An­cient fear of the ‘in­fi­dels’ reawak­ened by Mus­lim refugees

Gangs openly beat up Afghans in Athens with tacit sup­port of po­lice

The Irish Times - - World News - Richard Pine

Ales­son for to­day: in 1716 the Turks con­trolled most of the Balkans, in­clud­ing the Greek main­land, but they had failed to cap­ture Corfu and the other Io­nian is­lands which, for the pre­vi­ous 300 years, had be­longed to Venice.

Corfu was strategically im­por­tant since it com­manded en­try into and exit from the Adri­atic, and there­fore it had been es­sen­tial for the Vene­tian trad­ing em­pire to an­nexe it. In 1716 the Turks were in­tent on break­ing through this bot­tle­neck by seiz­ing Corfu and thus re­duc­ing Vene­tian power in the Mediter­ranean.

The am­bi­tion was only par­tially ter­ri­to­rial: it was also a con­fronta­tion be­tween the Chris­tian West and the Mus­lim East.

When the Eliz­a­bethan trav­eller Fynes Mori­son vis­ited in 1596, he called Corfu “one of the chief keys of Chris­ten­dom”. It was not en­tirely for its re­li­gious sig­nif­i­cance that he com­mended it, but for the is­land’s lo­ca­tion as a guardian of the West’s routes to the riches of the East and to the “Holy Land”.

Two hun­dred years later, Napoleon in his turn would write “with Malta and Corfu we should soon be mas­ters of the Mediter­ranean”. So in 1716, if the Ot­tomans could gain Corfu the way would be open for an in­va­sion of south­ern Italy, Malta, Spain and Por­tu­gal.

Turk­ish siege

Due to a hasty al­liance be­tween Venice and the Hab­s­burg em­pire (where the Turks were also knock­ing on the door via Hun­gary) the 1716 Turk­ish siege of Corfu was re­buffed.

Last year we cel­e­brated this vic­tory with con­fer­ences and a per­for­mance of the or­a­to­rio Ju­ditha Tri­umphans, writ­ten by Vi­valdi specif­i­cally to cel­e­brate the de­feat of the “in­fi­dels” as the Turks were called at the time.

It is strik­ing that, at that time, Corfu was re­garded as “the bas­tion of Europe”. The siege was the de­fin­i­tive en­counter be­tween Chris­ten­dom and Is­lam, whose an­tag­o­nism had fu­elled the Cru­sades and had now made east­ern Europe a major bat­tle­ground for the hearts, minds and cereal crops of the peas­antry.

To­day, Mus­lims ar­rive on Greece’s shores in their mil­lions. They are no longer the front line of a mil­i­tant for­eign power but the op­po­site: refugees from the chaos and de­struc­tion of their homes in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Pak­istan. Pop­ulists and na­tion­al­ists dis­pute this, ar­gu­ing that an open door is the gate­way to the ter­ror­ism of

‘‘ The prob­lem of the refugees on the Aegean is­lands has been ex­ac­er­bated by the trans­fer of EU funds, pre­vi­ously paid to NGOs, di­rectly to the Greek govern­ment

the fun­da­men­tal­ist Is­lamic State. We are back with the Cru­sades.

In­stead of re­pelling them, Greece of­fers them a tem­po­rary home. Con­di­tions are ap­palling, as the is­lands where they land (such as Les­bos and Chios) are al­most com­pletely un­equipped to ac­com­mo­date them. In other “hold­ing pens” such as that at Idomeni on the north­ern bor­der with Mace­do­nia, poor in­fras­truc­ture only ex­ac­er­bates the in­fight­ing be­tween dif­fer­ent mi­grant groups caused by frus­tra­tion at their en­forced im­mo­bil­ity.

In 1716, the Turks, aware of their im­pend­ing de­feat, started fight­ing among them­selves. So noth­ing much has changed.

This is clearly not a re­run of 1716. Refugees can­not pro­ceed through Greece to other, pre­ferred, des­ti­na­tions such as Ger­many be­cause at the Mace­do­nian bor­der they are con­fronted with a 30km barbed wire fence, while farther north, states like Hun­gary and Croa­tia have also adopted a pol­icy of “not in my back yard”.

The rise of neo-fas­cism through­out Europe, in­clud­ing Ger­many where An­gela Merkel’s pro-mi­grant pol­icy brought the far-right AfD party into par­lia­ment this year, is due largely to this irrational fear of the “other” which Mus­lims in large num­bers seem to rep­re­sent. In Les­bos, local sup­port for Golden Dawn (the neo-fas­cist party which is the third largest in par­lia­ment) shot from 0.9 per cent to 6 per cent.

Tacit sup­port

Athens is in the cu­ri­ous po­si­tion of build­ing the first ever of­fi­cially ap­proved mosque, while Golden Dawn gangs openly beat up Afghans on the streets with the tacit sup­port of the po­lice force. Since 2010, more than 1,000 mi­grants have been beaten up by Golden Dawn vig­i­lantes. “They play football with our heads” said one. In 1716 the Ger­man mer­ce­nar­ies in Corfu did the same with Turks on the bat­tle­field. Plus ça change.

The prob­lem of the refugees on the Aegean is­lands has been ex­ac­er­bated by the trans­fer of EU funds (pre­vi­ously paid to NGOs) di­rectly to the Greek govern­ment, which has had to take to­tal re­spon­si­bil­ity. Con­se­quently the NGOs with­drew, cre­at­ing a vac­uum which the local author­i­ties have been un­able to ad­dress. Al­most 13,000 (40 per cent of them chil­dren) are liv­ing on the is­lands in tents de­signed to ac­com­mo­date 5,500.

The cen­tral irony is that Greece has wel­comed over a mil­lion mi­grants whose sole prob­lem, in terms of their iden­tity, is that they mostly pro­fess a re­li­gion of which, after 900 years, the so-called Chris­tian West re­mains afraid and in ig­no­rance. In terms of their hopes and prospects, we are back in the Dark Ages.

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