06/07/2013 12:32 pm ET Updated Aug 07, 2013

Istanbul Echoes Athens: The Fourteen Planned Mosques

The recent events in Istanbul are clearly a struggle between secularists and Islamists. The stopping of the building site is now perceived as reaction to an attempt to stop the Islamization of the country by the Erdogan government. One of the most important grievances of the population of Istanbul is over the construction of a large mosque on location.

In Athens Greece, the residents of the center of the city have been sharing similar concerns as the ones voiced by their fellow citizens in Istanbul. A month ago the Municipal Council of Athens voted in favor of the erection of fourteen mosques in the city. This decision was perceived by the local population as the verification of rumors about international political intervention in favor of the mosques.

Last February Greek prime minister Antonis Samaras paid an official state visit to Qatar. An impromptu third party was added to the official agenda of events: Turkish prime minister Tahib Erdogan who happened to be in Doha. The most important issue discussed between the two leaders was the financial crisis in Greece and the privatization and Turkey's active interest in this. Nevertheless Erdogan touched upon the issue of the Muslim minority in northern Greece and the necessity for the immediate creation of a mosque in Athens (a project he would be willing to finance himself in order to expedite its completion). Whilst the Greek news barely brushed on the subject the Turkish press was very prolific in offering the Greek prime minister advice on freedom of worship. Comments alluded to the association of Greeks with bigotry...

During the Nazi occupation of Athens a surprising amount of Greek homes harbored Jewish families at the risk of their own lives. They perceived this as their moral duty to their next door neighbor in need. Islam however is regarded in a historic context by most Greeks as an aggressive force of occupation. Historic frame

In the eighth century A.D, the Arabs, during the first expansion of Islam, laid siege on Constantinople (the then capital of Byzantium). The desperate besieged turned to God for assistance, chanting a hymn praising the Virgin Mary and giving her the attributes of a victorious liberating general. A short time after, the lifting of the siege was perceived as a miracle and the hymn passed on into the folklore

The retreating Muslims too created their own legend projecting the future fall of Constantinople as a sign heralding the arrival of great times for Islam. Seven centuries later Mohamed the Conqueror, leading the Turkish armies would fulfill this prophecy with a vengeance: He took the city under the banner of Islam, subjugating Greece to four centuries of Turkish domination and turning Istanbul into a brilliant center of Islam.

Any Islamic element is still considered in the subconscious of Greeks as a token of those centuries repression. The most visible symbol is the mosque itself along with the call of the muezzin from the balcony of the minaret tower.

The lack of a place of worship for Muslims in Athens has been a problem that needed to be solved to serve the needs of Muslim visitors and of a limited Muslim community. Dialogue among the communities would have certainly brought about an accepted cultural solution religiously, architecturally and location wise. The de facto announcement for the creation of such an abundance of shrines dedicated to Islam has not only raised questions but also a sense of malaise. It has brought forth, albeit through the back door, the problem of a very large community of illegal immigrants, mostly from the Middle East who reside temporarily in Athens as transit on their way to Europe. Questions are now raised as to what extent the creation of the mosques could become a deciding factor for the permanent settlement in Athens of this otherwise transient population. What influence will this Islamic surge have on the city and finally how would such a settlement affect the balance of the population between Greeks and non-Greeks.

The mosques are now seen as a political game between the Greek and Turkish governments (the former trying to survive through a major economic crisis, the latter waving an Islamic carrot) with the Mayor of Athens acting as an executive and ad-libbing the exaggerated number of fourteen mosques in order to forge a human rights' image for himself. In the middle are the local communities of Athens whose living conditions have already deteriorated by the prolonged economic crisis and who wonder over the fate of their neighborhoods and the consequences of on their daily lives. But the presentation of news from Istanbul as Islamic repression echo disquietingly .

If materialized, these mosques are bound to change the face and the identity of the city the Athens and of its local communities. Have they being planned according to firm demographic data regarding a population which in reality can neither be accountable nor traceable or are they being built in anticipation of future arrivals in the city.

This is the question that the population of the Athens asks and gets no reply...


PS: In order to get a clearer picture of this story it would be interesting to research these two questions

To whom are these temples addressed ?

What are the implications of the Islamic infiltration on Athenian society?