Has the sun set on Golden Dawn?

Whatever the crackdown against Golden Dawn means for Greece, the hope is now rekindled that the EU might be starting to see the rise of the far right as the threat that it is.

More than 20 members of the Greek neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn were arrested in late September. This unprecedented crackdown on the far right followed public outrage at the murder of the anti-fascist musician Pavlos Fyssas, known as Killah P, by a self-proclaimed Golden Dawn member. Greece’s public prosecutor labelled the party a criminal organisation and among those arrested were its leader, Nikos Michaloliakos; his deputy, Christos Pappas; the spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris; the press officer Ilias Panagiotaros; and the man touted to be the link between the parliamentary team and the party’s activists, Ioannis Lagos.

The public prosecutor’s report links Golden Dawn to multiple offences, including trafficking, kidnapping, money laundering and extortion, but the main charges remain those of multiple accounts of murder, attempted murder and aggravated assault. The prosecutor argues that the party’s strict, almost military structure strongly suggests that every hit was carried out as a result of orders from higher up.

The testimonies of two ex-members paint a picture of hardcore groups undergoing special-forces-like training in order to carry out brutal, sometimes deadly, attacks on leftists and immigrants.

The Greek government’s reaction might seem to imply it has woken up to the truth about Golden Dawn’s practices, but in reality the government’s hand was forced by pressure from Brussels following the murder of Fyssas.

In Athens people are feeling pessimistic. This is for two reasons. On the one hand, two Golden Dawn MPs, Kasidiaris and Panagiotaros, were released on bail, a first for anyone charged with helping to lead a criminal organisation. As Anny Paparousou, a Greek lawyer with expertise in the field, told me, “This will definitely shift the weight of the trial to their favour when the time comes, as they will walk in as free men.”

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras is reportedly furious at the public prosecutor for his decision and insiders say he almost sacked two ministers over the incident. Many analysts now believe that Greece won’t see the convictions many wish for. That the name of one of the witnesses under protection was accidentally leaked to Kasidiaris shows how hastily everything was put together. A positive result for Golden Dawn would cement the party’s support for years to come.

On the other hand, Chrysanthos Lazaridis, a senior adviser to the prime minister, has stated that Golden Dawn and Greece’s leading left-wing party, Syriza, are “the same thing”, hinting that leftists and anarchists will face persecution, too.

Elsewhere in Europe, as in Greece, the best bet for defeating far-right extremism will be to deal not only with openly fascist groups but also with those that paved the way for parties such as Golden Dawn by legitimising hellish detention camps for immigrants, by prosecuting activists in Skouries simply for opposing the destruction of their natural environment, and by adopting racist rhetoric to try to win back right-wing voters.

Whatever the crackdown against Golden Dawn means for Greece, the hope is now rekindled that the EU might be starting to see the rise of the far right as the threat that it is.

It is shameful that the Greek government and the European leadership have pretended they didn’t know what was happening. Now, they have run out of excuses.

Members of the Greek far-right ultra nationalist party Golden Dawn (Chryssi Avghi) demonstrate outside the Turkish consulate in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki during the visit of the leader of the Turkish ultra-nationalist group Grey Wolves, Devl

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and Greece, appears in the New Statesman, Vice UK and others.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.