Greeks ask: What’s in a flag?

A national celebration has, once again, been a cause for division rather than unity, triggering a brawl over the nature of Greek identity and the meaning of national symbols. At the same time, the uproar over the right of foreigners to carry the Greek flag in national parades – in what appears to be the local manifestation of a tussle that is going on in various degrees and forms in other European nations – underscored Greece’s largely unadmitted difficulty with coming to terms with a changing society. The controversy erupted over whether Albanian-born Odhise Qena, an 18-year-old pupil in Nea Michaniona, on the outskirts of Thessaloniki, should be allowed to carry the Greek flag in his school’s October 28 parade – a right stemming from his top performance in class. Faced with local opposition including a sit-in at the town’s senior high, and with half-baked government attempts to resolve the issue, Qena was, for the second time in three years, forced to relinquish his right to bear the flag. Reactions to the alien flagbearer were by no means confined to this northern Greek town. And barring the routine ultra-nationalist sound bites that were to be heard on television windows, the issue raised concerns across the whole spectrum of social groups, including young professionals and students. «The flag carries certain symbolisms that must also represent the person who carries it,» Alexandros Papoutsis, a 28-year-old private employee, told Kathimerini English Edition. «The flagbearer must be a Greek citizen while non-Greeks (who score top marks) should receive some special reward,» he added, noting that such recognition should be enough to ensure these people’s smooth integration into society. For Nikitas Kyparissis, 25, the flag has a subjective meaning for each one of us and he does not mind seeing it in the hands of a foreigner. «The flag, first of all, is a piece of cloth. The symbolism that each person ascribes to it gives the flag a special place in their heart. It’s a matter of one’s own personal makeup,» Kyparissis, a student of Byzantine music, said. State failure Critics say the flag fury was a sign of state failure to assimilate the country’s immigrants. They say this failure is the result of Greeks’ uncertainty over their national identity – an uncertainty that breeds xenophobia and exclusion. Kyparissis, said that successful integration can only come about if the newcomers feel that they are treated as equal partners in society. Greece, he said, is nowhere near that. «Nobody – not the State, not the Church – nobody cares about these people; nobody is interested in them; how can we expect their future kids to recognize the Greek State?» To many people, in a world still divided along ethnic lines, any talk of surrendering national symbols to foreigners sounds preposterous, if not dangerous. «Whose side will (Qena) fight on in case of war against Albania?» they ask, in what has become a cliche question – often drawing on an awkward subtext of mistrust for Albanians. Those who object respond that national ideology has been overcome by globalization which is turning many societies, including ours, into multicultural ones. Inevitable as this may be, it is a prospect that not everyone appears to be celebrating. National borders are often cherished as a barrier against the specter of a homogenous world that threatens to squeeze out all ethnic particularities – a worry usually encapsulated into a one-size-fits-all American-style mass culture being forced down our throats. «Such dividing lines do not necessarily suggest that an ethnic group is superior or inferior to another, but merely different,» said Spyros Aravanis, 25, a postgraduate student, suggesting that the flag issue was bound to strike a nationalist chord among natives. National symbols like the flag, he argued, are dear, for they help consolidate historical continuity by establishing a link between the past and the present. However, efforts to sustain ethnic singularity, or the myth of one, are out of sync with an increasingly multicultural society, liberal commentators say. Worse, they lead to the formation of closed societies. The gradual withering away of homogenous nation-states mandates the creation of open societies, said Irini Ntertsou, a 27-year-old literature teacher. «To achieve this we need to cultivate relations which are based on tolerance, mutual recognition and respect among different ethnic groups,» she said. Education, Ntertsou emphasized, is the key to social change. «Hence the aim of the school must be to forge equality through the abolition of all forms of discrimination.» Changing society Greece is not the only European state trying to grapple with a society in transformation. Other popular immigrant destinations have become the loci of heated debates, revolving mainly around the public demonstration of religious – namely non-Christian – symbols. In France, the discussion over whether the Islamic headscarf, or jihab, can be worn in public schools or by civil servants gained new intensity after Sept. 11 fueled worries of a fundamentalist backlash among the country’s 5 million Muslims. In Germany, the highest court ruled that a Muslim teacher cannot be barred from wearing a headscarf in a public school – but this was only a short-lived relief to Muslims. The decision stated that the jihab is allowed unless Germany’s states have laws stating otherwise. Many states rushed to ban headscarves. But regardless of whether we want them or not, Greece’s 1 million immigrants – half of whom are Albanian – are here to stay. And according to a European Commission report published earlier this year, «more sustained immigration flows will be increasingly likely and necessary.» Notably, the report explained the need for more migrants. «In Europe, the working age population would already have begun to shrink in some member states had it not been for the inflow of migrants.» In the wake of the massive inflow of immigrants and refugees over the past years, more and more Greeks realize that it makes little sense to ask whether they want foreigners or not. The country now stands at a new crossroads. It has to decide whether it wants to integrate these people or exclude them. The question, said Kyparissis, is when will a section of Greek society be mature enough to say goodbye to its monolithic world view and accept immigrants as fellow citizens with equal duties as well as rights. On past odds, he argued, it’s hard to be optimistic about the future. «Greece has yet to integrate the Muslim population in Thrace. It would be naive to expect that it can do so with economic migrants from other countries.»