PUBLISHED: 19:34 EST, 17 October 2012 | UPDATED: 04:15 EST, 18 October 2012
Finding the door bolted at his home in a pot-holed Athens side street, they smashed the windows, broke in and trashed the place. Then, their dirty work done, the neo-Nazi gang roared away into the hot evening. It had taken less than a minute for them to sound an ugly warning that foreigners were not welcome in Greece.
Their target was Imam Shahbaz Siddiqi, a 42-year-old spiritual leader of the Greek capital’s 500,000 Muslims. ‘I was at the mosque praying when they searched for me the other night,’ he told me yesterday. ‘I thank God for that, or else I might now be dead.
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‘During the night I went three times to the police station to report the break-in. At the desk I was told that the officers did not have time to investigate my complaint. They were too busy. There is one law for the Greek people and another for us immigrants.’
The attack on Imam Siddiqi is the latest racist outrage by neo-Nazis in a country riddled with xenophobia. In an era of crushing debt and poverty, the immigrant is blamed for almost every Greek ill.
On the same weekend, a young Pakistani immigrant, Hussein Abbas, was viciously attacked outside his home in Elefsina on the outskirts of Athens by the men in dark shirts. He ended up in hospital, his face smashed to a bloody pulp.
So dangerous are the streets for foreigners that the U.S. State Department has sent out a warning to dark-skinned American visitors that they must be careful of their safety when they leave their hotels.
A shocking internet video shows leaders of the anti-immigrant Far-Right Golden Dawn party — which has 18 MPs — marching into an ethnic street market at Rafina, an hour’s drive from Athens, destroying the stalls with wooden clubs and scattering the merchandise to the ground.
‘We found a few illegal immigrants selling their wares without permits,’ says Giorgos Germenis, one of the party’s MPs. ‘We did what our party has to do and then went to church to pay respects to the Madonna.’
Of course, it is not just immigrants who are subject to the fury of the Greek masses. Last week German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Athens to taunts from 50,000 protesters, many waving swastikas and dressed in Nazi uniforms.
There were banners proclaiming ‘From Hitler to Merkel’, which harked back to the hated Nazi occupation of Greece during World War II — and which surely made a mockery of the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the EU last week.
The German Chancellor, too, is blamed for the social turmoil crippling this country, which faces further austerity cutbacks on her orders and those of eurozone finance ministers.
The descent of Greece into chaos could not be more different from the halcyon days after the country joined the European Union 31 years ago, and then milked the system for all its worth.
Early retirement, generous state-paid pensions, countless millions on the public payroll and institutionalised tax fraud were a way of life. Hairdressers, for example, were listed among the 600 ‘professions’ allowed to retire at 50 with a state pension of 95 per cent of their final year’s earnings on account of the ‘arduous and perilous’ nature of their work.
Now the big, fat EU gravy train has hit the buffers, drastic austerity measures mean pay rates and pensions have been slashed and taxes are going sky high in a frantic bid to balance the books. The retirement age is to be raised to 67.
Greece is in its fifth consecutive year of recession, something that no European country has endured in the past 65 years, except in wartime. Half of the young are jobless and a third of stores in Athens have closed.
And yet the EU is demanding a further £12 billion of spending cuts before they will hand over another emergency bailout of £35 billion to stop the country going bankrupt.
Soup kitchens are feeding once well-to-do Athenians and homeless hostels are full of the middle class who have been forced to sell their homes and are struggling to take in what has befallen them so fast. Little wonder there is such anger on the streets.
Some speculate that civil breakdown and the unravelling of democracy in Greece may be just around the corner.
Last week as Chancellor Merkel visited, protests were outlawed in Athens. No one took the slightest notice of the rules, as Molotov cocktails were hurled by rioters at police guarding parliament and ordinary people cheered them on.
It is from this cauldron of bewilderment and fury that the neo- Nazis and their triumphant party, Golden Dawn, have emerged with such sudden popularity.
As 71-year-old Doukas Thanassis, queuing for lentils in a smart grey suit at a church-run soup kitchen in central Athens, told me defiantly: ‘I voted for the party. They are the only ones who help us in this time of trouble.
‘Every Wednesday you can buy the party’s newspaper at the local street kiosk. It prints a list of places where Golden Dawn hand out food and even medicines to the Greek people. They pay for ambulances to take us to hospital if we are ill.’
Mr Thanassis, the former head chef on a Greek cruise line who lives in a homeless hostel, adds: ‘These free gifts are only for us Greeks, not for foreigners. The meat in the sandwiches they give us is pork so the Muslim migrants don’t come and scrounge it. These foreigners shouldn’t be here anyway.’
Beside him, others in the queue nod approvingly.
Even Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, leader of the New Democracy party (Centre Right) running an unruly coalition with Left-wingers, blames Greece’s woes on ‘waves of illegal immigrants’ from Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and north and sub-Saharan Africa, who smuggle themselves over the Turkish border for a new life.
Mr Samaras says that with 1.5 million recent arrivals in a country of 11 million Greeks, the immigrants are ‘creating extremism’ and feeding the extraordinary popularity of Golden Dawn.
When I visited Greece in May, Golden Dawn was a name that was barely whispered. Today the party has a foothold in parliament — with 18 of the 300 seats — and talk of the neo-Nazi party’s popularity is on everyone’s lips.
In cafes, taxis and bars, Greeks of all ages and social backgrounds discuss the latest official poll prediction that Golden Dawn would claim 22 per cent of the vote — rather than the 6.9 per cent it garnered in June’s national poll — if a general election were called tomorrow. Almost a quarter of those under 25 support the party.
If the same political swing was happening in Britain, it would mean that 60 Parliamentary seats would be in the hands of extreme Right-wingers.
‘And don’t compare these people to the British National Party or the English Defence League,’ a Greek professor warned recently. ‘They make the BNP look like Julie Andrews.’
It is an open secret that a Greek who thinks he has a problem with migrants can call a special number at Golden Dawn to get their brutal style of help.
I was told the disturbing story of an Athenian lady of 60 whose central city apartment with wood floors and fine drapes was taken over by Pakistani and Bangladeshi squatters while she visited her family in Crete.
She returned to find the door barred and graffiti at the entrance to the block telling the owner to stay away.
She called the special number. A man on the line told her to stay with friends for a week and everything would be all right, so she took the advice.
Seven days on, she went back to her apartment. The place was empty of the interlopers. The curtains had been cleaned, the floor polished, and she moved back in. Urban myth, ethnic cleansing or proof that Golden Dawn gets things done? Many Greeks prefer to believe the last of these.
As 54-year-old Agnes Bakas, sitting in the sun at a coffee bar in Attika Square, Athens, said: ‘Every Athenian knows Golden Dawn will send their people to help a Greek.’
On the white wall behind her, a Nazi swastika is painted and the kiosk selling newspapers under the trees is a known meeting place for young Golden Dawn supporters who gather menacingly with their motorbikes and black shirts.
But this does not bother Agnes. She says: ‘This square was full of immigrants, but Golden Dawn cleared them out. I was robbed seven times before that near my home down the road. Even my necklace was pulled from me by an African. I could not have sat here safely, even in the day, a year ago.’
Whatever the accuracy of her story, Golden Dawn has taken full advantage of claims of immigrant crime. The party has widespread support among the rank-and-file Greek police (the Golden Dawn vote soared at the polling booths near police stations in Athens) and peddles the line that 37 Greeks have been killed by immigrants in the past few years.
A vicious attack and rape of a 15-year-old Greek girl by a Pakistani illegal migrant aged 23 on the island of Paros this summer played into the party’s hands. The Pakistani admitted the crime and the girl, battered over the head with a rock, is still in intensive care in a hospital near her home in Athens.
Academics in Greece warn of disturbing parallels between the rise of the Right today in an economically crippled country indebted to the EU and the rise of the Nazis in the Thirties after hyper-inflation in Germany’s Weimar Republic led to economic collapse.
Between the wars, you may recall, an indebted Germany was forced to make huge reparation payments to the victorious Allies of the Great War as a punishment for starting the conflict. The German people felt humiliated, just as the Greeks feel hostile to their eurozone masters and Mrs Merkel today.
The Nazis claimed their first parliamentary seats even as they were garnering the local support of Germans by sending out gangs of ‘storm troopers’ to terrorise Jewish and immigrant communities and blame them for the troubles of the time. It sounds horribly familiar.
As Nickos Dermetzis, a professor of political science at the Athens University, explains: ‘We have a major socio-economic crisis in which native Greeks are losing ground. You also have a rising number of immigrants, many illegal.
‘This is a volcanic situation where all the classic parameters for the flourishing of a Far-Right force such as Gold Dawn are present.’
Of course, it does not help that police are struggling to cope with the huge numbers of illegal immigrants arriving daily in Greece. Their sweeps of immigrants happen regularly in Athens and the port of Patras, a three-hour drive away, where a thousand immigrants doss down in disused factory buildings near the promenade. They wait, hoping to smuggle themselves on to freight and passenger ferries going to Italy.
Ten days ago, 350 Afghanis, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis were picked up in Patras and put in holding centres. As one disgruntled resident, a man in his 50s living near the promenade, said: ‘They only took a few and so many are here. I am no racist, but this town used to be paradise. The police sweeps are a merry-go-round. The ones they took today will be back next week, wait and see.’
It is a viewpoint supported by Andreas Nicolacopoulos. The 59-year-old architect is a leading light in the Patras Golden Dawn party.
‘The Greek people don’t want illegal immigrants,’ he says. ‘They have to be deported to their own countries. We have to stop them coming in, too. We will lay landmines at the Turkish-Greek border to blow them up so they do not enter our country. We have promised our voters this.’
Golden Dawn also wants to make immigrant criminals serve double the prison terms of their Greek counterparts and introduce capital punishment for foreign murderers.
Back in Athens, I meet Golden Dawn’s spokesman, MP Iliopoulos Panagiotis, at the Greek Parliament building.
The face of this 34-year-old former internet marketing executive can be seen clearly on the video of immigrants being attacked at the market by Golden Dawn’s louts.
Mr Panagiotis is in bullish form. He boasts that the party is so popular that at the next election it will be the second biggest in Greece. ‘In a few years, we expect to be the biggest of them all,’ he says.
The party’s MPs arrogantly puff on cigarettes even though smoking is banned inside the parliament building. They wear black shirts with the word ‘Hooligans’ emblazoned in orange on the sleeve. They have tattoos on their arms.
And on the walls are the blue flags stamped with the party’s swastika-style logo, an ancient Greek symbol.
The official Golden Dawn line is that they are not Nazis, even neo-Nazis, but nationalists wanting to save Greece for the Greek.
So what does Mr Panagiotis plan for illegal immigrants? ‘We will fly every one of them home,’ he says.
‘Even Pakistan would not dare shoot our planes down when their own people are on board and would be killed.’
And what does he think of the racist Golden Dawn gangs that systematically beat up those who were not born Greek?
‘We have a million supporters, some of them wilder elements. We cannot control them all,’ he says with a smirk.
It is hard to believe that his words are those of an elected MP in the Parliament of a modern democracy. Yet anything is possible now in Greece, as the unpalatable face of fascism makes an unwelcome return to Europe.