The Olympics in Athens this August will be the first summer games since September 11. Amid the fears about a possible terror attack, it is the Muslim community of Athens – many of whose members are actually involved in building the Olympic Village – which is bearing the brunt of a new form of racism.
A budget of $820 million has been set aside to ensure security at the event. 50,000 police and troops are ready for deployment and intelligence is being provided by, among others, Israel, the US and Britain. In March, US troops participated in a drill to test anti-terrorist operations. The US has even installed radiation detectors at Greece’s borders to detect smuggled nuclear material. But 80 per cent of Greeks believe that a terrorist attack at the Olympics is inevitable.
In this climate of fear, anti-Muslim racism is on the rise. Places of worship have been subjected to surveillance and police are mounting mass document checks and inspections. There are about 130,000 Muslims in Greece out of a total population of around 10 million. Most are ethnic Turks, living in the north-east of the country. But in Athens, immigration from Albania, Pakistan, Sudan, Lebanon and elsewhere has brought a further estimated 10,000 – exact numbers are unknown. In spite of having no record of jihadi activity, it is this small, fledgeling community which is now being targeted by the interlocking intelligence agencies that run the US-led ‘war on terror’.
The Muslim community of Athens is one of the most marginalised in Europe. Many of its members make up the cheap workforce that is being used to get the much delayed Olympic Village built on time. In the race to make good its slow start, the construction project has, according to a report in the Independent, sacrificed health and safety standards, resulting in the death of at least thirteen workers in industrial accidents. The workers are mainly Pakistanis, Albanians and Syrians who live in Athens’ worst neighbourhoods and commute to work for up to three hours a day, as well as working gruelling amounts of overtime. The journey to work itself is a risk, as buses of workers are crammed beyond safety limits. Last year, one overcrowded bus collapsed.
The total number of those workers who have lost their lives in the rush to complete the Olympic Village remains unknown. But officials of the construction workers’ union at the Olympic Village are worried that deaths at non-unionised building sites may have been concealed. They commissioned a report to attempt to compile a list of the dead and injured. But this task has been hampered by the Greek building inspectorate, Kepek, which, according to the Independent has refused to confirm the names and nationalities of those who have died in construction accidents related to the Olympic development over the past two years. Where injuries have come to light, compensation claims have, allegedly, been avoided as non-Greek speakers were pressured into signing legal waivers.
The Muslims of Athens also live in the only European Union capital city that does not possess a proper Muslim place of worship. Helena Smith, writing for the Guardian, points our how Muslims have to make do with two dozen makeshift mosques in homes, shops and garages. Recent plans to build the first mosque in Athens since the end of Ottoman rule, in the early nineteenth century, have unleashed a bitter row. The mayor of Peania, an area close to the airport where the mosque was to be built, has campaigned to stop the building. According to the Guardian, he has been supported by neighbourhood activists and the Greek Orthodox Church. Father Epifanios Economou, a spokesman for the Church, asked ‘Does the first image of Greece a foreigner sees have to be a Muslim mosque? Paenia lies near Athens’ brand new international airport, meaning that travellers would easily glimpse a towering minaret.’ Instead the government is being called on to build a church near to the airport to convey the ‘Greek Orthodox stamp of the nation’.
The fear of terror at the Olympics is being hitched to the fear of illegal immigration which, in practice, targets the same Muslim communities. The Greek authorities have warned that routes used by clandestine migrants to cross from Turkey to Greece could be used by terrorists. In line with practices across the rest of Europe, police are expanding screening and profiling of Muslims in Athens in an attempt to detain any people in the country without papers. They and associated people-smuggling networks, are then being profiled for possible terrorist links, drawing on intelligence information from British and US agencies. A spokesman for the Greek branch of Amnesty International has warned that ‘security for the 2004 Olympics is used in Greece as a pretext to systematically break international treaties on the right to refugees’.
As the Olympic spectacle draws nearer, a step-up in deportations, round-ups and surveillance operations is expected. For the Muslims of Athens, the Olympic dream is become a nightmare.