Muslims who live in Greece, officials and academics speak to BHMAgazino about the stereotypes that follow Islam and the real dimensions of the threat of fundamentalism
Throughout history, if government intelligence agencies were anxious to relieve their people from religion, today it would be necessary for them to relieve religion from a few of their followers. Woody Allen kind of summed it up in his famous quote, “God is silent, now if only man would shut up.”
The geopolitical reclassifications and military conflicts in the Middle East had two implications. First, it helped increase extremism in one section of the Arab population and simultaneously created the largest movement of refugees seen since World War II. The unspeakable horror and monumental theatrics of violence by ISIS have generally instilled a feeling of fear. The terrorist attack against the “Charlie Hebdo” magazine in the heart of Paris sent the message that the threat does not only exist in areas related to the “Arab Spring,” but also extends to Western metropolitan cities. Based on this background, a share of politicians and others involved in public speech resort to generalizations and simplifications. As a result, the possible Islamization of Europe is the new boogie man of political and religious life. But realistically, how much is Europe and Greece at risk of Islamization?
“A lot,” would be the answer from Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, and the Head of the Front National, Marine Le Pen, despite the fact that currently more people have died in the Western world in the name of the perfect “selfie” rather than in the name of Jihad. Similar fears are shared by members of Parliament, security analysts, columnists, and maybe ordinary citizens. In Greece too, these concerns are expressed even though according to all European Muslim official records, none of the reported European Muslims who went to fight alongside ISIS were from Greece. Even the notorious leaks on jihadists identified by EYP on Greek territory were Europeans with passports, not immigrants, explained by former Citizens Protection Minister, John Panousi, also adding that “Greece does not address the issue of organized pockets of militants of the Islamic State.”
There is some confusion regarding the number of Muslims living in Greece. According to an EU-wide survey by the Pew Research Center, there are 527,000 Muslims living in Greece, representing 4.7% of the total population. The State Department claims there are about 750,000 Muslims living in Greece and the Muslim Association of Greece estimates that there are about 500,000 Muslims living in Athens. The Ministry of Education and Research and Religious Affairs claim that the above numbers are excessive and that only 28,000 Muslim immigrants live in Athens legally and the total of all Muslim immigrants living in Athens, including those who do not have legal documents, should not exceed 220,000. The Secretary General for Religious Affairs, George Kalantzis notes: “Some Muslims tend to inflate the numbers to influence policy.
Moreover, the story with the many Muslims in Greece serves the Golden Dawn to create a climate of insecurity.” He recounts a personal incident, when in 2011, during the first prayer in the Olympic Stadium for the closing ceremony of Ramadan, colleagues phoned him about alarming reports on the Internet that 100,000 Muslims prayed at the Olympic Stadium. “I only saw 550 in front me,” he says.
The only sure thing is that Muslims in Athens are enough to be eligible for an official place of worship and one does not exist currently. Athens is the only European capital that has no official mosque under public control and is often criticized for this oversight. Since 2006, the Giannakou law was passed for the construction of a mosque in Athens and it still has not come to fruition. So far, parliament has legislated four times on this issue with the most recent coming from the government of SYRIZA and ANEL, without the vote of the latter. However, the project remains on paper and prayers of Muslims are in the realm of “invisible” small makeshift mosques in basements, in their homes, or in three (private) houses of prayer that are authorized. “There is a period of delay, but the project has to move forward to increase internal security and to positively improve the country’s international image. We have experienced religious discrimination in the past, we paid taxes, we did not have property rights, and they took firstborn children for janissaries. It would be a cultural victory for the Greek state if it does not become like its past oppressors,” says George Kalantzis, adding: “In Thrace we have 250 mosques, we pay three muftis and 240 religious teachers, we anticipate the teaching of Koran in schools for those who desire it, and allow people to visit with their mufti for their personal affairs. The Muslims of Thrace never questioned the Greek state. Instead, they fulfilled their patriotic duty fully in the War of 1940-1941. There are Muslims who were honored for their bravery in battle. None of them went to fight with the Islamic State. They are hard working people, honest, traditional, and dedicated to their families.”
However, not all of Greece is Thrace. Beyond the lack of mosques and Islamic cemeteries, Muslims in Greece are facing racist attacks from the Golden Dawn party, sometimes provocative behavior from law enforcement including the infamous case of the Qur’an tearing in the spring of 2009, and an overall unjustified suspicion by the locals. In the historical memory of Greece, Islam is identified with the Ottoman Empire and this causes an almost spontaneous intolerance. Especially in cases of Greeks who embraced Islam, they experience a refusal by their family and community to accept the change. Anna Stamou, a Greek who grew up in a Christian environment, but was led to Islam through her religious journey, does not belong in these cases and avoids victimization. Of course, she describes quite vividly the way other drivers give her a second glance for wearing hijab while driving. She met Naim Elghandour, the current President of the Muslim Association of Greece, in 2003 and has been married for almost 13 years. Naim is originally from Egypt and has been living in Greece for 42 years.
They welcomed me in their home in Heliopolis with a cloudy sky as a backdrop. Naim would often go out to the balcony. “When it rains the sky is open to listen to your wishes,” he says. We talked for some time about the unattainable mosque which hurts Muslims in Greece the most, a legal mosque would act as a symbolic embrace of their existence by the state. “The other problem is that they ignore us. For example, no one ever wished us Happy Holidays during our holidays, when Merkel, Hollande, and even Netanyahu do.” I asked him about jihadists: “Fairytales” he replied with no hesitation. “The jihadists have money and if they want they can just fly to Europe. They do not follow the paths of exiled refugees. Whoever has evidence to the contrary, let them come forward.” Naim, like any immigrant, has always turned his gaze on what he left behind, blaming the great powers for the rise of extremism. “The weapons they have in their hands are not Syrian or Libyan. The Islamic State, for example, has a strange relationship with Israel. Notice that they never say a word against Israel, not even for the Palestinians. And do those who buy oil from the Islamic State not know what they do?”
Naim and Anna are completely integrated into Greek society; everyone in the neighborhood knows them well and frequently exchange daily greetings. Immigrants from the Arab world who arrived in Greece many years ago from countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine feel closeness to Greece for climatic, cultural, and physiognomic reasons. Greece also had a good reputation in the Muslim world, the result of a strong and trustworthy bond built by the first PASOK government with several Arab states. They came and worked in the country in conditions of economic prosperity and the adjustment was a much easier affair than today. In today’s Athens, the presence of the Golden Dawn and the activation of social automation have left a dark trace in the eyes and minds of people.
In America Square, I met Nadine Kougioumtzi, of Greek and Lebanese descent, living in Greece for the past 25 years, and her husband Abdel Malek Basekis from Egypt. And their two children, born in Greece, learn music and Arabic at home after they finish school.
“I have encountered a lot of problems. I am considered foreign even though I’m Greek-Lebanese. My husband has lived in this country for 25 years, but they haven’t granted him citizenship yet. Occasionally, he faces harassment at his grocery store located in Michail Voda. We must teach them about us. Greeks believe that women in the Arab world walk around with a chador and the men wear a robe and sit on oil. They watch jihadists on TV decapitating people. These people do not represent Islam. The Islamic religion is not that different from Christianity, the message of both religions is love and mutual support.” Nadine does not wear a headscarf in her hair and I asked her to comment on this taboo subject for Muslim women: “It is a wrong perception that the headscarf is a symbol of oppression. Women believe that wearing the headscarf keeps their beauty hidden from men. Banning the headscarf is a sign of racism. Is it possible to ask a Christian woman to remove her cross? With what right?”
The truth is that the headscarf in our worldview symbolizes female oppression and the banning of it in countries such as France was viewed as a sign of female liberation. Liberation, however, may be understood as such when the subjects being “liberated” are actually making the choice. When it is imposed by an external source it becomes a form of oppression. On the other hand, the unequivocal world view on women’s freedom based on the Western model limits our abilities to perceive the world without bias and ultimately ends up having the opposite effect to what the world advocates. In some countries such as Afghanistan or Pakistan, where patriarchal structures have remained steadfast from modernism, women are in fact in subordinate positions. However, especially for Muslim women living in Europe, the headscarf is a symbol of communalism, their own response to the objectification of the female body and a reminder of their identity that seeks integration and not assimilation.
The prevailing stereotypes want Muslims to be violent, uncivilized, undemocratic, and fanatic, disregarding historical facts, such as the enormous contribution of the Arab world in the sciences and the peaceful coexistence of Christians and Muslims for centuries. The reality is that Muslims belong to a vast and diverse civilization. The Islamists that want the governance of their countries to be based on Islamic law are very few and those who want to impose this by force are even more minimal. In particular, all international studies state that of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, those involved in the networks of Al Qaeda or the Islamic State are about 100,000. Nevertheless, one cannot turn a blind eye toward the growing attraction of Islamic extremism. Robert Grenier, a leading CIA official in the fight against terrorism, claims that “the forces of global jihad are stronger than ever.” The EU Commissioner for Justice, Vera Jourova, has said 5,000-6,000 Europeans have left their homes to join jihadist organizations. This is a legitimate question facing Europe. The magazine «Time», as a tribute to the attack on «Charlie Hebdo», highlights the prisons of Europe as places of radicalization of Islam. Similar warnings had been sent to the French authorities by the American diplomacy since 2005.
In some countries, particularly in France the peculiar “apartheid” of the suburbs resulted in a failed strategy to integrate immigrants and lead to their marginalization. A professor at Panteion University and an expert in anthropology of Islamic societies, Gerasimos Makris notes: “Perhaps for some this led them to ISIS. For some young people, the joining of extremist groups acts as an adventure on an apocalyptic scale. Specifically ISIS has strong eschatological and apocalyptic elements that can entice someone.” Daniel Keller, an expert on de-radicalization issues in Germany, has observed that the groups that generate the best results with their young European radicals are mothers and former radicals. Mothers have a prominent place in Islam. Muhammad said that, “Paradise lies at the feet of the mother.” Therefore, the Mothers for Life network has gained popularity which consists of women whose children went to fight with ISIS (and many were killed) and their aim is to sensitize the authorities and help other families.
Τhe annual report of the Commission against Racism of the Council of Europe for the year 2014 recorded a dramatic increase in racism and Islamophobia and a strengthening of hate speech in the old continent. In completing their study, researchers at the University of Leipzig found and included Islamophobia as a new kind of racism in German society. The data cited by the German government itself indicates that attacks on mosques in the country amounted to an average of 35-36, while a decade ago it was 22. Using the platform of Islamophobia, PEGIDA, a far-right group, was created with demonstrations in Dresden. Beyond the far-right activism of PEGIDA or Golden Dawn, there are a number of think tanks who “build” their careers on Islamophobia. The Jihad Watch by Robert Spencer is perhaps the most famous case of this, but lost some credibility during the case of Anders Breivik in Norway. With his collaborator, Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer rushed to condemn the attack as an “Islamist” attack and when it turned out that Breivik was an anti-Islamist and far right extremist with a manifesto that had incorporated many of their own views in it, they rushed to detach the attack from any ideology. Since 2011 in Greece, on a much smaller scale, the Radical Islam Monitor in Southeast Europe (RIMSE) has been operating and it defines itself as an “awareness effort of liberal democracies about the threat posed by the totalitarian political ideology of Islamism” and its pages are filled with unsubstantiated theories of a conspiratorial nature.
The Muslims of Europe feel stigmatized and this creates the conditions for a new oppression that can incite anger and frustration.
The «Economist», in a relevant article, concluded that the Islamic terrorists are trying to prove that the West demonizes all Muslims in order to justify their crimes. They are betting on European governments proving their disturbing fantasies right. No religion is adequately shielded against its own extremism. A prime example was the American Protestant fundamentalism that scarred the American society in the 90s with the attacks on abortion clinics and cold-blooded murders of doctors and nurses. Even today it still maintains a strong influence over sections of the Republican Party. Also, the Jewish fundamentalists have a long history of violence in modern times, which led to the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. The crusades and the Inquisition were born within Christianity. Just as it is a grave mistake to demonize Christianity or Judaism collectively for their dark spots, it is a grave mistake to demonize Islam collectively for its own fundamentalism.
“I define myself as a Christian and I base my hope in the Bible. But I know that religions are the worst thing in the world. This is due to interpretation, and this is what poisons human souls. But there is a good core. And Islam has a good core too. The West moved into secularism, but did so after wars and disasters. Muslims have not passed such procedures of secularism and Islam always remains strong in the collective unconscious. It does not necessarily mean Islam has to go through what the West went through and certainly not in the same way. We Westerners tend to think that history should be driven by our own model everywhere. That is not so.” says Gerasimos Makris. However, our own secular path to the sacred can only pass through the recognition of the sanctity of others and reconstruction, through the experience of mourning, a democratic shield against biological views of civilization that impoverishes our future horizons.
- Photos by Alexander Katsis
- English Translation by Hayrullah Mehmeti