Two years ago today supporters of the fascist Golden Dawn stabbed 26-year-old Pakistani retail worker Shahzad Luqman to death. Kevin Ovenden writes on the fight against racism in Greece in his eighth dispatch from Athens
A joyful gathering in Athens. Warm and funny. Also insightful and serious about the political developments we had met to discuss and organise around.
A few hours raced by. Then the awful, heartbreaking news.
It was two years ago today that two supporters of the fascist, criminal conspiracy which is the Golden Dawn in Greece stabbed 26-year-old Pakistani retail worker Shahzad Luqman to death in the inner-city Athenian neighbourhood of Petralona.
My conversations with friends – Greek and from abroad – in the Floral café in Exarcheia that night had been about a great anti-fascist and anti-racist mobilisation taking place two days later in the city. My friends in the anti-Golden-Dawn campaign KEERFA had organised what proved to be an historic demonstration of 20,000 people on 19 January 2013.
Together with comrades in Unite Against Fascism in Britain and elsewhere we had already turned it into an internationally coordinated day of action embracing over 30 cites, unprecedented in the previous 20 years.
As if we had not already reason enough to rage against racism and fascism, Golden Dawn’s thugs provided that night a further casus belli, one which would move hundreds of thousands more to the anti-fascist front.
When the fascists robbed Shahzad of his life they also took from his parents back in Pakistan a dutiful son, whose remittances home had helped his sister marry and the family survive the depredations of globalised capitalism, which this crisis was now bringing to the working people of Europe too.
It was a story which could puncture the miasma of anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant racism and find recognition among many working class families here who in the 1960s and again today have waved off an elder son to work in foreign lands and worried about his fate.
In the afternoon that followed the murder – a Friday, jumma for every Muslim – the downtrodden Pakistanis of Athens gathered in the living rooms and ad hoc spaces which continue to do service as mosques. The Greek authorities have still not permitted the establishment of a single, purpose-built mosque anywhere in the city.
The news spread by word of mouth – still more compelling than any other medium.
For too many amongst the Pakistani and other immigrant communities it brought instant recollection of the names, faces and families of other Golden Dawn victims. Many also sensed that nothingness which swallows all feeling as a hidden part of you seeks to defend the rest from one’s own traumatic memories of near death at the hands of racism or state terror.
The murder was designed to terrorise. So too had been the police rounding up of Pakistani and other migrants the previous summer in the government’s racist crackdown. With the sickening chill unique to state bureaucrats, the Greek government named the operation Hospitable Zeus, twice beating Asian migrants with a sanitised fairytale of classical “European” civilisation.
The Pakistani community of Athens made history back in that August of 2012 when, instead of running to ground on account of lacking legal status, over 15,000 took to the streets.
They were joined by a very few others. Principal among them were my friends in the KEERFA coalition and that section of the Greek Left, then very much a minority, for whom the battle against racism is ever vital. Additionally there were a handful of people like me – anti-racists from abroad who happened to be in Athens that week.
On Saturday 19 January 2013 the Pakistani community of Athens received the body of Shahzad Luqman and chose to hold the janaza funeral prayers outside the grand building of the municipal council of Athens. It stands a few hundred meters south of the central Omonoia Square, where many thousands of us were gathering for the demonstration.
Led by the lion Javed Aslam, then president of the Pakistani community of Greece, the mourners entered Omonoia to cheers and tears.
They were thrust to the head of march. For the first time to my knowledge, thousands of Greeks then followed hundreds of Muslim immigrants – their children in their “Sunday best” on the frontline – leading a demonstration to Syntagma Square and the Greek parliament.
It all came flooding back today (a few tears included) as we joined anti-fascists from across the spectrum of the Greek Left, but largely local to Petralona, on a neighbourhood commemoration of Shahzad’s murder.
With few words and great dignity Shahzad’s father Khadim Hussein, who had flown in from Pakistan, told the largely young and totally committed crowd how his heart remained broken but that he knew that his grief was shared by the majority of ordinary Greeks.
It was the fascists of the Golden Dawn gangs and the racists in the structures of power who he held responsible.
The chants against Golden Dawn won instant support from passers-by. It’s not that in this area now that many people need to be won from Golden Dawn. What was cheering was that so many volunteered a response which showed they are aware of the menace it still poses.
We paused at the street corner where Shehzad was slain. A small plaque marks the murder. It was paid for and placed there by a local cyclists group.
Local anarchist squats had initiated the march and insisted on the presence of the Pakistani community leaders, who are a pillar of the KEERFA umbrella front, and had invited all the radical Left – obviously including the local Syriza organisation.
It was a large, united and life-affirming event from which I share a few thoughts.
1 For what it was, the march was large – many hundreds. There have, of course, been larger. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets in September 2013 following the fascist murder of singer Pavlos Fyssas (who had performed that day in January when we marched for Shahzad).
But today provides an important qualification to the valid observation that, in general, the social movements of the workplaces, streets and universities have not simply gone from peak to peak.
The last few months have not seen peaks and major national battles. But there have been myriad mobiisations such as today’s, whether over racism and fascism, unpaid wages, clampdowns on squats of empty space and public protests, university occupations and much else.
“Today shows there is an anti-racist movement in Petralona,” a marcher in the bloc of the Syriza anti-racist organisation told me.
That reality may not be registered in mainstream media coverage of national Greek politics. But it is a vital feature of life in working class Greece on the eve of an electoral victory for the Left.
2There were at least three blocs associated with different electoral lists, all of the Left, on today’s demonstration. In the coming day’s I’ll probe the sometimes overly fraught issue of the organisational structures and divisions on the Greek Left.
Today provided an important counter-weight and context, however. A hefty number of Left wing activists in a working class neighbourhood quite clearly demonstrated that they were capable of coming together and achieving something real at the same time as many of them working hard for different candidates in an election only seven days away.
Now, understandably for a party which is on the verge of winning (something we on the Left have not been used to in recent decades) only some Syriza activists were there on what turned out to be quite a long march.
The important thing, though, is that there is widespread and shared understanding across the Left that it is not just the big, party-political things – the election on Sunday being huge – which are important. Things like today’s march are going to remain critical following the election next week.
3The movement and the Left are winning things. There have been few victories against the tidal wave of austerity if you consider the overall position of working people.
But there have been some overall gains in the general level of, for example, anti-racist consciousness and culture, or of understanding about the repressive nature of state structures such as the police.
It is markedly so over racism (as opposed to the related by distinct issue of fascism and Golden Dawn).
Anti-racism, the defence of migrants and opposition to Islamophobia have won much greater currency in Greek society and, crucially, in other social movements and circles of the Left as a result of events such murder of Shahzad Luqman and the movement which followed.
There are no shortage of icons and slain heroes on the Greek Left. One of the lawyers who acted pro-bono to bring Shahzad’s murderers to justice reminded me today that it is a novelty for a migrant like Shahzad to become a national symbol and not also for a regular commemoration by a neighbourhood.
Pakistanis were naturally there today. But unlike when we protested against the state round-up back in 2012, most of the protesters today were not Pakistani, but Greek.
4 I’ve written at some length before about the anti-fascist movement in Greece.
I’ve also examined how, far from being a liberal antidote to national chauvinism and racism, the political interventions by the European Union, other European governments and the establishment across the continent are actually generating a vicious cycle of racism and right wing radicalisation, which the out and out fascists both benefit from and accelerate.
In the next week I will include the question of racism in Greek society and the position of immigrants in looking at the confrontations that are set to take place between the EU and a Syriza-led government.
The troika – we should remember – was co-responsible responsible with the Greek political class, for bringing fascists into government in Europe, by way of the out and out fascists such as Makis Voridis becoming ministers when the LAOS party was included in the coalition with New Democracy and Pasok.
It also forced the imposition of an unelected prime minister, the banker Lukas Papadimos.
On this day marked now for so many with the murder of Shahzad I simply want to end with this point.
The euros and cents of the minimum wage, the pension, pay, tax on working people and so on matter – a lot. So too does the amount that is squeezed out of Greece to service the unpayable debt.
Therefore it is not a minor question of where, by boldness of ministerial action or through militancy of mass movement, wages, pensions, national debt and so on stand under a new government in the months following the election.
But racism, racist murder, police repression and the rounding up of migrants in concentration camps strike even more fundamentally at what is at stake in Greece and Europe.
You can – say – win half your pay demand or halve the number of job losses or maybe get some of the debt write-down that is necessary and have that regarded as a victory under the circumstances.
You don’t get half an interment policy, half a racist murder, a little bit of facist-police collaboration and so on.
And when people move in to action like today to oppose racism they are fighting not for a few cents on the hour of the minimum wage. They are motivated to fight to transform the society in a fundamental way.
When hundreds of thousands militantly took to the streets against Golden Dawn they were not looking for renegotiations of the failed economic and political compact which allowed the monster of nazism to re-emerge in a country was one of its biggest victims.
So it was wonderful today to see the Left marching together for something which projects our horizons beyond even a big but conventional change and towards a really radical transformation of our society.
As the residents of Petralona belted out the slogans “Shehzad Luqman, zei!” “Shehzad Luqman, zindabad!” [Shehzad Luqman lives!] their eyes were on a great prize. And they were not looking to the conventions of European politics to achieve it.
Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.
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