Winterschool “Migration in the Margins of Europe”February 7, 2013Myrte HoekstraResearch Master Migration, Ethnic Relations...
Introduction: Muslim migrants in Greece and AthensOver the past two decades Greece – traditionally a country of emigration...
mosque (or other Islamic religious spaces, such as cemeteries). The discussion about theconstruction of a mosque in the ca...
problematised when migrants find themselves a religious minority. The ways in which religious lifeis organised and experie...
needs to be adapted to the migration context. Religious education is very important for Muslimmigrants to offer a counter-...
voluntary donations (and in some cases, money from foreign governments) and two organisationsmention having moved to a les...
that Muslims became visible as Muslims in the public sphere in Athens was during the publicprayers organised for Eid al-Fi...
religious life in a context of migration.       Religious buildings of migrants often have other than purely religious fun...
Appendix: informal mosques in Athens1. Entrance of Al Salam mosque at Galaxia street.2. Childrens education inside informa...
BibliographyAntoniou. D.A. (2003). Muslim immigrants in Greece: Religious organization and local responses.       Immigran...
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  1. 1. Winterschool “Migration in the Margins of Europe”February 7, 2013Myrte HoekstraResearch Master Migration, Ethnic Relations, and MulticulturalismUtrecht UniversityWord Count: 3131 (including in-text references) Muslim migrants in Athens: Religious organization in a hostile environment
  2. 2. Introduction: Muslim migrants in Greece and AthensOver the past two decades Greece – traditionally a country of emigration, not immigration – has hadto deal with the influx of large numbers of documented and undocumented migrants. Among themany different national and ethnic groups that came to Greece, Muslim migrants stand out becausethey are considered both ethnically and religiously other. Although most European countries havetrouble accommodating the presence of Muslim migrants, what makes the Greek situation unique isthe connectedness of the Greek state and the Greek national self-image with Orthodox Christianity,as well as the identification of Islam with past Ottoman-Turkish repression, and the historicalpresence of a Greek Muslim minority in the north of the country. Moreover, the current economiccrisis and the rise of the extreme right have made intergroup relations more tense and the position of(Muslim) migrants more precarious (Antoniou, 2003). Muslim immigrants in Greece come from various countries in the Middle-East, South Asia,and Africa. In most cases they are young males, and generally they carry out unskilled work andlive in the Athens region (Antoniou, 2003). It is estimated that there are around 60.000 Muslimimmigrants in Athens, of which the majority are Pakistani and Bangladeshi. Thus far, the position ofMuslim immigrants has been rather marginalised because migrants do not view Greece as a (final)destination country, there are few Greek converts that could function as intermediaries, and Muslimmigrants are not supported by politicians and religious leaders from the indigenous Muslimminority (Triandafyllidou & Gropas, 2009). Muslims in Athens are also marginalised legally.Whereas the Thracian Muslim minority is represented politically, allowed to organise itselfreligiously, and falls under a separate system of legal provisions, these benefits are tied to the regionof Thrace (Antoniou, 2003). The Greek government has been very hesitant to extend similar provisions to Muslimsoutside of Thrace, since they are viewed as being not of the nation by virtue of being Muslim(Hatziprokopiou & Evergeti, forthcoming). Following the doctrine of ius sanguinis, difference isdefined in ethnic-cum-religious terms and understood as fundamental (Triandafyllidou & Gropas,2009). This is evident not only in dealings with Muslim migrants, but also in the definition of theThracian Muslim minority in religious, rather than linguistic or ethnic terms, and the equation oftheir religious difference with being not-Greek or Turkish (Evergeti, Hatziprokopiou & Prevelakis,forthcoming). Waves of recent migrants have problematised and diversified the way difference andIslam are constructed, but religion remains the main focus (Hatziprokopiou, forthcoming), as is forexample shown by an experimental study which found that migrants who adopt the majorityreligion are seen as more Greek (Grigoropoulou & Chryssochoou, 2011). Although there is a large concentration of Muslims in Athens, it does not have an official2
  3. 3. mosque (or other Islamic religious spaces, such as cemeteries). The discussion about theconstruction of a mosque in the capital already started with the annexation of Thessaly in 1881, andover the years multiple laws to that effect were passed but never implemented (Evergeti,Hatziprokopiou & Prevelakis, forthcoming). In 2000 the issue resurfaced in the context of thepreparations for the 2004 Olympic Games. Again, two laws were passed but not implemented.Opposition to the establishment of a mosque centred around the proposed location and religiousorientation of the mosque, and the nationality and background of the imam (Triandafyllidou &Gropas, 2009). The Orthodox church also used its formal and informal influence to block proposalsfor the construction of a mosque (Fokas, 2009). Therefore, Muslims in Athens have to make use ofinformal mosques, of which there are estimated to be over one hundred (Hatziprokopiou &Evergeti, forthcoming). This study looks at Muslim migrants in Athens and their religious practices and organisationin a context of migration. This is especially relevant due to the specific characteristics of the(current) Greek and Athenian context that pose hindrances to the religious life of Muslim migrants:the lack of official places of worship, the multitude of ethnic groups and religious sects, and thehostility against migrants and especially Muslim migrants. The data used are collected in Athens inJanuary 2013. They consist of participant observation and unstructured and semi-structuredinterviews with mosque visitors and representatives, and with representatives of ethnic communityorganisations.Functions of mosques in the migration experienceIn many religions, public places of worship are important both for performing religious services andas social spaces. After migration, the need to recreate such spaces in a new country is often acutelyfelt. However, the migration experience can change both religious identity and salience (the innersense of religiosity and its importance in ones life) and the organisation of religion and religiouspractices in the new country. There is some evidence that religion becomes more salient formigrants because it helps them to preserve their ethnic identity, and religion might also becomemore closely linked to politics as migrants mobilise around (religiously oriented) political agendas(Cadge & Ecklund, 2007). In addition, the functions of religious organisations and places ofworship may change as a result of migration. Foley and Hoge (2007) for instance note that while inIslamic countries mosques should primarily be seen as houses of worship, in a migration contextthey are often also community centres. Mosques fulfil not only religious, but also social andeconomic functions. Moreover, they are “public statements of identity and spaces of belonging”(Hatziprokopiou & Evergeti, forthcoming: p.3) that (re)assert identities which have become3
  4. 4. problematised when migrants find themselves a religious minority. The ways in which religious lifeis organised and experienced in the host country is dependent on the circumstances of migration andreception, the religious tradition, and the organisational culture of the worship community, which inturn are influenced by the political and economic climate and the characteristics of migrantcommunities (Foley & Hoge, 2007). Because of the tenuous legal situation regarding Muslim religious institutions in Athens,most Muslim migrants choose to establish cultural associations in lieu of proper mosques. Whileestablishing a place of worship requires following lengthy bureaucratic procedures, this is notnecessary for other types of migrant organisations (Kassimeris & Samouris, 2012). Respondentswere quick to stress that the institution referred to in our questions was not a mosque, but a culturalor educational centre that also allowed room for prayer. All respondents mentioned educationalactivities and goals first. For instance, when asked to describe his organisations activities, thepresident of the Moroccan community started by enumerating their educational and social activities,before saying that they also organise iftar (the evening meal that breaks the fast during Ramadan)and celebrate other Islamic holidays. Praying was not mentioned until halfway through theinterview when the men present excused themselves to perform the afternoon prayer, which was infact done in the organisations building. Similarly Hussain, the imam of an unofficial mosque thathosts daily prayer meetings started off by saying “we are not a mosque, we give religiouseducation”. The education provided is geared towards both children and adults, and focuses onlanguage skills and cultural education. Such education has two purposes: on the one hand, migrantsstrive to maintain their home culture and language (which can also be a pragmatic decision sincemany want to go back), and one the other hand they seek to integrate into Greek society. Thisduality is exemplified in the case of the Bangladeshi cultural association Doel, which hosts aschool for Bangladeshi children. Preserving ones own culture is considered important: “We like to pass our time nicely – this is our hobby, to keep our culture together (...) We like to give our children our education. Greek schools are costly. Or if they want to go back later, they will benefit from this education” (Secretary of Doel).The curriculum follows Bangladeshi national programs, but also includes Greek language lessons(taught by an autochthonous Greek woman). In addition, for migrants from Arabic-speakingcountries Arabic language lessons are important both for cultural and religious reasons, as theKoran is written in Arabic. Indeed, maintenance of the Arabic language is found to be a core valuefor Muslim migrants (Gogonas, 2012). Just like language education focuses both on the country of origin and the host country (andin some cases even includes foreign languages such as English or French), religious education4
  5. 5. needs to be adapted to the migration context. Religious education is very important for Muslimmigrants to offer a counter-weight to the influence of the Orthodox Church in Greek schools(Fokas, 2009). Muslim children are confronted with other religions and religious figures such asJesus at school, and religious education is adapted to take this into account, for example byexplaining that there is only one God who sent both Mohammed and Jesus. Migrants often organise their religious communities on the basis of ethnicity and/orlanguage (Cadge & Ecklund, 2007). This is also the case in Athens, where the primary distinctionseems to be between Arab-speaking mosques, and Pakistani and Bangladeshi mosques (where Urduand Bangla, respectively, are the languages of choice). The two Arab-speaking mosques that wevisited are multi-ethnic, with worshippers originating from various Middle-Eastern and North-African countries. Next to language divisions, there are also different religious sects, which makescollective representation difficult (Hatziprokopiou, forthcoming): “There are divisions between Afghan people. We are all Muslim but different sects, many different tribes. There are also other associations, also for other tribes. There are Shia and Sunni currents, which is why there are three mosques” (President of Afghan Community Association).Challenges to religious organisationThe informal character of Muslim places of worship in Athens places religious practices betweenthe needs of migrants on the one hand, and formal recognition and institutionalisation on the other(Hatziprokopiou, forthcoming). For many Muslim migrants, religion is a large part of their identityand becomes more important in the migration process: “Athens is the only European capital without a mosque. There is much opposition from locals. The government does nothing. People lost everything, one of the things they have is religion. They should have a way to worship. There are underground mosques, but this is a problem because we dont know whats going on” (President of Afghan Community Association). “A problem is that we do not have a mosque, a legal one. We dont feel free to do our activities (...) People have to change their religion because there are no activities. We go to a basement to pray” (Secretary of Moroccan Community Association).The importance to having an official mosque was noted by all respondents. There is a need forproper places to pray that are also accessible for other organisations such as NGOs. Opposition tothe construction of mosques is often expressed in practical and administrative concerns(Hatziprokopiou & Evergeti, forthcoming). This is also the case in Athens as respondents note thatregistering as a place of worship is prohibitively expensive and time-consuming.Informal mosques face challenges related to their semi-legal status. They are financed by members5
  6. 6. voluntary donations (and in some cases, money from foreign governments) and two organisationsmention having moved to a less central place because of financial reasons: “We are a registered organisation, we started in 2003. Before we had a different centre but now we moved because of financial reasons (…) Now we are far from the centre in an unfortunate location – less people participate. People are harassed on the streets” (Secretary of Doel). “There is also a nice place which is not a mosque, the Greek-Arab cultural centre. This was an old factory, bought by a Muslim charity centre. There is a big prayer room and also schools, but now the expenses are too great and its too far from the centre” (Secretary of Moroccan Community Association).Informal mosques also need to worry about not attracting unwanted attention from the police andunfriendly neighbours: “They [the police] are afraid of Taliban, of Al Qaeda having influence there. Our place is very small, so we rented a bigger place. The third night the local population complained and we had to close, they said we were a centre of Al Qaeda. Underground mosques are attacked by fascists – two Pakistani mosques have been bombed. They write slogans. The Afghan community has three mosques. They are not easy to make. It must not be obvious to the neighbours that people worship there” (President of Afghan Community Association).The association of Muslims with fundamentalist religion exists despite radicalisation not beingconsidered a problem in Greece (Kassimeris & Samouris, 2012), and many respondents in factstated that they consider themselves and their community to be a part of “middle-of-the-road”Islam. In addition to organisational harassment, individuals also face hostilities, especially if theyare visibly identifiable as Muslims (for instance, women wearing headscarves). The challenges mentioned above also influence the nature of religious practice. Informalmosques that are far from the centre are more difficult to visit, especially if they are located inunsafe neighbourhoods. They are often small, which necessitates making adjustments to rules ofgender segregation (for instance, the two mosques visited did not have a separate womens entrance)and limiting the prayer services that are held. Especially Friday services are crowded: one mosquehouses a hundred people in a space of no more than forty square metres. There is also a lack ofpeople to perform religious services: most imams are respected and well-educated members of thecommunity but have no specific religious education. Some mosques also share imams.Agency and resistanceAlthough the position of Muslims in Athens is marginalised and ethnic and religious divisionshinder effective mobilisation, there have been some efforts to build networks, both within migrantcircles and with national and international representatives and organisations. One of the first times6
  7. 7. that Muslims became visible as Muslims in the public sphere in Athens was during the publicprayers organised for Eid al-Fitr (the festive ending of Ramadan) in 2010, organised by the MuslimAssociation of Greece. According to Hatziprokopiou and Evergeti (forthcoming), these prayers donot only demonstrated the need for an official mosque that could house the large numbers seekingto celebrate Eid al-Fitr, but also serve to make a political statement regarding the right to a visibleIslamic identity. While the prayers worked to heighten the visibility of Islam, they also incitedviolence: “We used to celebrate Eid al-Fitr in the Olympic Stadium, with all the communities and an imam from Egypt. You could see that in the news, the Greek accepted it. But last year the Bangladeshi community celebrated in Attiki square and the locals threw things on them” (President of Libyan Community Association). Behind the scenes, migrant associations work to establish national and internationalnetworks. Diplomatic representatives of Muslim countries as well as international Muslim NGOshave shown interest in the situation of Muslim migrants in Greece (Antoniou, 2003) and migrantsthemselves also reach out to these organisations as well as to national politicians and the media.However, such efforts are generally unsuccessful, as the following quotations demonstrate: “Our president [of the association] talks a lot to the government, to parliament. He went to the Ministry of Justice and the bar association. One year ago he appealed to many departments. They promised to help but we still have the same situation. The embassy also tried many times. We have contacts with the Afghan, Egyptian, Syrian, Pakistani, Romanian, and African organisations, also from Congo and Sudan, Philippines, Iraq. If they make any program they call us. Faruk [the president] is a member of the Council of Immigrants” (Secretary of Doel). “The Moroccan embassy knows about the mosque situation, but has not spoken to the Greek authorities. The embassies of Saudi Arabia and Qatar have tried. Some time ago I made an interview with a politician from New Democracy (with Al-Jazeera) for the Olympic Games, they made promises [for a mosque] but nothing happened” (Secretary of Moroccan Community Association). “I talked to the [Egyptian] ambassador and to Morsi and the [Egyptian] Minister of Foreign Affairs. They sent letters and made telephone calls but the Greek Minister denies that there is a problem when Egyptian state officials approach them” (Imam Hussain).Conclusion and directions for future researchMuslim migrants in Athens are regarded as double outsiders: they are migrants and may not haveGreek citizenship, and they are religious others, challenging the Greek self-image as an orthodoxChristian nation. This otherness is expressed in multiple ways both on the macro- and micro-level,of which one of the most striking is the lack of an official mosque in Athens, effectively denyingIslam institutionalisation in the capital. This study asked how Muslim migrants organise their7
  8. 8. religious life in a context of migration. Religious buildings of migrants often have other than purely religious functions, such associal or economic ones (Foley & Hoge, 2007). This was also found in our data, as unofficialmosques, community centres, and cultural associations provided possibilities to socialise but alsoeducation, both directed at integration into the host society and at home culture and languagemaintenance. Such organisations face difficulties, many of which are related to their semi-legalstatus and the marginalised status of their members. Lack of finances limits accessibility and theprovision of religious services, and hostility from the police and Greek citizens make it necessary tolie low and not attract unwanted attention. However, given these adversarial circumstances andalso internal ethnic and religious divisions, Muslim organisations are far from passive: they build(trans)national networks with other organisations and government officials, and also try to bepresent in the (international) media and assert their religious rights in the public sphere. Whether thesituation can be improved by increased visibility (as one respondent said: “we should be moreorganised. We go on strike for everything, but we do not strike for a mosque.”) or whether this willbe ineffective as long as more systemic changes do not take place, remains to be seen. Finally, this study is based on fieldwork carried out over a very limited time period, as istherefore of necessity very selective. Further research should look more broadly at multiple aspectsof religion among immigrants. A focus on religious organisation generally excludes migrants forwhom religion is not particularly important or who for other reasons do not take part inorganisations. Moreover, the characteristics of the researcher (in this case female with no commandof the Greek language) influence the respondents and information that can be accessed. A morelong-term project that also includes Greek speakers and speakers of migrant languages is needed toget a more complete picture of the diversity in migrants religious organisations and the religiouspractices of both community leaders and ordinary migrants.8
  9. 9. Appendix: informal mosques in Athens1. Entrance of Al Salam mosque at Galaxia street.2. Childrens education inside informal mosque.9
  10. 10. BibliographyAntoniou. D.A. (2003). Muslim immigrants in Greece: Religious organization and local responses. Immigrants and Minorities, 22, 155-174.Cadge, W. and Ecklund, E.H. (2007). Immigration and religion. Annual Review of Sociology, 33, 359-379.Evergeti, V., Hatziprokopiou, P. and Prevelakis, N. (forthcoming). Islam in Greece. In: J. Cesari (ed.) Handbook of European Islam. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Fokas, E. (2009). Religion in the Greek public sphere: Nuancing the account. Journal of Modern Greek Studies, 27, 349-374.Foley, M.W. and Hoge, D.R. (2007). Religion and the new immigrants: How faith communities form our newest citizens. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Gogonas, N. (2012). Religion as a core value in language maintenance: Arabic speakers in Greece. International Migration, 50, 113-129.Grigoropoulou, N. and Chryssochoou, X. (2011). Are religious minorities in Greece better accepted if they assimilate? The effects of acculturation strategy and group membership on religious minority perceptions. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 21, 499-514.Hatziprokopiou, P. (forthcoming). Islam and Greek national identity: The Muslim other in dominant constructions of Greekness and the challenge of migration. In: V. Evergeti (ed.) Indigenous Muslims in Greece: Case studies of Europes autochthonous Muslims. London: Springer.Hatziprokopiou, P. and Evergeti, V. (forthcoming). Negotiating religious diversity and Muslim identity in Greek urban spaces. Social and Cultural Geography.Kassimeris, G. and Samouris, A. (2012). Examining Islamic associations of Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrants in Greece. Religion, State and Society, 40, 174-191.Triandafyllidou, A. and Gropas, R. (2009). Constructing difference: The mosque debates in Greece. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 35, 957-975.10