Docked alongside Greek fish taverns and cafes, multi-flagged naval vessels unload their human cargo, and their crews’ depleted spirits, onto this postcard-perfect island. Muslim migrants and refugees flow onto Greece’s shores, fleeing troubles at home and looking for a better, European future.
It is the stuff of Steve Bannon’s nightmares.
Humanitarian images on Lesbos’ sunny beaches and camps likely look to President Donald Trump’s chief strategist like the geopolitical frontline in his perceived war on Western civilization. Bannon sees here the starting point for a great Muslim march across Europe - a condition he identifies as “civilizational jihad personified by this migrant crisis.” His boss has picked up on the theme.
Trump went to Poland earlier this month and, in a speech heavily influenced by Bannon’s worldview, challenged the West to muster “the will to survive.” Trump, who actively conflates immigration with terrorism, refugees with sleeper cells, called on Europe and America to determine whether they have the will to defend themselves. “Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?”
It is this worldview - Bannon’s and Trump’s and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s - that paints the refugee crisis and mass migrant flows to Europe as an existential threat. These new, self-proclaimed defenders of Western cultural heritage and democracy look at modern Greece as the place where their values are being slaughtered at the hands of approaching Muslim hordes. On these shores.
It is an argument that should seemingly go far here in the birthplace of the very Western civilization that this Trumputinon triumvirate says it wants to buttress.
It was not, historically speaking, so long ago that Greece and this island were under Islamic Ottoman rule. Lesbos’ main town of Mytilene is crowned by a Castle fortress that was overtaken by the Turkish Ottomans in 1462 and then housed madrasas and mosques. Their now-ruined structures are a prominent and stark reminder of a recent past where Greek culture and Orthodox Christianity were subordinated to Turkish rule until the early 20th century. And today, a freshly belligerent and all-powerful Turkish President Recep Erdogan is rhetorically reasserting his military might and self-understood historic right to parts of Greece.
Overpaid human smugglers charge around 2000 euros each from desperate Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis and then launch them on dangerously overloaded rubber rafts toward the nearest EU entry point. They wish their passengers luck and point the barely floating deathboats toward Lesbos’ lights.
And yet, instead of feeling resentful or threatened, Lesbos’ islanders receive these people with open arms and few complaints, despite their own economic hardships and dropping tourism revenues. In this moment of global political cynicism and financial misfortune, it is a rare and reaffirming phenomenon to observe Greeks’ selfless acts toward helpless souls.
Since 2015, over a million people have been processed through this island, primarily inside the Moria camp, a dusty holding center surrounded by barbed wire and chain link fence. Moria is currently at twice capacity, full of too many single men hoping for a shot at permanent residency somewhere in Northern Europe. Greek residency was never their goal and this island was never their final destination. Frustrated by the slow pace of extreme vetting and the growing certainty that those from non-asylum qualified African nations are stuck, camp residents often clash with security forces. Last week, the camp was evacuated due to riots and fires.
Bannon may be right to suggest migration is a threat. It is a threat to Western establishment politics, if not civilization. Fresh waves of foreigners washing ashore put enormous pressure on European governments and ruling parties. Immigration contributed to the Brexit “Leave” vote, with the referendum interpreted as the British heartland’s repudiation of an open, welcoming and cosmopolitan London.
Is the migration wave a Trojan Horse ruse? Is political Islam wheedling its way into Western institutions, waiting for the opportune moment to undermine the entire system? It is certainly a justification used by the paranoid and the newly powerful to justify a potential grand bargain between Washington and Moscow. It seems the rationale for Trump and Putin to work together to defend Western civilization.
Despite the political fearmongering and Lesbos’ own history, there is little obvious concern on the island. Instead, there is widespread belief here that tourists, military, and modern EU institutions protect Greece from modern day Islam’s demographic dominance.
People like Bannon, however, see a growing strategic threat. For them, this is a clear and present danger that probably keeps them awake at night.
Markos Kounalakis is a senior fellow at Central European University and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.