In Greece, a case study on Islam in Europe

June 28, 2012Golden Dawn members give a raised-fist salute as they are sworn into parliament.Louisa Gouliamaki / AFP via Getty … Continued


June 28, 2012Golden Dawn members give a raised-fist salute as they are sworn into parliament.Louisa Gouliamaki / AFP via Getty Images

I have always been honored when asked to speak at the Friday sermon in a mosque. It is both spiritually elevating to interact with worshippers and socially it provides insights to the community. There are always many inspiring and impressive people in these gatherings, some of them old and some young, some men and some women.

Addressing the Friday gathering at what passes for Athens’ biggest mosque was, however, a different experience.

I was in Greece in June as a guest of the British Council with the purpose of participating in interfaith dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims.

As an enthusiastic interfaith advocate, and supporter of minority rights including for Christians and Hindus in Pakistan, I was excited to return to Greece. Yet I very quickly discovered that the immigrant community, particularly Muslims, faces widespread discrimination and assaults and lives in fear.

When I was invited to join the community in Athens for the Friday prayer and speak at the sermon, I readily accepted. I was curious to see this mosque because technically there is no mosque in Athens. There are various makeshift arrangements, but no mosque as such. A plan has been debated for several decades, but it has become a controversial subject.

On that Friday, I faced a sea of dejected and desperate looking men numbering around 400 from all over the Muslim world. An air of despondency permeated the congregation. The young men appeared beaten and had sunken eyes that looked dead.

Although I call this a “mosque,” in fact we were in a sinister-looking and claustrophobic underground garage with ugly aluminum air ducts running just above our heads. The entrance was not visible and I feared that if the people who are out to harm Muslims were to close the gates from outside we would suffocate down here. This was not far-fetched. Gatherings had been attacked in this manner several times in the recent past.

Even my trusty research team that had accompanied me on several journeys throughout the world was disturbed by the plight of the Muslim community. In the opinion of these young Americans, to deny a community a house of worship struck at the very roots of religious tolerance, which is at the heart of American pluralism.

As I looked at the upturned faces, I needed all my reserves of spiritual strength to control my emotions at their plight. I felt empathy for these immigrants whose only crime was their desperate need to seek employment abroad to feed their families or save their lives from persecution at home. In my sermon I could not come round to saying that their lives would improve overnight in their present situation or that they would find peace when they were sent home.

All I could do was to recount stories from the life of the prophet, when he too faced dreadful persecution. Verbal insults, physical threats, garbage thrown on him, and assassination plots; the prophet faced all these with consistent patience and compassion. That, perhaps, was the message that the congregants could learn from their faith, patience and compassion. That, it seemed to me, was the only antidote to their hopelessness.

After the sermon, I asked the Pakistanis to talk to me separately. I wanted to learn more about the Muslim situation. They formed a group enthusiastically, appreciating the fact that no one of any position—and no one from the embassy—had visited them before. They were also joined by other non-Pakistani Muslims. This community is divided, illiterate, poor and bewildered.

Two angry Arabs, clearly continuing an old and bitter argument, asked me whether, in my opinion, Shias were Muslims or not. I felt even more disappointed to learn that in the midst of the existential crisis facing the congregation, issues of sectarian differences remained high on their minds. These were, I suspected, refugees from Syria escaping the savagery of the carnage with its sectarian overtones.

The Pakistanis had moving stories to tell. There were young men who recounted being chased by mobs who kicked and beat them while the public looked on or joined in. Others talked of the utter misery of their lives. Some spoke with sorrow at what to them was a pleasant and welcoming land but had recently turned hostile against immigrants, especially Muslims. One of them, who said he had once belonged to the defense services of Pakistan, confessed he could not risk staying here any more. He was preparing to uproot himself after a successful two decades in the land.

Even a senior Pakistani diplomat who attended the embassy dinner given later in my honor admitted he never goes out after dark because of his “color.” He did not feel safe, even with his diplomatic immunity.

In the midst of the squalor of the “mosque” and the desperate plight of its congregants, I was still moved to see a certain defiant spirit flickering amongst some of the young men. Several talked of their plight with a confident smile that belied the terrible stories they were relating. These were men from the Punjab province of Pakistan. Their forefathers provided the backbone of the British army, and then their fathers the Pakistan army. Their fortitude under pressure and in battle was legendary. But here in Athens the word “Pakistani” is commonly used as a derogatory term for unwanted immigrants.

The idea of the construction of the mosque now generates heated debate in the land. It has come to mean all things to all people. Many liberal, foreign-educated Greeks strongly defended the building of the mosque. The brilliant scholar Sotiris Roussos, who chaired my public lecture at the Onassis Cultural Center, did not hesitate to call the failure to build a mosque a “shame.”

George Kalantzis, the Secretary General for Religious Affairs, was equally adamant about supporting the mosque. As a proud Greek, he emphasized the acceptance of other faiths in his culture. He showed me a translation of the Koran which he had on display along with other religious books in his office.

Father Gabriel, the Chief Secretary to the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece, was equally clear that the mosque should be constructed. He spoke of the need for compassion and outreach to the poor and vulnerable. And he underlined that he did so according to the Gospels.

A charismatic and wise spiritual leader, Father Gabriel had a sharp sense of humor. When I asked him what he said to those Christian priests who represented denominations that believed all other Christians would burn in hell, he recounted a story with a smile on his face: a man died and went to heaven and was being shown around by the angel who pointed to a Muslim community, then another community and so on until they passed a very high wall. “What is behind that?” asked the man. “Shh!” said the angel. “That is for those very Christians. They think they’re alone here.”

The Greeks constantly differentiate between their acknowledgment of Islam as a faith and their historic confrontation with the Turks. They are sophisticated enough to point out that while they have no problem in accepting Islam, the centuries of bitter conflict with the Turks—whose faith is Islam—is more difficult to come to terms with.

Because Greeks were not thinking beyond the immediate crises at home, some did not appreciate the impact their culture had made in Muslim societies. The ancient Greek philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were widely known and respected by Muslims. Phrases such as “Do you think you are a Socrates?” or “Plato?” or “Aristotle?” in order to put down someone you were debating with were common. And, of course, Alexander the Great, translated as Sikander-e-Azam, was virtually a household name. Both my younger brother, a brigadier in the Pakistan army, and grandson were named after Alexander.

As Greece shares a border with Turkey and through it the larger Muslim world, the happenings here take on a much greater significance than they would otherwise. Greece is the frontline as far as the Muslim world is concerned as thousands try to enter to seek employment in Europe. Horror stories of the treatment of Muslims are spreading across the Muslim world. The controversy around the mosque has therefore assumed symbolic significance beyond the borders of the city.

The people who categorically and noisily reject the mosque are the supporters of the Golden Dawn, a recently emerging neo-fascist party in Greece. It has chosen to focus on the Muslim minority to rally support, though there is a virulent and visible strain of anti-Semitism in its rhetoric and action. Notwithstanding the fact that it displays pictures of Hitler, and its supporters wear black shirts and give the Nazi salute, and have denied the Holocaust as the “Holo-hoax” in Parliament, the party has grown rapidly to capture 18 seats in Parliament and polls show 13 percent approval among the public.

In a show of strategic mastery, the Golden Dawn has crystallized the frustrations of Greek society today. The economic crisis and high unemployment; the issue of immigrants and the belief that they are taking jobs Greeks could be doing; the antipathy to Islam due its association with Ottoman rule and its bitter memories; the evocation of Greek national pride and the subsequent xenophobia; and the campaign to prevent the construction of the mosque—the Golden Dawn has connected and converted all this into political support.

Looking at the Golden Dawn, it is difficult not to get a feeling of d j vu. We are not that far away from the time of the Nazis in Europe, just over half a century ago. All the Golden Dawn needs is the emergence of a Hitler figure to provide leadership and set Greece on a dangerous path.

I always find that the Greeks are a warm and hospitable people, acutely aware of the richness of their culture. But they also feel that Europe and indeed the world have abandoned them in their present crisis. It is a feeling not unlike a member of the family would get if he or she were in desperate need of assistance and was told by the family that it was their personal problem and they had to deal with it alone. The economic and social problems of Greece today—and there is a clear connection between the two—are of course the problems of Greece. But if they are not tackled soon, the problems that are so evident in Greece may soon emerge ominously in other European nations.

That is why it is a matter of urgency, not just for people like Father Gabriel and those who believe in compassion and interfaith, but for the leaders of Europe to take heed. They need to visit Greece to assure it of their goodwill and support and finally to help Greece through its crisis. They need to do so without injuring Greek pride.

The U.S. too needs to understand what is taking place in Greece. Twice in the last century it has had to come to the aid of Europe because men of violence and hatred plunged the continent and the world into war. While that possibility is remote, the United States as the global superpower cannot be indifferent to what is taking place in this vitally important nation.

My visit to Greece alerted me to the fact that the “problem” of the Muslim community needs to be viewed on a European level. It will grow across Europe as the economic and social unrest grows. It therefore raises fundamental questions that concern everyone—is it about Islam as a religion, the status of immigrants in general, the current economic crises, the lack of moral leadership, or, more profoundly, is it the failure to accept the other? The answers will matter to a fractured Europe in the future.

I pray that the mosque will be built and its construction will prove the inherent openness and acceptance of the Greeks. It will also be a sign that society has begun to heal itself.

Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University and author of “The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam” (Brookings 2013).

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