On 29 October, three people were stabbed and killed at Notre Dame de Nice, France. While Europe was still reeling from the attack, around 8:00 pm local time on 2 November, a gunman undertook a series of shootings in Vienna, killing four and wounding 23 others.
Across the world, religious leaders and policymakers are wrestling with their responsibility to provide protection but also build bridges between communities following such violent attacks, when relations can become severely strained.
In Europe in particular, there is increasing recognition that the effectiveness of responses and collaboration between religious leaders and policymakers can be crucial to maintaining social solidarity and preventing more crimes.
In light of this, and along with the European Council of Religious Leaders (ECRL)/Religions for Peace Europe, KAICIID hosted yesterday the webinar “Prevention and Response: The Contribution of Religious Leaders to Counteracting Violent Extremism and Promoting Social Solidarity in Europe.”
The webinar featured religious leaders and policymakers from national and international organizations based in Europe, who addressed how to respond in the immediate aftermath of an attack and the steps needed to prevent preventing acts of violent extremism long-term.
KAICIID Secretary General Faisal bin Muaammar said, “The misuse of religion on the one hand, and the targeting of religious minorities on the other, have become a regrettable feature of our societies.”
The webinar, he explained, offered “a space for reflection, trust and sharing as we try to process these experiences, and our response to them.”
Participants considered a series of questions, including: what do religious communities need from each other to effectively respond to and prevent such violent attacks? What are the roles and responsibilities of religious leaders and policymakers to their own communities and societies in such scenarios? And how can they address the suffering and pain caused by such incidents and channel them towards love, not hate?
Responses from Austria
Since the attack in Vienna, KAICIID has provided multiple opportunities for such reflections, including “A conversation with youth: Vienna terror attack and the way forward” on 23 November.
During that event, participants emphasised the need to demonstrate unity and not let violent acts divide society any further. Adis Serifovic, Federal Chairman of Muslim Youth Austria, said, “hopelessness is exactly what these terrorists and extremists want. They want to divide us; they want to scare us and we must stand up to that.”
Serifovic’s sentiment was echoed by Prof. Dr. Markus Ladstätter of the Graz University of Education. “Terrorists want to split society,” he said, “the first sign should be that there is no way to split us."
Unfortunately, bin Muaammar said, “research shows that there is an escalation in hate speech and hate crime in the aftermath of any terrorist attack. Each terrorist incident begins a hundred new cycles of hate, and can produce a hundred new fractures in our societies, which are difficult to repair.
“For KAICIID, and for all of us here today, who have dedicated themselves to promoting peace and understanding of the Other, the impact of each attack, and its aftermath, is twofold: a signal to redouble our efforts, and a painful reminder of how far we still have to go to achieve our goal,” he said.
Prof. Dr. Regina Polak, head of the Department for Practical Theology at the University of Vienna said the “burden of mistrust” in the wake of attacks requires religious leaders go beyond “symbolic unity” to take practical steps such as comforting the victims of violence, explicitly condemning such acts, and establishing appropriate networks and communication structures before another crisis occurs.
Rabbi Schlomo Hofmeister, Community Rabbi of Vienna since 2008, recently led his own city through the pain of such devastating attacks and commended the solidarity shown across religious boundaries in the days that followed. The challenge for society at large, he said, will be preserving that sentiment in the months and years to come.
For such unity to persist, Polak said, “there is no other option other than dialogue and encounter. If we withdraw from interfaith relationships, we let the violent extremists win.”
The role of religious communities in preventing and healing
Letting extremists gain the upper hand within religious communities, added Rev. Dr. Thomas Wipf, President of ECRL/RfP Europe, was unacceptable. He said, “as religious communities we have a duty to do everything we can to avoid being abused and misused to justify any form of violence.”
This requires an honest reflection on the part of religious leaders, he added, who need to “deal with our own mistakes and errors” and find ways to “support one another” to address common challenges.
At the same time, participants also recognised that religious leaders and their communities are often the victims and targets of attacks and need support themselves.
Rabbi Schlomo Hofmeister said, “violence in the name of religion is always something very painful for everyone involved. This includes religions and religious leaders who are being blamed for it. We have to speak out that religion must not be used to justify violence.”
The process of healing, he said, involved solidarity between religious leaders, politicians, and society at large to condemn rhetoric that, “creates a climate of polarisation.”
Saying that Austria was “shaken up” in the wake of the Vienna attacks and starting to confront such polarisation, Hofmeister said, “we cannot wait for attacks to happen to react to this, it’s too late”.
“We have to show courage and distance ourselves from polarising language and condemn it as a means of prevention,” he said.
The dual role of policymakers and religious leaders in this process was highlighted by Rehman Chishti, British Member of Parliament and former Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief and Imam Yahya Pallavicini, president of COREIS, the Islamic Religious Community of Italy.
Chishti said, “Every word has a meaning and politicians have to be very careful about what they say and what effect it can have.”
While he recognized the role of policymakers in guarding religious freedom, he cautioned, “The law cannot make people get along. It takes meaningful engagement between people of different communities. That’s where religious leaders are absolutely vital.”
To that end, Imam Pallavicini said religious leaders need to develop new dialogue skills and language to “bridge between believers, citizens, institutions, and politicians.”
“We cannot do theological discourse alone,” he said, “we need to develop a theological answer that is adaptable to the context and the challenges of the society, of the language of the media, and concrete policy recommendations for institutions.”