Protests arranged by Muslim migrants along with migrant advocacy groups, which began in Athens on May 29 and have the potential to last throughout the weekend, bear close watching. The demonstration follows similar protests by around 2,000 Muslim immigrants, mainly from South Asian and Middle Eastern countries and in their 20s and 30s, last week in response to allegations that a Greek policeman intentionally damaged a Koran during an identity check of migrants. The demonstrations turned violent, with an estimated 100 protesters tussling with the police, who dispersed the crowd with tear gas and eventually arrested 40 of the demonstrators.
While turnout for the fresh batch of demonstrations planned to last throughout the weekend could match or exceed numbers seen last week, STRATFOR does not expect these protests to draw the significantly expanded numbers of Muslim demonstrators anticipated by some media outlets. This can be attributed to the diversity of Greece’s Muslim community. Still, various left- and right-wing Greek groups could use the Muslim protests as cause to restart their battle against one another. Already, a radical right-wing group has staged counterdemonstrations to mark the May 29, 1453, fall of Constantinople to the Turks.
At slightly more than 800,000, Muslims make up nearly 10 percent of Greece’s population. Muslims in Greece fall into three broad categories: Albanian migrants (the largest subgroup at nearly 450,000), Thracian Muslims of varying ethnicities (numbering around 150,000 and mainly concentrated in the Thrace region of northeastern Greece near the Turkish border), and migrant Muslims from South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa (whose numbers are unknown, as many are undocumented). The Albanian migrants have been coming to Greece from Albania, Macedonia and Kosovo since the geopolitical shifts in the region of the early 1990s. The Thracian Muslims are of Turkish, Slavic or Roma ethnicity, and were left behind after population exchanges between Turkey and Greece following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1922. It is the third group, many of whose members are illegal immigrants, that is staging the current protests.
While the Albanian and Thracian Muslims certainly have grievances of their own against Athens, they are unlikely to join with migrant Muslims to express them. The Albanian minority in Greece (along with Albanians in general) for the most part define themselves by their ethnicity, culture and unique language; only rarely (and tangentially) do Albanians use Islam as a key identifier. Meanwhile, Thracian Muslims are either of Turkic, Slavic or Roma descent and therefore are culturally and ethnically (not to mention geographically, Thrace being far removed from Athens where most migrant Muslims live) disconnected from the protesters. It is highly unlikely that the first two groups will risk being equated by the general Greek population with radical Islam by joining protests spearheaded by the migrant Muslim population. Therefore, numbers cited in media reports of up to 700,000 Muslims in Athens protesting come May 29-31 are almost certainly blown out of proportion by conflating Albanian and Thracian Muslims with Greece’s very different migrant Muslims from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Syria and Somalia.
The planned protests should therefore not be compared with rioting by Muslims in France, like the periodic outbursts of violence and social angst in the predominately Muslim banlieues of France. Though these Muslim-dominated French communities resemble the Athens demonstrators in that they are often disenfranchised youths, more often then not the French protesters have lived in France for years — often generations — and are French citizens. The Greek protests are more likely to resemble the protests that sprang across of Europe during the Danish cartoon controversy, where recent Muslim immigrants lashed out in response to what they perceived to be a cultural and religious discrimination.
While Greece already has faced numerous protests triggered by a December 2008 police shooting of a 15-year-old Greek youth, the underlying cause of those riots was the global economic recession and anti-government sentiment, especially by the radical left-wing and anarchist elements. Since then, left-wing, right-wing and anarchist groups have taken turns sowing violence in Greece, either through targeted attacks against each other or by various bombings against banking (a favorite target of anarchist groups) and migrant (a favorite target of the radical right groups) centers. These ideological groups represent the key social division in Greece, and while Muslims migrants may find sympathy from some left-wing groups, this is likely to be only temporary (and as a result of the left’s search for a lever to use against its right-wing opponents). If violence continues, intensifying and spreading, this most likely will be because it coalesces into right-left conflict and loses its “Muslim” character.
A final element to consider is the potential geographic diffusion of protests, a quintessentially European phenomenon, into broader demonstrations and violence across Europe. As Europe enters a “summer of rage,” the protests could set off counter demonstrations, particularly from radical right-wing groups, not just in Greece but across the region. This is especially a possibility in countries that have only recently become migrant destinations, like Greece, Italy, or Central European states like Hungary, Slovakia and Poland. These states do not have the institutional history and experience dealing with high numbers of migrants, nor with targeted xenophobic violence that West European states — which lived through waves of anti-immigrant violence throughout the post-World War II period — have.
STRATFOR will closely monitor the situation as it develops. The key aspect to watch is whether these demonstrations coalesce into larger or more violent protests, not involving the other two Muslim subgroups in Greece, but by right- and left-wing groups — particularly radical right-wing anti-immigrant groups — in what is already a tense economic and social climate.