Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Theocracy (Θεοκρατία)

I was brought up by a zealously religious Greek mother in New Zealand. We went to church every week, fasted before every Christmas and Easter, and performed all manner of religious rituals, together with the paraphernalia that they are often accompanied by, eg the use of incense, censer, icons, and so on. On Saturday night and Sunday afternoons, if we weren't going out, I would incense (pun not intended) my mother by doing embroidery, crochet or knitting; this was considered 'work' in her time, unlike in my youth when it was considered a hobby. In fact, it was the only time I actually had time to take up my needlework hobby, since I was going to school, working in the family shop and doing my homework all the other times. So I considered it a breach of my rights when she reprimanded me for taking part in this activity on the aforementioned times. She was living in a different time and place from the one stated on the calendar or on the street signs. Her life was all mapped out for her by her past and her religion, regardless of location and year.

When I came to Greece, I noticed how little religion seemed to affect people. Churches and souvlaki shops lived harmoniously together; the former did not shut the latter down during fasting periods. I was reminded clearly of this when I met my Greek husband, who had lived virtually all his life in Hania. Before we got married, my family from Athens had come to Crete for the Easter period, on the pretext of meeting him. After the Good Friday service where the epitafio is solemnly paraded round the village, followed by grave marching bands and chanting dark-clad women, my fiance suggested that we go out for dinner. My family was used to going home after the Good Friday church service - in other words, continuing the solemnity of the occasion. We all thought his request was rather strange: going out and having fun on Good Friday evening, just as we had witnessed the reenactment of Christ being crucified, did not seem to collocate well. On the other hand, he couldn't understand what the fuss was all about: "Your guests came from very far away to see us - shouldn't we provide the appropriate hospitality?" he replied on his part. We were all of the same religion, but some of us let it rule us more than necessary.

I had another religiously surreal moment in my life just after we got married, when we were spending our first Christmas together. Being a taxi owner-operator, my husband had little idea of what Christmas holidays meant, as he worked on most holidays (back in the good old days, when holidays brought in the most money for cabbies). I told him that I'd be having two weeks off work, starting two days before Christmas Day and ending on St John's Saint's Day in the New Year. "Christmas Day always falls on Sunday, doesn't it?" he asked me, as he tried to work out which days I wouldn't be working. I reminded him that this rule applied only to Easter, not Christmas. But when you're working every day, Sunday and holidays become blurred. Every day becomes a weekday, and a weekday could even be a Sunday. Our religion may call Sunday a day of rest, but only you know when you can afford to take that rest, and it won't necessarily be a Sunday.

Since then, I haven't bothered with religion much. It's there, all over the place in Greece, but it doesn't have to rule our life. If it did, we'd still have our religion stated on our identity cards (this became obsolete over a decade ago), and we'd still feel guilty if we drank milk or ate meat during the 50-day Easter fast.

I have to admit that I was a little shocked to hear Tayip Erdogan recently proclaiming that he will bring in new laws to stop people buying alcohol after a certain hour in the evening. He's clearly encroaching on the human rights that politicians before him took great care to ensure for Turkish citizens. What's even more worrying is that this alcohol ban is a sign of the Islamification of a country whose modern origins separated religion from the state. At a time when the world is moving towards more transparency and the freedom to choose how we want to live, deposing despots and bringing in a more egalitarian order, Erdogan is behaving like a tyrant, telling his subjects how they should conduct themselves in life. It would be akin to the state introducing a law banning the operation of souvlatzidika during fasting periods according to the Greek Orthodox church: In a similar manner to Erdogan, who believes people should buy their alcohol before 10pm and drink it at home, the Greek state would tell people who don't want to follow the fasting rules of Lent to buy their meat and cook it in their own home.

Is that the face of the modern world we live in? Only a theocracy would find this acceptable. So whose god is right?

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