Letter from Thessaloniki

«Islam is Politics:» I can clearly remember Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini saying this the same evening I met him in Neaufle-le-Chateau, a hamlet outside Paris. It was the end of January 1979, and I was committed to accompany him on the Air France flight that brought him to Tehran from exile. I also remember how all of Greece’s ostensibly progressive press of the time praised the high Shia cleric, the political and spiritual leader of the 1979 revolution, as an «avant garde» personality, since he was about to overthrow the conservative pro-American Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, then Shah of Iran. «It gives me the creeps to imagine some of our fundamentalist clerics – say the ‘Saintly Bishop of Florina’ – taking over Greek politics,» I wrote back then in the daily Apogevmatini, which had sent me to Paris to cover Khomeini’s return to Iran, where he had been invited by the anti-Shah revolution. Oh, yes! Our own religious zealots can be just as perilous as theirs. Nevertheless, my gain was that, having spent some time in the first modern Islamic republic, I have learned that Khomeini was right when he declared that Islam is inseparable from politics. At the moment, we are realizing that there are several Islamic countries around us where the political future is very much up for grabs. As we are witnessing the escalation of tensions provoked by the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad (the most controversial of which shows Muhammad’s headdress transformed into a bomb with a burning fuse), we Greeks can only consider ourselves very lucky that a similar domestic incident two years ago did not provoke the same volcanic reactions. Let me remind you of the mosque riot story and the wet actresses. During the filming on location of the «Archipelagos» series for Alpha television channel – in the town of Echinos near Xanthi, which has a large Muslim minority – two actresses tried to enter a nearby mosque for shelter after being caught in a downpour. This was considered disrespectful to Islam. This inflamed the passions of Muslims bearing Greek passports. Before they could be contained, a violent mob of protesting local Muslims attacked the television crew. Thanks ostensibly to good luck, the outrage at the time did not spread from Echinos to Damascus and Jakarta. Yet we – Christian Europeans – would be wrong to be overcome by irritation at such incidents. The gust of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim feeling billowing across Denmark and other parts of Europe is understandable. Yet it is also understandable that religious sensitivities here or there cannot be willfully ignored. As in the case of Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Satanic Verses,» some Greek Muslims believed the wet actresses entering the Echinos mosque insulted their beliefs. The same applies now to the Danish caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, which are considered a provocation against Islam. As for religious leaders throughout the world, they see in such cases an opportunity to unite the religion under their leadership – but in a radical direction. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, an «evil empire» now embodies the demonized figure of the barbaric Other against all civilizations. «Christianity is, also, politics.» This could be the moral of Vincenzo Bellini’s most underrated opera in three acts – «I Puritani» (The Puritans) – which I saw last Friday in a bleakly staged production, designed by William Orlandi, who transferred the action to the first World War. The singers – Elena Mosuc, Dimitris Kavrakos, Juan Carlos Valls and Dimitris Tiliakos, along with the Symphonic Orchestra of the City of Thessaloniki directed by Giuliano Carella – were a delightful surprise. The production was shown in Thessaloniki’s Concert Hall. On the same night «Thessaloniki’s Opera» had its opening night with Puccini’s «La Boheme» as well. All right, New York, Paris and Vienna can boast two opera houses. But Thessaloniki? Well, why not. After all they are both living off government handouts. Yet back to the subject of the opera: «I Puritani,» whose libretto, though based on a naive love story during the strife between the two spiritual parties, reminded me of how religious identity can sometimes be translated into a Christian vote just because of hostility toward separate communities. Not unlike the Muslims, the Puritans – who settled in New England in 1640 from England – believed that their good book was God’s true law, and that it provided a plan for living, just as the Koran does. Theirs was also an attempt to purify the church and their own lives. Now, it is true that the Muslims sometimes look monolithic, usually when the demands of Muslim solidarity oblige them to sound off in unison, but so did the Christian Puritans, and perhaps they still do. To return to our present time, no doubt a disproportionate number of the world’s terrorists are Muslims (though some minor specimens of faux-terrorism in Greece show it is not just a Middle Eastern disease). However, there are a thousand ways of being Muslim in everyday life, just as there are a thousand ways of being Christian, Buddhist or atheist. To be sure, some Muslims are bad. If they try to kill Americans, America is entitled to react – and hope that the counterterrorist violence works. However, in the Muslim world believers are not used to laughing at religion – not at their own or anybody else’s. I had this experience while I was in Iran. They leave cynicism, irony and indeed blasphemy to us. And these are all treasured parts of our ancestral culture, aren’t they?

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.