Let's fear Islam or Arab culture

Islam in Vienna: They fear revenge

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On the evening after the attack, Salim Mujkanovic prays with more than 40 other Muslims on a dark red carpet. "Allahu akbar," he says twelve times in ten minutes, the words are part of his prayers. The evening before, these words had been shouted by an Islamist perpetrator who was killing people in downtown Vienna, just a few kilometers away. "Islamists like him abuse Allah," says Mujkanovic, grimacing in disgust.

Mujkanovic is 41 years old and an imam in the Islamic Center in Vienna, the only mosque in the city that you can tell that it is one. The stairs in front of the building are illuminated, and the high minaret to the right of the entrance is easy to see in the evening. Inside, the believers have taken off their shoes before evening prayer, the women praying upstairs, the men downstairs. They have rolled out carpets under chandeliers, and strips of yellow tape on the floor ensure that they have enough space between them. They stand up together, raise their arms, bend their knees again, whisper. Two screens on the wall show their prayers in Arabic and German. Words like "Coronavirus" and "Day of Mourning" flicker in white on a green background. Mujkanovic prays in the first row, next to him a second imam who supports him today. "We can only do it together," says Mujkanovic.

Fear for the community

When a man with an assault rifle, a pistol and a machete killed four people and seriously injured at least 22 people in a nightlife district in downtown Vienna the previous evening, Mujkanovic was sitting with his wife on the sofa and watching TV. His smartphone kept vibrating. "I was horrified when I read the reports," he says. He immediately switched the station to news. First he worried that friends or relatives might be among the victims. Then that the perpetrator could be a Muslim. "Please do not, Allah, help us," he said to his wife. A few hours later it was clear: the perpetrator was invoking Islam. "I could hardly sleep that night," says Mujkanovic. Although he never saw the perpetrator, that made him easier. But the relief quickly gave way to compassion for the victims - and fear for his community.

Mujkanovic wears a takke, an Islamic headgear for men, and a suit, his misbaha, the prayer beads, is close at hand in his pocket. He is visibly Muslim, and his beard, too, shaved left and right, he lets it grow from his chin, suggests it. So far, as a Muslim, he has only experienced hostility every few weeks, a few threatening emails or racist graffiti on the floor in front of the mosque, he says. Especially during the election campaign, however, certain politicians had stoked the fear of Islamization, and there were also attacks on Muslims from time to time, but that seldom happened in Vienna. Can that change now? Mujkanovic pauses for a long time and says: "Hopefully not."

"Now it suddenly happens in your own city"

Mujkanovic fled Bosnia to Austria in 1992 before the war in Yugoslavia, studied mechanical engineering, became more religious and trained as an imam in Medina. Back in Vienna, he took over the vacant post at the Islamic Center. In this role, he was repeatedly confronted with Islamism, he says. For example, when there were the attacks in Paris and also last week when an attack shook Nice. In the last Friday sermon he made it clear that these acts were incompatible with Islam and how horrible he found them. "And now it's suddenly happening in your own city." He never thought it was possible, although he knew that there were Islamists in Austria.

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According to the constitution protection report, at least 320 people from Austria have traveled to Iraq or Syria since 2014 to join the self-proclaimed "Islamic State" (IS). Among them were citizens from Vienna, mostly recruited via the Internet. In the course of the investigation, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution closed a radical mosque in the Austrian capital. "Fortunately," says Mujkanovic.

After the prayer, Mujkanovic sits in the library of the center, behind him are editions of the Koran and theological books that believers can read here. His community does a lot to ensure that Muslims do not radicalize, says Mujkanovic. "For example, we are trying to explain online who the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, really is," he says. He has already visited two young Austrians in prison several times who first converted and then fought for the "Islamic State" in Syria and Iraq. Both came back injured and had to be detained. "I talked to them for a long time, explaining to them that Allah stands for non-violence," he says. One of the two is now free and leads a regular life. He does not know what has become of the other person.

Reconcile, don't divide

The perpetrator from Vienna, a 20-year-old Austrian with North Macedonian roots, was also released from prison last year because he had taken part in a de-radicalization measure. "How can something like this happen?" Asks Mujkanovic. That had to be dealt with, as well as the fact that the perpetrator had apparently been observed by the security authorities before the act.

"We fight against Islamism wherever we can," says Mujkanovic. Last week, when 50 young Muslims broke into the Anton Church in Vienna to protest against the statements made by French President Emmanuel Macron about the Mohammed caricatures and chanted "Allahu Akbar", he condemned it. "I try to reconcile, not to divide," says Mujkanovic. The last thing Muslims in Austria could use is a further polarization of society.