God guarantees our loans

I once met a famous Greek musician who, after serving a jail term for illegally exporting antiquities, had abandoned song and gone into a different line of work: designing ecclesiastical ornaments for the Orthodox Church. He was gay, and over dinner his ex-lover whispered to me in a scandalized tone, “Really, you can’t imagine. All the priests were gay too! They used to come over here and try the crosses on and shriek at each other, ‘Oh, Mary! Don’t you look divine!

This came to mind today as TV played the odd ceremony — “Byzantine” is a word that springs naturally to mind — attendant on the swearing-in of Greece’s new prime minister, Lucas Papademos. No fewer than five priests with beards and funny hats presided over the anointing, muttering spells and hoohaws over him. They carried many pretty, shiny gewgaws, some possibly made by my acquaintance; it’s a pity they’ll probably be melted down for bullion soon and shipped to Brussels or Berlin.  The whole affair seemed unusual on a continent so steeped in sin, and I thought perhaps it reflected an innocent, and thoroughly wrong, belief that God has some influence over the European Central Bank.

bears in fancy dress

But it is, in fact, standard procedure in Greece; here is Papademos’ predecessor being certified, and looking perhaps a little alarmed by the Santa Claus convention in front of him. On checking the Greek Constitution I found that it is quite a theologically grounded document. Article 3 — just after the introductory genuflections, and before any other business comes to hand — declares,

The prevailing religion in Greece is that of the Eastern Orthodox Church of Christ. The Orthodox Church of Greece, acknowledging our Lord Jesus Christ as its head, is inseparably united in doctrine with the Great Church of Christ in Constantinople and with every other Church of Christ of the same doctrine, observing unwaveringly, as they do, the holy apostolic and synodal canons and sacred traditions. It is autocephalous and is administered by the Holy Synod of serving Bishops and the Permanent Holy Synod originating thereof and assembled as specified by the Statutory Charter of the Church in compliance with the provisions of the Patriarchal Tome of June 29, 1850 and the Synodal Act of September 4, 1928. …

The text of the Holy Scripture shall be maintained unaltered. Official translation of the text into any other form of language, without prior sanction by the Autocephalous Church of Greece and the Great Church of Christ in Constantinople, is prohibited.

I can’t think of another Constitution that addresses itself, particularly so early in its business, to the question of Biblical translation.

Greece is notoriously neither a particularly open nor a particularly secular society.  (For example: a recent report on homophobia in Greece shows a high level of social prejudice and a low level of legal protection. On a different note, when the National Opera tried in 2009 to stage Dvorak’s opera Rusalka with a kiss between two male characters, the orchestra refused to play, and musicians handed out leaflets claiming that the “degenerate” scene “tainted the central hero with homosexual tendencies.” They then attacked a few gay activists who showed up to protest.)

At the same time, it is useful to recall that separation of church and state in its American version is by no means the norm even in highly secular societies.  Secularism is primarily a matter of mores, not law. It can flourish in society regardless of formal religious favoritism on the government’s part. Denmark, Norway, and Iceland — three highly open and tolerant countries, on the whole — all have a state church.

How the Greek population’s sense of its own identity will shift amid the wrenching economic changes going on, how Greeks will reevaluate the values — religious or cultural — that define Greekness, is anybody’s guess. Papademos is probably grateful for some prayers. But it’s the bankers whose blessings he’ll be needing next.

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Tunisia votes

Into the box

Tunisia held elections Sunday — the first of the Arab Spring, now turning to a chillier fall. Al-Nahda, the moderate Islamist party, appears to have won: they claim over a third of the vote as the count continues.

According to the New York Times, they

won at least 30 percent of the votes cast on Sunday, and party officials told a news conference the party had come out ahead in nearly every voting district. Ali Laredi, a top official of the party, said it expected to receive possibly more than 50 percent when the final results are tallied. Calling his party “the most modernist” Islamic political movement in the Arab world — meaning the most committed to principles of democracy and pluralism — Mr. Laredi predicted that it would now “lead the way” for others around the region.

Ettakol, a leftist party, is running at about a fifth of the vote, but is likely to join in a coalition. Khalil Zaouia, the party’s number two, told Al-Jazeera:

“Al-Nahda is certainly the majority, but there are two other democratic entities, Ettakatol and the CPR [Congress Party for the Republic, another left faction], who were weak at the start but now find themselves in the position to contribute to political life and usher a rational modernity in this Arab-Muslim country.”

The Times suggests that Al-Nahda is negotiating with the full spectrum of liberal parties for inclusion in a coaltion. But the election’s real success , surely, is that actors associated with the old regime were decisively rejected.

“Rational modernity” is a very Tunisian phrase. The nature both of national modernity — what it means for Tunisia’s state and society to be modern — and of political reason itself have been subterranean subjects of debate since the Revolution.  Secularists insistently demand: can an Islamist party really be a rational political actor in a country where authoritarian secularism has defined the national identity? Al-Nadha seems publicly unfazed by the question. It maintains it can. Nouri Gana of Jadaliyya, in an incisive if tendentious report on the election’s stakes a few days back, writes:

Perhaps the trouble with the electoral campaign in the end is that it has allowed questions of cultural identity, religion and laïcité to override other important and thorny issues that have to do with the economy, unemployment, justice and political reconciliation, etc. On the one hand, Islamists have focused very much on their past histories of struggle and have insisted on their progressive civic agenda as well as on their preference for parliamentary democracy. On the other, pseudo-secularists have been fixated on the critique of Ennahda [al-Nahda], all the while remaining reticent about or oblivious to the ideological underpinning of laïcité. By presenting their ideology as a form of critique, Tunisian pseudo-secularists have steadily, even dogmatically, constructed themselves beyond critique. A critique of Tunisian laïcité, however, is never more to be desired than at a time when its complicity with the old regime of Ben Ali and French cultural imperialism has become an everyday Tunisian reality. Tunisians who will go to the polls this Sunday cannot be expected to deliver such a critique—they will deliver their long overdue judgment.