WORLDPOST

Muslims and Neo-Nazis in Athens: Halting the Descent Into Darkness

07/29/2013 12:41 pm ET | Updated Sep 28, 2013

"The neo-Nazis placed notices outside of our mosque, threatening to slaughter us like chickens and burn down the mosque if we did not leave the country."

It was after Friday prayers last month in the largest "mosque" in Athens, Al Salam, and I was sitting on the carpet listening to a group of Muslims, which included Pakistanis and Arabs speaking in Urdu and Arabic, share their stories with Professor Akbar Ahmed. I was accompanying Professor Ahmed, Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, on a visit to Athens for a series of meetings and talks at the invitation of the British Council.

This threat of impending carnage, voiced to us by a young Egyptian, was on the minds of many in the congregation. But it was only one in a litany of tales of brutalization and intimidation.

I have worked with Professor Ahmed as a field researcher on major projects that have taken us across the globe to study relations between the Islamic world and the west. Yet I was unprepared for what we found in this European capital: a despondent, terrorized and abandoned Muslim minority. Addressing Professor Ahmed, appreciative and surprised congregants said that he was the first notable Muslim who had ever come to talk with them.

Like the ominous notices, many of the stories we heard were associated with the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn movement, which currently holds 18 of 300 seats in the Greek Parliament. A community leader, also from Egypt, described how neo-Nazis had locked the doors to a mosque and threw in lit garbage cans in an effort to incinerate the people inside. The police, he explained, could not enter the area as the neo-Nazis had blocked it off. At any rate, congregants agreed there was complicity between the police and neo-Nazis. Many spoke of being attacked on Athens' streets and not receiving help from the authorities. A Pakistani teenager, for example, told us he had been beaten up in broad daylight after being chased by three men and two women who finally got hold of him in a shop while a crowd of people watched.

I use quotation marks around Al Salam "mosque" because Athens, a city with half a million Muslims, does not have an official mosque. Plans to build one have languished since the late 1990s, and while George Kalantzis, the Secretary General for Religious Affairs for the Greek government and prominent advocate for building the mosque, told us he expected construction to begin in six to seven months, others were not as optimistic, citing continued opposition and controversy. This has forced the Muslim community literally underground -- Al Salam was in a dim, dank former parking garage with large air ducts running above us as we spoke. Having conducted fieldwork in many grand and impressive mosques in western cities in nations including the U.S. and UK, I was surprised to discover nothing of the sort existed in Athens.

The congregants took pains to say that it had not always been like this. "This country was very fine for everyone until two to three years ago," a middle-aged Pakistani man said. He explained that he had been in Athens for 20 years and had "no problem" until the advent of the economic catastrophe Greeks simply refer to as "the crisis."

The crisis has resulted in 27 percent unemployment with 64 percent among the youth. Immigrants, and especially Muslims, the vast majority of whom are undocumented, emerged as easy scapegoats. As Greece is considered the "gateway" to the European Union, many from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and other nations were caught in police dragnets and incarcerated in prison camps while life on the streets became increasingly unbearable. Some desperate immigrants, living in miserable conditions in bleak Athens neighborhoods such as Omonia, turned to crime, kidnapping (sometimes of other immigrants) and even murder, which contributed to anti-foreign sentiment. We heard many accounts of established, legal immigrants who have been in Greece for decades now looking for any way out.

In this environment, no one is safe, even diplomats. A Latino U.S. embassy official was beaten badly last year and did not receive proper medical treatment while a Pakistani consular assistant was stabbed and killed. A Pakistani embassy official we met in Athens the day following our visit to Al Salam told me, "You feel terror everywhere. I can't go out past 9 p.m." Another Pakistani embassy employee told us he was driving in his car at midnight in Omonia, when he passed a group of 20-25 men. He tried frantically to hide his beard from them but as he had to keep his hands on the wheel it was to no avail. The men began kicking his car, but he managed to escape. "Thank God I didn't stop," he said.

While Greece's problems are frequently seen in international media in terms of the policies of banks and bureaucrats, the human suffering and state of terror we encountered on the ground requires much more urgent attention than it is currently receiving. The rise of Golden Dawn has obvious parallels to the situation in Germany in the 1930s. We witnessed the iconography of that time being revived: a banner depicting Hitler hanging from a window here, a skinhead dressed in black giving the Nazi salute there. The Golden Dawn emblem resembles the swastika. While distributing food and clothes to "Greeks only" at its Athens headquarters last week, the party played on loudspeakers a Greek version of Horst Wessel Lied, the official anthem of the Nazis. That this could be happening in the cradle of democracy itself makes the situation even more tragic. The skinhead we saw gave his salute in full view of the Acropolis.

Fortunately, we met many Greeks who are refusing to allow their country to spiral into hatred and paranoia. They are passionately standing up for pluralism, acceptance, and compassion for the "other." Professor Sotiris Roussos, a prominent academic who moderated Professor Ahmed's talk at the Onassis Cultural Center in Athens, spoke of his "shame" at the city's failure to build a mosque. Secretary General Kalantzis described the majority of immigrants as "honest" and "hard working" and told us he quotes to Golden Dawn members directly the words of Jesus on love as well as Sophocles' Antigone: "I was not born for hating others, but for loving them." Bishop Gabriel, the Chief Secretary of the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece and the Church's second highest-ranking member, spoke of his work in the streets distributing food to immigrants, saying that he was "obliged to act as a true member of the Church" and see others in the image of God.

These Greeks give us hope and point a way out of the darkness. A battle is on to define Greek identity that has ramifications for the rest of Europe. Greeks and their friends in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere must do all they can to promote pluralism and protect the rule of law, which are the requirements for a modern and progressive society. As we saw in our discussions with the terror-stricken immigrants, the consequences of the current trajectory continuing are very frightening indeed.