions, they thwart our efforts for a peaceful coexistence of all the citizens in our country. It is an attack on our Vienna,” he concluded.
The Austro-Turkish Islamic Union (ATIB Union) too had expressed their condolences for everyone affected by the attack. Terrorism doesn’t have a religion or homeland, said leader Fatih Yilmaz: “In these challenging times, togetherness and solidarity are the only right answer.”
Frustration Among Vienna’s Muslims
Discussions on Twitter, however, voiced the frustrations of many of Vienna’s Muslims, with calls for more debate and transparency within the Muslim community itself.
“I’m afraid that many have not yet grasped that the attack is a turning point: Things will not, and cannot, go on as it has before.” wrote Ruşen Timur Aksak, the day after.
“We’re told, ‘Now is not the time to make us out as the bad guys.’ But we are the perpetrators. Just as we are the victims,”
Dr. Fatma Akay-Türker, an outspoken critic of Vienna’s conservative Muslim leadership, agreed. “No one says anything,” she complained. “My protest that things can’t go on like this is always countered by “Everything should stay the way it is; you can’t change anything!”
It’s not that she hasn’t tried. Appointed to the IGGÖ High Council in January 2019, Dr. Akay-Türker stepped down last July, citing the lack of recognition for women within the organization
“The IGGÖ lacks the ability to critically reflect on the theology of Islam,” she told Der Standard. This was particularly troubling in regards to women: “The classical teachings of the Quran cannot solve the problems women face,” she said. “Rather than question traditional roles, they institutionalize them.”
Others like Fatima Remli have expressed their weariness in constantly having to defend herself as a Muslim. “I am always asked how I can defend a faith that motivates someone to murder innocent people,” she wrote in her article for woman.at.
The journalist Yasmine C. M‘Barek echoed this sentiment on Twitter, writing that most Muslims don’t have radical leanings and shouldn’t have the responsibility of defending these actions pushed upon them.
“Liberal Muslims, who see Islam as their religion (the great majority) are not Islamists, and don’t have to explain why these exist because they don’t know it and are themselves endangered civilians.” she proclaimed.
What cannot be denied is the rise in Anti-Muslim rhetoric prompted by this incident, but also a show of solidarity that has stretched beyond the evening of the event in early November. Now, more than a month later, the real consequences of the attack remain unclear. The conversation has been important, but members of the community fear that the power of tradition will work against the needed change.