Last week on the 27 May, another protest took place in Athens, but this time it did not come as part of a massive anti-austerity movement. The Greeks were protesting against the Government's decision to go ahead with the construction of a new Mosque, in a poor central Athenian neighbourhood.
The protests were organized by the conservative group National Front. They represent an ultra-conservative side of the Greek mentality that found fertile ground to spread with the economic crisis. Personally I think these protests are ridiculous and shameful for the Greek people.
Athens is the only European capital that does not have a mosque yet. Not that it is "progressive" to build one, rather an obligation for every country that has immigrant citizens of any religious background to provide for their religious practices. The fact that the majority of the Greek citizens are Greek Orthodox does not mean that other religious groups should not be openly accepted and flourish in a secular society.
Why Islam is being perceived as a threat
This conservative Greek reaction reveals a complex of our nation. Some Greek nationals have never recovered from the Ottoman oppressor inferiority complex and see anything Islamic as a threat. Another factor is the outdated agreement between the newly formed Greek and Turkish states on how to manage religious minorities.
The two countries signed an agreement that made it compulsory for Greece to build mosques, but only in the Thrace region which has about 100.000 Muslim citizens. This agreement explicitly stated that no mosque would ever be built in Athens or any other major Greek city. The same agreement provided some protection to the Greek Orthodox minority in Istanbul and the existence of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate.
Decades have passed since that agreement has been signed, and both countries have changed a lot. Well, at least one would think so. Greece is an EU member state and Turkey an aspiring one. Both countries are secular, multiracial and multicultural. How can anyone justify such a narrow-minded mentality at this day and age? As long as there are legal Muslim immigrants in Greece that reside, work and contribute their taxes legally in the country, then the state is obliged to provide them with a mosque.
I understand that there is a general fear and mistrust among the Greeks for an "Islamic invasion" as it currently exists in all European countries. It is also true that Greece has an additional reason to fear, as it has a large and powerful Islamic country as neighbour, contrary to most of its European counterparts. As long as the relations between the two states remain unstable, the Greeks can never really be comfortable with the expansion of Islam in their country. They have also have very bad memories from the atrocities that the Turks committed during the Asia Minor disaster and the Greco-Turkish wars.
But these immigrants are not Turkish and they have clearly tried to distance themselves from Turkey. In a recent bid to interfere with the situation, the Turkish PM Erdogan offered to pay for the construction of the Mosque in Athens. The Pakistani community themselves rejected the move, as they clearly wanted to distance themselves from Turkey and did not want to have the construction of the mosque being perceived as a Turkish initiative.
It is also untrue that all Muslim immigrants in Athens are illegal and criminals or radicals. There have been many Muslim immigrants in Greece for many decades now, mainly from Arab countries. My family is friends with a man from Sudan, married to a Greek woman. He has been working as a doctor in an Athens hospital for decades, but he is forced to practice his religion in private.
The Greeks also fear the radicalization of Muslim migrants in the new mosque, like it has happened in other European countries like Britain. But there are already around 100 makeshift mosques throughout Athens, hiding from the public. Aren't these secret mosques a better ground for radicalization than an open Islamic institution financed by the state?
When the Greeks see the failures of other countries in integrating their Muslim immigrants, can they be willing to follow their path? In Britain we see how many terror attacks were actually committed by British-born Muslims. That is not a reason to fear a new mosque, but a reason to form better immigration policies, to attract and integrate the number and the kind of immigrants we need. Something that not just Greece, but Europe as a whole failed in doing so.
In Switzerland they banned the minarets for example, just to be not reminded of the Muslims in their country. They do not mind Muslim immigrants, however, when they serve them their food in the restaurants or clean after them in hospitals. Europe is still a conservative continent, and we witness that even in countries like France, in their recent deep divisions on gay marriage.
The mosque will be built in Votanikos, a poor Greek working class area of Athens. It has no touristic importance, and it will not alter the "Greek" heart and spirit of the city. Is it not always that workers live in these poorer regions? Now that some of our workers are Muslims, should we not show them that we accept them, and prevent that our rejection and marginalization lead to their radicalization? We should learn from other countries' mistakes, not repeat them.