Posts Tagged 'racism'

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

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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.”

The big shift right

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By Harry van Versendaal

The discrediting of Greece’s mainstream political parties, brought about by the four-year debt crisis, has opened a political can of worms by strengthening the hand of far-right extremists, says Nikos Skoutaris, a European constitutional law expert at the London School of Economics.

Speaking to Kathimerini English Edition during a two-week workshop in Thessaloniki on nationalism, religion and violence in Greece and SE Europe, Skoutaris voices concern about the right-wing shift of the Greek political agenda as reflected in the government’s decision to repeal the migrant citizenship law and the controversial decision to shut down public broadcaster ERT.

“A far-right xenophobic agenda has become steadily more influential on the Greek political scene,” he says.

Locked in an uneasy government coalition, the once-dominant New Democracy and PASOK have been leaning to the right in a bid to dampen the influence of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party. Currently polling in third place, the party is widely connected to an upsurge in racially motivated attacks.

Skoutaris is critical of government foot-dragging in introducing legislation against hate speech, but remains skeptical of an all-out ban on the party. “We do not need to outlaw Golden Dawn but make sure that the state applies the criminal law,” he says.

The 32-year-old academic is a senior research fellow at the LSE’s European Institute, where he has developed a research project on the constitutional accommodation of ethno-territorial conflicts in Europe. Skoutaris is program director of the Thessaloniki seminars, which have brought together over 30 experts from some 20 institutions.

The event is organized by the International Hellenic University in partnership with Charles University in Prague, the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) of Cyprus, and with the support of the LSE’s Southeast Europe research unit, LSEE.

From the mid-1990s and for more than 15 years, Greece’s Socialist and conservative parties won elections by hijacking the center of the political spectrum. Three years into the crisis, voters as well as parties have all but deserted the middle ground. Are you concerned by the growing polarization of Greek politics?

More than the desertion of the middle ground, I am increasingly concerned about the rise of far-right extremism. This extremism, however, is not evident just in the presence of Golden Dawn in the Parliament and its increasing popularity in the polls, but also in the adoption of a far-right political agenda and discourse by the dominant political parties. The Loverdos incident with the HIV-positive prostitutes, the debacle concerning the amendment of the Ragousis citizenship law and even the way that the government decided to shut down the public broadcaster without having secured Parliament’s approval are some of the incidents suggesting that a far-right xenophobic agenda has become steadily more influential on the Greek political scene.

How can coalition partners PASOK and New Democracy, the two parties that dominated Greek politics for almost 40 years, enforce the rule of law when they are seen as the main culprits behind the collapse of the country’s social contract?

It is true that PASOK and New Democracy bear the greatest responsibility for the financial and political collapse of Greece. And in that sense it is only fair for one to wonder how they can enforce the rule of law and set a new paradigm when they have failed to do so, so miserably, during the 40 years of their rule. I do not think there are any easy answers to this question and personally I am rather pessimistic as I do not believe that the current political elites – especially the ones connected to those parties – can live up to the challenges of this rather arduous task.

Has toleration of leftist violence in the post-1974 period also led to the rise of far-right extremism in Greece, as some analysts and historians have argued? Has the Greek left enjoyed a certain level of immunity that needs to be re-examined?

The argument concerning the “rise of the two extremes” is well known. I am neither a historian nor a sociοlogist nor a political scientist, so my view is not one of a specialist but rather of an unsophisticated constitutional lawyer who tries to follow Greek politics and make sense of it. With this in mind, I would associate the rise of far-right extremism with the delegitimation of the Greek political elites through the crisis and the emergence of Greece as a “failed state” rather than with the fact that the Greek left has resorted to practices that could be deemed illegal in certain instances. If there is a question that I would pose to the left – being a leftist myself – it is whether a discourse that supports violent forms of struggle for social justice still serves its strategy. My personal view is that a real and radical transformation of the democratic functioning of the Greek state and of capitalism in general is absolutely necessary. However, I have my doubts whether the rhetoric of the left has managed to express it in a sufficient manner.

Meanwhile, Greek conservatives, but not just them, have lashed out at attempts by revisionist historians, as it were, to challenge the dominant historical narrative and question “myths” seen as key to collective memory and national self-understanding. Do you think that this is a bad timing for this because of the crisis?

I do not think there is such a thing as bad timing when it comes to research in any area of knowledge and in particular the social sciences. To put it the other way round and with regard to the attempts to which you refer, I do not remember anyone saying at any moment in Greek history that “now is a good time to deconstruct the national myths.” Social scientists have an obligation to research and present their results to society. And personally, if the dilemma is between a painful truth and a comforting lie, I choose the former even at times when Greek society suffers.

Do you think that the proposed anti-racism bill could curb the wave of racially motivated crimes and the influence of Golden Dawn?

No, I don’t believe that any law could curb racially motivated crimes or the influence of a neo-Nazi party, at least not in the short term. Those are very complicated issues that could only be successfully dealt with through long-term comprehensive policies that would also contain a strong educational dimension. This does not mean that as a society we should not put out a strong political message that we do not tolerate any form of racism, including anti-Semitism. In that sense, I consider the recent debacle concerning the anti-racism bill as more evidence of the unwillingness and the incapacity of the Greek political elites – and the governing coalition in particular – to show that they can rise to the challenge that the existence of far-right extremism poses.

Would a ban on hate speech, including genocide-denying legislation, not imply restrictions on free speech?

To the best of my knowledge there exists no legal order where the right of expression is unfettered. To give but one example: In Greece one may not “offend the honor of the President of the Republic.” So, the right question is not whether we should have restrictions, but rather what kind of restrictions and what the scope of those restrictions should be. As I see it, keeping social peace in a Greek state that wishes to respect multiculturalism warrants such restrictions.

Do you think it would be a good idea to outlaw Golden Dawn altogether?

First of all, let me point out that the legal toolbox that the present constitutional framework provides for does not contain a procedure according to which we could outlaw Golden Dawn in the same way that the German or the Turkish constitutional orders do. Of course one could argue in favor of the amendment of the constitution to the effect that such a procedure would be included. It is a matter of belief and conviction whether one supports this idea of “militant democracy” according to which a constitutional order can outlaw political parties.

Personally I am not convinced, not least because international experience suggests that such procedures have proved ineffective. Political parties that were outlawed “resurrected” merely by changing their names and paying lip service to constitutional rules. The cases of the Turkish Islamist parties or Vlaams Blok / Vlaams Belang in Belgium are indicative.

Notwithstanding the absence of such procedures, one also has to note that a number of Golden Dawn members have clearly committed criminal offenses. Take for example the Ilias Kasidiaris incident on Antenna TV [where the Golden Dawn deputy and spokesman slapped a female Communist Party MP multiple times] or the repeated protests outside the Hytirio Theater in Athens [which led to the cancellation of the staging of Terrence McNally’s “Corpus Christi”]. To deal with those incidents, we do not need to outlaw Golden Dawn but make sure that the state applies the criminal law.

More worrying is the fact that members of Golden Dawn claim to be enforcing the rule of law. In a democratic state where rule of law applies, it is state institutions that are entrusted with the exercise of its powers. Golden Dawn members and their militia have no right to enforce the law, as it were, by checking immigrants’ IDs in flea markets or requesting truck drivers from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to remove their country code bumper stickers. The Greek state, if it wants to call itself democratic, has to make sure that it does not share the so-called monopoly of violence with Golden Dawn members, even if they are elected.

Unwelcome guests: HRW deems crackdown on Greece’s immigrants ‘abusive’

By Harry van Versendaal

Greek authorities must review the procedures of an extensive crackdown on suspected irregular immigrants, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Wednesday, criticizing police sweeps as abusive and ineffective.

The allegations were made during a presentation of the international organization’s latest report, “Unwelcome Guests: Greek Police Abuses of Migrants in Athens,” in the Greek capital on Wednesday. The report highlights invasive police checks and arbitrary detentions within the contours of an ongoing operation dubbed Xenios Zeus, bizarrely code-named after the Greek god of hospitality.

The 52-page report documents frequent police checks of individuals with a foreign-looking appearance, unjustified searches of personal belongings, derogatory verbal language and occasional physical abuse. According to the HRW study, which is based on more than 40 interviews with Athens-based immigrants, tens of thousands are held at police stations pending verification of their legal status.

“There is definite lack of training which gives rise to discrimination from police,” said Eva Cosse, a Greece expert at HRW and author of the report, who said that racist attitudes inside the force are a “chronic” problem.

“Such methods, however, are also a way to send the message and put it across that these people are not welcome,” Cosse said, slamming Greece’s conservative party, now head of the government coalition, for its heavy-handed approach to immigration.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has in the past pledged to “take back our cities from migrants,” while his New Democracy party recently turned down a more inclusive anti-racism bill supported by junior coalition partners PASOK and Democratic Left, proposing its won legislation to tackle discrimination instead.

Many of the abuse victims interviewed by HRW said they felt that they were repeatedly targeted by police because of their skin color or other physical characteristics.

A 19-year-old asylum-seeker from Guinea, identified only as Tupac, said that in early February police officers forced him and other black and Asian passengers off a bus in central Athens shouting “All blacks out, all blacks out.”

Abuse often seems to go beyond ethnic profiling and insulting language. “Body pat-downs and bag searches during immigration stops appear to be routine, even in the absence of any reasonable suspicion that the individual is carrying unlawful or dangerous objects,” the HRW report says.

Gateway

Greece is the main gateway into the European Union for migrants from Asia, the Middle East and Africa. The majority hopes to reach one of the more prosperous states in Western Europe, but many become caught up in this debt-wracked country. On top of being exposed to a burgeoning wave of racially motivated attacks, at least partly attributed to the rise of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, immigrants also face arrest, lengthy detention and deportation, as documented by several human rights groups. Asylum-seekers fleeing persecution at home are not spared from the crackdown either, activists say.

The conservative-led government, though, says that its tougher approach to illegal immigration, including more stringent checks on the Evros border with Turkey, where an extra 1,800 guards have been deployed, has led to the number of undocumented migrants trying to reach Greece dropping substantially. Greece reported more than half of all detections of irregular border crossings in the EU from July-September 2012 but only 30 percent between October and December.

“Greece has a right to control irregular migration,” said Veronika Szente Goldston, Europe and Central Asia advocacy director for HRW, adding that Dublin II regulations are weighing the country down with an uneven share of the burden. “But the country still has to ensure it does not violate human rights,” she said.

Almost 85,000 foreigners were forcibly taken to police stations for verification of their immigration status in the seven-month period between last August, when Xenios Zeus was launched, and this February, according to police figures cited in the report.

“However, 94 percent of those detained had a legal right to be in Greece,” said Goldston, suggesting that police are casting their net too far and too wide.

Evidence, not stereotypes

The very small percentage of those who were found to be in the country without permission should also raise doubts about the effectiveness of the crackdown, HRW warned. Investing so many resources just to catch the wrong people and release them afterward is a huge waste of time and money, the group said.

“Operations must be based on evidence and intelligence, not stereotypes,” Cosse said.

HRW called on authorities to review the police’s general stop-and-search powers and to take steps to ensure that the identification of clandestine migrants is conducted in line with Greek and international laws on discrimination, ethnic profiling and arbitrary deprivation of liberty.

Worryingly, Goldston said, the HRW findings and recommendations appear to have so far been mostly snubbed by officials at the Public Order Ministry.

“We have met with denial,” she said, adding that government officials have cast doubt on the HRW research and data.

“It is in the DNA of Greeks not to be racist,” Goldston quoted one unnamed Greek official as responding.

Hate speech: The lesser of two evils


By Harry van Versendaal

Expecting a state that has failed to enforce a smoking ban in public places to penalize hate speech is wishful thinking. It should also be undesirable.

Keen to burnish their democratic credentials and to differentiate themselves from conservative New Democracy, the leader of Greece’s power-sharing administration, junior socialist partners PASOK and Democratic Left have pushed an anti-racism bill aimed at curbing a burgeoning wave of xenophobia in the debt-wracked country. The rise in hate speech and racially motivated crimes is widely associated with the rise of Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi party controlling 18 seats in the 300-member House that wants to kick all immigrants out of the country.

The proposed legislation, drafted by Justice Minister Antonis Roupakiotis, who is supported by Democratic Left, aims to criminalize communication which might incite violence against groups and individuals based on their race, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation. The bill reportedly foresees up to two years in jail for offenders and fines of up to about 30,000 euros for individuals and 200,000 euros for organizations.

There is no doubt that, unlike the more cynical policymakers out there, many advocates of the contentious bill are motivated by the best of intentions. However, as other European states have painfully found out, laws against hate speech come with hidden costs and unintended consequences.

A piece of legislation that caters to the needs and sensitivities of a particular section of society is by its nature exclusive and potentially open to criticism from others who are, or who may feel, vulnerable. Introducing a ban on Holocaust denial may, for example, prompt calls for prohibition of gulag-denying speech; or Muslim demands for measures against the defamation of Muhammad which – as Western governments were painfully reminded of in the 2006 Danish cartoon row – also includes depictions of the Prophet.

Put simply, what constitutes an offense is very much in the eye of the beholder. A victim of communism, to bring up a recent example, might sue Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek for suggesting in public that he would send anyone who does not support leftist SYRIZA to a gulag. Depending on the interpretation, even religious texts like the Quran or the Bible can be deemed unlawful. A ban on hate speech can be a stepping stone to curtailing the freedom of expression.

New Democracy has expressed objection to the bill, citing the fact that Greece has already had anti-incitement rules in place since 1979. This is true. Specifically, the law makes it illegal to incite discrimination, hate or violence against persons or groups on the basis of race, origin or religion – although it says nothing of sexual orientation. Also, the 1979 law stipulates it is a crime to set up or join organizations that promote racist propaganda and activity.

Nevertheless, New Democracy’s real concern seems to lie with the reaction from the more reactionary folk among its electoral base: the influential Orthodox Church and the armed forces. The party has proposed a bill, basically a revision of the 1979 law, that reportedly grants immunity to civil servants, as well as clerics and military officials. Meanwhile, the bill does not outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation. New Democracy’s misguided motives are confirmed by its proposal to introduce penalties for Holocaust and genocide denial.

The main concern here is that taking action on “opinion crimes,” as it were – like sanctions against those who deny the genocide of Black Sea Greeks by the Ottoman Turks toward the end of the First World War, officially recognized as such only by Greece and Cyprus – inevitably leads to restrictions on free speech. In a sign of the inevitable deadlock, Turkey has passed the law in reverse, making it illegal to refer to mass killings of Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians as a “genocide.”

Laws against Holocaust denial were introduced in Germany and Austria after the Second World War and they made sense given these countries’ historical background. Interpretation of the past should be left with historians rather than lawmakers and prosecutors or you risk what Greek historian Antonis Liakos has called “political control over history.” Freedom of speech in an open society should include the right to question historical facts. Instead of banning uninformed and foolish ideas, it is better to expose them to scrutiny and ridicule.

And then, of course, there’s the elephant in the room. It is extremely unlikely that laws against genocide or Holocaust denial will deflate anti-Semitism or discourage people from joining the ranks of Golden Dawn. Such initiatives would most likely play into the hands of the party’s supposed anti-systemic profile and allow wrongheaded thugs to pose as martyrs. An all-out ban on the party would probably fail for the same reason.

After all, Golden Dawn’s discourse and deeds are well beyond a bill such as this and are well into the criminal law code. If the political system really wants to stop the neo-Nazis in our midst, it must start by doing what it failed to do in the case of the anti-smoking legislation: stop the political gesturing and enforce the law.

Hate attacks on the rise in Greece, activists warn

By Harry van Versendaal

Racially motivated attacks have risen in number as well as intensity in Greece as authorities’ efforts to tackle the problem remain halfhearted, a network of human rights organizations has warned.

Greece, a main transit point for Asian and African immigrants seeking to set foot in the European Union, has seen a growing wave of xenophobia prompted by a mix of economic malaise and political disillusionment. Golden Dawn, a neofascist party that wants to kick foreigners out of the country, currently controls 18 seats in the 300-member House while polling around 11 percent in recent surveys.

A total of 154 racist attacks were recorded in 2012 by the Racist Violence Recording Network, a collection of 30 nongovernmental organizations initiated two years ago by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR) that presented its 2012 report yesterday in Athens. But the actual number is believed to be a lot higher as victims are either too scared to report incidents to the police or because they are turned away.

“What we are faced with is murderous, racist violence. Its objective is no longer just to intimidate, but to cause victims,” NCHR president Kostis Papaioannou told the press briefing.

“Some people thought they did not have a dog in this fight. However, the range of attacks is growing in terms of geography as well as targets,” he said, mentioning that gay people are now also on the list of potential targets.

The report was released a week after more than 30 Bangladeshi strawberry pickers in the Peloponnese district of Manolada suffered shotgun wounds during a dispute over six months of back pay with their supervisors. The three foremen have been charged with attempted murder and illegal weapons possession and will await trial in prison custody.

Most of the documented hate attacks occurred in the Athens districts of Omonia, Aghios Panteleimonas, Attiki Square and Amerikis Square – all areas with large immigrant populations. Forty-four of the victims were asylum seekers, four were recognized refugees, 15 possessed residence permits, and 79 were unregistered, according to the report. The majority were Muslims.

Most victims were attacked in public spaces such as squares or on public transport, usually by groups of men dressed in black, and at times with military trousers, wearing helmets or with their faces covered. Several carried Golden Dawn insignia or had been spotted at public events organized by the party. Perpetrators occasionally included Albanian immigrants.

In many cases victims reported the use of weapons, such as clubs, crowbars, folding batons, chains, brass knuckles, knives and broken bottles. Assailants sometimes used large dogs.

“The victims had suffered multiple injuries,” said Giorgos Tsarbopoulos, head of the UNHCR office in Greece, ranging from fractures and contusions to symptoms of posttraumatic stress.

Fear of attack has turned several neighborhoods in Athens into no-go areas for the capital’s immigrant population.

“People are too afraid to walk out of their home to buy bread,” said the president of the Association of Afghans United in Greece, Reza Golami.

Police involvement

Activists worryingly noted a growing involvement of police officials and public servants in racist attacks. Most such incidents, the report said, concerned duty officers who resorted to illegal acts and violent practices while carrying out routine checks.

“Many in the police force have come to view racist violence as something normal, a natural state of affairs,” Papaioannou said, adding that part of the problem is that xenophobic language has moved deep into mainstream territory.

Before the 2012 elections, Antonis Samaras, now leader of Greece’s conservative-led coalition, pledged to “reclaim” cities from the hordes of illegal immigrants.

Some of the attacks, the report said, came from public servants. Earlier this month a bus driver in Thessaloniki, northern Greece, forced two passengers to get off his bus because they were immigrants.

Experts said that many victims are reluctant to report the attacks because they lack legal documents and are therefore afraid that the police will arrest and deport them.

“Instead of investigating whether a crime has been committed, police officers rather check whether the victims have legal residence permits,” said Vassilis Papastergiou from the Group of Lawyers for the Rights of Migrants and Refugees.

Activists said authorities should instead provide for the suspension of arrest and deportation decisions against victims who file a complaint. The report recommended that victims be given a residence permit on humanitarian grounds, similar to the protection awarded to victims of trafficking – a status awarded to the Manolada victims.

“We hope that the interest in these people will not last only as long as the spotlight is on Manolada,” Papaioannou said.

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.


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