Monday, June 01, 2009


"Slay the idolaters wherever ye find them, and take them captive, and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush. Fight against such of those who have been given the Scripture as believe not in Allah nor the last Day.. Go forth, light-armed and heavy-armed, and strive with your wealth and your lives in the way of Allah!" (Sura 9:5,29,41)

The Greek people have, owing to geography, an extremely close relationship with Islam over the years. Certainly, the religion arose. Geographically at least, at a confluence of the Persian and Byzantine cultures. St John of Damascus, one of the first non-Muslims to comment on the new religion, found it to be a Christian heresy and the Arabic interest in ancient Greek philosophy saw many ancient works that would have otherwise been lost, translated into Arabic and heavily commented upon. Similarly, it was a group of Greek architects and artisans, sent by way of courtesy to the Arab caliph, who were responsible for the building of the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, one of the most important shrines in all of Islam.
Islam has also influenced Christian theological debates. Seeing the seemingly unstoppable muslim armies carry all before them, the Isaurian emperors of Byzantium attributed this to the muslim insistence upon aniconic worship. Iconoclasm - the destruction of images and the banning of their veneration by Christians ensued, plunging the Byzantine Empire into turmoil for a hundred years and doing much to broaden the ever-widening rift between western and eastern Christendom.
For at least a thousand years, Greek lands remained under the sway of Islamic conquerors. Apart from the often oppressive and undoubtedly discriminatory regime that held Christians to be of dhimmi status and hence, second class citizens, right up until 1923, various facets of Islam permeated Greek culture. The belief in fate, «το γραμμένο,» village expressions such as «μασαλλάχ», accompanied by the ritual wiping of one's face as if in preparation for prayer are but a few (now diminishing) vestiges of Islamic accretions upon our own culture. In places such as Ioannina, Rhodes, Kos and Konitsa, where the Islamic presence is now minimal, mosques still dominate the city-scape. It is as impossible to conceive of Ioannina divested of its two mosques as it is of a Komotini without its vibrant muslim presence. These historical markers, for better or for worse, remind us of a time when the fate of our people was intertwined with that of another.
It speaks volumes for Greek society that despite the trying time experienced by Hellenism under Islam, which in fact forms one of the founding myths of the Greek nation - its re-birth being equated with its emancipation from the shackles of Islamic theocracy, that Greece enjoys warm relations with most Islamic countries. This is no more so evident than in Israel itself, where the Patriarchate of Jerusalem is seen as a protector of the rights and welfare of the Palestinian people, regardless of religion. The saintly Archbishop of Albania, His Beatitude Anastasios, has done much to foster a cohesive society shorn of inter-religious strife by come to the aid of all those in need within the confines of his jurisdiction, including muslims. Similarly, the greatest supporter of the idea that muslim migrants and refugees in Athens should have their own place of worship is none other than the Church of Greece, which is donating its own land for this purpose. Such gestures look beyond doctrinal differences to the crux of humanitarianism: assisting others in need and making them feel welcome in one's own country.
Given this context, the recent spate of violence to hit Athens as a result of a police officer allegedly tearing a page of the Koran while conducting a routine check of the papers of four Syrian immigrants is reprehensible and appalling. About 1,500 Muslim protesters, mainly men in their 20s and 30s from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Syria and Somalia marched through Athens to protest against the incident, chanting "Allah is great", carrying banners reading "Hands off immigrants" and holding up copies of Islam's holy book. Violence broke out at the end of the demonstration as around 120 protesters threw projectiles at police, who tried to disperse the crowd with tear gas. The protesters pulled up pavements, smashed about a dozen shop windows and damaged cars, leaving some overturned in the middle of streets. Bus stops and traffic lights were destroyed and shocked tourists ran into hotels on the central Syndagma Square for cover. Police said 46 protesters were arrested. Seven Muslims and another seven policemen were injured and brought to hospital for treatment. About 75 cars, five stores and one bank were damaged.
No one deserves to have their religion denigrated. However, on the same token, given that the police have immediately launched an enquiry into the incident, no one has the right to destroy public property and go on a rampage at the slightest of provocations, especially "migrants" the status of whose right to remain in Greece in unclear. If this is the way that these men show their gratitude in being afforded the opportunity to remain in a secular, democratic country where diversity of opinion is respected and there are boundless opportunities, then inevitable questions must be raised as to their capacity to integrate themselves within Greek society.
It is worthwhile to note that in the vast majority of Muslim countries, save for Syrian, Lebanon and Jordan, the ability of a non-Muslim to worship freely is at best, subject to limitation and at worst, severely proscribed to the point of being illegal. In particular, Pakistani protesters should be informed of how their compatriots lob hand grenades and other projectiles over the walls of buildings in which Orthodox services are being held. At the same time that Christians in Iraq are subject to arbitrary rape, torture and murder by fanaticised criminals, with the state tacitly condoning or turning a blind eye to such heinous activities, and the property of our own Ecumenical Patriarchate is being arbitrarily seized by the "secular" Turkish government, which forbids the operation of the Theological School of Halki and proscribes the role of the Patriarch, muslims in Greece and other European countries enjoy the tolerance that is their right according to the principles of secularism and humanitarianism. In Greece, a single muslim may have his Quran unfortunately insulted by an ignorant or bigoted police officer. On the whole however, one's right to freedom of religion is invariably respected, as it should be.
Responsibilities come as a corollary to rights. Muslim migrants, most of whom enter Greece illegally, who are quick to go on a destructive rampage at the flimsiest and slightest of provocations, destroying their hosts' public and private property, do more damage to their cause than good. At the same time that they violently rage against a single isolated and reprehensible act of bigotry, they display their intolerance and utter disregard for the goodwill of the people that have welcomed them into their homes and granted them opportunities that would be denied to them, if their positions were reversed, in their countries of origin. Most importantly, given the insidious nature of the dialectic between western secularism and Islam, such behaviour gives rise to the very conception that moderate muslims around the world are so keen to dispel: that Islam is a religion of violence and intolerance.
Sura 9.123 of the Quran states: "O you who believe! Fight those of the unbelievers who are near to you." Indeed, all religions relegate certain positions and fates to those who do not subscribe to their tenets. Take Sura 22.9 for instance: "As for the unbelievers for them garments of fire shall be cut and there shall be poured over their heads boiling water whereby whatever is in their bowels and skins shall be dissolved and they will be punished with hooked iron rods." Whatever our conception of the spiritual state of our fellow humans however, it is incumbent upon all of us to co-exist peacefully. This does not mean that we must shy away from constructive debate about the beliefs and practices that differentiate us as people, but it does mean that we ought to approach each other first as humans worthy of respect and only then consider other constructs that adhere to our personae. The immature vandals that went on a rampage in Athens, supposedly in defence of Islam, have shown that they are incapable of such respect. Indeed, they appear to have just been looking for an excuse to go berserk. As such, they have no place in Greek society and they must be deported.
Sura 47.4 may state that: "When you meet the unbelievers, strike off their heads; then when you have made wide slaughter among them, carefully tie up the remaining captives." However, no serious moderate muslim will entertain the idea of indulging in extreme and criminal acts in response to every perceived slight. Fanatics must learn that there are ways of expressing disapprobation and protest in a civilised and regulated manner. If they are incapable of conducting themselves according to the norms of their host country, then one would venture to ask why they do not seek solace in a country that subscribes to their twisted ideals. After all, to exploit one's goodwill, friendship and resources and then threaten them and damage their property is tantamount to theft, let alone gross ingratitude. This minute cross-section of the otherwise law-abiding muslim migrant community in Greece should not be permitted to jeopardise religious tolerance in a traditionally sympathetic country.
A tit for tat approach to resolving this issue will only fan the flames of bigotry and misunderstanding further. However, it would possibly be expedient for western countries such as Greece to inform the countries of origin of their migrants of their expectation that the same rights of freedom of worship and expression as are afforded by them to their surplus citizens, should be also be afforded within their place of origin.
Greece's unique insights into the Middle East and its lengthy co-habitation and accommodation with Islamic countries lend it a pivotal role as mediator and facilitator in Middle Eastern affairs. Nonetheless, its enlightened and tolerant stand towards its migrant population should not be compromised either by bigotry by its organs of state, or the destructive fanaticism of the tiny minority of its ungrateful and irresponsible guests. Aleister Crowler may well have crowed that: "The supreme satisfaction is to be able to despise one's neighbour and this fact goes far to account for religious tolerance." It is evidently consoling to reflect that the people next door are headed for hell. For my part, my heart goes out to that Middle Eastern Theanthropos who commanded: "Love your neighbour as you love yourself." For herein, lies the way forward.

First published in NKEE on 1 June 2009