Pushed to the edge

Muslims have been living and praying in Athens for decades. They have seldom been noticed, as they worshipped quietly in apartments and basements. For some 40 years, the discussion over the need to build a mosque for them had the nature of an academic debate: On one side were the multiculturalists and government officials who understood that Athens could not be the only European capital without a mosque; on the other were those who feared that this would be a concession to the religion that had dominated Greece during the 400-year Ottoman occupation (as well as a bad omen for the future). The Muslims themselves, those who would actually pray in the mosque, were not asked for their views and those debating the issue saw it in relation to themselves, not as regards the silent mass of people living in the shadows. This is why the mosque project wasn’t getting anywhere. Now the number of Muslims living in Athens has reached a critical mass, their patience in waiting for a decent mosque has run out and they are making a point of standing up to be counted. This would have been alarming for many Greeks at the best of times; the fact that the Muslims’ new assertiveness coincides with our society slipping rapidly into the uncharted waters of its new poverty makes things all the more dangerous. The fear among citizens who live in areas with a large concentration of illegal immigrants – the vast majority of whom are Muslims – has been exacerbated by the inadequate response of the state over many years and, consequently, is now being exploited by organized xenophobes, such as the fascist and racist Chrysi Avgi group. After years of official neglect, Greece’s illegal immigrant problem has come to the fore, along with the consequent outbreak of racism. This is what makes today’s mix so dangerous: The Muslim immigrants are becoming more visible at a time when citizens are already frightened and angered by the decline in their living standards due to the economic crisis. With the lack of any coherent migrant policy, which should have prevented this, Muslims have concentrated in some parts of the city center, forming the core of a future ghetto. This has provoked an angry – sometimes violent – reaction from some residents who have seen their quality of life and their property values affected by the influx. And, riding this anger, the organized extremists have stepped up their attacks on immigrants. The effort to build an official mosque will now have to deal with a growing backlash – and also answer arguments that state money should not be spent on the project at a time of harsh austerity. The years of leaving immigrants to solve their problems on their own, irrespective of the consequences, have led to a reaction so great that the leader of Chrysi Avgi – for years a figure on the outer extremes of politics and society – was elected to a seat on the Athens City Council earlier this month. In short, just as the Muslims came out of the shadows to pray in central squares, so the xenophobic party came out into the light of day. Both events may be an expression of growing unrest in Athens – as well as evidence that if you push people to the edge, they will push back and stake a claim in the center: the migrants in the heart of the capital, the xenophobes in City Hall. This is not to equate the estimated 500,000 Muslim migrants who simply want a place of worship – in respect for them and their religion – with a few thousand extremists who define themselves through bigotry. It is of course good that both sides have now come out into the open. The Muslims have shown that they are here and that their problems must be seriously addressed by the state and society; the extremists have a representative in City Hall, where he will have to take a clear position as to where he stands and answer to the charge of exploiting the public’s insecurity for his group’s gain. The debate on immigrants and the need to deal with them, to help them integrate or return home, has begun. And, finally, we see that we are dealing with real people – those who gathered in parts of central Athens and prayed to the same God that Christians and Jews pray to, and those who firebombed one of the dingy basements to which Muslims have confined their prayers until now.