Greek civilization, with its iconic architecture and distinguished philosophers, is often heralded as the cornerstone of Western culture. It is commonly asserted that Greek heritage played a pivotal role in shaping the West. However, this perspective warrants a deeper exploration: Why do we perceive Greek culture in such a monolithic and fantastical manner? The Greeks are paradoxically stereotyped both as ancient trailblazers and, in a more derogatory sense, as the "lazy people" known for souvlaki and some vacation islands. This duality is evident in the way Greek identity is employed in varying contexts: it is celebrated to exemplify Western superiority, yet disparaged to belittle contemporary Greeks.
The idealized Greek image propagated in the West hardly reflected the daily life of an actual Greek. Blaming Ottoman rule for cultural 'corruption' oversimplifies history. The late economic struggles of the Ottoman Empire did hinder cultural progress, but cultural transformation didn't occur overnight – even in four centuries. Ottoman governance didn’t aggressively enforce cultural assimilation; it allowed non-Muslims to retain their identities while aggressively encouraging conversion through religion. This hierarchical system was economically beneficial and prevented minorities (and Muslims) from gaining too much power, ensuring the dominance of the Ottoman dynasty.
However, this system began to fail as Western powers grew stronger. Rising nationalism ignited a desire among various groups to establish their distinct nations, separate from the empire. While nationalism can seem liberating, one must question the motives behind these separatist movements. They sought self-rule, cultural and religious freedom, and an escape from being second-class citizens – all reasonable aspirations.
However, these nationalist movements were often co-opted by Western empires eager to exploit these regions' riches. British hesitation eventually gave way to support for Greek independence, influenced by wealthy 'philhellenes' enamoured with the romanticized version of ancient Greece. However, the perspective of these Philhellenes, and their manner of perceiving Greece, was inherently dehumanizing, akin to the contemporary fascination with Japanese and Korean pop culture. This fascination often leads to an oversimplified understanding of these cultures, reducing them to mere objects of entertainment.
Greece, upon gaining what seemed like independence, merely shifted from Turkish to Western influence. This transition was marked by significant economic and military challenges. One key factor was the Ottoman restrictions on arms for non-Muslims, which had hindered the development of a robust military tradition in Greece. Additionally, the absence of a longstanding tradition of military further compounded these difficulties, leaving Greece to navigate complex political and military landscapes without a solid foundation of its own established systems.
Contrary to popular belief, Greek society wasn't monolithic. A Peloponnesian was different than a Pontic, though sharing Orthodox Christianity and the Greek language, it had distinct historical roots and cultural traditions. The threat of external forces like the Ottomans and Muslims led to some homogenization, but significant differences remained. The Western portrayal of Greeks as a singular ancient group from Athens or nearby islands simplifies and distorts this complexity.
Viewing people's groups solely through the lens of national borders is limited and misleading, often serving specific agendas. In reality, states frequently shape nations, with diverse groups uniting under a common political and cultural identity. This process challenges the simplistic approach of defining people only by ethnicity and nation-state, highlighting the interconnected and dynamic nature of human societies.
The formation of nations often involves uniting diverse groups under a single national identity, a process that can lead to the oversimplification of internal cultural differences. This unification typically aligns with the nationalist agenda of creating a distinct and exceptional identity, often in reaction to external influences or perceived threats. In doing so, nations like Turkey, Serbia, Macedonia, Greece, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Armenia, Israel and many more have constructed national myths and narratives that emphasize their uniqueness. This approach can result in the overshadowing of regional and ethnic diversity within the nation's borders, as seen in the case of Greek identity, where differences between various Greek communities are minimized to promote a unified national story. This process highlights the complex balance between fostering a shared national identity and preserving the rich diversity of individual and regional cultures.
This process of creating a unified national identity often simplifies and diminishes the complexities of the individual cultures and histories within a nation. Sadly, these efforts to construct a linear, straightforward national narrative align with Western perceptions and stereotypes. In the case of the Greeks, for example, the diverse and intricate histories of different Greek communities have been streamlined into a single, less complex narrative. This aligns with Western beliefs that tend to view Greeks as a homogeneous and straightforward group, disregarding the rich tapestry of regional variations, historical experiences, and cultural nuances that characterize the Greek people. Such a reductive view not only oversimplifies the nation-building process but also fails to acknowledge the depth and diversity inherent in national identities.
Western media perpetuates stereotypes of Greeks, showing little interest in understanding the real Greece and its people. They focus on the Greek fantasy to reinforce their narrative of Western superiority. Even the Greek diaspora sometimes caricatures their identity to maintain a sense of belonging in Western societies.
This oversimplification has harmed Greece's internal development. Nationalists, under the guise of preserving identity, often end up diluting the rich cultural diversity of their people. The nuances between Greeks from different regions have been forcibly homogenized, and their languages and customs standardized.
Today, Greek gods and Olympians are often used as simplistic symbols of Greek culture, ignoring the true depth and diversity of Greek history and society. It's disheartening to see Greeks still grappling with their identity, influenced by both the European Union and Western powers. The treatment of Greece by Western European countries often seems patronizing.
Although my focus is on Greeks being stereotyped, I acknowledge that other groups experience this as well. I would like to briefly touch on Turkish nationalists rediscovering Turkic identities and how they are turning the contemporary Turkic cultures of Central Asia into a caricature. They create an imagined identity scraped together from bits and pieces of archaeological monuments. The extreme caricaturization of many Turkics or cultures related to Turkic cultures is ridiculous and unhealthy. It creates a false identity that is neither national nor logical. The grey wolf symbolism and the belief that every Turkic group used the Turkic alphabet until it was corrupted by Arab expansion, among other similar beliefs, are incorrect. People use alphabets due to a need; they change alphabets and borrow new words from others due to something lacking in their groups.
They look at the Uzbek and Kazakh cultures and call them "real Turks," while also considering themselves as real Turks. However, their logic is hard to understand. They adopt the music, dresses, and symbols of these cultures as if they rightfully own them, failing to understand that these cultures are not direct descendants of the pure Turkic Khaganates themselves. Just because of the rediscovery of a possible alliance and national story, you cannot take someone else's history and culture and call it your own. You have more in common with the Greek, Bosnian, Armenian, and Iraqi neighbours than with the Kazakhs, because you are already in the land of your ancestors, your history.
This is normal and natural, so Turkic khanates abandoned the primitive Turkic alphabet in favour of more useful ones. If they can abandon something considered sacred or national, it implies that these people do not care much about getting stuck in one thing just to protect their imaginary identities. No, they don't do that; people groups use or do what is necessary and what is useful. And the belief that most Turks see Anatolia as a place they came to is also incorrect. People were already in Anatolia; the Turkic leaders and tribes later came there, and this does not mean that the people who were already there would disappear and vanish. That is not logical.
The Turkics came afterward to join the people of Anatolia, yet these people cannot see the Anatolians as their true ancestors; they hang on to the ruling caste's identity. This shows how being a Turk or a Muslim was perceived in the systems that were imposed upon the Anatolian people, I believe. They should have acknowledged that they came here and that we were always here, but instead, they say that we arrived here and the Anatolians just disappeared.
Turkish nationalists often idealize their culture by reverting to Turkic Khaganates and incorporating elements from Central Asian Turkic cultures like Uzbek and Kazakh. This oversimplification overlooks Turkey's complex history and the myriad of influences shaping its modern identity. By focusing on a 'pure' Turkic heritage, they inadvertently ignore the diverse cultural contributions from Greek, Armenian, Kurdish, and other communities. Adopting traditions from different Turkic groups without recognizing their unique histories results in a homogenized and inaccurate portrayal of Turkey's heritage.
Greek nationalists, in a similar vein, tend to oversimplify their culture by predominantly emphasizing the ancient Hellenic or Byzantine period, overshadowing significant Ottoman, and modern influences. This approach, which idolizes ancient Greece, neglects the internal diversity and historical influences within Greek society. The stereotypical image of Greeks as direct descendants of ancient Greek figures and culture minimizes the roles of other ethnic and regional groups in Greek history.
Both Turkish and Greek nationalist narratives often focus on certain historical epochs, idealizing a 'golden age' while overlooking the contributions of diverse cultures and historical periods. Such selective historical perspectives lead to a distorted view of their national identities, simplifying them into monolithic entities. This oversimplification fails to recognize the rich, complex histories and cultural interactions that have shaped both nations, as well as the internal diversity and regional differences present in Turkish and Greek societies. Consequently, these nationalist narratives not only misrepresent history but also impede a fuller understanding and appreciation of the intricate cultural heritages of Turkey and Greece. They harm their own 'nation'.
National fantasies are not created to save people; they feed the people with paranoia and control them through national paranoia and fear. The enemy is at the door; we have to attack or defend.
When we attack (righteously) and they defend, we see their defence as an attack on us and justify attacking more and more.
In the end, what is left is always paranoia and the fear of being replaced, relocated, and diminished. Sadly, this is the state of the post-Ottoman existence.
The burden of this stress, a shadow over hearts, must inevitably find release. In this lies the sorrow of the present, a melancholy profound. Yet, in its eventual unfurling, a deeper sadness awaits, like a quiet after the storm, more poignant and resonant than before...
This plague settled into our society 200 years ago, and we completely separated from each other 100 years ago. Now, this plague is going to drag us into an even greater calamity...