The decades long rift between Greece and Turkey over the existence of the Patriarchate of Constantinople has become a tumultuous hot-button issue in lieu of Turkey’s potential admittance to the European Union.
For those outside the conflict– Europe’s secularized political classes, Greeks in America– it has become yet another example of a cultural rivalry that would rather play itself out winner-take-all, than meet half way in hopes of showing Europe the very tolerance and flexibility they accuse each other of lacking.
The slippery slope many Greeks are on claims that if Turkey’s Islamic-rooted parliament is incapable of accepting a Greek Orthodox religious campus in the Phanar, they’re also incapable of being a member in good standing in the Union.
At least that’s how the argument went before the country defaulted on $367 billion they owed their fellow European economies.
As a Greek who has visited the Patriarchate, it’s all but heresy to debate the premise. But the assertion that the Patriarchate is an “historic artifact” and therefore must be preserved smacks of exceptionalism.
Greece has hosted its fair share of cultural intolerance: the historic black eye of the Chams/Shqiptar, the burning of American flags after 9/11, the scapegoating of Balkan minorities for increases in crime and loss of employment, to name only three.
Is the “historic artifact” argument sincere or is the stubborn insistence that the spiritual center of Greek Orthodoxy remain in a predominantly Muslim city masking more socio-political motives? Moving the Patriarchate back to mainland Greece seems like a rational solution but it was rejected because Athens already has an Archbishop, independent of Bartholomew. Apparently sharing his jurisdiction was out of the question.
More than that, though, is the reality that the Patriarchate has been defining itself in opposition to the Turkish government for so long that it has ingratiated that fight into it’s own identity: without Turkish persecution, how does the Patriarchate push its agenda forward?
For the Turks, the Patriarchate is less an historic artifact than it is a remnant of Byzantine colonialism. It must be swept away now, just as it swept away mosques when laying claim to the land centuries ago.
The opportunity is still within Greece’s reach to break the cycle, and show the same level of respect they demand in the Bosporus. What will benefit both countries most is avoiding conflict.
There are economic advantages for Greece if Turkey enters the EU, primarily, a substantial decrease in Greek military spending and compulsory military service: money which might be used to say, build a new Patriarchate on Greek soil for future generations. But this possibility is too distant for Greece to appreciate. They’re in the Union and their nemesis is not: entitlement rules over assimilation.
The position illuminates an issue beyond the battle over the Patriarchate. One that relates to the overall commitments, or consequences one shouls say, of what participation in the European Union means ideologically.
The E.U. became a unified market through a its common currency and the acceptance of a standardized system of laws. First and foremost, it insured the freedom of movement for all people, goods, and services throughout all 27-member countries.
Greece insisted on joining in the 80’s in hopes of accessing various structural funds and tax benefits paid by fellow union members and did so subject to the mandates to open their borders. But for all the rhetoric to the contrary, the birthplace of democracy still suffers from acute xenophobia.
At present, roughly 1.7 M people are foreigners in Greece, a substantial number in a country of 11 million. Many of them are citizens. They vote and pay taxes. The government wants to claim that 95% of country is Greek Orthodox, but when last polled, less than 30% ever went to Church.
Like all EU members, Greece experienced an influx of undocumented migrants and asylum seekers trolling for some trickle down of these EU benefits. Greece promptly blamed them for the country’s variegated failures.
“Immigration is the oil spill of Capitalism,” writes Guy Debord. It’s the transparent risk one accepts for the potential rewards of a free market. But Greece fails to embrace the dichotomy. When will the Greeks learn to live with others, or in the face of the cyclical anti-government riots, among themselves?
The harassment of Patriarch Bartholomew, and other members of the clergy, by the Turkish parliament is infuriating, but what of Greece’s human right record?
Reports surrounding the deportation of foreigners are abysmal. Rarely are migrants processed in a way that would meet the criteria of a fair trial and/or humane treatment. Thousands are arrested and processed without representation. Those who are taken to court are done so without interpreters and held for inordinately long periods in detention centers awaiting deportation.
In one of the most egregious transgressions for any European country, five members of the Greek Coast Guard were caught smuggling illegal immigrants from Iraq, Afghanistan and The Caucuses to Italy, in one of the biggest human trafficking operations ever uncovered: all to bank a euro.
Gone is the homogenous state socialist version of the past. All now bow to the altar of neoliberalism.
To argue that threatening the Patriarchate is akin to threatening our ancestry, our core identity, is to start a dangerous line of reasoning; one that has been employed to justify humankind’s most deplorable behavior.
Pick any of the genocides we’ve seen in the 20th century and behind each you find a demagogue using an ad hominem argument to claim a once pure (“sacred”) culture is being threatened (“infected”) by a barbaric civilization.
The Ethno-Nationalism of the middle class in Greece is no different. In the last few years we have seen the rise of LAOS, a new Orthodox fascist political party that gained 5% of the vote last election.
Granted, Europeans historically aren’t as open with civil rights as the US. They clearly have less hesitation in tolerating Muslim traditions. The ruling in France prohibiting students from wearing traditional religious garb was singular: you are French now, act like it.
At times, France appears as racist as Greece. The use of cheap Algerian labor to rebuild Paris after WWII was followed by the creation of isolated suburban tenements far from the proper French society these very emigrants restored. Though emphatic claims to the contrary persist, there is a patented racist class structure in place throughout Europe: one that every so often implodes in the type of riots Paris and Athens recently experienced.
As long as Capitalism prevails, it will feed and grow on the exploitation of cheap labor. There would not be a strong China had it not been for the fall of the Soviet Union. It was blind luck for Western businesses as it freed up a mass of workers with no social safety net. Moreover, the Politburo Standing Committee has been instituting market reforms in the country since the late 70’s. The Tiananmen Square riots were less about wanting more of Western ways than it was workers fighting to regain what they lost under the old communist system.
The contemporary Greek claim to an identity of separation seems to be rooted in a bastard hybrid called Hellenism, comprised mostly of Greek Orthodoxy as a symbol of difference, versus 400 years of occupation by the Ottomans. Modern Greece will always be a mixed bag. Hellenism is no more than a myth first promulgated by Alexander The Great, and later, by the Great Powers (Russia, France, England) who pulled together a group of mountain peasants, bandits, pirates, laborers, etc. in an effort to fight the Ottomans.
At the time, the Orthodox Church was quite comfortable with Ottoman rule. So much so, that they choose it over an alliance with the Pope. The Greek intelligentsia employed by the Sultans was flatly against the idea of a Greek State. Caught up in a dust cloud of Ottoman science and culture, Greece essentially missed out on the Enlightenment, an ingredient modern scholars attribute to much of today’s predicament.
Ironically, outside of government mandated religious holidays, present day Greeks share little cultural differences with the present day Turks. Is it any wonder why corruption, a hallmark of the Ottoman era, is the norm in the political system in Athens?
Greeks support the Palestinian struggle because they were also “occupied” for so long. Similar to the Palestinians, many of the older generations (Diaspora Greeks bred on a diet of propaganda), still await their right of return to these disputed lands (Izmir, Istanbul, etc). This is ludicrous, and Greeks in Greece could give a damn. They are too busy clinging to their resentment of the west, particularly the US and UK who promised them equality in post-war Europe, but have since used the country as a political pawn/vacation destination for the middle class.
The US aided the junta against Papandreou partly as a result of his so-called Marxism, but mainly because he had conceived of an idea called Third Worldism where Greece would lead the Arab World/Northern Africa with the Soviets in a security arrangement.
Europe (and the US) must bear the brunt of their past colonialism, their military domination of entire cultures, and their continued exploitation of the 3rd world for goods, food and labor. It is a dangerous hypocrisy to champion the preservation of certain cultural symbols while trouncing on others. The larger, more disconcerting issue this uncovers is how Globalism in general will turn issues of “national identity” and “religious dogma” into historical anachronisms.
Implicit in the spread of Globalism is the unfortunate law of the jungle that “landmarks” such as the Patriarchate will inevitably be brushed away. Either as a casualty of the forward march of the free market, or as a concession to the Turks in return for some form of compensation down the line. Hard as it may be to accept, the truth is that religious symbols hold less significance when one views everything through the prism of material realities and economic alliances; something socialists, anarchists and true communists have fought against since the beginning of time: post Marxist classlessness.
Would a union of Internationalist Workers against capital, against borders and cultural, racial lines stand a chance? Or has Globalism made us all workers without a home, constantly mobile, with no time to stay in one place to create either community, or spiritual sanctuary? We are fast becoming a civilization of mixed mongrels and mediating the type of interaction this new breed should adhere to based on a limited, religious perspective is not only impractical, but improbable.
This debate is not just about the Patriarchate, unfortunately. Today’s cathedrals are the homogenous high-rise towers, efficient modes of transport, and the borderless internet. The most successful multicultural societies will endorse and promote the diversities that are compatible with tolerance and eliminate those that cause conflict. Globalism in this form will transcend culture, not destroy it. But its participants need to be willing. “Use value” is the new dogma. It dominates the terms of human interaction. And to the recalcitrant Greeks, it clearly appears more “useful” to maintain controversy with Turkey, than to cooperate.