Saturday, October 20, 2018


Outrage emanating from our motherland, is reaching our shores of late. A large cement Christian cross, constructed on the rocky shore of Apelli, under the castle of Mytilene in Lesbos, in honour of the people that have died swimming there has been pulled down, after an advocacy group "Co-existence and Communication in the Aegean" based on the island claimed it was offensive to refugees who are not Christian.
 In particular, activist group sent a letter to the Harbour Minister and the Mayor of Lesbos, in which it was claimed that the Cross was placed there to prevent refugees from swimming.
 "This act is illegal, unsightly (reminiscent of a grave) but mostly offensive to the symbol of Christianity, a symbol of love and sacrifice, not racism and intolerance,” the letter claimed. A few days later, the cross was toppled.
 Here in the Antipodes, the demotion of the cross was met with derision and anger among many Greek-Australians. Yet the focus of their ire was not the group that advocated the removal of the cross, comprised of ethnic Greeks but rather, of the refugees themselves:
“…if you see this pic [of the fallen cross] and agree and not hate these f……s than get off my f…..n wall and take all of them with you to your home and feed them! I don’t want to listen to stupid excuses about them ... There’s a war happening and people are too dumb and stupid to see it! It’s a religious war!” quoth one incensed Greek-Australian.
“I will gladly drown them in the Mediterranean," asserted an indignant member of our community.
“How dare these illegal immigrants run amok as if they own our country. In 20 years time Ellas will be a MUSLIM COUNTRY and our people are still sleep walking to their own disaster and catastrophe…” was the considered opinion of another Greek-Australian.
 There is of course, absolutely no evidence to suggest that Muslim refugees or migrants, primarily from Syria, sought the removal of the cross. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that they are responsible for its demotion. Instead, the general consensus within Greece is that the cross was toppled by the Greek advocacy group that formed the opinion of its own accord, that a) Muslims find the cross offensive and that b) it is preventing them from swimming.
 This rationale in itself is interesting and requires further examination. For in its attempt to appear tolerant and sensitive to the needs of muslim refugees and migrants, this group has engaged in blatant orientalism and stereotypisation, immediately placing muslims outside of the general community as persons who do not accept prevailing mores and attitudes. They have in fact, painted them as “the other” even as they, integrated as they are within Greek society, deprive them of a voice, by abrogating to the themselves, the role of being their advocates.
 It should be pointed out that the profile painted by their manifestly unskilled self-appointed advocates, is one that portrays all muslim refugees and migrants as intolerant, disrespectful of the prevailing culture, subversive and therefore dangerous. There is only a short semantic distance between Greeks demanding the destruction of religious symbols lest muslims take matters into their own hands, and this comment by an old Calendarist priest on social media:
“As we all see they "travel" light. Small bag the most and new smartphones. It's easy way to give orders to many people fast. Somebody tell them how to move, where to go, where to sleep at night (Aristotelous Square), which road to block and when. They move according to a plan.And when it's time they will attack, like ants attack a wounded insect…”
In both these images, the dehumanisation of muslim refugees and migrants, their portrayal as entities that have to be variously placated or feared, is eerily similar.
 The elevation of a cross on the shores of Apelli, contrary to whatever ideologically sterile co-existence groups may claim, is not an act of racism or hatred. It is intended as a gesture of honour and sorrow for those who did not make the perilous journey across the water, regardless of their religious faith, (though it should be noted that there are numerous christians among those fleeing the conflagrations of the Middle East) articulated in the cultural vocabulary of the people who erected it. Sadly, this was not respected or understood by the co-existence advocacy groups that appear to be responsible for toppling it, in the “name” of their muslim wards, but evidently, without their consent or authority.
 Furthermore, it is inordinately difficult to maintain that the existence of the cross was offending Muslims and preventing them from swimming. Most of the muslim refugees and migrants on Lesbos come from Syria, a land where before the war, thirty percent of the population was Christian and crosses were ubiquitous within the urban and rural landscape. Though there have reported incidents of migrants and refugees vandalising sacred sites and items within Greece, vile acts that deserve condemnation, to make the sweeping generalisation that all muslims in particular cannot abide or function under the cross is not only to promote the type of racial hated that co-existence advocates are levelling at those who erected the cross in the first place, but also, to display complete ignorance of the complex demography of the society from which these new arrivals have come.
 Obviously then, the problem with the elevation and subsequent toppling of the cross has little to do with the Muslim arrivals and their status in Greece and is rather, symptomatic of broader tensions within Greek society. A decade on from the economic crisis that tore the social fabric of the country asunder, Greece is undergoing a cultural and political polarisation, as various factions cling to cultural elements that they belief are vital to Greece’s regenesis. This is a process fraught with internecine strife, as Greece has become a society where persons who exist outside mainstream polar opposites, such as Athenian LGBTQ activist Zak can be lynched on the street, or where leftist and rightest affiliated groups can go marauding in the streets, causing damage to property and persons, with relative impunity.
 In such a climate of intense foment, symbols, beliefs, opinions and ideas are all debated, disputed, derided and held up to question, as society struggles to re-evaluate itself. Symbols that connote the establishment, such as the Greek Orthodox Church, which in Greece, has been placed since the time of the Bavarians, in the anomalous position of being part of the State and thus is seen by many to project power for purposes that they consider to be malign, are variously re-negotiated, affirmed or in the case of the co-existence advocates, discarded. It is therefore not specifically the Muslim refugees and migrants of Lesbos that have a problem with the cross but rather, a section of Greek society itself. And when they destroy the cross in the name of others, what they are actually doing, is destroying it, or all they believe it connotes, for themselves. They are the iconoclasts of old, re-cast in modern form, destroying the symbols that offend their contemporary ideology, with the religious zeal that one would expect in a society at war with itself, and no longer capable of rational rebate, or dare one say it, peaceful co-existence.
 Given that up until now, the symbol of the Cross has been interwoven within most Greeks’ conception of the Greek identity, it is traumatic for many to contemplate that their compatriots would desecrate this holy and intrinsic symbol in this way. It is for this reason that they displace their anger and bewilderment, visiting it upon a party that is largely voiceless and subsists at the margins of the great Greek societal deconstruction. It is too hard for them to come to terms with the fact that the old certainties are over and the lack of consensus over what Greece as a country, a society and a people should be, is a process that however painful, must be negotiated.
In the case of many Greek-Australians, this displaced anger comes from another source: given that they are not physically present in land they identify with, the existence of others within it, occupying physically, the space that they occupy mentally, delegitimises their claim to their own identity and thus threatens their entire self-conception. The thought that others may come to share of or appropriate the identity they have taken such pains to cultivate at so great a distance from its source, is unbearable.
 The destruction of the Lesbian cross is thus a tragedy, for persons of all faiths and political beliefs. In their sectarian fervour to enforce their own ideological orthodoxy upon the members of their community through an act of violence, the co-existence advocates have in fact propagated the idea that one can only accommodate others by destroying one’s own position or cultural capital, that one can only assert one’s will by impinging upon that of another, by force. In their attempt to be “tolerant” they have in fact inverted the tenets of liberal democracy, paving the way for the perpetuation of fractious and socially corrosive strife that will prove inimical to the coalescence of community cohesion for years to come. And that, in my mind is much more dangerous, than fears of any ‘Muslim Invasion.”

First published in NKEE on Saturday 20 October 2018