Between the Politics of Difference and the Poetics of Similarity

Performing Ashura in Piraeus

In: Journal of Muslims in Europe
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  • 1 Theatre and Performance Studies, Aberystwyth University
  • 2 Aristotle University, Thessaloniki


This paper studies the ritual of Ashura as performed by a group of Shia Pakistani migrants in Piraeus, Greece, inscribed in the context of the financial crisis that is currently shaking the country and its socio-political implications, notably the rise of the far-right. Based on participant observation, we start by unfolding the discourses through which our interlocutors attempt to legitimise their religious practices, by connecting the Karbala narrative with the current political oppression of Shiite minorities, but also by articulating a poetics of similarity with equivalent acts of faith from the Greek cultural context, rather than arguments on multiculturalist difference. We then turn our attention to the way Ashura is portrayed by Greek art and media, and we unpack how the poetics of similarity and the politics of difference are presented from different viewpoints. Finally, we study how the interrelations between this migrant Shiite community and ideas regarding the “national self” are manifested in symbolic uses of blood—from murderous threats received by Neo-Nazi groups, to their rejected proposal for a blood-donation campaign parallel to the Ashura.


This paper studies the ritual of Ashura as performed by a group of Shia Pakistani migrants in Piraeus, Greece, inscribed in the context of the financial crisis that is currently shaking the country and its socio-political implications, notably the rise of the far-right. Based on participant observation, we start by unfolding the discourses through which our interlocutors attempt to legitimise their religious practices, by connecting the Karbala narrative with the current political oppression of Shiite minorities, but also by articulating a poetics of similarity with equivalent acts of faith from the Greek cultural context, rather than arguments on multiculturalist difference. We then turn our attention to the way Ashura is portrayed by Greek art and media, and we unpack how the poetics of similarity and the politics of difference are presented from different viewpoints. Finally, we study how the interrelations between this migrant Shiite community and ideas regarding the “national self” are manifested in symbolic uses of blood—from murderous threats received by Neo-Nazi groups, to their rejected proposal for a blood-donation campaign parallel to the Ashura.


Ashura (Arabic ʿashura, from the root ʿ-sh-r = ten) is the name given to the tenth day of the month of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, but generally refers to all observance and rituals during Muharram. For many Sunni Muslims, Ashura was instituted as a day of fasting by the Prophet Muhammad; but for Shia Muslims, it is a day of mourning for Husayn, the Prophet’s grandson and third Imam, whom they view as a martyr. Husayn was defeated and murdered on that day in 680 ad, together with almost all his male relatives, in a battle near the city of Karbala (in present-day southern Iraq) against the ruling Umayyad Caliph Yazid. Inscribed as a crucial point in the decades-long schism that began immediately after the death of the Prophet (632 ce), the way this battle is evoked, and the importance it is given, marks it as an essential myth dividing Sunni and Shia Muslims. But it also serves as a pervasive paradigm throughout the history of Shiism,1 symbolising the struggle of the weak against tyranny and oppression and repeatedly used for political purposes, as it provides the central narrative around which Shia Muslim construct their religious and political identity as a minority in a Sunni-dominated Muslim world, but also in migratory contexts. Ashura thus refers to the commemoration of the martyrdom of Husayn by Shia communities worldwide since the tenth century. This is re-enacted every year in various acts of ritual lamentation—sorrowful narrations and chants, collective crying, head or chest-beating—and the tenth day itself is marked by public processions—including, in some cases, self-flagellation.

This article considers the specificity of the Greek context, focusing on the Azakhana Gulzar-e Zainab2 in Piraeus, Athens harbour and Greece’s major port. More specifically, it takes as its starting point the commemoration of Ashura by a group of Shia Pakistani migrants, to analyse the discourses through which this group present their religious practices to the wider public and the host society. These emic discourses are juxtaposed to conflicting representations of the ritual in Greek art and media. Despite a recent shift towards more tolerant viewpoints, such representations are inscribed in a history of racism and fear of “the Other”, and are currently situated in the context of the crisis shaking Greek society in the past seven years. Surging public debt led to a bailout package, in place since 2010, which brought the country under joint supervision by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, mandating extreme austerity policies that have generated a spiral of recession, and led to widespread disillusionment with the political system. A side effect has been the rise of the far right, with the electoral success and violent activism of a neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn. Their ideological emphasis on the nation’s “blood purity”, materialised through verbal and physical threats against (among others) migrants, especially Muslims, may be contrasted to the Shia Pakistani community’s attempt to initiate a blood-donation campaign parallel to Ashura.

Ethnographic studies of Ashura in European migratory contexts have analysed the ritual by focusing on questions of memory, tradition and community-bonding, but also transformation. To mention but a few examples, Spellman-Poots focuses on how “young Shi‘ah are reworking religious practices through public performances and embodied experiences in British society”,3 in order to demonstrate how tradition is transformed, influenced by, and interwoven with, the local culture. From a different perspective, studying how female migrants transfer Shia rituals in Norway, Flaskerud argues: “While engaging in the ritual, first generation migrants can mentally expand the present ritual space to include memories of rituals performed in their countries of origin. (…) By connecting individual memories to collective memories, a feeling of continuity and belonging was established.”4 In a similar vein, Shanneik focuses on “collective remembering”, in order to explore “the intersection between religion and memory and its influence on the various identity understandings of Iraqi Shii women in Ireland”.5

Focusing on Northern European—and mainly, but not exclusively, Protestant—countries, this body of literature has demonstrated how the ritual of Ashura is performed and experienced in multicultural societies, whose traditions and habits are perceived as directly opposed to the Shia embodied expressions of mourning. For example, in one of Spellman-Poots’s informers’ words, acts of excessive mourning including self-harm are “so—‘un-British’”.6 Conversely, many members of the Shia community in Piraeus parallel their practices of chest-beating and self-flagellation to similar cultural-religious practices surviving in the Greek context, articulating thus their attempts at self-presentation in what we call “poetics of similarity”, against media representations and racist portrayals emphasising difference.

The article draws on ethnographic fieldwork,7 which included participant observation, informal discussions with around 30 participants,8 and three semi-structured interviews with the spokesman of the Pakistani Shia Muslim Association (psma) organising the event. This material is combined with textual and visual analysis of relevant television programmes and website articles.9 The next section provides a brief overview of the—largely invisible—Shia communities in Greece, and some details about the practice of Ashura in a migratory context, including key features of the location where it has taken place on an annual basis for the past 15 years or so. In the third section, we unfold the discourses through which our interlocutors present their religious practices, in their attempts to gain (positive) visibility. Next, we turn our attention to the ways in which Ashura is perceived by and represented in Greek art and media. In the fifth section, we focus on the symbolic uses of blood, commenting on how this “bloody” ritual is found amidst the neo-Nazis’ murderous threats to “spill Muslim blood” as a means to materialise their exclusionary conception of national “purity”, and the Shia community’s rejected proposal of a blood-donation campaign. We conclude by summarising the main arguments that can be drawn from our analysis.

Shia Muslims in Greece: An Invisible Minority and the Visibility of Ashura

As elsewhere in Europe and beyond, Shia communities in Greece form a minority within the minority Muslim population, and yet one that is highly diverse. Tracing their numbers would be a difficult task, not least because the total number of Muslims is itself unknown. Consequently, the invisibility of these “other” Muslims constitutes a baseline assumption. Nevertheless, some elements of Shia Islam have a history in the country, indirectly perhaps, through the influence of the Bektashi-Alevi order throughout Anatolia and the Balkans during Ottoman times. The remnants of this legacy survive today in some communities in the north-eastern region of Thrace, home to Greece’s officially designated Muslim minority. With average estimates of about 120,000 people, most minority Muslims adhere to Sunni Islam, while Bektashism is allegedly followed by no more than 3,000 people: these are mostly Pomaks and some ethnic Turks in villages of the Eastern Rodopi mountains, where there are a few tekkes for their ritual needs.10

Greece’s Muslim population has grown in the past few decades as a result of immigration. With the lack of official data on religion, most estimates derive from nationality statistics (as access to citizenship has been limited to date). Moderate guesses put their total number at more than 200,000 people, originating mainly from the Middle East, South Asia and some African countries; this excludes Albanians, who represent over half of the migrant population, as they are considered largely non-practising or unreligious.11 The 2011 census12 registered over 480,000 Albanians and slightly more than 90,000 migrants from other predominantly Muslim countries, including roughly 34,200 Pakistanis, 7,630 Syrians, 6,910 Turks, 5,160 Iranians, 3,700 Iraqis, 3,300 Nigerians, 1,900 Afghans and fewer than 900 Lebanese. Projecting official estimates of the proportions of Shiites in these countries would give as a total of about 17,330, but this may well be an over- or even under-estimate. Not only can we not be sure of the selectivity of migration, or the degree of religious practice, but we should also acknowledge that this is a highly fluctuating population, especially taking recent migratory trends into account.

Migration from the Middle East, Asia and Africa has increased since the mid-2000s and peaked in 2008-2010, when Greece became the main gateway to the eu: arrivals at that time where mostly undocumented and included large numbers of Afghans and Iraqis, who were largely transiting to seek asylum in northern European countries, as well as Pakistanis, many of whom intended to stay. The crisis marked a radical shift in immigration trends and policies, significantly altering immigrants’ employment prospects, legitimising the use of excessive force by the police to crack down on irregular migration, and fostering Golden Dawn’s electoral rise and their violent campaigns.13 Around 2012-2013, there was a curb in migration flows, and there were signs that many were leaving; Pakistanis, for instance, were the principal group applying for voluntary return schemes.14 In the context of the recent European “refugee crisis”, however, arrivals have surged at unprecedented levels, mostly due to the exodus of Syrians, who formed nearly half of the newcomers. The majority of them head for northern European destinations, crossing inevitably through Greece on their way, but since early 2016, increased border controls lead many being trapped in Greece.

It is important to highlight that, more than other groups originating from Muslim countries, the Pakistanis are dominated by young working-age males who are mostly single, or have families in Pakistan. That said, there are variations that reflect migratory patterns and routes: among Pakistanis, who are mostly labour migrants, women and children account for less than 5%; among Iraqis, who come as refugees, the proportions of women and children were 30% and 18%, respectively.15 According to the 2011 census, the proportions of women and children are, respectively, 18% and 12% among Iranians, 19% and 28% among Afghans, and 40% and 17% among Lebanese. In addition, they are overwhelmingly concentrated in Greater Athens, where some have formed community organisations. We are aware of three Shia associations which also provide prayer halls to meet the religious needs of their communities: one recently set up by Afghans in Peristeri (western Athens), and two older ones established by Pakistanis in Peristeri (the Imam Barga prayer hall) and Piraeus (the psma).

The latter is the longer-established and has attracted most public attention, essentially because of the Ashura ritual. Its history dates back to 1978, when the religious practices of a then small community, including Ashura, had been taking place privately in people’s homes. As more and more migrants arrived, the association was eventually founded by a man from Karachi. Officially registered and operating since 2001, it is now run by his son, an educated young man who has lived in Greece for more than 15 years; he works for a major private television channel and has recently acquired Greek citizenship. In fact, the psma’s publicity and media awareness of the Ashura commemoration is largely due to his own deliberate effort to bring about a rapprochement with Greek society.

The psma’s premises, and the Azakhana Gulzar-e Zainab, are located in Piraeus, about 10 km from downtown Athens. Piraeus forms part of the Athens conurbation and administratively comprises of five municipalities with nearly half a million inhabitants, of whom about one-third live in the district of Piraeus itself. Although very close to the harbour and town centre, this is a non-residential area with primarily industrial land uses. However, manufacturing has declined considerably in the past four decades, and the landscape is dominated by abandoned small factories and warehouses. The community mostly commemorates Muharram within its own premises, arranged as a prayer hall. Ashura, the tenth day, is observed in the street outside the premises, with a procession that reaches its climax with self-flagellation using blades. Since 2004, the psma has requested a permit from the police and local authorities to perform the ritual in the open air, and the few factories and warehouses still functioning on the street are closed specifically for the occasion. In recent years, two large cloth screens have been erected at the two crossroads to clearly separate the ritual space from the gaze of rare random passers-by. Despite these precautions, a Golden Dawn sign16 was painted on the wall next to the Azakhana’s entrance. Through Ashura, the community is thus rendered visible in multiple ways.

Ashura from the Perspective of Shiite Pakistani Migrants in Piraeus

Studying this ritual in the Australian context, Tabar argues that “the act of lamenting Husayn during the Ashura ceremony in Sydney is partly transformed into lamenting the harsh realities of Shi’i migrants in Sydney”.17 However, when we tried to tease out whether, for our interlocutors, lamenting the martyrs of Karbala could be related to their everyday martyrdoms as migrants in Greece, especially in the particular context of the crisis and the rise of the far-right, the responses were unanimously negative. Most of them did discuss the precarious nature of their current stay in Greece; many of them remained undocumented, and were living in constant fear of the police, and not a few gave striking accounts of the violence of Neo-Nazis, as well as of the Greek police. Some of them even referred to their compatriot Shehzad Luqman, a 27-year-old worker assassinated in 2013 by members of the Golden Dawn. Even so, unlike Tabar’s respondents, all of them clearly differentiated between these hardships and the Karbala massacre. In the words of one interlocutor, “The Golden-Dawn is too small to be compared with Yazid (…) We do not need the Neo-Nazis; we make scars on our backs ourselves.”

At the first level, this seems to be a direct reference to one of the numerous racist crimes committed by Golden Dawn members, when, in November 2012, a Sudanese migrant announced that, two months before, he had been attacked by Neo-Nazis, who had tried to kill him and left him severely wounded with the initials of their party carved on his back.18 In addition, however, our interlocutor’s self-confident, fearless affirmation testifies that “Shia Muslims’ self-mortification reminds us that the body is not only a site for inscription of oppressors’ messages; it is also a site for self-inscription of messages by rebels and resisters (...) It is thus a site for contestation over meaning and power.”19

This does not mean that, from the point of view of our interlocutors, Ashura is deprived of its political connotations, and limited in the realm of piety alone. On the contrary, although Karbala seemed to them to be irrelevant to contemporary Greek racism, they did repeatedly draw parallels between Husayn’s oppressors and today’s Islamist fanatics in the Middle East, Afghanistan or South Asia, such as the isis or the Taliban. In their accounts, these extremist Sunni organisations distort and denigrate Islam, while Shia populations are among their easiest targets. To give an example, a man in his thirties referred to a recent massacre of Shiites by isis in the Iraqi city of Mosul,20 comparing the horror unleashed by these Sunni fanatics, accentuated by the digital reproduction and circulation of these images, to the sixth-century cruelty of Yazid’s military forces. He mentioned that the latter decapitated the martyrs after the battle of Karbala and, took them, raised on spears, to the caliph’s palace, an atrocity that reminded our interlocutor of isis’s mass killings and decapitations, as well as the spectacle of “absolute terror”21 circulated by online videos of such acts.

In a world of increasing Islamophobia, our Shiite interlocutors denounced the Sunni extremists as “contemporary Yazids”, thus clearly differentiating themselves from a caricature of Islam, and pointing out that, because of being a minority, they were the first to suffer from these extremists’ ferocity. Establishing this distinction seems to be their main concern when they present themselves to Greek media. Since the first television show covering Ashura in Piraeus in 2003, when the incidents of 9/11 still had quite a fresh resonance, the psma’s spokesman at the time declared: “We are calm! And we are opposed to Al-Qaeda. (...) Because some years ago in Afghanistan, there is a city Mazar Sharif, [in which] Al-Qaeda and the Taliban slaughtered 4,000 children and men.”22 In November 2014, only a few months after the self-proclamation of isis, the current spokesman concluded his interview by affirming: “The Shiites have a historical hostility towards Muslim fanatics. We are the Jihadists’ easiest targets.”

Showing their opposition to extremists, our interlocutors also underlined the open character and universal messages of their faith. In their accounts, Imam Husayn’s example appears as a transnational, universal paradigm of resistance, justice, truth and peace, a symbol cutting across different religions. As they remind us, his name has been praised not only by Shia Muslims, but by broadly acknowledged figures such as Mahatma Gandhi, Edward Gibbon and Charles Dickens. Blaming Muslim fanatics, and at the same time stressing the universality of the Karbala paradigm, many of the people we met acknowledged the religious freedom they enjoyed in Greece, which they contrasted with the oppression they suffered in Sunni-dominated Pakistan. In other words, not only they do not associate the struggles of the Ahlul-Bayt (the Prophet’s family) with their everyday hardships in Greece but, on the contrary, emphasise the tolerance of the Greek context for their religion.

In doing so, our interlocutors do not refer so much to a vague idea of a “liberal Europe” that is supposed to respect human rights and protect individual freedoms, but rather to inner connections and affinities between Shiism and Christianity.23 They highlight, for instance, the repeated collaboration between Shia and Christian political parties in Pakistan, their general respect for Christian saints, or historical cases of Christians who, according to Shia sources, showed support to Husayn and his family. What seems to us particularly interesting is that, in contrast to north-western European contexts, Shia Muslims in Greece attempt to legitimise their ritual practices not only by adopting multiculturalist discourses emphasising cultural difference, or by stressing the common elements between Shiism and Christianity, but also by comparing their “acts of faith” with embodied religious practices in the cultural context of contemporary Greece.

Willing to highlight practices that involve bodily pain, one of our discussants mentioned the pilgrimage to the Church of the Virgin Mary on the island of Tinos, as an example of religious self-punishment in Greek Orthodoxy. During major celebrations at that church, many pilgrims fulfil their vows by climbing on their knees all the way from the port up to the miraculous icon of the Virgin.24 Other interlocutors referred to the lamentation for Christ on Good Friday, particular, in the procession of the Epitaphios of the dead Jesus. This is “the preclimactic moment in the performative drama of Holy Week”.25 For them there are striking similarities between the Epitaphios and the taboots, the wooden replicas of Shia martyrs’ coffins, adorned with flowers, as well as between the ways practitioners of both religions express their devotion. Finally, several interlocutors referred to the Anastenaria, a ritual performed in northern Greece by local descendants from eastern Thrace refugees, which includes fire-walking.26 As they said, fire-walking is also a common practice during the Ashura commemorations in Pakistan and throughout South Asia, where it is also shared even by other religions such as Hinduism. Although they emphatically underline these similarities, our discussants at the same time asserted that they would not allow themselves to perform fire walking in Greece. In the words of one of them: “We do not feel comfortable to do in a foreign country what we would in our own”, suspecting that it might be “too much” to light a fire on the street. That said, as Terzopoulou reports,27 many of them expressed their wish to attend the Anastenaria, and some of our interlocutors mentioned that they knew of Shia Pakistanis who had observed that ritual.

Ashura Reflected in Greek Art and Media

So far we have focused on how the Shia Pakistanis in Piraeus present the commemoration in a migratory context, paying particular attention to discourses articulating a poetics of similarity, instead of emphasising “multicultural” difference as observed in north-western European societies. We now turn to the ways Ashura is seen through Greek eyes, beginning with a discussion of the art-documentary I Heard God Crying,28 by Elpida Skoufalou. Confirming in a way the discourse of our interlocutors, Skoufalou in her movie is also oriented towards a poetics of similarity, as she links the Shia lament for Husayn—during the Ashura in Piraeus, but also during the Arbaʿin29 in the Syrian city of Sayyida Zaynab—with the Anastenaria, hereby understood as a mourning ritual for the legendary hero Mikrokonstantinos. These symbolic laments are then interwoven with that for an actual dead person in a Greek-speaking village in southern Albania.

Responding to journalists’ questions regarding the “exoticism” of the Shia laments, Skoufalou says, “These rituals are not far from our culture at all. Lament still exists.” She points this out, while going on to criticise “the contemporary way of life” that is “afraid of lament” and “regards all this as exotic”.30 In her movie, the crying faces of the bereaved southern Albanian women fade to those of Shia women lamenting for Imam Husayn; while watching their tears, we still listen to the ululations of the previous ceremony. Similarly, the filmic editing fuses the emotional outburst of Anastenaria participants in northern Greece with the pain of Shia Pakistanis in Piraeus. This unifying view is eloquently pictured in a finale, where images from the entire movie are interwoven with each other to the accompaniment of an increasingly frenetic rhythm. To journalists’ questions about the potential borders between different religious commemorations, Skoufalou answers that “in rituals there is an archetypal nucleus and an archetypal function (…) The essence remains the same.”31

If, despite the risk of a lurking aestheticising universalism, such an artistic representation of the Ashura can be understood as oriented towards a poetics of similarity, this is clearly not the case with the televised representations of the ritual. From 2004 to 2014, there has been a significant change in perspective, at least as far as influential mainstream media are concerned. To be sure, this may have to do with a broader shift in the way migrants are represented in Greek media, but it certainly also relates to the fact that the psma spokesman himself is a journalist working for the private television channel “Antenna”. More specifically, looking into this channel’s news coverage of the Ashura since 2004, we observe a shift towards an increasingly moderate and tolerant view of the “Other”, followed by an informed conceptualisation of this religious and cultural particularity. In these, the ritual is no longer presented as proof of irrational, exotic difference, but rather explained and contextualised through factual information. Most importantly, today’s television programmes clearly reveal the distinction between terrorism and Shiites referred to above, so that Greek viewers get to know that the latter constitute a repeatedly oppressed minority in the Muslim world, and are currently a primary target of the Jihadis.

That said, this informed and informing viewpoint is very recent. In earlier programmes on the same channel,32 the adjectives used to describe the ritual had more negative connotations: “impressive”, “unusual”, “shocking”, or even “extremely ferocious”. The more we go back in time, the more clangourous the vocabulary tends to be: in earlier years, the Shiites “mercilessly”, “in delirium”, “submitted themselves to hideous tortures, and have been self-injured with knives till fainting”. Although, as mentioned already, Ashura is commemorated in a formerly industrial, non-residential area, it is interesting to note that, in these journalistic narratives, the ritual appears to take place “at the very centre of Piraeus”, while “The inhabitants of Dimitras Street watch breathlessly what takes place in front of their houses.” This emphasis on the discrepancy between the Ashura commemoration and its location is further emphasised by the recurring argument that the ritual “is entirely outside Western standards”.

Moreover, in the earliest such representation by the channel back in 2004, only two years after 9/11 and just before the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, the broadcaster’s voice-over informs us that “The extreme manifestation of religious devotion of the Shiites residing in Greece preoccupies the authorities, as they estimate that it is possible for al-Qaeda members to penetrate these organisations.” This direct connection between a Shia religious rite and an extremeist Sunni organisation is further enhanced by the visual narration, in which shots of al-Qaeda military training are rapidly interwoven with images from the interior of the Azakhana, marked by a red target. The broadcaster adds, “The Shiites, however, claim to be enemies of the Taliban and of Islamist fanatics” and, a few minutes later, explains in detail the fundamental differences between Shia Muslims and extremist Sunni groups such as al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Despite these verbal clarifications, however, what finally seems to prevail is the implied suggestion of the narrative accompanying the images: on this level, the connection between terrorism (violence directed towards Others) and Shiite “extreme manifestation of religious devotion” (violence directed towards oneself) is clearly established.33

The Blood of the Shiites, the Blood of the Nation

If the representations of Shiite communities have significantly changed over the last few years, the far-right end of the spectrum of the Greek press still reproduces an imagery of the “Others” not simply as uncivilised “Barbarians”, but as infectious intruders. In these discourses, as they appear in various articles on the Golden Dawn’s website, the Shiites’ open wounds during the ritual contaminate the streets of the “homeland”, while their self-directed violence is read as the threat of a future armed invasion. Again, Ashura is portrayed as taking place in downtown Piraeus, which loses its identity as the main Greek port and “becomes Islamabad”, unfortified in the face of these violent traditions.34 Videos of the ritual are available on Golden Dawn’s websites, as evidence of the strangers’ “savagery”.

In the vocabulary of the Neo-Nazis, the flow of these “illegal” migrants’ blood symbolises the threat facing the national body, namely the loss of “blood purity”. As mentioned before, this “purity” has mostly been “defended” not through discourse, but through several violent attacks. Studying the interrelation between Shia discourses and practices in Greece, and the ways these are represented and perceived by Greeks at a time marked by the rise of the far right, we would like to end this article with a brief reference to the symbolic uses of blood. On 16 May 2013, when Golden Dawn violence was at its height, the psma received an anonymous letter in Greek, English and Arabic, which the association’s representative has shared with us:

Muslim Murderers

By June 30 you will have shut down your brothels in Greece and you will have gone to hell.

From July the 1st onwards those of you still here we will slaughter like chickens in the street.

F(…) your Islam, f(…) your Quran and f(…) your mothers.

There Will Be Blood.

Directly inspired by German Nazism and its roots in the “Blood and Soil” (Blut und Boden) ideology, Greek Nazis do not only cast the blood of these “Others” as contagious or even infectious, but also clearly state their will to spill it on their own initiative. It is worth noting that Golden Dawn not only perpetrated or supported murderous attacks against “deviant subjects” throughout the country, but also ran blood-donation campaigns “for Greeks only”.35 Interestingly, in recent years, blood-donation has been an increasingly frequent practice among Shia Muslims worldwide to replace or accompany the bleeding caused by self-flagellation during the Ashura commemorations.36 Relating his failed attempt to initiate such a campaign in Greece on behalf of the psma, their spokesman Ashir says:

So I spoke to … this doctor … I wanted to … offer it as the Shia Muslim Association ... to leave a message … if I could put this forward through the Association I know that within five to ten years blood donors would increase from seven to 70 and 700 and 7,000. The answer was that, because we have clear instructions from medical services etc., people from Asian countries including Pakistan are not allowed to donate blood because there are certain diseases that we want to avoid being transmitted in Greek society.

Indeed, the regulations of the Hellenic Center for Disease Control and Prevention (keelpno), the Greek public health body, clearly state that, among several other categories, such as “men who have had even one sexual contact with other men”, or “people with multiple sexual partners”, blood is not allowed to be given by “men and women who have had sexual contact with individuals who live, or come from, sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, South America and the Pacific islands, in the course of the last decade”.37 The phrasing does not refer only to people from the countries mentioned, but even to those (presumably Greek citizens) who may have had sexual contact with them. Interestingly, the bio-politics of the state resound obliquely with Nazi ideas about blood, as they do not allow this “foreign blood” to be offered to the “national body” by a group of religious “Others”. Returning to our discussion regarding the poetics of similarity and difference, let us conclude this section by quoting once again Ashir’s words:

It was terrible that day; that is to say, there may exist several diseases and the guy explaining those things was right to some extent, but we, who went to offer this, we have lived in Greece for 20 years now; all the diseases you have we have them too, mate, the water I drink is the water you drink, the meats I consume are the ones you also consume, the air I am breathing ...

Concluding Remarks

The Karbala paradigm has often been used to encourage political quietism, by discharging performatively the feelings of oppressed minorities, and appeasing the present malaise by the promise of a future redemption. At the same time, on manifold other occasions, the struggles of Husayn and his family have inspired revolt and resistance against contemporary oppressive powers. Drawing on this politically charged history of Ashura, we have started by wondering whether the Pakistani Shia we met in Piraeus would connect the martyrdom of their Imam with their everyday martyrdoms in the Greek capital, which can often be an unfamiliar and hostile place. What we have deduced in this article is eloquently summarised by paraphrasing a key Shia slogan: for our interlocutors, “every day is Ashura”, but not every land is Karbala.

The people we met and spoke to may associate extremist Sunni organisations such as isis or al-Qaeda with “Yazid”; in the precarious context in which they live, they are primarily concerned with distancing themselves from the caricature of the “Muslim invader” that haunts Western imaginary constructions. By showing that they are the victims of those “we” are afraid of, they suggest they are closer to “us”; and, in the Greek case, not so different from “us”. Through their active efforts to give Ashura media publicity, they seek to step out of invisibility by presenting themselves in their own terms, against alienating stereotypes, but also by highlighting similarities and cultural comparisons that may deconstruct the distance of otherness. As we have demonstrated in the article, our discussants’ attempts to gain visibility and legitimisation in the wider society are not based on multiculturalist discourses emphasising difference as in other migratory contexts, but are rather articulated around a poetics of similarity. Although we are aware of competing approaches to multiculturalism, we believe these converge in a framework of recognising, accommodating and valuing difference in contexts of ethnic and cultural diversity, against assimilationist views. Such a framework is absent in the case of Greece, where hegemonic conceptions of national homogeneity emphasise notions of belonging that prioritise (Greek) ancestry and (Orthodox) religion, thus leaving little space for accommodating difference.

On the other hand, the article has also shown that, although artistic appropriations of Ashura images—as the movie I Heard God Crying—can provide ground for such a poetics of similarity from a Greek point of view, the mainstream media still reflect this ritual through discourses that emphasise a politics of difference. Moreover, we have also argued that this tolerant view is only recent and remains partial; as we move back in time, or towards the right of the political spectrum, racist xenophobic discourses abound and continue to persist, flourishing anew in the context and conjuncture of the financial and migratory crisis in Greece. Finally, we have shown the ways in which the poetics of similarity and the politics of difference are displayed through the symbolic uses of blood; from the murderous threats of the Neo-Nazis against Shia devotees, to the failed attempt of the psma to donate blood. The latter brings us back to the poetics of similarity, as—although inspired by similar campaigns by Shia in the diaspora and in the Muslim world—it may also be interpreted as a sign of good will, a gesture of integration and reciprocity, which the Greek authorities have chosen to reject.


The concept of the Karbala paradigm “provides models for living and a mnemonic for thinking about how to live”; Fischer, Michael, Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution (Cambridge ma: Harvard University Press, 1980) p. 21. For recent reconsiderations of the Karbala paradigm, see Szanto, Edith “Beyond the Karbala paradigm: Rethinking revolution and redemption in Twelver Shi’a mourning Rituals”, Journal of Shi’a Islamic Studies, 6, no. 1 (2013), pp. 75-91; Shanneik, Yafa, “Remembering Karbala in the diaspora: Religious rituals among Iraqi Shii women in Ireland”, Religion, 45, no. 1 (2015), pp. 89-102.


In South Asia, Azakhana literally means “place of mourning” (from aza = mourning, and khana = place, in Urdu and Farsi). These are the places where Shia communities hold the majlis, a religious gathering in which they narrate the events of Karbala and mourn the martyrs. Gulzar-e Zaynab means “the garden of Zaynab”, Husayn’s beloved sister and a central figure in Shiism.


Spellman-Poots, Kathryn, “Manifestations of Ashura among young British Shia”, in Ethnographies of Islam: Ritual Performances and Everyday Practices, Baudouin Dupret et al. (eds) (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), p. 40.


Flaskerud, Ingvild, “Women transferring Shia rituals in Western migrancy”, in Women Rituals and Ceremonies in Shiite Iran and Muslim Communities: Methodological and Theoretical Challenges, Pedram Khosronejad (ed.) (Berlin: Lit Verlag 2015), pp. 115-134, p. 130.


Shanneik, Yafa, “Remembering Karbala in the diaspora: Religious rituals among Iraqi Shii women in Ireland”, Religion, 45, no. 1 (2015), p.100.


Spellman-Poots, “Manifestations of Ashura”, p. 44. For a recent analysis of women’s self-flagellation in London, see Shanneik, Yafa, “Empowerment through self-flagellation? Religious rituals among Shirazi Shia women in London”, conference paper, The Open University, 12 May 2015.


More specifically, the first author closely followed the ritual activities of the Azakhana over ten weeks, attending every evening majlis, as well as the commemorations of Ashura and Arbaeen: from 24 October 2014 to 10 January 2015 (or, in 1436 ah, from the pre-eve of Muharram to 18 Rabi al-Awaal). Then, he returned to the field in October 2015 in order to attend 1437ah Ashura, and the majlis previous to that date.


With the exception of the spokesman—a highly qualified journalist and computer technician from an elite Karachi family—most of the participants were young working-age males. The length of time for which they had been living and working in the country varied, as did their level of Greek language knowledge; discussions were therefore held in both Greek and English and, in one case, in Spanish.


Our main material came from the private television channel Antenna, including mainly the coverage of Ashura in the evening news once a year (from 2003 to 2015). We also looked at far-right discourses about Ashura in relevant articles on the Golden-Dawn’s website.


Tsitselikis, Konstantinos, Old and New Islam in Greece: From Historical Minorities to Immigrant Newcomers (Leiden: Brill, 2012), pp. 145, 263. See also: Evergeti, Venetia et al., “Greece”, in Handbook of European Islam, Jocelyne Cesari (ed.) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), pp. 350-90.


Evergeti et al., “Greece”, pp. 363-9; Tsitselikis, Old and New Islam in Greece, pp. 158-66.


Hellenic Statistical Authority, Population and Social Conditions: Demography, Census 2011: Usual resident population by country of citizenship, sex and family status (Table A04). Source: (accessed 31.03.2016).


Dalakoglou, Dimitris “The crisis before ‘The crisis’: Violence and urban neoliberalisation in Athens”, Social Justice, 39, no. 1 (2013), pp. 24-42.


Angeli, Danai, Dimitriadi, Angeliki & Triandafyllidou, Anna, “Assessing the cost-effectiveness of irregular migration control policies in Greece”, midas project report, eliamep; Athens, October 2014, pp. 56-8, (accessed 31.03.2016).


Evergeti et al., “Greece”, pp. 366-7.


Consisting of the party’s Greek initials (X and A from Χρυσή Αυγή) on the two sides of a celtic cross inscribed in a circle. Although a pagan symbol, Greek Neo-Nazis connect the Celtic cross with the Greek letter Θ (which they perceive as figuration of the Sun), and also with the ancient cult of Cabeiri. See (accessed 2.4.2016).


Tabar, Paul, “Ashura in Sydney: A transformation of a religious ceremony in the context of a migrant society”, Journal of Intercultural Studies, 23, no. 3 (2010) pp. 285-305, p. 288.


See “Χάραξαν µε µαχαίρι στην πλάτη µετανάστη τα αρχικά της Χρυσής Αυγής”, (accessed 10.04.2015).


Hegland, Mary Elaine, “Flagellation and fundamentalism: (Trans)forming meaning, identity and gender through Pakistani women’s rituals of mourning”, in Eternal Performance: Taziyeh and Other Shiite Rituals, Peter J. Chelkowski (ed.) (Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2010), pp. 334-363.


Our interlocutor probably refers to a massacre of at least 600 Iraqi prisoners in Mosul in the summer of 2014. According to a Human Rights Watch report, “Survivors and witnesses gave disturbing accounts of the massacre at the Badoush prison, and an HRW investigation found the extremist group’s actions to ‘amount to war crimes and most likely crimes against humanity.’ The majority of the executed men were Shiite Muslims.” (accessed 24.02.2016).


Birringer, Johannes, “Absolute terror, or What do you see behind the masks?”, vlak: Contemporary Poetics & the Arts, 5 (2015), pp. 226-36. (accessed 04.02.2016).


For more details on this event, see “Afghanistan: The massacre in Mazar-i Sharif”, Human Rights Watch, 10, no. 7 (1998). (accessed 11.09.2017).


This statement is not without theological basis. As Dabashi demonstrates, both Christianity and Shiism are religions founded on a young, sacrificed son: Jesus, the son of God, and Husayn, the son of Ali and grandson of Muhammad. Dabashi, Hamid, Shi‘ism: A Religion of Protest (Cambridge ma: Harvard University Press, 2011).


E.g. Dubisch, Jill, In a Different Place: Pilgrimage, Gender, and Politics at a Greek Island Shrine (Princeton nj: Princeton University Press, 1995).


The Epitaphios is “the term for the gold-embroidered icon carried on the pall (kouvouklion), the piece of cloth bearing a representation of Christ’s crucified body”. Panurgia, Neni, Fragments of Death, Fables of Identity: An Athenian Anthropography (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995), pp. 152-3.


For a comparative approach on fire walking, see Danford, Loring, Firewalking and Religious Healing: The Anastenaria of Greece and the American Firewalking Movement (Princeton nj: Princeton University Press: 1989).


Terzopoulou, Miranda, “Ιερά δάκρυα, ιερός πόλεµος. Ποιητική και πολιτική της σιιτικής λατρείας των Πακιστανών µεταναστών στην Ελλάδα” (Holy tears, holy war: Poetics and politics of Shia worship of Pakistani migrants in Greece), in Ετερότητες και µουσική στα Βαλκάνια (Otherness and music in the Balkans), special issue of Tetradia, 4 (2008) pp. 91-9, Arta: tei Epiros & kemo.


Skoufalou, Elpida, I Heard God Crying (Greece, colour, 2012). According to the director, the shooting took ten whole years. It is worth noting that Miranda Terzopoulou, the author of the article cited above, worked as the scientific advisor on this movie.


Arbaʿin (Arabic: forty) marks the commemoration of the fortieth day after the death of Imam Husayn and the Karbala massacre.


Skoufalou, Elpida, interview given to Nestoras Poulakos on 19 August 2013 for the cinematographic portal See (accessed 04.03.2016).




Although we were kindly provided with videos of the programmes covering Ashura in Piraeus since 2004 from the channel archives in chronological order, they are not dated, even by year. Thus, although we can speculate, we cannot be fully sure of the exact dates, except for the most recent (2014) and the earliest cases (2004) discussed here.


One of our interlocutors found this particular programme highly upsetting, and informed us that the psma had sued the Antenna channel for defamation.


Their website says: “We call every Comrade, every friend of the Party to participate in this effort to raise the social awareness of Greek society, as the need is great and every drop of blood is precious. This blood will save Greek lives! It’s everyone’s duty!” (accessed 04.03.2016). Apart from societal reactions to the occasions when Golden Dawn attempted to organise donations “for Greeks only” from 2012, the National Blood Donation Centre officially prohibited them in October 2015.


Public self-flagellation and blood-shedding has been a controversial issue, not only between Sunni and Shia Muslims, but also among different Shia communities and clergy, as it relates to discussions regarding ‘barbarism’ and ‘modernity’. For a thorough analysis, see Weiss, Max, In the Shadow of Sectarianism: Law, Shi‘ism, and the Making of Modern Lebanon (Cambridge ma: Harvard University Press, 2010), pp. 61-91.


Hellenic Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (accessed 02.04.2016).