Monday, September 13, 2010

Book Review of Tormented by History in Journal of Modern History

Tormented by History: Nationalism in Greece and Turkey. By Umut Özkırımlı and Spyros A. Sofos.
New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. Pp. viii220. $45.00.

We have long been told by the literature on nationalism that identities, and the nations to which they attach themselves, are “invented”; that nations have no core “essence”; that territories are not inscribed with national meaning by any internal, inevitable, “natural” mechanism or process but are read and shaped as having such meaning by the peoples and polities that lay claim to them. And all of this is true, of course. The trouble is, all of these theoretical interventions haven’t much helped, at least in the sense that the world today is no less fraught with bitter nationalist conflicts than it ever was—if anything, it is more fraught. As Umut Özkırımlı and Spyros A. Sofos put it in their new, collaborative volume, Tormented by History, “in an age pervaded by the logic of nationalism, the mere recognition that nations and nationalism are constructed is not sufficient to counteract their ‘reality,’ so to speak—their ability to structure and generate meaning, and shape imagination” (193).

But even in the academic sphere, theories of nationalism, pervasive as they are there, have taken us only so far. In the wake of reading Özkırımlı and Sofos’s recent contribution it seems that this may partly derive from the fact that few, if any, have attempted a sustained comparative reading of nationalisms developed in tandem with and response to one another. The strongest such literature to date has come out of the Israel/Palestine context, with such works as James Gelvin’s The Israel-Palestine Conflict: One Hundred Years of War (New York, 2005) being among the very few successful studies up to now that attempt a comparative illustration of nationalist processes at work. The literatures of Greece and Turkey have not had such a thing.

Greece and Turkey—like Palestine and Israel—have for too long been taken as one another’s opposite, the relationship between the two designated as a sort of point, counterpoint. But this approach is itself reduplicative of nationalist claims. In both cases, in fact, it is the intimacy rather than the estrangement of each half of the pair that binds them together. This is an important observation, and huge credit goes to those who not only assert but also illustrate it.

On these grounds alone, Tormented by History is an important contribution to the literature of the region as well as to the broader theoretical literature on nationalism: people who take the time to read it will find a clear blueprint for interactive nationalism at work and in the interactive dimension will see that nationalism’s “constructed” nature is no mere abstraction, but a very real thing that has had a very real—and oftentimes brutalizing—effect upon the lives of countless thousands of people. This latter point is one that the authors are particularly concerned to reinforce; indeed, the volume is dedicated to “those who have been displaced, repressed, or silenced by the sweeping logic of nationalism” (193).

On the Greek side, perhaps its most powerful contribution is its insistence that the creation of nations—in this case Greece—creates refugees just as much as it does away with them. Of the so-called population exchanges that came in the wake of World War I the authors write, “In many ways, the exchange of populations confirmed the idea of an ethnically cleansed territory” but “interestingly, the refugees reacted to this tremendous implosion of the ‘national’ space by recreating a version of what they called [lost homelands] in their new places of settlement” (117). Thus the proliferation on the Greek map of such place names as “New Smyrna,” “New Ionia,” and “New Makri.” Like the maps of other immigrant nations—the United States, for instance— this topography speaks of the longing for another, more real “home” and the intense need to recreate it in the displaced context. Here one of the greatest and most invidious paradoxes of Greek (and other) nationalisms is revealed: that the creation and consolidation of national space creates refugees not simply by expelling certain groups of peoples (here Slavs, Muslims, and others) but also by insisting that other groups come to the new nation. For the so-called Asia Minor Greeks forced to move to their putative “homeland,” what was presented as a homecoming was in fact an expulsion, and they were not repatriated members of the national body politic so much as they were refugees. This is a painful and important insight into a dynamic that has affected hosts of people—the redrawing of the Balkan map after the last round of the Balkan Wars is one example, another (perhaps the most “successful,” from the nationalist point of view) is the case of the close to 1 million “Oriental” Jews who, through an array of processes, migrated to Israel over the course of the 1950s—were they, as the Israeli nationalist position would have it, “repatriated Jews”? Or were they expulsed refugees?

Were the Orthodox Christians targeted by the population exchange agreement “coming home” or being torn away from it? Sofos and Özkırımlı’s attention to this complicated question, to the nationalist lie on which such migrations are—must—be built is hugely valuable.

On the Turkish “side,” too, there are extremely important contributions, perhaps most prominent among them the likewise uncomfortable fact that Turkish nationalism has not been able to encompass the fact of minorities who are themselves Muslim. As the authors write, “No doubt the nationalist dream of a homogenous nation would have become a reality, if non-Muslims were the only minority” (173). But they weren’t—  and Turkey’s claims that, for instance, the Kurds could not be thought of as a minority as they too were Muslim, is revealed as fundamentally disingenuous. The attempted flattening out of the ethnic difference of an array of soi-disant “minority” groups in Turkish nationalist rhetoric is shown to have a similarly double-edged and violent impact upon the peoples whom it was ostensibly meant to “bring into” the nation.

This is an important, well-constructed, and highly readable book that should matter to anyone interested in Greece or Turkey, to be sure, but also to those interested in the dynamics of nationalism—and in the very real, double-edged effects it has not just on the lives of its foes but also on the lives of those it purports to represent.

New York University

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Long live Crnogorski

I must admit I am envious of the linguistic capabilities of many of the citizens of the republics that used to make up Yugoslavia who, on top of already mastering "Serbian", "Croatian" and "Bosnian" - languages that I was taught back in the early 1990s as variants of "Serbo-Croat" -  and being able to understand and function in Slovenian, in a single day, on the 27th of July, became proficient in yet another, little known language, Crnogorski - Montenegrin.

Jelena Susanj from Matica Crnogorska
holding a book on the Montenegrin language
Thanks to the dilligent efforts of Montenegro's Skupština, the country's students who were taught a language that comprised Serbian, Montenegrin, Croatian and Bosnian as its regional variants, will from now on be instructed in Montenegrin (Crnogorski). This is the newest chapter in a long history of language politics in the small post-YUgoslav republic. In 2004, in a clumsy yet potentially positive and inclusive move, the government changed the name of the language taught in the official school curriculum from "Serbian" to "Mother tongue (Serbian, Montenegrin, Croatian, Bosnian)". Three years later, Montenegrin became the official language of Montenegro with the ratification of the October 2007 constitution. In January 2008, the government of Montenegro formed the Council for the Codification of the Montenegrin Language with the aim to standardize the Montenegrin language according to international norms. Even until very recently, the official web page of the President of Montenegro stated it was provided in a "Montenegrin–Serbian version" (Crnogorsko-srpska verzija).

While the Western Balkans look towards the EU and the realization of their long-promised integration to the European architecture, it is clear that the logic of nation-building is still sweeping over the last elements of shared culture and experience the peoples of the region still have, including the means of communicating with each other - their shared language ...

As for me ... I am about to make room in my bookshelves for the first ever Montenegrin-Serbian-Croatian-Bosnian dictionary - it should be coming out soon ...

Friday, July 2, 2010

La Macédoine, une démocratie en danger

A voice of desperation originally published in

La Macédoine, une démocratie en danger
Mis en ligne le 01/07/2010

La Grèce continue fermement à bloquer toute candidature de la Macédoine tant que la dispute sur le nom qui oppose les deux pays ne sera pas résolue. Une opinion de Tanja Milevska de la TV macédonienne

Van Gijsel
La présidence belge de l’UE a commencé et malgré la tempête politique, s’il y a une chose à laquelle la Belgique a toujours été dévouée, c’est bien l’Europe.
Le Premier Ministre sortant, Yves Leterme, l’a confirmé, l’élargissement restera une priorité européenne sous présidence belge. Mais pour nous qui suivons de près ce dossier, il est très clair qu’une fois encore, il sera réduit surtout à des paroles d’encouragement pour les pays des Balkans occidentaux à continuer le processus de réformes visant à les rapprocher des standards européens, et encore une fois il sera répété que la destination finale de ces pays est au sein de l’Union.
Loin de moi l’idée de remettre en question les bénéfices du processus de réformes européennes dans les pays de la région. Au contraire, malgré les crises successives, je crois encore fermement à l’attraction positive de l’UE, à son "soft power" et au bien-fondé de ses valeurs.
A peine la crise institutionnelle européenne s’était-elle terminée avec l’adoption du Traité de Lisbonne fin 2009, les pays des Balkans reprenaient espoir que l’UE leur accorderait enfin l’attention escomptée, voilà que l’Europe retombe dans un nouveau tourbillon, économique cette fois.
Pourtant, le président de la Commission européenne n’a pas hésité à rappeler il y a quelques semaines que le processus d’élargissement ne devait pas devenir la victime de la crise économique et financière qui secoue l’Europe.
Mais les mots sonnent creux aux oreilles des citoyens de la région des Balkans. En Macédoine tout particulièrement.
Le sommet de ce 17 juin aurait du être le sommet du début des négociations d’adhésion à l’UE pour la Macédoine. Il n’en fut rien. La Grèce continue fermement à bloquer tout progrès macédonien tant que la dispute sur le nom qui oppose nos deux pays ne sera pas résolue.
Je ne prétends pas ici entrer dans les détails de cette question bilatérale qui pèse depuis presque vingt ans maintenant sur les citoyens macédoniens.
Ce sur quoi je désire attirer votre attention est l’apparente indifférence européenne devant cette dispute, indifférence qui commence à avoir des répercussions catastrophiques sur l’état de la démocratie dans ce pays candidat à l’adhésion, rappelons-le, depuis 2005, entraînant ainsi la Macédoine dans un cercle vicieux qui l’éloigne chaque jour un peu plus du but européen.
Le populisme et le nationalisme font rage depuis 2008 (c’est-à-dire depuis le refus grec à l’entrée de la Macédoine à l’Otan à cause du problème du nom, alors que toutes les conditions d’adhésion étaient bel et bien remplies) dans ce petit pays de 2 millions d’habitants divisé sur pratiquement toutes les lignes, la moindre n’étant pas la ligne ethnique, ligne encore trop fragile depuis le conflit qui opposa la guérilla albanaise à l’Etat macédonien en 2001. Les démons de la guerre s’étaient calmés pourtant. Mais l’impatience refait surface dans le camp albanais. Les Albanais voudraient un changement du nom du pays au plus vite de manière à adhérer à l’Otan, la majorité macédonienne, elle, est prête à tourner le dos à l’Otan et à l’UE si le prix à payer est le nom justement .
L’élite intellectuelle du pays quant à elle, et ce toutes origines confondues, manifeste son mécontentement vis-à-vis la politique gouvernementale mais elle n’arrive pas à faire entendre sa voix, car le gouvernement du Premier Ministre Nikola Gruevski maîtrise à merveille la menace et l’intimidation.
Les figures libres, journalistes, essayistes, commentateurs et artistes qui pensent différemment sont non seulement catalogués comme "traîtres de la nation", mais depuis quelques semaines les proches du Premier Ministre ont même appelé à la "liquidation physique" de tous ceux qui, d’une façon ou d’une autre, osent critiquer le gouvernement.
La Fédération internationale des journalistes a réagi, même la Commission européenne a lancé un appel aux organes judiciaires macédoniens pour réagir à ces appels au meurtre. Rien n’y fait. La "mafia gouvernementale" fonctionne sans obstacles, le crime fleurit, la liberté d’expression a été enterrée plus d’une fois ces dernières années.
Pratiquement chaque manifestation citoyenne tourne à la violence, les "amis du gouvernement" sont lâchés à chaque fois qu’une protestation se prépare.
Ainsi au printemps dernier, ils ont passé à tabac des étudiants en architecture qui avaient "osé" manifester contre l’érection d’une statue d’Alexandre le Grand sur la place de Skopje. Les étudiants estimaient non seulement que la statue enlaidirait le centre de la ville, qu’elle coûterait trop cher en temps de crise économique, mais que, surtout, cela présenterait une provocation inutile envers le voisin du sud, et qu’à ce moment-ci, ce type de solution n’aide pas le pays à sortir du marasme. Ils ont senti la revanche des nationalistes sur leur peau. Depuis les étudiants se taisent, la plupart espèrent quitter le pays
Les libres-penseurs, les étudiants, les citoyens macédoniens devront se contenter du silence et espérer une aide extérieure qui tarde à venir.
Ces penseurs-là ce sont ceux qui partagent de tout leur cœur et de toute leur âme les valeurs européennes. Mais l’Europe ne semble pas les entendre, préoccupée par ses problèmes internes.
Que le problème du nom entre le Grèce et la Macédoine soit un problème ridicule, la majorité des citoyens européens en conviendront. La Grèce a d’autres chats à fouetter que de perdre son temps à empêcher la Macédoine de progresser. Et pourtant, elle le fait et personne ne semble y accorder plus d’importance que ça.
L’ennui, c’est que l’apathie des leaders européens devant la dispute qui oppose Skopje à Athènes mène la Macédoine droit à la tragédie. Faut-il qu’un nouveau conflit armé éclate dans les Balkans pour qu’on ne les oublie pas ? La Bosnie ne se porte pas bien et le Kosovo est loin d’être réglé. Et si les Balkans sont la poudrière de l’Europe, c’est bien la Macédoine qui est la poudrière des Balkans.
Pourtant, la Commission européenne et les représentants diplomatiques européens qui traitent des dossiers "Balkans" sont très conscients de la dégradation totale des droits de l’homme en Macédoine. Néanmoins, l’Europe semble avoir choisi une tactique discutable : ignorer le pays tant que le gouvernement macédonien n’aura pas compris qu’il DOIT résoudre le problème avec la Grèce. La tactique est selon moi inefficace et dangereuse. Elle ne fait que renforcer le sentiment anti-européen et le nationalisme primitif.
Si l’Europe a encore de l’ambition pour elle-même, elle ne devrait pas permettre qu’un de ses Etats membres, en l’occurrence la Grèce, use et abuse de sa position de force envers le pays que Chirac avait décrit en 2006 comme "un petit pays sympathique".
L’Europe doit au plus vite suivre la recommandation de la Commission européenne donnée en octobre 2009 et commencer les négociations d’adhésion avec la Macédoine. Seule une ouverture des négociations redonnera de la force aux forces pro-européennes en Macédoine et permettra de déjouer le populisme croissant.
Les journalistes, les activistes, les étudiants, les intellectuels vivent dans la peur. Ceci est indigne d’un pays européen.
Si la prochaine Anna Politkovskaya est macédonienne, le gouvernement de Mr Gruevski ne sera pas le seul à blâmer. Paris, Berlin, Londres, Bruxelles et surtout Athènes seront coupable pour non-assistance à démocratie en danger sur leur propre continent.
La Belgique a pris les rênes de l’UE. C’est le pays où j’ai grandi, c’est dans ses écoles et universités et que j’ai appris les valeurs fondamentales du libre-examen, de la liberté d’expression, des droits de l’homme et de la tolérance et j’en suis infiniment reconnaissante. Mais je ne supporterai pas que mon pays natal, la Macédoine, tombe aux mains des obscurantistes et nationalistes que mon pays d’adoption m’a appris à combattre de toutes mes forces.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Thinking beyond the crisis? Greece and the Balkans

Recent developments – particularly a proposal to recognize Macedonia as the ‘Republic of Vardar Macedonia’ - have demonstrated that, contrary to the fears of some, the debt crisis will not impede Greece’s capacity for resolving regional disputes.

appearing in
By Spyros Sofos

Commentators have recently been expressing concerns over the impact that the Greek debt crisis will have on the ability of the country to play an active role in resolving a number of outstanding issues in its relationship with neighbouring countries. It is quite true that Greece may be distracted by the magnitude of the task of economic restructuring in hand. It is also not unreasonable to assume that the embattled PASOK government might not be willing to open any new fronts by taking foreign policy initiatives that its opponents may consider or represent as undermining the country’s national interests.
Against this backdrop last month’s visit to Athens by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was greeted by a mixture of anxiety and curiosity. Anxiety as many predicted that the Greek government would be willing to compromise on key issues of disagreement between the two countries and curiosity as this was the first major post-crisis meeting between the Greek prime minister, George Papandreou and his Turkish counterpart. And although the visit did not resolve outstanding disputes – that was not part of the visit agenda in any case – it culminated in the establishment of closer cooperation structures between the two countries and a much improved atmosphere. But the relationship with Turkey is not the only one to watch. Greece has yet to decide what to do in the case of the recognition of the independence of Kosovo and, perhaps more importantly, has not managed to reach an agreement with neighbouring Macedonia regarding a mutually agreed and internationally recognized name for the latter.

read the whole article at

artwork by Una Jovanovic

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Angela Merkel is pushing Greece beyond the pain threshold | Kevin Featherstone | Comment is free |

Excellent, sober analysis of the Greek (Eurozone) crisis by Kevin Featherstone

Angela Merkel is pushing Greece beyond the pain threshold

This is a crisis made in Athens, but it is in no one's interest to drive Greece into political chaos

Kevin Featherstone, Friday 30 April 2010 13.00 BST

This week Greece and the eurozone entered an unknown time zone, of uncertainty and failure. The international financial markets are increasingly convinced that Greece will default on its debt. In the City, analysts estimate Greece will need aid of about €70bn (£60.6bn) this year, €60bn next year and €56bn in 2012. In "hedge fund" offices, the task for the Greek government appears overwhelming: its no longer if, but when it will default. But no one knows whether a default by Greece would require its exit from the eurozone.
In effect, Greece already defaulted this week. As soon as its bonds were declared to be "junk" – with no one wanting to buy them – Greece was excluded from the markets. The seven-year €5bn note that Greece issued just a few weeks ago is already trading at a 22% loss. The talk is of "haircuts": cutting losses in the expectation that the markets will get worse.

Read more in the Guardian Comment is Free

An Insightful interview with Ayhan Aktar

An extensive interview that covers virtually all one would like to know about today's Turkey by one of the best Turkish social scientists.

Sociologist Ayhan Aktar: Polarization is among elite, not men in street

Sociologist Ayhan Aktar says the division in Turkish politics is mostly in regards to the elite, not ordinary people, considering the tension in society in recent years when the country’s agenda has been full of weighty issues such as an ongoing investigation into a clandestine organization known as Ergenekon, the government’s efforts to settle the Kurdish issue and a hotly debated constitutional amendment package.

Read more in Today's Zaman (3 May 2010)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The way forward? Grassroots diplomacy in the southern Balkans | Transform, Transcend, Translate | TransConflict Serbia

Grassroots involvement in conflict transformation is key to overcoming the prejudice and mistrust that lies at the centre of many of the current problems facing the southern Balkans.

By Spyros Sofos
Two decades after the onset of Yugoslavia’s disintegration, the aftershocks are still affecting the Balkans. Kosova/o’s independence declaration, the ensuing Serbian ire and the reluctance of Greece to recognise it, the new round of inconclusive talks between Macedonia and Greece are just the visible aspects of a much broader conflict-ridden landscape.
These disputes are perceived as aspects of intractable conflicts: Kosovar Albanians, victims of Serbian prejudice and repression are not prepared to take seriously Serbian perspectives on the future of Kosovo. Serbs, oblivious to the stark reality of demography on the ground, consider Kosovo an inalienable part of their national territory and the sacred birthplace of their nation and are equally insensitive to Kosovar Albanian voices calling for independence. The assertion of the sovereignty of a Macedonian nation over the territory of the Republic of Macedonia faces competing claims advocating the autonomy of the country’s Albanian community. It also meets a powerful challenge by Greek nationalist discourse claiming ownership of names and symbols that Macedonian nationalism has also constructed as elements of Macedonian nationhood.
The international community has attempted to engage the leaderships of the countries and communities involved in these disputes in order to secure viable solutions. In Macedonia, international mediation averted the escalation of the six-month violent intercommunal conflict between the Albanian National Liberation Army (NLA) and the Macedonian army and security forces. Through negotiations and the services of EU and US mediation the opposing parties concluded the Ochrid agreement of 2001 which envisaged a package of wide-ranging amendments to the constitution and legislative changes that effectively recognized Macedonian-Albanians as stakeholders in the young state.

read the full article at


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose?

Over the past year or so 'something' has been happening in Turkey. After the spectacular showdown between the military and judiciary on the one hand and the AKP government on the other, after the survival of the latter in the face of a Supreme Court case that could have entailed the closure of the party, a series of conspiracies to destabilize the government, or to create a 'hot' incident with Greece have been seeing the light of publicity (Balyoz (Sledgehammer) plot).

The erstwhile untouchable army has had to endure intense and unrelenting adverse publicity and to witness a litany of middle and high-ranking officers being implicated in these cases or even investigated. Allegations of plots ranging from the childish to the sinister (both of which, incidentally, the military has been proven to excel in) are now part of the staple daily media diet of a Turkish public hooked on the suspense and excitement these provide. 

At the same time, the Erdoğan government is proposing a long awaited constitutional reform package that is set to loosen the grip of the Kemalist establishment over Turkey's political life. When the AKP first came to power back in 2002 it was precisely the anticipation of this moment, of this promise of constitutional and political renewal that earned it intense loathing among its Kemalist opponents and the good will of many liberals and left wingers who saw in it an ally by necessity in the process of Turkey's democratization and Europeanization. Today, however, these same allies are cynical about AKP's promise of constitutional reforms and less hopeful about the party's commitment to democratization.

True, previous attempts to initiate constitutional reform were stifled by the protests and opposition of the AKP's main adversary, the CHP (Republican People's Party). But it is also true that the AKP has shown in the past willingness to find an, admittedly precarious modus vivendi with the military, partly because of convenience, partly because of pragmatism.

As Erdoğan has been pursuing his plot-based crackdown on the military and missed no opportunity to direct his ire against media critical of his style of government, or flirted with the power of nationalism by threatening to deport Turkey's (illegal) Armenian migrant community in retaliation to an increasingly successful international campaign to recognize the Ottoman governments' treatment of its Armenian subjects in 1915 as genocide, he has managed to alienate potential allies in the cause of constitutional renewal. 

Given that the current balance of power in the National Assembly will almost certainly lead to a deadlock in the process of constitutional reform and will subsequently set in motion a plebiscite for the approval of a new constitution, it is obvious that Erdoğan has opted for a confrontation with the establishment at the level of plebiscitary politics where he is likely to gain considerable support.

And, given that his party's  reform proposals currently before parliament would alter, among other things, the way judges (another pillar of the Kemalist establishment) are appointed, many are concerned not only at the sincerity of the AKP's commitment to a democratic Turkey but also, at the extent of the process of change the party is contemplating.
In my opinion, the problem is not that the AKP has abandoned the camp of democratic reform, but that it has not always consistently demonstrated its commitment to it. Erdoğan and the broader AKP leadership are committed to a Turkey free of the shackles of a rigid Kemalism and aggressive secularism - but this commitment is not tantamount to a commitment to democracy. While the AKP attempts to breach the defences of a bankrupt Kemalism and, in the process, destroys the institutional apparatus that has served the latter well, it is time for Turkey's civil society, secular and 'islamic' to think seriously about what will replace the deeply flawed current political system. Democratization is badly needed but so is a  system of checks and balances that will protect the citizen (not the Kemalist state) against abuses by governments of all hues that might in future enjoy the popular endorsement that AKP has enjoyed to date. Will the fledgling Turkish civil society rise up to the challenge or will it concede this role and this duty to AKP alone?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Petros Markaris in conversation with Umut Özkırımlı and Spyros A. Sofos.... Interview on Greek and Turkish nationalism in the new issue of the review «Κωπηλάτες». English version

PETROS MARKARIS IN CONVERSATION with Umut Özkırımlı and Spyros A. Sofos

The everyday reality in the political landscape of the Balkan Peninsula is that of endless controversies between the Balkan countries. These controversies have, however, some common characteristics: a) the government of each country is deeply convinced that he is fighting a just cause, and insists that the other party should move back and make concessions. b) Both parties consider any compromise or attempt to make concessions as a national betrayal. Do you think that this attitude is a result of ethnic or religious differences? Or is it because the Balkan countries and their governments believe, beyond any reasonable doubt, that they are always “victims” of other countries and that there are in an endless struggle to correct something “wrong” that others did to them.

Umut Özkırımlı-Spyros A. Sofos: The characteristics you refer to in your question are not peculiar to the conflicts among the Balkan countries. An unshakable belief in the ‘justness’ of one’s cause, a tenacious unwillingness to yield or to make compromises, a strong sense of ‘victimhood’ – these are the distinctive features of the nationalist discourse and as such appear in almost any conflict between contesting nations (just think of the way the US justified her intervention in Iraq). In that sense, we are not talking about a ‘Balkan’ attitude here, but a more general attitude, something that has characterized the interstate order for the last two hundred years. What matters in this context is not ethnic or religious differences, but the meaning attached to these differences. After all such differences have always existed and did not prevent people from finding ways to coexist, even developing bonds and solidarities in the past. It is nationalism that takes these differences and turns them into something else, politicizing them and pitting them against each other. Focusing on the Balkans a bit more, our view is that we are dealing with multi-level realities here. People have learned for generations to consider their nations as victims - hegemonic memory has posited the Serbs as eternal victims as a martyr nation, the Greeks as subjected to 500 years of Ottoman barbarism, the Turks as victims of a ruthless imperialism). We are by no means suggesting that the experience of victimhood is false – there are victims of some sort of injustice in all Balkan societies - but we would like to stress that this universalization or nationalization of suffering is highly problematic and distorted. On the other hand, segments of Balkan societies still have memories of coexistence, of mutual help and solidarity, although these are rapidly vanishing as time passes and such memories are condemned to oblivion once their ‘owners’ pass away. At the level of government and politics, victimhood lies primarily at the level of political rhetoric and largely constitutes a means of administering populations and achieving particular goals. Of course, as victimhood becomes an element of popular discourse and memory or is skillfully mobilized by nationalist circles, it may prove a powerful political constraint for governments/ political circles that may wish to overcome the impasses of nationalism. Classical examples include the dispute over the name of the Republic of Macedonia that has held consecutive Greek governments hostage to the nationalist rhetoric of the early 1990s and the dominant approach towards the Kurdish issue in Turkey which has also discouraged attempts to recognize the diversity of Turkish society.

Even those of these countries which are already members of the EU, transfer their problems to the EU and act if these problems were the main concern of the countries of the EU, ignoring that the decision system of the EU is based on mutual understanding and compromises. Do you think that the national traumas in these countries are so strong, that they are unable to overcome them even within the EU?

Umut Özkırımlı-Spyros A. Sofos: The European Union is not a magic potion, an ‘omnipotent vehicle’panacea, which could cure all existing problems in the region. It is true that the decision making system within the EU is based on mutual understanding and compromise. On the other hand, we should not also forget that these mechanisms have not been able to resolve long standing problems between member states and that there is much debate within the EU on the very nature of these mechanisms. We know quite well how policy making in the EU has been brought to a standstill in the past by the objections of some member states to ‘excessive’ institutionalization. In this context, we should also note that the EU is not a ‘post-national’ entity as it is sometimes portrayed. The transfer of some degree of sovereignty to Brussels does not entail the weakening of the grip nationalism has on our everyday lives or our politics. Textbooks still recount the traumatic events of ‘our’ history; newspapers still tell ‘us’ who to hate and who to love.

In your book “Tormented by History” you are speaking about “parallel monologues” as a characteristic of the nationist discourse. Do you think that these parallel monologues prevail, beyond dealing with history, also in the education and in the interstate relations?

Umut Özkırımlı-Spyros A. Sofos: Inspired by Elytis’ Maria Nephele, we used the idea of ‘parallel monologues’ to draw attention to aspects of the tense dialectical relationship between Greek and Turkish nationalisms. But as you point out in your question, this imagery can be applied to all nationalisms, not just the Greek and Turkish ones. In the case of thes two, however, we can see that both delve into the past and interpret it differently, but they also aspire to guide the present and the future. In this sense we can indeed see parallel monologues in education where the other remains a stranger as well as in the perverse security dilemma that dominates foreign policy. But we also need to emphasize the fact that these monologues are in effect related, often feeding of each other, often becoming mirror images of each other. Consider the position of both nationalisms on the issue of minorities, on standing alone in a hostile region, on victimhood. Quite similar comments can be made about the relationship of Greek and Macedonian nationalism which seems to be affecting the two societies today. Despite the fact that we are witnessing two monologues on issues relating to history, geography, identity, two sets of discourses that preclude the possibility of encounter with the ‘other’, the two nationalisms are engaged in an intense symbiotic relationship with the one feeding of the other, imitating and perfecting elements of the other’s ideological armour, drawing strength from the strength of the other.

Most Balkan countries, if we exclude Slovenia and Croatia, came into being as offsprings of the Ottoman Empire. This may explain the attachment of the new-born national states to the nationalism and their distrust towards the Republic of Turkey. The interesting aspect, however, is that the Turkisch Republic, which was born out of the fall of the Ottoman Empire developed the same nationalism as the Balkan countries. Would it be exaggerated to say the all countries which came, in one way or other, from the Ottoman Empire, modern Turkey included, used nationalism not only as a means for the building of the national conscience but made nationalism a pre-condition for their survival?

Umut Özkırımlı-Spyros A. Sofos: We are not sure whether it is possible to say that the Turks, which were the dominant group in the Ottoman Empire, developed the ‘same’ nationalism as the Balkan countries. In fact, as we tried to emphasize in our book, neither the Muslim nor the non-Muslim subjects of the Ottoman Empire had a predetermined plan in their minds. Achieving independence and sovereign statehood was only one option among many; some were pursuing the idea of an overarching Ottoman identity which would encompass both the Turks and the populations of other Balkan countries; others saw independence as the only means for survival. In all cases, however, a concern for survival was important, as you point out in your question. We would add to that a desire to catch up with the West, a yearning for reform and modernization. In that sense, nationalism was not an end in itself, but a means to different ends.

Normally, nationalism considers itself as a liberation movement. This has been the case in Turkey, in Greece, and in other Balkan countries. However nationalism did not arise after the end of World War II in countries, which were under german occupation during the war. Do you think that the period of cold war, inspite of his many negative aspects, was a kind of a barrier against the rise of a new nationalism? (E.g. anti-communism was much stronger in the western world than nationalism.) Or did it keep nationalism simply in a condition of narcose. The reality in the post-communist states is rather in favour of the second hypothesis.

Umut Özkırımlı-Spyros A. Sofos: Nationalism was not on the headlines until the end of the Cold War in 1989. But this does not mean that it did not exist. It was simply overshadowed by the political and ideological tug of war between the US and the Soviet Union. The Cold War did not eliminate nationalism; it brushed it under the carpet, quite often it suppressed it but did not eradicate it. The end of the Cold War brought about a radical transformation of geopolitical realities around the globe, and pushed nationalism to the fore.

We are witnessing in Greece, during the last decade, a very strange development. People from Germany and Italy, countries which attacked Greece and hold it under its occupation, are more welcome to the Greeks, than people coming from the UK or the USA, countries which helped Greece during and after the war very intensively. Do you believe that this behaviour is connected with the traditional solidarity of the nationalists towards the loosers? Nationalists tend to believe that they are always threatened by the winners and take therefore, almost instnctively, the side of the loosers. Greeks like Serbians tend to see their countries always as victims of the powerful nations.

…This is a very interesting proposition and it may quite well be true to an extent. We can definitely see variants of contemporary Greek nationalism stressing victimhood as the distinguishing he characteristic of Greek nationalism - victimhood vis a vis international conspiracies led by the only remaining superpower in the world, by plutocrats, by the European Union; the list can go on and on … As we have already said, the idiom of victimhood is a very popular in nationalist discourse as it has the power to mobilize energies and imagination. However, one should not underestimate the powerful historical weight of the ambivalent way in which Greek society has experienced its relationship to the societies and, more accurately, the state apparatuses of Britain and the USA. For many Greeks the allied liberation was experienced as a new occupation, and while for many the war may have ended with the liberation, for others it continued unabated for a few more years in the form of the civil war, or a few more decades if one counts the exclusion and repression of the left until the early 1970s. Having said that, it is important to stress that the traumatic experience of the civil war and the dictatorship does not justify the uncritical, often irrational dismissal and suspicion of everything originating in the USA or Britain (or more broadly the West).

A long chapter in your book is dedicated to “culture, identity, difference”. In this chapter you deal, among other issues, with the almost simultaneous efforts, which were undertaken in Greece and Turkey for the modernization and purification of the language. Is it correct to assume that this was an effort in both countries to achieve a national identity by means of the language?

Umut Özkırımlı-Spyros A. Sofos: Language has always been one of the most important markers of national identity. Greek and Turkish nationalist projects were well aware of this, but the motives behind the modernization and purification of language were somewhat different. In Greece, language was a symbol of continuity, a means of establishing links with her past, a past that modern Greeks were thought to have forgotten because of the indifference of Orthodox clergy and the debilitating impact of Ottoman rule. In Turkey, on the other hand, language was used to cut off the new state from the immediate Ottoman past, to sever links with Islam, as a tool in the quest for Westernization.

Both Istanbul and Salonica were in their history very open, cosmopolitan and multiethnic cities. Both cities have lost now their multiethnic and cosmopolitan character. They became almost homogenous Turkish and Greek cities. To what extent did this successful effort of homogenization play a key role in the efforts to build a “national policy” in both countries?

Umut Özkırımlı-Spyros A. Sofos: The answer to this question depends on what you mean by ‘national policy’. If we understand ‘national policy’ to mean ‘nationalism’, then it needs to be said that it is homogenization that follows nationalism, not the other way around. As we have tried to show in our book, the strategies employed by Greece and Turkey to deal with ‘difference’ were strikingly similar, ranging from the mutually agreed compulsory exchange of populations of 1923 to a host of unilateral means such as extermination, deportation, marginalization, demographic and economic engineering. On the other hand, it is also true that homogeneity facilitated the pursuit of ‘national policies’, or ‘national interest’, whatever that term means. The catch here is that homogeneity is never total; there are always minorities, ethnic, religious or otherwise that defy the dreams of nationalism. As a result, national policies are always challenged by alternative projects and alternative representations. This was in fact one of the main contentions of our book – that hegemony always breeds resistance.

Do you think that the governments are supporting and promoting with their national policies the nationalism not only in the other countries but also in their own, mainly by turning any problem or conflict with their neighbours into a domestic issue? The most recent example of such a case is the conflict between Greece and Macedonia.

Umut Özkırımlı-Spyros A. Sofos: Definitely! Politicians always prefer to use the nationalist card when they find it difficult to deal with domestic problems. You are probably referring to the conflict between Greece and the Republic of Macedonia which provides a perfect illustration of your point: in both countries, the attempt of nationalist political classes to ‘import’ their differences into everyday politics clearly signals their inability to address other pressing everyday problems their citizens confront. We can also refer to the 1995-96 Imia/Kardak crisis or the 1999 Ocalan incident between Greece and Turkey. Political actors may only be interested in getting their way, but the result is collective paranoia, a constant state of fear and encirclement and a readiness to interpret all problems as a zero-sum game. 

Do you think that once Turkey and the other Balkan countries become members of the EU, this will help to diminish or even minimize the nationalist tensions between these countries?

As we have pointed out earlier, membership of the EU is not a magical cure, but it definitely constitutes an important step in the evolution of nation-states. It does defuse nationalist tensions between member states, but it creates new ones – vis-à-vis East and Central European and Muslim migrants, Roma, etc. In that sense, it is still too early to see whether Europeanization will lead to a diminution of nationalism or whether a European identity will replace national identities, and much depends on how the European project is eventually defined. It is difficult to argue that a fortress Europe will be more conducive to regional or international peace than a Europe of values, a Europe ‘united in diversity’. 

Pictures: Martin Jonáš

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Book Launch - Nationalism in the Troubled Triangle

Wednesday, April 14, 2010
6:15pm - 7:00pm
Waterstone's Economist's Bookshop


Palgrave Macmillan kindly requests the pleasure of your company at the book launch for Theories of Nationalism and Nationalism in the Troubled Triangle by Umut Özkırımlı, Associate Professor of International Relations, Istanbul Bilgi University, Turkey, and Senior Visiting Fellow at LSEE (Research on South East Europe), The London School of Economics and Political Science.

Guest Speakers John Breuilly and Spyros Economides will introduce the books at the event.

Date: Wednesday 14th April 2010

Time: 6.15pm

Venue: Waterstone’s Economist’s Bookshop, Portugal St, London, WC2A 2AB (Located on LSE’s campus in St Clements, opposite Student Services.
The nearest underground station is Holborn).

Refreshments will be served.

Theories of Nationalism
A Critical Introduction
2nd Edition

April 2010 Paperback 978-0-230-57733-6

This widely-used and acclaimed text provides a comprehensive
and balanced introduction to the main theoretical perspectives
on nationalism. The fully-updated 2nd edition includes expanded
coverage of recent theories and debates, more systematic critical
assesment of all traditions, and boxes on key thinkers.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Serbia apologises for Srebrenica massacre

The parliament of Serbia strongly condemns the crime committed against the Bosnian Muslim population of Srebrenica in July 1995, as determined by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling ... (and offers its) condolences and an apology to the families of the victims because not everything possible was done to prevent the tragedy.

Last night the Serbian Narodna skupština, after intense debate, passed a landmark resolution expressing regret and condemning the 1995 Srebrenica massacre and offering "their condolences and an apology to the families of the victims because not everything possible was done to prevent the tragedy." Proposed by the ruling coalition of pro-Western President Boris Tadic, the resolution was adopted by 127 of the 173 parliamentarians present in the room, after 13 hours of debate, this constitutes a sea change for Serbia, a country still deeply divided over the role of the Milošević regime in the bitter and bloody conflict and the popular backing this received. The resolution was not an easy one to reach and its wording has been carefully crafted to ensure that the majority of the Skupština subscribed to it. "We wanted a completely different resolution but apparently that is not possible," said Cedomir Jovanovic, of the Liberal opposition, according to Reuters, while, astonishingly, Branko Ruzic, of the Socialist party, led at the time led by Slobodan Milosevic said "We are taking a civilised step as politically responsible people, based on political conviction, for the war crime that happened in Srebrenica."

Although the resolution might not satisfy the victims of this act as it avoids the term "genocide", it is important to note that it ends years of denial about the killings and that it is a sign of political maturity across the political spectrum of Serbian politics. It constitutes a highly symbolic act of the determination of Serbia's political class to move on and break away from the hold of the Milosevic era.

Whereas a number of MPs criticised the bill for failing to condemn what they called similar crimes against Serbs carried out by neighbouring Croatia during the war, the Skupština successfully decoupled the Srebrenica massacre and the moral culpability of the Serbian state from a potentially endles and counterproductive spiral of recrimination.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Greek-Macedonian dispute – time to return to the drawing board? | Transform, Transcend, Translate | TransConflict Serbia

Premised on the view that facilitating a compromise between the respective parties to the name issue requires a better understanding of the multi-layered character of the dispute, the historically conditioned perspectives of the parties, and the main actors and their perceived interests, my article in Transconflict attempts to suggest a way forward.

After almost two decades since Macedonia declared its independence, one of the major obstacles to Macedonian aspirations of integration into Europe remains the notorious ‘name dispute’ between Macedonia and Greece. The most frequently rehearsed rendition of this stresses that Greece is concerned about the use of the name ‘Macedonia’ constituting an act of usurpation of its history and a misnomer for irredentist plans to bring about a Greater Macedonia at its expense. On the other hand, Macedonians argue that this is the name in which the majority of the young republic recognize themselves, their language, their land and their ancestors (although how deep they probe in the past remains an issue of contestation). Macedonian governments have repeatedly assured Greece that they have no irredentist designs, and have moved promptly to change the first contested flag of the republic and amend articles of the first constitution that referred to a duty of care for the Macedonian minorities in the region and the Diaspora (though not its preamble that links the current polity to the ideals of the short-lived Krushevo Republic).
The international community has tried to facilitate a compromise between the parties, but the efforts have largely been detached from the pragmatics underlying the dispute and quite often ignored the complex social dynamics at play. While the Ohrid Agreement required considerable energy and international brinkmanship in order to address the grievances of the Albanian minority, the name dispute with Greece was treated as a purely bilateral issue to be resolved within the framework of ongoing UN negotiations. The name issue has been addressed in an unimaginative and highly legalistic way; stripped of its dynamic and continuously evolving nature thus revealing the dearth of conceptual, methodological and practical rigour of our conflict transformation approaches in the region. The fact remains that through our current approaches to the name dispute we are still unable to see the forest for the trees and are thus unable to start thinking about long-term solutions to some of the problems facing the region. A better understanding of the multi-layered character of the dispute, the historically conditioned perspectives of the parties, and the main actors and their perceived interests/objectives is needed in order to build a strong relationship that can withstand future challenges.
Naming it like it is – the history dimension
Of paramount importance in the arguments and actions of the two parties is the past – both Greek and Macedonian national identities have been looking to the past for justifications to their existence and the inviolable character of their rights to a chunk of territory in the Southern Balkans. The two countries have historically attempted to bolster their sense of historical ‘embeddedness’ and legitimacy in the region by cultivating and showcasing work in the areas of archaeology, history and folklore that concurs with the dominant narratives in each nation-state. Greek claims, reinforced by a still dominant classicist tradition in Western thought, have little difficulty in ‘incorporating’ the kingdom of ancient Macedonia into the classical and Hellenistic Greek world from which modern Greeks claim to originate; what is more, the established ideology of the Hellenic-Christian synthesis formulated in the 19th century by circles of historians and folklorists, by ethnicizing the multicultural character of Byzantium, has provided a comforting narrative about the uninterrupted continuity of Hellenism in the region.

 You can read the full article in html format at

You can read the full article in PDF format at

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Cyprus Spring?

Back in February, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu met Greek Cypriot academics  and representatives of civil society in Ankara to discuss developments and prospects of the Cyprus issue. And only a few days ago, journalists from Alithia, Politis and the Cyprus Mail, former Cyprus-EU chief negotiator Takis Hadjidemetriou and United Democrats leader Praxoulla Antoniadou Kyriacou, as well as a number of Turkish Cypriot journalists, met Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and EU Minister Egemen Bağış in Istanbul.
This is the closest to what one could call track II encounter and exchange process between the two countries and, as such, it should not be underestimated. Apart from the novelty of this unprecedented activity involving, amongst others, the Turkish Prime Minister addressing Greek Cypriots, one could not but notice the messages that he and his colleagues conveyed.
Erdoğan reportedly stressed his view that time is right for a solution as the two communities and two ‘motherlands’ have leaders committed to resolving the Cyprus issue in place. In contrast to the usual rhetoric that has been representing the Greek Cypriot leadership as dragging its feet in the ongoing negotiations, Erdoğan (and Bağış) clearly accept President Christofias as an interlocutor who genuinely seeks a solution. Bağış also stressed that the Turkish government is attempting to push forward towards a solution in Cyprus in a challenging political environment: the nationalist MHP commanding a considerable following partly drawing on its critique of the government's handling of the Cyprus issue; the military establishment is still devising scenaria of overt or covert military interventions as the recent prosecutions of a host of military officers indicate.
Erdoğan pointed out that 'Turkey genuinely seeks a fair and lasting comprehensive solution based on the joint declaration of the two leaders on May 23, 2008' and with unprecedented clarity expressed his support for a bizonal, bicommunal federation as defined by the relevant UN resolutions, with political equality and a single international identity. In addition to this, both Erdoğan and Bağış affirmed Turkey's willingness to remove its troops from the island when a solution based on political equality is reached and accepted by both communities.
In a veritable exercise in acknowledging and addressing the fears of the Greek Cypriots and overcoming the inertia that have stalled the negotiation process, but also in an implicit message to Greece, Erdoğan said: 'What happened has happened in the past, we should leave it there. We have to look at the future and how we build the future … What we are saying to our friends is to not engage in more armaments because we should be investing in the people; that’s what gains us results'.
These contacts and the statements made by the three senior Turkish politicians were greeted in both Nicosia and Athens with caution. This has been partly due to the suspicion reflexes that the two capitals have developed towards Ankara over time and partly due to the lack of willingness of some political circles in Greece and, even more so, Cyprus to grant Ankara the status of a legitimate interlocutor.  

Perhaps Ankara, wrongly, sees a solution to the Cyprus issue passing through Athens. That would explain its insistence on a four or five party conference (involving the two communities and the two 'motherlands', together possibly with another European country - Spain who currently holds the presidency, or Britain). But, one thing is certain; Turkey understands that any viable solution will have to address the fears (and prejudices) of the Greek Cypriots. This is signaled by its attempt to communicate with Greek Cypriot journalists, politicians and academics and by its effort to fashion the, badly received, five party conference framework. It clearly has not yet found the language to do so; but talking (and listening) is certainly worth the effort. 

PS  The emergence of Tahsin Ertuğruloğlu, a UBP politician , as a third North Cypriot presidential candidate, just after his meeting with Turkish President Abdullah Gül, indicates that Ankara is prepared to bolster the chances of Mehmet Ali Talat who is best placed to see the ongoing negotiations reach a conclusion and should also be read as a further indication of Ankara's commitment to finding a solution to the Cyprus issue.  

Friday, March 5, 2010

Whose Is This Song? (Chia e tazi pesen?) (2003)

My friend Mirjana has pointed out the existence of this very interesting documentary by Bulgarian director Adela Peeva. Listening to a song she knew since her childhood as Bulgarian being performed in Istanbul in Turkish, the director starts a small Balkan Odyssey through Turkey, Greece, Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia, Serbia only to end up at the Bulgarian-Turkish border region in her native Bulgaria. A song that apparently encapsulated common aesthetics and, more importantly, a shared yet diverse culture, where borrowing and translation make it impossible to argue about cultural ownership and origins proved to carry in it all that divides the peoples of Southeastern Europe. Not only people tried to claim it as exclusive property of their own nation but they often angrily dismissed counterclaims as nothing more than theft. It reminded me Freud's remarks about the 'narcissism of minor differences', the accentuation of antagonism towards those who look, sound and feel so similar to us ...

But still, despite the pessimistic conclusion of Peeva's Odyssey, despite the dialogue of the deaf that this documentary captures so beautifully, despite the usurpation of the song by nationalist and religious fanatics, the whispers betraying the, admittedly imperfect, coexistence of several centuries still persist. As does the fact that many of those who identified with the song have used its melody and lyrics (in its many languages and reincarnations) to express their love, to invite others to love them, to celebrate the 'simple little things' that really matter.

The full documentary can be seen at

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Nationalism in the Troubled Triangle Cyprus, Greece and Turkey

This new volume published by Palgrave contains a chapter co-authored by me: Nationalism in Greece and Turkey: Modernity, Enlightenment, Westernization; S.A.Sofos & U.Özkırımlı

Nationalism in the Troubled Triangle
Cyprus, Greece and Turkey
Edited by Ayhan Aktar, Niyazi Kızılyürek and Umut Özkırımlı
Nationalism in the Troubled Triangle is the first systematic study of nationalism in Cyprus, Greece and Turkey to date in the English language. Bringing scholars from Greece, Turkey and both sides of the dead zone in Cyprus (and beyond) together, the book provides a comparative account of nation-building processes and nationalist politics in all three countries and four cases as well as more specific, thematic comparisons of political leaderships, institutions and foreign policies in what obstinately remains a playground of competing nationalisms. It also engages critically with official myths and narratives in Cyprus, Greece and Turkey and questions traditional nationalist discourses.


Foreword; A.Aktar, N.Kızılyürek & U.Özkırımlı
Introduction; Bringing History back into Nationalism?; J.Breuilly
Conversion of 'Country' into a 'Fatherland': The Case of Turkification Examined, 1923-1934; A.Aktar
The Use and Abuse of Archaeology and Anthropology in Formulating Turkish National Narrative; S.Aydın
Turkish Nationalism Reconsidered: The 'Heaviness' of State-patriotism in Nation-Building; G.G.Özdoğan
Dismantling the Millet: Religion and National Identity in Contemporary Greece; R.Hirschon
Nationalism in Greece and Turkey: Modernity, Enlightenment, Westernization; S.A.Sofos & U.Özkırımlı
The Case of Andrea Mustoxidi and the Early-Nineteenth-Century Heptanesians of Italy; K.Zanou
Narratives of Diplomats: Representations of Nationalism and of Turkish Foreign Policy in Cyprus, 1970-1991; G.İnanç
Alternative Forms of Nationalism: Superiority through Law in Greek Foreign Policy; H.Tzimitras
History, Myth and Nationalism: The Retrospective Force of National Roles through Mythical Past; M.Michael
Securing the Office of Müftü: Nationalism, Religion, and the Turks of Cyprus; A.Nevzat
Rauf Denktaş: Fear and Nationalism in Turkish Cypriot Community; N.Kızılyürek
The Complexities of Greek Nationalism in its Cypriot Version; S.Anagnostopoulou
The Referendum of April 24, 2004; C.Mavratsas
AKEL: Between Nationalism and 'Anti-imperialism'; S.Tombazos

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The arson of Etz Hayyim synagogue

Back in 1997, I spent a few months in the beautiful city of Rethymno in the island of Crete, undergoing the compulsory military training that all conscripts undergo. During the little free time I had, I had the opportunity of getting to know the towns of Rethymno and Chania, wonderful testaments to the complex history of the island: the melange of Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman architecture still gives Western Crete a sense of a cosmopolitanism that has left its indelible marks in the urban landscapes of the area. Bustling Christian churches often within a walking distance of the few remaining mosques that betray Crete's Muslim past that is rapidly sinking into the whirlwind of oblivion and, in the city of Chania, a unique marker of Crete's other forgotten inhabitants, the Etz Hayyim Romaniote synagogue.

Just like the Ottoman mosques of the island which, to some locals, have no place in the Cretan landscape, Etz Hayyim has managed to withstand the impact of neglect and deliberate destruction. The following diary exerpts are from the synagogue blog and refer to two consecutive arson attempts in the month of January.

Spyros Sofos

January 17, 2010

Second Arson Attack on Etz Hayyim Synagogue

Under: News by admin at 00:06
On the night of Friday, January 15, after more than a week of work on the sanctuary – newly scraped, primed and re-painted; the wood-work oiled with lavender and the marble floor polished – we met for Erev Shabbat prayers and Kiddush. Later we locked the synagogue and returned to our homes feeling that we had set our steps forward. Saturday morning at 3:30 AM however the Synagogue’s director was wakened by the alarm that had been set off in the Synagogue and rushed there accompanied by two helpers to find the entire main office ablaze. They began putting out the fire with the garden hose as the firemen had not yet succeeded in getting their hoses connected. When the mains were finally connected the firemen set to work – by 4:45 the fire was only smoldering and all that remained of the upper and lower office was completely gutted. Also about a third of the wooden ceiling of the Synagogue itself was burnt, the benches covered in soot and broken wood, the floor a mess – but the EHAL was not touched! Everything in the main office – e.g. two computers, complete Talmud, Midraschim, 2 sets of Rashi lexicons (Aramaic, Greek and Hebrew) plus many reference books and the entire archive of the Synagogue have all been destroyed.
By noon the Siphrei Torah along with all of the silver ornaments (rimonim, tassim, yads etc.) and a precious early 17th century illuminated Qur’an were removed to a secure location. It was a sad moment to see them being taken away from the Kal as it was a joyous moment when they had been installed in 1999. But we are determined that they will come back!


January 17, 2010. Today, after Shahrith prayers in the ravaged Kal we will all meet to look into the task before us.  We must insure that we keep the Synagogue alive as place for prayer and even – more pertinently under the circumstances – recollection.  It is difficult at this moment to quite grasp how one faces the formidable task of reconciliation – with what exactly? ignorance, wickedness? – whatever it was – and is – (since the cause of all of this is still to be determined) our gift to Hania is our presence and our determination to continue to bear witness to values that are being severely tried at this moment.  We have many friends and are deeply grateful for the support in whatever form it has taken. It will now take some time for us to become contemporary as so much has been lost in terms of computers and contents (though we have located the hard drives of the computers and hopefully something can be done to contents).
Please keep posted through this blog as matters evolve as we will use for keeping a log of events.
N. Stavroulakis


January 19, 2010


Under: News by admin at 21:10
The latest fire managed to destroy all of what we had felt grateful to have been left with! Whatever we had salvaged from the first fire had been taken to the main office – books, CDs, a Mevelevi dervish habit and conical felt hat, some of my notebooks and the like. The second attack saw the ground floor and first floor of the office and library above gutted. Fortunately, all of the books there – perhaps 1000 or so on Judaism, Islam and Christian theology had already been moved to safe keeping and so have been saved….but two computers, scanner, cameras etc. – all gone!
The police have been very good with us and have been very thorough and sensitive to what has happened. In the following days we will try to be more prompt in giving information. Actually in many ways Etz Hayyim has succeeded in its role as a reconciler and I have been blessed with finding many old friends and we have re-established our links. Equally important is the effect that this has had on our ‘fraternity’ which has been strengthened and given a firm direction and truly has become a community. We are a strange lot – some Jews – religious, non-religious and some perhaps even anti-religious, some are Christians – both Catholic as well as Orthodox and we also have Muslims. All of us are cemented into a community through the magic of this precious synagogue. Through this fire – somewhat like that which our Father Abraham experienced on that night when the sacrifices were consumed and he stood in awe before what appeared to be a smoking oven, we have digested our differences and set about finding what unites us in silence and emerges as a whisper.
We are still in the difficult period of balancing work that must be done with incoming funds as they were disproportionate at the moment.
To date we have started work on the new security system which is a gift from the Jewish Community of Salonika through its president David Saltiel. Work has begun on the grill to be installed over the back garden gate as well as the bars that are to be installed over all of the windows that were once those of the yeshiva (this property became an asset of the Bank of Greece after WW II and then was sold to a Christian – and subsequently became known as the Synagogue Cafe.) It was through one of these opened windows that the second incendiary entered our property. The electrician has already connected some of our lines and tomorrow we will get the telephone installed – in the synagogue proper (for the moment). Alex and Anja (and the Synagogue) have a temporary office and computers not too far away and the work on the stairs to the old office may well be finished by the end of the week when work can be started on cleaning up, working on bookcases and seeing how deep the fire reached into the floor and ceiling. This will also have to be done in the Kal itself as several of the wooden panels of the ceiling had started to burn.
I wish to thank all of the friends who have shown such care for this synagogue which seems to have embraced and been embraced by the entire world.
Nikos Stavroulakis

 for more updates, please visit