Finding a Place to Pray in the Land of Yogurt

The Acropolis, Athens, Greece Photo: Colin Christopher

While traveling around the Balkans a few year back, it was crystal clear to me that the people of the region have a long memory of their history, and that racism and hatred are far from notions of the past. The Balkans have been the stage for a host of conflicts, both recent and ancient, and the latest developments in Athens highlight age-old tensions related to identity. Amid “fear of an uprising from Muslims,” the Greek Parliament passed an environmental bill with an amendment approving the construction of a large Athens mosque. Nearly two-thirds of Parliament supported the bill. The mosque would serve as a central point of Islamic worship for Athens’s approximately 200,000 Muslim residents. Anti-Muslim activists have accused the Greek Government of “giving in,” and often point to the violent clashes of 2010 between Muslims and other groups related to a Greek law enforcement official stepping on a Qur’an.

Numerous hate crimes against primarily makeshift storefront mosques attended by immigrant Muslims in Greece raised concerns for Greek lawmakers. During Eid al-Fitr prayer a few weeks ago, Greek yogurt and eggs were thrown on worshipers and 7,000 riot police were dispatched to prevent a violent nationalist group from forcibly removing Muslims from their worship in an Athens public square. Last year, hundreds of leaflets with pigs on them, considered an insult to both Muslims and Jews, were scattered across the public square. Law enforcement officials have publicly acknowledged that the push for a mosque was not a claim for rights, but was rather out of fear that Muslims would orchestrate violent uprisings.

The Greek Orthodox Church has also been outspoken in its opposition to previous plans for mosque constructions and Islamic cemeteries. The Muslim community in Athens still does not have a designated area for Islamic burials.

Greece isn’t unique in its identity conflicts related to Muslim prayer space. France, home to the largest number of Muslims in Western Europe (10 percent of its population), has struggled with a variety of issues related to Muslims and Islam. Just last week, Paris banned public Muslim prayers on footpaths. BBC and other have suggested that the new ordinance, enacted hours before jummah, the weekly Friday sermon, was in response to anti-Muslim protests staged by right-wing nationalists. In December of last year, Marie Le Pen, leader of the French Nationalist Front, compared Muslim prayer in the streets to the Nazi occupation of Paris in World War II, “without the tanks or soldiers.”

Greek, French, and Muslims of other western countries are facing similar challenges of finding appropriate prayer space for jummah worship, as attendance is required of able-bodied, Muslim male believers. These situations have created hostile environments for many Muslims, but it’s important that we not lose sight of an important point amid inflammatory comments and derogatory behavior. If a religious or ethnic group–minority or otherwise–does not have access to facilities that are integral for expressing their faith and/or culture, it is important for the leaders of these communities to work in tandem with public officials to create or facilitate the development of an appropriate space.

It’s clear that for now, Islam and Muslims are not welcome in some parts of the western world. But it should also be noted that large Muslim prayer congregations in public do nothing but inflame the already tense situation. It is the responsibility of these Muslim communities to finance projects to build appropriately sized mosques, as well as beneficial for the overall social welfare of these locales for public officials to assist Muslim leaders in finding properties for their communities. Large populations of Muslims residing in Western Europe has been a difficult adjustment for what have traditionally been homogenous nation-states for the better half of the 20th century. A full European acceptance of Islamic traditions may not be feasible, but throwing yogurt and racial epithets is counterproductive to a renewed co-existence between Muslims and non-Muslim Europeans.

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