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Story Publication logo March 25, 2009

Muslim anger ignites violent new response



How does an affluent First World nation-state go from stability to near social collapse in the space...


Far-right-wing vigilantes burned a makeshift mosque in Athens over the weekend after Muslim immigrants in Athens attacked police with rocks and bottles over an incident in which a policeman reportedly defaced a Koran.

Although Greece has a history of political violence from radical leftists and anarchists, sectarian bloodletting represents an entirely modern phenomenon.

The latest incident began with a policeman who made an identification spot check on an immigrant from Iraq. When word spread that the policeman had ripped and stomped on the suspect's Koran, things got ugly.

Chanting "God is great" and waving leather-bound copies of Islam's holy book, about 1,000 Muslim immigrants demonstrated with a march on Parliament Friday.

When the crowd dwindled to about 300, remaining protesters began throwing rocks and bottles at police and smashing windows at a luxury hotel in central Syntagma Square, according to an account by the Associated Press.

Far-right-wing vigilantes replied over the weekend by setting fire to a Muslim prayer hall. Taken together, the incidents represent some of the worst sectarian violence witnessed in modern Greece.

A spokesman for the Greek police claimed that the policeman did not rip up a Koran, but a folded and glued sheet of paper containing unidentifiable writing in Arabic.

"The isolated and under-inquiry incident does not excuse rioting by individuals committed to damaging citizens property and seriously disturbing the citys social and economic life," said Christos Markogiannakis, the deputy interior minister. "The state will not permit such radical behavior."

Successive scandals have rocked the countrys beleaguered police force since a policeman fatally shot a teenage schoolboy in December, sparking two weeks of nationwide riots. Those riots, however, were not sectarian-based.

Unrest in Greece's community of Muslim immigrants is something new, analysts say.

"For so many years, they've been scared and defensive," said Takis Geros, a lecturer of anthropology of the Middle East at Panteion University. "To suddenly come out in broad daylight with their faces exposed and trash 75 cars indicates a massive change in attitude."

Hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Muslim Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia cross into Greece illegally every year from neighboring Turkey or by sea.

Social tensions have risen in recent years as the racial and religious makeup of this formerly homogeneous Greek Orthodox Christian country shifted to a multiethnic, multireligious society.

"Sometimes the humiliation is such that were made to feel by Greeks as if were not human beings," said Ejazulhaq Syed, a representative of the Pakistani community in Athens who has lived in Greece for 35 years. "But the violence [against us] had nothing to do with religion but with the bad economic situation and having too many foreigners in Greece."

Today, an estimated 1 million of Greeces 11 million people are foreign, and second-generation immigrant children are exposed to exclusionary practices by the educational system and labor market.

Attacks on foreigners by vigilante groups were on the rise before the Saturday incident, in which suspected rightists set the makeshift mosque on fire in the St. Panteleimon district of Athens, which is heavily populated by immigrants.

Five Bangladeshi nationals were reportedly injured.

Though legislation has been passed through the Greek Parliament to allow for the building of a mosque for Athens estimated 400,000 Muslim residents, construction has yet to begin.

Muslims worship in unofficial prayer spaces in rented apartments and stores.

Iason Athanasiadis reports on Greece through a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in Washington.

As featured in the The Washinton Times

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