Ancient fear of the ‘infidels’ reawakened by Muslim refugees
Greece Letter: Gangs openly beat up Afghans in Athens with tacit support of police
A family in the Moria migrant camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. Photograph: Anthi Pazianouanthi/Getty Images
A lesson 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.
Due to a hasty alliance between Venice and the Hapsburg 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 fundamentalist Islamic State. We are back with the Crusades.
Conditions are appalling
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, it is said, 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 further 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.
Athens is in the curious position of building the first ever officially approved mosque, while Golden Dawn gangs openly beat up Afghans in 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 such as the Norwegian Refugee Council and Médécins sans Frontières) directly to the Greek government, which has had to take total responsibility. Consequently the NGOs withdrew, creating a vacuum which the local authorities have so far been unable to address. Almost 13,000 (40 per cent of them children) are living on the islands in summer 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.