Posts Tagged 'islam'

Lawsuit over Islam comments tests boundaries between controversial language and free speech

soti_web

By Harry van Versendaal

A lawsuit filed against a Greek author and historian under Greece’s anti-racism legislation over claims she defamed Islam and incited violence via a comment in one of her articles is testing the boundaries between free speech and what could be considered offensive language.

Soti Triantafyllou is set to appear in court on July 21 on charges of using racist language in an article that included a quote, which she attributed to 13th-century Venetian traveler Marco Polo, that said, “The militant Muslim is the person who beheads the infidel, while the moderate Muslim holds the feet of the victim.”

The lawsuit, under Law 4285/2014, was brought by veteran human rights activist Panayote Dimitras, who heads the Greek Helsinki Monitor watchdog group and is in charge of the Racist Crimes Watch blog. In his suit, Dimitras claims that Triantafyllou could have confirmed, just by searching on the internet, that the quote is fake and was never uttered by Polo.

In addition to Triantafyllou’s article, Dimitras has allegedly reported more than 150 other texts or actions to the special prosecutor on racist crimes.

In comments made to Kathimerini English Edition, Triantafyllou described the lawsuit as “an indictment for blasphemy.” The plaintiff believes much more is at stake, but he will have a hard case to make.

Bataclan

Legal experts say that the author’s criticism of Islam needs to be read within the broader context of the article that led to her prosecution – and, more generally, her writings on the topic – and to be understood in light of the events that triggered her reaction.

The article, titled “Rock and Roll will Never Die,” was published in the free magazine Athens Voice in November 2015, the day after jihadi gunmen burst into the Bataclan music hall in Paris and killed 90 people during a series of terrorist attacks in the French capital.

In the same year, Triantafyllou published a book that criticized official multiculturalism for failing to successfully integrate Muslim minorities in Europe. In that book, the author attacks overzealous political correctness on the left of the ideological spectrum for smothering the debate on immigration and the threat of Islamic extremism. She has penned similar articles for several publications.

It is also important to note that the law on the basis of which Triantafyllou is being prosecuted establishes several preconditions that need to be met for its application. Specifically, it will have to be proven in court that the author acted with an intention to incite violence, hate or discrimination against Islam. Furthermore, it will have to be established that this was done in a way that endangered public order, or threatened human life and the physical integrity of individuals.

Dimitras, the man behind the lawsuit, feels Triantafyllou certainly crossed that line.

“According to international law, in the implementation of which Greece’s anti-racism law was introduced, she is not expressing an opinion but engaging in aggression threatening public order and committing incitement to hatred, which is also punishable under Greek law,” Dimitras told the newspaper.

“Freedom of expression exercised in an irresponsible manner through the use of racist speech is not protected by international law or by the Greek laws implementing the country’s international commitments,” he said.

Vassilis Tzevelekos, a senior lecturer in law at the University of Liverpool’s School of Law and Social Justice, is not convinced.

“I fail to see how Triantafyllou’s case could ever be seen as meeting these criteria. I honestly do not understand why the public prosecutor felt that she should be prosecuted,” said Tzevelekos, who specializes in international law and human rights protection.

“Hate speech laws are not designed to prosecute that type of speech,” he said.

The argument is that, regardless whether one agrees with the author on not, she targets a religion focusing on its political manifestations in the context of specific events. And these events – namely terrorist attacks carried out by Islamic militants – raise legitimate concerns as to the extent that they have cost human lives while impacting on public order, democracy and the enjoyment of fundamental human rights.

Free speech

Another red flag, critics say, is that the lawsuit curtails free speech. An eventual conviction of the author, the argument goes, would amount to interference with her freedom of speech.

“The court will be expected to strike a balance between the aims pursued by Greece’s hate speech legislation and freedom of expression,” Tzevelekos said.

Critics of the law point out that the abstract wording of the Greek legislation offers no legal certainty, jeopardizes free speech and allows abuses.

“I see the prosecution against Triantafyllou as being abusive, in misalignment with the aims pursued by hate speech legislation and in conflict with her right to freely disseminate her ideas about a major political issue that concerns our democracy,” Tzevelekos said, speaking in reference to free speech and terrorism.

The prolific and outspoken Triantafyllou says that her enemies interpret the law in a way that constrains free speech which merely causes offense.

“I have time and again been disrespectful toward Islam. These days, you are not allowed to criticize Islam,” she said.

In her political writings, Triantafyllou styles herself as a champion of secular Enlightenment values which she sees as being under threat in Europe from intolerant outsiders and the cultural relativism of the multi-culti left. Her enemies denounce her ideas as thinly disguised racism.

“Muslims are presented as a humiliated and hapless minority. White knights who excel in finding victims defend them against so-called ‘racists,’” she said. “They are waging a war against freedom of speech and common sense.”

The Richter case

Triantafyllou is not the first high-profile target of the anti-racism law. Last year, a Greek court acquitted German historian Heinz Richter of charges that his 2013 book recounting the 1941 Battle of Crete denied Nazi war crimes and defamed the Cretan people.

The court ruled that the case not only lacked merit, but also that the article of the law that was cited was unconstitutional. In a rare move, the judge commented on his decision, saying that Article 2 of the anti-racism law was “incompatible with the Constitution and European law, and as such is ineffective and inapplicable.”

If the Greek court fails to protect Triantafyllou’s right to free speech, it looks like she will have a strong case against the Greek state. If she is convicted, Greek legislators and the judiciary interpreting the hate speech legislation could be found internationally liable for breaches of fundamental human rights law.

“The European Court of Human Rights has a rich case file on free speech that does not just cover information or ideas that are regarded as inoffensive, but also those that offend, shock and disturb,” Tzevelekos said.

As the case heads to court, both sides ironically claim to be fighting in defense of human rights.

Dimitras lashes out at his critics – the small but vociferous club of Greece’s liberal thinkers that have rallied in defense of the author – saying that they are simply favoring the free propagation of racist speech.

“It is they and not we who are obscurantists,” he said.

For her part, Triantafyllou responds that, in the name of stopping bigoted speech, her enemies are seeking to stop all constructive criticism.

“Race and religion are rolled into one. Blindness, social hatred, character assassination, abusive litigation culture: That’s what ‘political correctness’ ends up as,” she said. “But the disturbing truths won’t go away if we ignore them, embellish them or rename them using nice harmless euphemisms. They are here to stay until we face them.”

Nowhere to pray

What would you do if you and your community had to go underground — literally — to find a place to pray?

An estimated 300,000 Muslims live in Athens. But because of the Greek Orthodox Church’s influence and growing anti-immigrant sentiment, it is the only European capital without an official mosque. As the far-right Golden Dawn party has gained currency since the 2008 financial crisis, Muslim immigrants have been attacked and murdered, and unofficial mosques have been targeted. With so much hatred in the air, will an official mosque ever be built?

New tool for female empowerment: Turkish soap operas

By Harry van Versendaal

When the Turkish soap opera “Noor” revealed to Samar that marriage can be an equal partnership between two loving people rather than a state of misery and repression, she switched off her TV and got herself a divorce lawyer.

“I liked using the subject of soap operas to speak of the important issue of women’s rights. Doing so cast a different light on the story; it was also a happier way to tell the story,” says Nina Maria Paschalidou. Her latest film, “Kismet,” is screening at this year’s Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF) after making a well-reviewed debut at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) in November where it was nominated for the IDFA Best Mid-Length Documentary Award.

Fifty-four-year-old Samar, a Lebanese woman living for years in the United Arab Emirates, is not alone in finding inspiration in Turkish TV dramas. Samira, a victim of sexual harassment in Cairo during the recent Egyptian revolution, tells the camera how she found the courage, despite being pressured by her family to keep quiet, to take the perpetrators – army officers – to court after watching Fatmagul, a gang-rape victim in another Turkish drama series, fight for justice. She not only won her case, but also helped to stop the until-then mandatory “virginity tests” given to all females in police custody.

Paschalidou, a 40-year-old filmmaker, journalist and producer from Veria, a small town in northern Greece with a strong Ottoman imprint, became fascinated by how a medium that provokes much derision in the West has become a successful tool for female empowerment in the East.

“I was staying in Washington when a friend, who is from Turkey, showed me a Washington Post article on Turkish soap operas. I was intrigued and began to look into the subject,” says Paschalidou, founder of independent documentary and multimedia group Forest Troop.

Millions of viewers across the Middle East, North Africa and the Balkans are hooked on TV dramas such as “Gumus,” which is broadcast across the Arab world as “Noor,” “What Is Fatmagul’s Fault?” “The Magnificent Century,” “Life Goes On,” and “Forbidden Love.” During a recent survey carried out in 16 Middle East countries, three out of four said they had seen at least one of about 70 Turkish shows that have been sold abroad since 2001.

“The impact went beyond all expectations. People started to name their children after the main characters, women started to divorce their husbands because of what they saw on TV, tourist operators offered site-specific tours,” Paschalidou says.

Bad signal

The success of these shows naturally did not go down well with conservatives in the Middle East. In Iran, where shows are watched via smuggled satellite dishes hidden on balconies, authorities said soaps were “destabilizing the institution of the family.” Saudi clerics went as far as to issue fatwas against people watching the shows.

Apart from being an unintended cultural export and a unique brand of soft power, Turkish dramas also raked in cash – tons of it. The value of soap opera exports skyrocketed from a million dollars in 2007 to 130 million in 2012 as the country sold 13,000 hours of programming, according to data from the country’s Tourism and Culture Ministry.

Part of their appeal, the director says, was thanks to the good-old American recipe. “It’s the drama, the passionate love affairs, the nasty vendettas – a recipe first sold by the Americans with ‘Dallas’ and ‘Dynasty’ in the 1980s,” says Paschalidou.

But, like most observers, Paschalidou also sees culture-specific factors at play. “It was no coincidence that these shows struck a chord with audiences in the areas of the former Ottoman Empire. There was something exotic, yet at the same time quite familiar, to them. People in this part of the world have many shared memories, a common past, similar food,” she says.

They also have similar ambitions.

“Viewers in the Middle East see the Turkish woman as a model of the modern Muslim female. This is a bit who they would like to be, who they struggle to become,” Paschalidou says. They want greater freedom and more rights. And more wealth. “What all these shows have in common is their penchant to show off designer clothes, nice homes and luxury villas,” she says.

Interestingly, while women in Arab countries appear in the documentary to be inspired by the modern, feminist narrative, their Greek counterparts are looking in the other direction as Turkish series have triggered in many a nostalgia for pre-modern values and ideals such as tradition and family ties. “I like these shows because they have morals and the girls don’t take off their underwear all the time like they do here,” says one elderly Greek fan.

Greece’s stubborn recession, now in its seventh year, has hit most people hard and at the same time influenced Greeks’ collective self-understanding. “The crisis has been widely associated with the West and many things modern. As a result, we have dug out old memories and turned to the Eastern part of our identity,” Paschalidou says.

“Perhaps there is also this longing for true love, for the type of man who stands by his wife and looks after her needs – even if he is a bit of on the macho side,” she says.

To be continued

Closer to home, these programs have inflicted some collateral damage by exposing Turkey’s internal contradictions: The narrative of a modern, prosperous Turkey is being challenged by a conservative, intolerant backlash. Once the darling of liberal reformists, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan – who has criticized a historical soap based on the life of Suleiman the Magnificent, which depicts the sultan as a man in thrall to his favorite wife, as “an attempt to insult our past, to treat our history with disrespect” – has fed concerns among secularists about his increasingly authoritarian style of government.

“Turkey’s efforts to promote a modern, Western face cannot disguise its huge shortcomings in the area of women’s rights,” Paschalidou says.

Despite a series of legal reforms over the past few years, Turkey did poorly in the World Economic Forum’s 2013 Gender Gap Index. A recent survey found that a third of marriages in Turkey’s eastern and southeastern provinces involved very young brides, many of them under the age of 15. In “Life Goes On” a young girl from Anatolia is married off to an abusive 70-year-old. The girl escapes her yoke, but in reality such happy endings are less common.

“Reality is not always like in the series. A girl who has been forced into marrying at an early age in Turkey will not have the support of her family if she decides to break up,” the director says.

“These series present an idealized image that Turkish society is mature enough to solve its problems, which is not always the case,” she says.

But the effort is there, and it is a genuine effort Paschalidou believes. The shows are mainly written by female scriptwriters who nudge the narratives into more feminist paths, and even attempt to involve their audience. When the final court scene of “What Is Fatmagul’s Fault? was filmed, the extras cast to carry banners and shout slogans in support of Fatmagul were real-life victims of sexual abuse.

“What really impressed me was that Turkish actresses are fully conscious of what it is that they are doing,” she says. Many of them have taken the effort outside the TV studio by participating in a campaign to stop domestic violence against women.

“It’s not just a marketing strategy. Some of them genuinely believe they can help.”

Enemies of the people

By Harry van Versendaal

A recent opinion piece I wrote for ekathimerini.com [“A tale of two parties,” January 31] that sought to underline the importance of upholding the right of all people – whether documented or undocumented – to live and pray without fear of violent persecution or death produced a torrent of blind hate.

The overwhelming majority of readers’ comments supported the view that Pakistani immigrants “do not mix” with Greek society and should be deported. One reader said he is “tired and sick of them” because they are “polluting our country and our culture.” The “hypocrite” author of this “one-sided leftist pablum” was obviously not spared the vitriol either.

Interestingly, none of the readers who commented appeared annoyed or offended by the statements of Golden Dawn spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris, who was quoted in the piece suggesting, among other things, that immigrants eat the capital’s stray dogs.

Many, on the other hand, were quick to bring up the case of the 23-year-old Pakistani who was this week sentenced to life in prison for raping and assaulting a teenage girl on the island of Paros in 2012. Their thinking seemed to be that this was an example of why Pakistanis are supposedly not fit to live in Greece. But to equate the brutal and condemnable assailant of one girl with an entire nation of 180 million people is the kind of irrational thinking that lies behind attacks on migrants in Greece, such as Shahzad Luqman, the 27-year Pakistani who was stabbed while cycling to work last year, allegedly just because of the color of his skin.

Being hated, let alone killed, because of who you are and not because of what you have done, is the very essence of racism. And racial ideology has been at the core of every Nazi-inspired movement. However, it is hard to see why mixing with a Muslim immigrant is a greater challenge than mixing with an intolerant, militant bigot.

Statements by senior government officials like Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias, who on Thursday lamented the “tragic” quality of migrants that come to Greece, indicate that Greek society is nowhere near having a well-informed, non-partisan national debate on immigration and integration.

Given this state of affairs, it is useful for us to keep in mind that Greeks were themselves subjected to despicable racism when they migrated to the USA and Australia last century. And it was only a couple of years ago that British Prime Minister David Cameron said that his country was prepared to close its borders to Greek immigrants in the event that Greece was forced to leave the eurozone.

Condemning the attacks against poor immigrants in the center of Athens does not preclude us from being critical of Islam. Perhaps it is unwise to deny the tension between the religious code of Muslim immigrants and the secular ideals of liberal democracies like Greece. But nothing goes more against our revered western standards than denying individuals who practice a different religion their basic human rights.

A tale of two parties

By Harry van Versendaal

It’s a rainy Saturday afternoon in Athens’s working-class suburb of Peristeri. In a makeshift mosque in a basement on Leventi Street, the Greek capital’s Pakistani community is celebrating the birth of the Prophet.

In the kitchen off the main hall, the cooks are hard at work. In two large steel cauldrons, rice and chicken broth bubbles away. The pungent aroma of curry wafts all the way to the street.

Well-dressed men arrive alone or in groups from various parts of the city. They go down the stairs, slip off their shoes onto an ever-growing pile, and enter the spacious prayer hall. Malik welcomes them with a warm smile and a glass of milk scented with cardamom and almonds.

They cover their heads with green or white caps, close their eyes and pray. They listen to sermons, interrupting them to wave their hands in the air and loudly praise Allah. They chat, laugh and take photographs of one another against a backdrop of hundreds of colorful fairy lights and twinkling stars. The hi-fi’s speakers kick into high gear. The fuse gives out – once, twice, three times. The celebrations continue. For the final act, they lay down a large piece of plastic on the floor and sit down to eat.

But it’s not always party-time. The mosque has been firebombed three times in the past few years, luckily without casualties. And if there is one thing this year that reminds the community of its precarious situation, it is the absence of Shahzad Luqman. The 27-year-old Pakistani man was stabbed to death last year in the neighborhood of Petralona while cycling to work. His father is among the praying men at the Peristeri mosque, in Athens for the trial of his son’s suspected killers.

At the same time at a central Athens hotel, Golden Dawn announces the candidacy of Ilias Kasidiaris for Athens mayor and of Ilias Panagiotaros for Attica regional governor.

Speaking to the press, the ultranationalist party’s spokesman, currently under criminal investigation, promises to create a network of grocery stores and medical centers that will provide free goods and services “to Athenian citizens but not to illegal immigrants who have come to Greece to commit crimes.”

He also announces that he plans to set up a service for the protection of stray dogs and cats, saying that in the city’s rundown 6th Quarter there are no strays “not because [Athens Mayor Giorgos] Kaminis has done anything about it but because they have been eaten by migrants.”

A celebration of hate at a fancy hotel and a basement full of prayers. Athens 2014. Is this the new normal?

Big dreamer in a small country

By Harry van Versendaal

Kader Abdolah had never heard, nor read, let alone spoken, Dutch until he was 33. Twenty-four years later, he has published 17 books in this “beautiful language,” as he likes to say.

Born Hossein Sadjadi Ghaemmaghami Farahani in Arik, Iran, from early on he was driven by that rare — and at the same time tormenting — sense of destiny.

“I had a dream. I wanted to be a big, well-known Persian writer. Like my great-great grandfather. And I wanted to be a president, a beloved president,” he says.

From the ranks of a left-wing underground group, Abdolah, a physics graduate from the University of Tehran, opposed both the Shah and later Ayatollah Khomeini’s fundamentalist regime. He began writing under the pseudonym Kader Abdolah, a combination of the names of two murdered Kurdish friends.

A tall bespectacled man with a shock of black hair and a thick white mustache, Abdolah cuts a rather eccentric figure. He speaks in clipped, emphatic sentences with a heavy Persian accent, describing how in 1985 he was forced to leave Iran and escape into Turkey.

“I did not want to leave my homeland. I did not want to leave my language. It just happened,” he says.

Unable to afford an illegal passage into the United States, three years later he ended up in Holland as a political refugee. When he first got to the Netherlands it was, of course, raining. “What could a young Persian man do in Amsterdam? I did what every tourist does: I went to the Red Light District,” he says. He would soon come across a Persian carpet shop. After greeting a fellow Iranian behind the counter in his native tongue, he went on to disclose his ambition to become a big Persian writer.

He still recalls the shop owner’s somewhat sarcastic response: “Your dream is very big, the Netherlands is very small.”

Abdolah moved to a small village not far from the German border and tried to do some writing in Persian. “But, suddenly, I was nobody. I was a refuge. I was not able to explain myself.”

He decided to leave Europe. He paid money for a fake passport in a bid to sneak into America. But he was arrested at Schiphol Airport. A few months later, he made a fresh attempt, with a new passport. Again he failed. On his third attempt, he finally managed to board a plane to New York. “When I got there, the man behind the security desk looked into my eyes and then at my passport. He looked into my eyes again and then back at my passport. I was once again arrested, and sent back to the Netherlands.”

“It was then that I remembered an old Persian saying: ‘If you fail at something for the third time, use a different language.’ And that is what I did,” he says.

Abdolah’s early attempts to write in Dutch were a failure. His writings were full of mistakes. But he did not give up. With the help of a Dutch language teacher, he gradually improved until he mastered the new tool — often incorporating his own literary pecularities.

His first pieces appeared in local newspapers and then he made his author debut with the 1993 collection of short stories “De adelaars” (Eagles). In 2006, he published “Het huis van de moskee” (The House of the Mosque), the story of a family living in a provincial Iranian city over the course of three decades. The book started flying off the shelves, selling more than 300,000 copies in Holland. It has since been voted the second-greatest Dutch novel of all time and been translated into 27 languages.

Abdolah may not have become president — at least not yet — but he has certainly become a big writer in his newfound country. And in a sign of his receptiveness to Dutch habits, he went on to produce a more Euro-friendly translation of the Quran, the central religious text of Islam, which earned him contempt from more traditional Muslims.

“You need to reach deep into the soul of a society and culture before you can appeal to its audience,” he says. “Writing in Dutch is good for me, and it is good for the Dutch,” he adds, explaining how his work has enabled him to show the natives their own beauty, as well as how to better appreciate it. That beauty, thanks to immigrants like himself, is of an ever-changing, more colorful kind.

As Dutch society changes, the language is changing too. “The Dutch language has always been beautiful. But I made it even more beautiful than it was.”

______________________________

The text is based on a discussion at the European Parliament Office in Athens, organized by the Hellenic Foundation for European & Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP) and the Dutch Embassy in Athens. Kader Abdolah’s book “De boodschapper” (The Messenger) has just been made available in Greek from Kastaniotis publishers.

Taking secular values at face value

Photo by the|G|™

By Harry van Versendaal

France’s decision to ban the niqab and the burqa — the latter being a version of the full-body veil usually associated with Aghan women who were repressed by the Taliban — has naturally drawn a shower of criticism from politicians, clerics and pundits in Muslim countries. An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman promptly complained that “any kind of ban on observance of the veil means a lack of freedom and rights of Muslim women.”

But apart from the public rebuke from Iran — an unlikely defender of women’s rights and liberties — the French move has also come under fire from Europe’s liberal-left commentariat, which has denounced the ban as a wrongheaded breach of the freedom of expression or, more cynically, a political machination on behalf of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party, the Union for a Popular Movement, aspiring to ride the burgeoning wave of anti-immigrant sentiment in the country of 65 million people.

But even if it passed the ban for the wrong reasons — which is debatable — Sarkozy’s party may still have done the right thing. What most critics seem to miss is that France has a long tradition of strict secularism or, what the French like to call, laicite. The legacy of revolutionary anti-clericalism, this peculiarly French doctrine differs from other European understandings of liberal pluralism such as, for example, Britain’s live-and-let-live multiculturalism which revolves around allowing all different cultures flourish in a multiethnic, multireligious environment.

The French are concerned that this shrug-your-shoulders-and-move-on type of religious tolerance works against social integration because it encourages the creation of social apartheids — parallel societies living according to their own norms and principles but never really mixing with each other. For that reason, the French elites have for over a century insisted on an unflinching secularist policy designed to purge religion from public life while safeguarding the three fundamental principles of the Republic: liberty, equality, fraternity. Being French is not about the right blood, color or metaphysics, but about endorsing these key secular values which by default stand above any ethnic, racial or religious tag.

It’s an inevitably imperfect and oft-betrayed ideal, but it is still an ideal. And it’s easy to see how this uncomfortable tent-like garment that reduces visual perception of the outside world to a burqa mailslot, falls short in respect to these values; in fact, in many ways it stands at the opposite end.

A symbol of inherent inequality and male domination, the burqa is the product of a bizarre notion of sexuality: gazing at the hair or faces of women arouses sexual desires in men; and the people who must punished for that are the women. Andre Gerin, the Communist deputy who chaired the commission that examined whether there was a case for outlawing the burqa, said the full-body gear is “the tip of an iceberg of oppression,” while Algerian-born minister Fadela Amara described it as “a kind of tomb, a horror for those trapped within it.”

As defenders of the practice like to point out, there are of course exceptions as some women claim to don the garment by choice. But so long as there are women out there who are beaten, stoned or disfigured by their menfolk for not covering their face, liberal societies in the West have an obligation to defend their citizens against this jailhouse garb.

And, whether some women actually like to wear the burqa or not, it’s hard to disagree with the fact that covering your body and face signifies something else than unwillingness to integrate with the rest of society. France, a country which includes 5 million Muslims, has good reason to worry given recurring reports of Muslim men who forbid their wives from seeing a male doctor, of women who demand female-only swimming pools or refuse to participate in school sports, and of pupils who skip history classes such as those on the Jewish Holocaust.

Instead of whipping our backs while trying to accommodate the most indefensible of customs in the name of a misguided anything-goes cultural relativism, we secularist liberals should have the courage to defend the animating principles that make the open society: freedom, equality, openness. Anyone who wants to join in must, at least, have the courtesy to show us their face.

Pray as you go

By Harry van Versendaal

It’s not easy to get hold of Naim El-Ghandour these days. As the anti-Muslim sentiment in Greece grows, the 55-year-old Egyptian president of the Muslim Association of Greece has had to make a full-time job of defending the members of this heterogeneous minority against criticism – and increasingly against verbal and physical abuse.

Growing tension between natives and foreign immigrants, most of them Muslim, in the capital’s scruffy neighborhoods was catapulted onto center stage last week as Muslims meeting to celebrate Eid al-Adha in public squares around Athens were occasionally harassed by locals and ultra-nationalist activists. Meanwhile, even mainstream media that have traditionally backed the long-stalled plans for a mosque in Athens faulted the decision by the Muslim community to hold their prayer service in front of the Athens University (Propylaia) as a symbolically loaded gesture.

In this interview with Athens Plus, El-Ghandour, who has lived in Greece for the past 38 years, rebuffs criticism of the Propylaia gathering and expresses hope about the construction of a mosque in Votanikos, while pointing a finger at the failings of fellow Muslims.

There is a growing number of attacks on Muslims in Greece. Where do you attribute this trend?

It’s part of the rise of the extreme right in Europe. It’s a fashion that has caught on in Greece — but it will pass at some point. The ground is not fertile here, because Greeks are not racists.

Is the far-right surge a symptom or a cause? Do you see any economic or social factors behind the trend?

No, these are not merely economic. Islamophobia, the hatred for Islam, is not random. When the [ultranationalist] LAOS party and [extreme right-wing group] Chrysi Avgi were first established, they targeted Jews, not Muslims. This changed after 2001. I used to have a friend who was a member of the [LAOS] party and he would go on and on about the Jews. Now they have changed their tune.

What about the impact of the economic crisis in Greece? Could people be looking for scapegoats?

Smart people, educated people know all too well that the immigrants have not taken jobs away from the Greeks.

However, the attacks are not necessarily coming from smart, educated people.

These are a small minority and they do not concern us. We cannot deal with every single person out there. Everyone can have access to knowledge these days or they can choose to stay in the dark

Critics said that the recent prayer service [to celebrate Eid al-Adha, one of Islam’s main holidays] at the Propylaia was a political act, a show of force as it were.

Such criticism comes from the same people. I’ve been living here for 38 years and I’ve always prayed in open space, except when the weather was bad and we had to move to the Olympic Stadium. We would also pray at Eleftherias Square, near the US Embassy, as well as other squares. So why all the fuss this year?

Some said the Propylaia is a symbol of modern Greek enlightenment and it was an odd spot to pick for the prayers.

We had three options: Klafthmonos Square, the Propylaia and Kotzia Square. We recently held a service on Kotzia but we thought of moving closer to a metro station. Where is the problem with that? We could have held it at Syntagma Square, which is also a convenient place, but we did not want to disturb passers-by.

As for those who say this was a “show of force,” I say, a show of force against whom? The Greeks are our brothers and many of them visited the Propylaia to wish us well.

By the way, a prayer service at the Olympic Stadium once drew 18,000 people. The recent one at Propylaia drew some 4 to 5,000. Where is the show of force? Critics make money out of their criticism. They have not looked into the issue carefully. Controversy sells, serenity doesn’t.

The gathering at the Propylaia was interpreted as a reminder that Muslims who live here need a mosque.

We know that the construction of a mosque is under way. The Defense Ministry and the City of Athens have signed an agreement for the removal of the Navy base in Votanikos [to make space for a mosque]. It’s all been planned. The money has been found and things are edging forward like everything else here: slowly.

So there is no talk of taking the issue to the European Court of Justice?

No, not at all.

Do you think that Muslims who live in Greece must make a greater effort to integrate into society?

Yes, integration is a problem. To people from Bangladesh for example, and all those who walk around in supposedly religious attire, I tell them that there is no religious Islamic dress code – except for the women’s headscarf. Prophet Muhammad used to wear all sorts of clothes and colors. If he were alive today, he would probably be dressed in a suit and a tie. This is why I tell them: “Wear normal clothes like everyone else,” so that people are not intimidated when they see a different culture in front of them. We are not all the same. Some people are OK with this, some are not. At the end of the day, it’s they who came here, not the other way around. We can do this gradually, with long-term planning after we get an official imam.

Skeptics are concerned that some Muslims elevate religious law above the law of the state.

That’s rubbish.

They draw on the experience of other European countries, such as France and Holland.

Greece is not France. Those who went to France came mostly from the colonies that France had sucked the blood out of.

You mean to say that there is no vindictiveness by immigrants here?

That’s right. The Greeks never treated people like the French or the British did.

On the other hand, Muslims who live here are often not treated well either. Some might feel vengeful here, too.

It’s not like that here. Greece never asked these people to come here. And more came here [than Greece could absorb]. For every 10 jobs, there are some 100 people. That was bound to cause problems. Greeks are not to blame for this. And then there is the [economic] crisis.

Are you optimistic about the future?

I hope it will all work out in the end. This wave of hatred will abate. Many migrants are moving back to their homes. A number of programs are under way aiming to solve the problems caused by the large number of immigrants living in the center. Some will be accommodated in guesthouses that will provide food and a decent place to sleep. Some good will eventually come from the evil. Politicians will now have to implement the proposed solutions.

The lives of others

Linocut illustration by Manos Symeonakis

 

By Harry van Versendaal

Asked recently why Germany does not have a xenophobic populist party, Helmut Schmidt, the 91-year-old former Social Democratic chancellor, responded, “Nazism and Auschwitz.”

Its dark past has so far helped to spare Germany the rebirth of any influential anti-immigrant party, the likes of which have established themselves in nations with strong democratic credentials such as Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, its defenders say, has been working hard to make sure things stay that way – but not without some controversy.

Speaking to a gathering of young members of her Christian Democratic party in Potsdam last month, Merkel said that the country’s attempt to build a multicultural society had “utterly failed.” Merkel, known for her deft diplomatic approach, said that the idea that Germans and foreign workers could “live happily side by side” was an illusion.

The chancellor’s remarks were widely interpreted as a shift to the right, bringing her more in tune with her party’s conservative wing, which has advocated a more hard-line approach on the Integrationsverweigerer, or integration-deniers.

But some analysts beg to differ.

“It seems to me that she is misunderstood in the English media,” Riem Spielhaus, an Islam expert at the Humboldt-Universitat zu Berlin, told Athens Plus. “Actually in German you can interpret her statement as a shift from an exclusive to an inclusive approach, while she would still spice this up with some demands from immigrants,” she said.

The German model, however, can hardly be called multicultural. Germany invited millions of guest workers in the 1960s and 70s who were recruited almost exclusively in the country’s industrial sector. Most of them returned to their home countries but millions of others stayed. About 4 million Muslims live in Germany, a nation of 82 million. Most of them are of Turkish heritage.

“There was a lot of encouragement to go back until the late 1990s, but very little encouragement to integrate into German society in order to stay. And I think this is what Merkel was referring to with her statement,” Spielhaus said. “This has been the German model to ‘muddle through’ – if one can speak of one at all. That means there never has been a state policy accepting multicultural life,” she said.

At the same time, many immigrants have been reluctant to expose their offspring to the culture and values of the host country. Many refuse to even learn the language.

Merkel has from the beginning of her first term in government tried to change this by supporting the integration of immigrants and their offspring. Speaking ahead of a national integration summit this weekend, she said that more immigrants should work for the state in Germany.

Not everyone seems to share her cause. Last month, Horst Seehofer, state premier of Bavaria and a member of the Christian Social Union that is part of the coalition government, urged putting a halt to immigration from Turkey and the Arab countries. Seehofer underscored the need to defend the “dominant German culture” while warning that unless the country overhauled its immigration policy, it risked becoming “the world’s welfare office.”

His comments were no match for the controversy caused by former central banker Thilo Sarrazin. In his book “Deutschland schafft sich ab” (Germany does away with itself) published late in the summer, Sarrazin, a social democrat, said Muslim immigrants were dumbing down German society because they are less educated but have more children than ethnic Germans. Sarrazin was fired from the Bundesbank but his book is flying off the shelves in Germany.

Data show that more Turks returned to Turkey last year than came to live in Germany, while a recent report by the German chamber of industry and commerce mentioned that the country lacks about 400,000 skilled workers. Nevertheless, a recent survey found that one-third of Germans think the country is “overrun by foreigners.” The same survey found 55 percent of Germans consider Arabs to be “unpleasant people.”

Freedom fighters

Analysts agree that economic insecurity and an influx of foreign migrants, both exasperated by globalization, have fueled popular anger at established political elites across the continent. Xenophobic populist parties have sought to capitalize on the trend – only this time they are not using the argument of race, but rather hijacking Enlightenment talk about freedom.

The party of Geert Wilders in The Netherlands – which recently signed up to a minority center-right coalition in return for a government pledge to introduce a ban on the burqa and stricter immigration controls – claims to be defending Western values of freedom and democracy against Islam.

“There is only one value right-wing parties have not borrowed from the Enlightenment, so to speak, and that is universalism,” Sjoerd de Jong, editor at the NRC Handelsblad newspaper, told Athens Plus. “Sure, they promote Western culture, but many times it’s just a universalized form of particularism: our culture as we know it,” said De Jong, author of “Een wereld van verschil” (A World of Difference) an analysis of Holland’s well-tested multiculturalism.

Wilders is currently on trial for inciting hatred against Muslims after remarks in which he compared Islam to fascism. But the procedure has not exactly caused him harm. “Wilders’s prosecution for hate-speech has only increased his popularity, as an angry outsider attacking a corrupt and ‘politically correct’ establishment,” De Jong said.

Wilders, De Jong argues, is cashing in on a major breach in trust between the Dutch government and a sizable part of the electorate regarding major issues such as immigration and integration. Holland, he says, is experiencing a backlash against the technocratic way the left-liberal coalition ruled from 1994 to 2002 that gradually evolved into a reaction “against the ‘spirit of May 68’ and leftist ideas in general.”

Pim Fortuyn, the slain anti-immigrant party leader, was one of the first to address these issues in a populist way, but he still veered to the left on cultural issues. Wilders, who has always been closer to the conservative movement in the United States, has taken the culture war to the next level: an all-out attack on Leftism. “His approach is altogether more harshly ideological than Fortuyn’s was. And while Fortuyn always kept a sense of humor, Wilders is just angry,” De Jong said.

Government filter

Voter frustration over lackluster centrist parties has boosted right-wing parties in Austria where the xenophobic Freedom Party made a strong showing in recent provincial elections in Vienna, traditionally a center-left stronghold. In Sweden, a xenophobic anti-immigrant party that calls itself the Sweden Democrats has entered parliament for the first time, while in Denmark, the government depends on support from the nationalist Danish People’s Party.

Analysts are divided on whether letting populist parties join the government – provided they have enough votes – is the best way to moderate their message and influence. A decision to include the Freedom Party, then under Jorg Haider, in the government 10 years ago led to Austria’s diplomatic isolation by the European Union, but it was seen as key in sapping it of its power, as some within the party chose to water down their language to succeed in government.

Kasper Moller Hansen, a political scientist at the University of Copenhagen, believes the carrot has worked in Denmark as the country’s populist party has largely moved away from the extreme views of 15 years ago. “They want to be part of the government, so they try to moderate their claims. They still are a party that wants to limit the number of immigrants, but in order to be part of the government they have to be more pragmatic on these issues,” Hansen told Athens Plus.

But De Jong has doubts whether that would do the trick in Holland. “Wilders is much too smart a politician to fall into this trap,” he said. “He has built his organization – remember, it’s not a party, but a movement, without members or party structure – as an opposition movement. He will never want to join a government at this stage of its development, still building and hunting for resources and talent,” he said.

Europe’s existentialist debate is set to heat up as countries try to come to terms not so much with the influx of migrants, but more so with the growth in migrant-origin families as the second and third generations emerge.

“These new generations are well-acquainted with the European political and social system, which enables them to participate, express themselves, criticize, rebel and sustain a more visible presence than their relatively quietist parents,” said Justin Gest, a political scientist at Harvard, author of the recently published “Apart: Alienated and Engaged Muslims in the West.”

The process will sometimes be painful, but it is unavoidable. “The face of Europe is changing,” Gest said. “And anytime there is change, there will be resistance.”

Liberte, egalite, fraternite?

By Harry van Versendaal

No wonder Hassen Chalghoumi receives death threats these days. The Tunisian-born imam of Drancy, an industrial suburb northeast of Paris, has come out in favor of a French government proposal to ban face-covering veils in public places.

“The burqa is a prison for women, a tool of sexist domination and Islamist indoctrination,” the 36-year-old Chalghoumi told Le Parisien daily last week, adding that if Muslim women wish to cover their faces, they should move to a place where this is acceptable practice. “Like Saudi Arabia,” for example. Not exactly the words you’d expect to hear from a Muslim cleric.

The burqa debate has spawned confusion in France, first of all over the ulterior motives. The proposed ban has widely been scoffed as a political tactic aimed at swaying center-right supporters and undermining the xenophobic National Front ahead of regional elections in March. But such cynical interpretation underestimates the French preoccupation with Frenchness: the usual animating myths about French exceptionalism — much of it delusional fluff but a preoccupation nevertheless.

Oddly, the controversial imam seems to have a clearer idea about what it means to be French than most of France’s political leaders. An ongoing national debate on French identity, launched last year by President Nicolas Sarkozy, has generated more ambiguity than clarity. Politicians’ comments have often tread on the frontiers of political correctness, while a purpose-built website has turned into an outlet of extremism and xenophobia. “Being French means being white. That’s all,” one contributor wrote, according to an AFP report. “Being French means learning to park your car in a garage to avoid having it torched,” posted another in a reference to the riots in the banlieues in 2005.

A parliamentary panel set up to discuss the issue recommended on Tuesday that France ban the wearing of all-enveloping veils in public places like schools, hospitals and public transport, reasoning that the burqa (or more accurately the “niqab,” a face-covering veil with a slit for the eyes) is “contrary to the values of the republic.” The report, some 200 pages that took 6 months to prepare, said among other things that civil servants should refuse to serve veiled women who turn up at public offices.

The 32-member commission fell short of proposing an all-out ban on burqas, although earlier comments by French politicians had presaged otherwise. In his state-of-the-nation address last year, Sarkozy described the burqa as “a sign of subservience and debasement” that is “not welcome” in France. Andre Gerin, the communist head of the parliamentary commission, has in the past lashed out against “the French Taliban who force women to be veiled.” However, concerns that a ban would be unconstitutional and fears of terrorist reprisal (al-Qaida in the summer threatened to “take revenge” on France) seem to have induced second thoughts.

About 6 million Muslims live in France today — the largest Muslim community in western Europe — yet no more than 2,000 wear the full veil. Wary of being accused as racist, Sarkozy has sought to portray the move as a security threat and as an attack on French secular values — most prominently “laicite,” a militant form of secularism born out of the 1789 revolution, which keeps faith strictly limited to the private sphere. Visiting an oft-vandalized Muslim cemetery in northern France this week, Sarkozy said that secularism “is not the negation of religion” but “an essential component of our identity.”

No other European country has so far introduced similar laws but the debate is gaining momentum across the Continent. Lars Lokke Rasmussen, the prime minister of Denmark, still dealing with the ramifications of the Muhammad cartoon controversy in 2005, said that the burqa and the niqab have no place in the Nordic country because “they symbolize a view of women and humanity that we totally oppose and that we want to combat in Danish society.” The Dutch government is mulling legislation banning the veil for teachers and civil servants, while several districts in Belgium have already banned the garb under local laws. Across the Channel, Britain, known for its liberal live-and-let-live ethos, has so far resisted pressure from the right. Education secretary Ed Balls last week said that such ban was “not British, it is unfair, it is not consistent with our traditions of liberty and freedom.”

It was an interesting formulation, if only because the French claim to be defending those very traditions. Balls’s comments highlight the philosophical complications — even paradoxes — surrounding the veil ban, exposing the blurred boundaries between freedom and coercion as western states seek to impose their liberal norms and values on newcomers.

In British eyes, the French are more concerned with “egalite” than “liberte.” The truth is, the French have a different, more aggressive understanding of liberty, what philosophers call “positive liberty,” whereby the state has an obligation to protect individuals against the diktats of culture and religion. Proponents of negative liberty, meaning the freedom from something (i.e. the freedom not to be forced to do something, like remove one’s veil), claim it is preferable to positive liberty because the later is open to state abuse. But it’s hard to sympathize when you see a young girl wrapped up to the eyeballs.

It seems fair to say that it is Muslim migrants who need to adjust to Europe’s secular values, not vice versa. More than a sign of female subjugation, the veil is a sign of separation; it’s like saying “I am not one of you, I do not belong here.” Xavier Bertrand, head of Sarkozy’s ruling UMP party, had a point when he said recently that the full veil “will make no one believe a woman wearing it wants to integrate.”

Again, Chalghoumi was the first to agree. “Having French nationality means wanting to take part in society, at school, at work,” he said. “But with a bit of cloth over their faces, what can these women share with us?”

If only integration was simply a matter of lifting the veil.


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