Worlds apart

In the current context of economic recession and psychological demoralization, Greece’s immigrants risk engaging in conflict not with the state, but with an anxious, frightened society.

Feeling pressured and threatened, people are naturally tempted to look for scapegoats. Immigrants, foreigners, the powerless also become targets of the frustrated masses who see them as causes of the recession. The reflexes of hatred are instigated by populist rhetoric.

In light of recent developments, the university asylum law (legislation introduced in the early 1980s by Andreas Papandreou’s Socialist government which forbids police from entering academic premises), is not the most important issue.

Iranian and Afghan asylum seekers have for months been taking advantage of the asylum status provided in front of the historic Athens University building on Panepistimiou Street. No one has stopped them from doing so. The same space, known as the Propylaia, was a few weeks ago occupied by hundreds of Muslims who gathered there to mark the Eid al-Adha festival. Their representatives said at the time that they did not have enough money to rent a stadium and as a result picked the Propylaia as a place to to host mass prayers. But one suspects the decision was more likely dictated by the symbolic value of that specific location.

No university or state official protested the decision to congregate right at the symbolic center of Greek enlightenment. The state was exceptionally tolerant. In fact, the Muslim prayers reignited the debate about the construction of a mosque in the capital. It was a strong showing from Athens’s multiethnic community.

The symbolic and political presence of the mass prayers at the Propylaia is in many ways similar to the group hunger strike of the migrant workers. Only the pretext differs: The former project the right to religious freedom while the latter project the right to live and work in the country. The former press their demands through prayer while the latter do so with their actual presence. The former asserted themselves as a crowd, while the latter joined the game, as it were, as individual units: with their bodies.

In both cases, the migration issue is putting extra pressure on a society which is already strained to near-breaking point.