As international attention remains occupied with the terror murder of Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh by an Islamic extremist, and the long-term implications of the spread of Islamic fundamentalism within Europe, Greece continues to be roiled by a debate over the proposed construction of the first state-recognized mosque in the vicinity of Athens in modern times.
The Islamic Center in the Athenian suburb of Peania, more than 15 miles northeast of Athens near the new international airport, will be financed directly by the King Fahd Foundation of Saudi Arabia. According to the Arab News, an English-language Saudi daily, some 8.5 acres were donated by the Greek government for the structure. Foreign assistance for the radicalization of Islam in Greece will inevitably be a central element of the activities at the mosque, which will be very large, intended, it is said, to accommodate all of the estimated 120,000 Muslim faithful in the capital city. The total number of Muslims in Greece is estimated at more than 500,000.
A major portion of the current Greek nation-state was still under the Ottoman Empire less than a century ago. Western European journalists who have tended to report the debate over the mosque as if it stemmed entirely from the fact that the Ottomans ruled Greece for more than 400 years are wrong. Rather, the problem has everything to do with the international spread of Wahhabism, the violent, exclusivist, and fanatical Islamic sect that is the state religion in Saudi Arabia.
Athens is the only capital city in the European Union that lacks a state-recognized mosque. There are many former mosques in Athens, but they all were desacralized as Muslim holy sites following the end of Ottoman Turkish governance. As a result, Muslims in Athens meet and pray in dozens of improvised mosques in garages and private homes. The government views this as a problem since these informal gathering places are considered to be inevitable breeding grounds for Islamic radicalism. Non-Muslims imagine that the improvised mosques will eventually be dominated by demagogues and recruiters for al-Qaeda.
In reality, the demography of Islam in Greece, both among indigenous Muslims and among most immigrants, is a barrier to radicalization. Turkish, Thracian, and Albanian Muslims have a long and proven history of rejecting Muslim fundamentalism, which they correctly identify with Wahhabism, as an Arabic import into the European environment in which they live. Their Islam follows the pluralistic Hanafi school of religious law, and they have learned that survival is based on coexistence with their Christian neighbors, rather than agitation against them.
About 100,000 ethnic Albanians reside in Athens, but Kosovar Albanian journalist Daut Dauti, an expert on Albanian Islam and ethnic issues, said, "There is no place for fundamentalism in the Albanian Muslim mentality. We have complaints about the treatment of Albanians in Greece . . . but we have a tradition of resisting Islamic fundamentalism, and problems with the Greeks will not become a pretext for Wahhabism to increase its influence."
also has a notable Kurdish presence, which overwhelmingly follows the Sufi way of Islam. The Kurds, like all Sufis, are extremely hostile to Islamic fundamentalism.
However, other immigrant groups may be tempted to embrace radicalism. Arab and Pakistani Muslim radicals could infiltrate Islam in Greece, although it is difficult to imagine their dominating it without significant outside help. Greece has long taken a favorable position toward Arab interests in general, based partly on its historic relations with the Arab Orthodox and other Arab Christian churches. In addition, Greece has a recent history of leftist hostility to Israel.
Some Greek observers believe that attracting so many Muslims to a single place in Peania will relieve the Greek authorities of having to keep track of potential proliferation of radicalism in the dozens of informal mosques in Athens. But, in many other cities in Europe, Muslim radicalism has grown from seeds planted in Saudi-financed religious centers, and governmental oversight has done nothing to stop extremist activities, such as those in Britain, France, Spain, and the Netherlands, where recruitment of terrorists continues.
The Dutch Moroccan who murdered van Gogh attended a mosque purchased in 1999 with a 1.5 million euro loan from the Saudi charity Al Haramain Islamic Foundation, which has since been designated by the U.S. and Saudi governments as an organization providing financial, material, and logistical support al Qaeda. Besides the Netherlands, Al Haramain formerly had offices in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania, which have since been closed by the respective governments. An employee of the Tirana office was involved in support for al-Qaeda, and was implicated in the murder of a senior official of Albania's moderate Muslim community.
Under the best circumstances, few Western governments have an understanding of what goes on inside mosques, and the number of government agents and hours needed to train them to conduct adequate monitoring of mosques would be enormous.
What makes a Wahhabi mosque so dangerous? First, Wahhabi preaching and teaching to such a congregation will be fundamentalist, indoctrinating young and old in hatred, contempt, and distrust of Jews, Christians, and non-Wahhabi Muslims. Second, it will propagandize in favor of violence in places such as Iraq, Israel, and Chechnya. Wahhabi mosques serve as centers for the dissemination of extremist literature, including the "Saudi edition of Qur'an," a revised version of the Islamic scripture with insertions and distortions that make it an extremist document. The collection of money and the distribution of videos extolling jihad combatants also take place in these mosques. The step from such activities to direct recruitment of these combatants is small, as evidenced by the enlistment of British subjects to fight in Chechnya and American citizens who become al-Qaeda operatives.
Since many Muslims in Greece are inured to the fundamentalist appeal, and some might even boycott a Saudi mosque, the immediate danger of radical agitation may be limited. Still, the erection of such mosques reinforces the hold of Saudi authorities over global Islam, a phenomenon that has led to the emergence of al-Qaeda, which is financed by Saudis, led by Osama Bin Laden, a Saudi subject, and mainly composed of Saudi foot soldiers. The intimidating presence of Wahhabism is a powerful means of convincing "new Muslims" (Muslims eschew the term "convert") that fundamentalism is the only way forward, as has been demonstrated by the many cases of American, French, and other non-Muslims drawn to Islam, who then walk straight into the ranks of terrorist conspirators.
Among a range of feasible alternatives Greece could consider would be to demonstrate its good will toward its Muslim citizens and residents by allowing the reconsecration of one of the historic mosques in Athens. From a national security standpoint, this would be far preferable to permitting the construction of a Wahhabi religious complex within its borders. Greece, like its fellow members of the European Union, must also face up to the Wahhabi threat.