The University of Athens, in the heart of the city, is a building of great emotional significance to Greeks. It was built in 1837 during the reign of King Otto (1815-1867), to celebrate Greece’s liberation from almost four centuries (1453-1821) of Turkish occupation and oppression.
Designed by the Danish architect Christian Hansen, it has an imposing Ionic portico of great beauty and simplicity. The Austrian painter Carl Rahl (1812-1865) executed a large patriotic composition inside the portico representing the regeneration of arts and sciences under Otto. In front of the gateway are statues of two national heroes—the Ecumenical Patriarch Gregory V, hanged by the Turks on Easter Day in 1821, and the poet-martyr Rigas Ferraios, strangled in Belgrade in 1798 on the orders of the Ottomans. At the top of the external staircase is a statue of the Greek-French scholar Adamantios Korais (1746-1833, whose linguistic work bolstered Greek self-awareness), in the garden a statue of the British statesman William Gladstone and nearby a pillar in memory of the young students who died during the liberation struggles.
But on 16 November, this iconic setting was marred by a strikingly incongruous sight, as over 1,000 Muslims held public prayers inside the portico on the first day of the Muslim festival of Eid.
The prayer was organized by the Muslim Union of Greece, and had to be held under the protection of no fewer than 7,000 police officers. In other parts of the city, such as Attica Square, there were counter-demonstrations by outraged local residents, who threw eggs and yoghurt and shouted anti-Islamic slogans, while far-right groups waved Greek flags and played heavy metal and underground Greek songs at high volume in an attempt to drown out the imams.
It was the second time in recent months that the Muslim Union of Greece had organized a public prayer in central Athens to highlight their campaign to build a mosque. Athens may be the only capital in Europe without an official mosque, although there are many unofficial mosques in private apartments. The PASOK (Socialist) government has now promised to build a mosque in a former naval base in the western suburbs, at an estimated cost of 10-16 million Euros—at a time when the financial austerity programme has reduced the average family income by 20-30%.
The strong public antipathy towards Islam is based largely on bitter folk-memories of Ottoman rule. The Ottomans prohibited the teaching of Greek and Greek history and forcibly converted churches to mosques—which meant that the Orthodox Church was the only institution capable of being a focus for Greek national identity, through the use of Greek in the liturgy and its small-scale schooling efforts. Many clergymen were executed in Turkish reprisals whenever Greeks disobeyed orders or revolted. But the most serious disability was the janissary levy—whereby Christian families in the Balkans were required to deliver to the Ottoman authorities a proportion of their most intelligent and handsome male children to serve as elite troops, after forcible conversion to Islam. On top of these painful memories, hostility to Islamic immigration is driven by the knowledge that many Muslims now in Greece are illegal immigrants.
The flow of illegals started just 10-15 years ago. Before then, Greece had been one of the most homogeneous countries in Europe. It is now estimated that Greece has an illegal immigrant population of between 1.2 and 2 millions, with over 120,000 illegals arriving in 2010 alone (Washington Post, 11 Nov 2010). The government has admitted it cannot single-handedly guard the European Union’s southern flank.
Initially, problems caused by immigration were confined to the Aegean islands where most immigrants first landed, but now the problems have moved to the capital. The centre of Athens has recently experienced street battles involving rival ethnic gangs, often involved in dealing drugs, from Afghanistan, Iraq and various African countries. The police have often clashed with African and Afghan illegals, who have been aided by local Left-wing militants. According to Ahmed Mowias, coordinator of the Greek Migrants Forum, newly arrived refugees are being exploited by rackets run by Nigerians, Moroccans, and Algerians who have become established during the last decade.
The growing presence of immigrants, particularly Muslims, has become one of the main causes of public controversy, especially as most come via the old enemy Turkey (which does not require visas for nationals of many other Muslim countries, including Iran, Algeria and Morocco). Serving and former officials have even suggested that it is an act of Turkish state policy to flood Greece with illegal immigrants as a sort of ‘asymmetrical weapon’ (www.defencenet.gr has several articles—in Greek—on the subject). Turkey refuses to take back anyone who has been smuggled through its territory, unless that individual is a citizen of a state with which it has a land border—thus excluding the majority of African and Southeast Asian migrants shuttled through the country.
The United Nations, Amnesty International and some British and German media have criticized Greece for its allegedly poor treatment of asylum-seekers, but the truth is that the Greek authorities simply do not have the resources to deal with what is fast becoming a crisis.
According to the magazine Epikaira (18 November 2010), government departments are also increasingly concerned by the prospect of a serious uprising by radical Muslims assisted by other foreigners and anarchists—which latter group seems to enjoy privileged status, perhaps because many senior PASOK members were anarchists in their youth.
As might be expected, the Greek Left takes an indulgent view of immigration, and some MPs have demanded cynically that the government grant illegal immigrants citizenship simply so they can vote in elections.
But there is also resistance from senior churchmen, like Bishop Anthimos of Thessaloniki (Salonica), and a few politicians from the conservative opposition party New Democracy and the populist LAOS (People’s Orthodox Rally). New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras has promised that when he comes into power he will block any amnesty attempts—presumably because the vast majority of the migrants vote for PASOK.
There is also an increasingly effective think-tank of academics, editors and politicians, called the Ion Dragoumis Foundation (named after a celebrated late 19th/early 20th century campaigner against both the Turks and Bulgars) led by physics professor Christos Goudis of Patras University.
Hellas has survived numerous enemies over the centuries, but this time the enemy is not financial collapse (Greece has been bankrupt four times within the last 160 years), not even the subjugation of an ‘independent’ state to a European bureaucracy. This time the enemy is inside the gates, and supported by almost the whole weight of the establishment. The Greeks will have to rediscover long-hidden strengths in order to achieve a much-needed national Katharsis.