THU, 07 DEC 2000 22:23:12 GMT
AIM Athens, December 7, 2000
Recently an event took place in a Greek school which is characteristic of the overall Greek attitude towards the Albanians from Albania residing in Greece. The Greeks, for the most part, have shown a marked intolerance towards the Albanian migrant workers and their families, an attitude which smacks of ethnic discrimination bordering on racism. Ironically this was precisely the attitude of the host countries and their people towards Greek migrants in the United States in the first part of the 20th century and towards Greek migrant workers in Germany in the 1950s and 1960s.
In the case in question, a young Albanian pupil happened to excel in his class having earned the highest grades, an achievement which by reigning Greek school rules entitled him to bear the Greek flag during the school's parade in Greece's national holidays, something which is regarded a great honor. The Greeks at the local level were apparently appalled at the prospect of an Albanian bearing the Greek flag and ended up not permitting the youngster to carry the flag. Not being ethnically Greek, he was not deemed worthy of such an honor. Greeks at governmental level, including the Greek President, where mortified and took to upholding the young Albanian's right to bear the Greek flag. However the grounds for this more correct view are, it seems to me, suspect. They imply paternalism and a subtle attempt at ethnic assimilation.
What is beyond doubt is that in the last ten years, the Albanians rank last according to the Greek images regarding other nations and ethnic groups, even below the Roma and the Turks who are also held in very low esteem. Why this downgrading? We will try to offer some possible reasons for this despicable state of affairs.
Well before the upsurge of Greece ultra-nationalism, which manifested itself during the first part of the 1990s with the Greek-Macedonian dispute over "the name of Macedonia" and more recently with the hysterical fundamentalist nationalism of the Orthodox Church of Greece, nationalist sentiments were instilled in Greece by way of the most traditional and effective method: namely primary and secondary education (and in some cases even at university level). Education, as it is well known, has been used as a vehicle of political socialization, the process whereby young individuals learn to become enthusiastic patriots and loyal citizens of their country and state. The Greek educational system is of course not unique in pursuing such aims and hardly the inventor of such forms of socialization to the nation. Similar processes are more than obvious in all the countries of Southeastern Europe and beyond. Even a student in, say, Denmark is taught somewhat differently a historical event regarding inter-Nordic relations than a Swede or a Norwegian, though these countries have not gone to war between themselves for centuries. One is made to love his country and feel a sense of utmost devotion to his nation and by the same token to despise and hate his/her nation's historical enemies, who are regarded uncivilized, untrustworthy, immoral, hostile, aggressive, expansionist, devious and so one. The key is of course to convince one's fellow citizens of the supremacy of one's nation (a) by bestowing the nation with all the merits imaginable and (b) downgrading all foreign nations and groups, the enemies the more so. The national myth is part and parcel of the national narrative and national project.
In the Greek case, the pupils are thought to be intolerant of other nations and ethnic groups (outside and within Greece). The Greek educational system teaches them and makes them believe that the Greeks are superior to all others; that the Greeks are the direct descendent of the illustrious ancient Greeks, who are said to be the greatest civilization of ancient times and the point of departure of Western civilization; and that the Greeks (presumably the ancient Greeks) are the creators of all major human values with an incomparable contribution to world culture. Greek students are also taught that their nation is more than 3000 years old. They do not recognize the well-known fact that nationhood is a very recent phenomenon in human history and that hardly any Greek nation or people existed in the classical ancient Greek cultural-linguistic milieu of antagonistic city-states. Again the attempt at historical depth is characteristic of most national historical narratives, but the Greek case is one of the most extreme, comparable only to the Israeli or Ethiopian cases. Furthermore it is deeply held and provides the Greeks of today with one of the most glorious myths ever conceived. It gives rise to self-esteem but also to arrogance and haughtiness towards all others.
Another masterful stoke of the Greek national historical narrative is the fusion of two directly opposed movements and belief systems, namely the spirit of ancient Greek philosophy and culture (which remained alive in some peripheral intellectual and elite quarters of the Byzantine Empire) with its prime historical enemy, Christianity (notably Orthodox Christianity) and the theocratic Byzantium (which regarded itself as the state of the Christian world in its entirety) which was virulently anti-Greek (Greek being defined as heathen and infidel). In addition young Greeks are taught something even more far-fetched: that they have no relation or intermingling and cross-fertilization whatsoever with any other culture, nation or ethnic group in their vicinity. They end up regarding themselves as standing stand alone, unique, aloof, apart and well above all the rest!
All this is deeply ingrained and remains valid for most adult Greek individuals (e.g. schoolteachers, administrators, politicians, diplomats even several academics which should have known better) who do not bother to check whether the information handed over to them in school bears correspondence to historical reality. After all it is such a soothing collective identity for Greeks, so why bother to question it?
But let us focus on the Albanians and how they feature in the Greek national narrative. Throughout the 19th century with the Greek War of Independence ("Greek Revolution" as it is known in Greece) as the point of departure, the Albanian-speakers, notably the Orthodox Christian Albanian-speakers known as "Arvanites" were largely regarded as Greeks by the Greeks and Greeks-speakers, as Greeks in substance, "Greeks and Arvanites: two races, one nation" as some had put it at the time. And indeed this was to a considerable extent the self-definition of the Arvanites themselves at least in the southern part of the Balkan peninsula at a time when no sense of Albanian national self-consciousness had emerged. Albanian nationhood began in the last quarter of the 19th century in Kosovo, particularly as a reaction to the Serbian and Greek threats to those parts of the Ottoman Empire where the bulk of the Albanians lived for centuries. Prior to that the Orthodox Albanians in the Southern Balkans were among the most active and renown "Greek" guerrilla leaders on land and sea during the Greek War of Independence and with the advent of Greek independence and until today, fully assimilated and very prominent in politics, diplomacy, the army, etc.
This leads us to another possible interpretation of the outrageous Greek stance towards the modern-day Albanians from Albania who have the misfortune to live in Greece. The fact that the two ethnic groups have been so intricately interwoven for centuries (well before the advent of nationalism) may have prompted them to erect fences between in-group and out-group, to solidify ethnic boundaries between them when none existed before (particularly as far as Orthodox Albanians and Greeks were concerned). What we are implying is the antithesis of the largely erroneous Samuel Huntington thesis of clash civilizations, namely the fissures which inexorably lead to endless conflicts. Nearness, being very close and intermingled as cultures to the extent of being indistinguishable in the course of the 19th century may have given rise to this trend for clear-cut boundaries on both sides (as seen on the Albanian side in Albania among nationalists and right-wingers such as Berisha and other like-minded Albanians). Boundaries almost by definition create a sense of shrill ethnocentrism and hate for the Other, the closer he is culturally and physically the more hysterical and ridiculous the downgrading, but also very real and explosive in inter-ethnic and inter-state relations, as in the case of Greece today. _____________________
(i) Alexis Heraclides is Associate Professor of International Relations at the Panteion University in Athens
Alexis Heraclides (i)