Can Europe Make It?: Feature

Giannis Antetokounmpo and 200 years of Greek revolution

Greek identity has transformed multiple times over the country’s history. On the nation's bicentenary, we should welcome a shift towards inclusion

Dimitris Christopoulos
8 March 2021, 9.59am
Yannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks against the Washington Wizards in 2018.
Wikicommons/ Keith Allison. Some rights reserved.

This year, Greece celebrates the bicentenary of its war of independence against the Ottoman Empire, a struggle that led to the establishment of the first modern Greek state. Two centuries of independence offer a unique opportunity to re-examine Greece’s version of ‘we the people’, the ideal that has underpinned countless democratic struggles around the world. What’s more, the marvellous story of the basketball player Giannis Antetokounmpo offers us an illuminating way to do this.

Born in Athens in 1994, Antetokounmpo is the son of Nigerian immigrants. According to the law of the time, he could not obtain Greek citizenship, under a general rule applied to thousands of children born and raised in Greece with an immigrant background. In 2013, already a talented basketball player, Antetokounmpo received a phone call from the other side of the Atlantic: he was drafted into the NBA. Yet he could not travel abroad, since he was effectively stateless. His only proof of identity was a contract with a local basketball team in his poor Athenian neighbourhood, and his parents could not travel to Nigeria to obtain his Nigerian citizenship.

Against all odds, Antetokounmpo acquired citizenship when Greece made an exception to its rules on nationality due to his talent. He was then able to make the leap across the ocean. For Antetokounmpo, this was the first step towards a monumental career: he is now a renowned athlete, twice named the NBA’s most valuable player and celebrated the world over. Meanwhile, a reform in 2015 to Greek law means that many other children from immigrant backgrounds can also now acquire citizenship.

Revolution and belonging

What does the story of a young man of Nigerian heritage have to do with Greece’s bicentenary? It relates to those three words – “we the people”, most famously used in the opening sentence of the US constitution – that declare who a revolutionary independence struggle is fought by, and on behalf of.

A revolution is an existential act. Through violence, it confronts the primary political question of power: who has power, who claims power, who questions power, who gains power. It defines those we want, those we expel, those we tolerate, those we prefer, those with whom we proceed and those we leave behind.

The dilemma of inclusion or exclusion is permanent and inevitable, but the revolution compresses it and drags it to its furthest limit. This is what revolution means: violent subversion and a vision of emancipation. For modern Greece, 1821 meant the violent birth of a nation – one that Antetokounmpo belongs to today.

Barack Obama meets Giannis Antetokounmpo in White House, April 2016
Wikicommons/Peter Souza. Some rights reserved

Antetokounmpo’s sporting success in the US is a spectacular embodiment of the American Dream, but it’s also pivotal for Greece. His first name, Giannis, is the most common Greek Orthodox name. His surname, on the contrary, is a tongue twister for many Greeks. For his fans in the States, Antetokounmpo is “the Greek freak”. For Greece, the nickname is the embodiment of ​​a civic dream: an idea of Greekness in which one’s family background is insignificant.

This suggests a community that is not based on the bloodlines of parents and grandparents; a community that does not refer to the “ethnocultural”, “ethnic”, or – even worse – “racial” characteristics of the people who it comprises. It posits the national political community as one based on the will to coexist of the people who live together. Which is in fact what happened in the 1821 uprising against Ottoman rule.

Building a nation

When modern Greece’s fledgeling constituent assembly met at Epidaurus in 1822, it concluded that the country’s Christian inhabitants were Greek. But it did not ask for a statement of religious faith, let alone of piety. The driving force was republican and quasi-inclusive. All Christians who lived in Greek lands and all those who came to take up arms against the Ottomans were pronounced citizens.

This was the most robust birth-right citizenship law Greece has ever known, even though it wasn’t wholly universal. Religion was inevitably a marker of distinction: being a Muslim was identified with the oppressor, while being a Christian meant that one qualified as part of the nascent nation. (Being a Jew was somewhere in between.)

At the same time, the provisional constitution agreed at Epidaurus included two more categories of people as Greek: “volunteers from abroad” and “foreigners” who wished to be naturalized. The “volunteers from abroad” were Christians from traditions beyond Greek Orthodoxy, while the “foreigners” were western philhellenes, such as Lord Byron, who supported the independence struggle. In other words, this early official attempt to define modern Greek identity chose to include all the Christian inhabitants of a state established through revolution, as well as those Christians who travelled there to help in the struggle.

A new state born from revolution must in some way create its people. Where will you find people, if not in your territory? Yet, at the same time, it can’t be just anybody. The starting point for the Greek political community was inevitably marked by an affiliation with Christianity. This, however, was not a product of racial thinking.

In 1835, with the implementation of the first citizenship law, Greece's cycle of birth-right citizenship ended

The declaration of the three revolutionary constitutions of 1822, 1823 and 1827 that “all indigenous inhabitants of Greece who believe in Christ are Christians” is something quite different, for instance, from “Hellas of the Christian Hellenes”, the infamous motto of the right-wing dictatorship that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974. In the latter, religion was a way for the “nationally minded” to exclude others from the nation; in the former, it is a Greek version of “we the people”.

The identity of insurgents is externally defined: the emerging Greek nation was shaped by its opposition to Ottoman rule. “The provinces of Greece are those that have and will take up arms against the Ottoman dynast,” reads the constitution of 1827.

In 1835, with the implementation of the first citizenship law, the cycle of birth-right citizenship ended. Henceforth, a Greek was “one who is born to a Greek father”, even though the repeated extensions of the country – in 1864, 1881, 1913 and 1918 – transformed the inhabitants of the new lands into Greeks.

Making new Greeks

The military defeat of Greece in the Greek-Turkish War (1919-1922) signified the end of territorial expansion – but also of inclusion. Until then, the question of citizenship was related to the broader goal of integration by creating Greeks among the inhabitants of newly claimed territory. After 1923, the goal was something different: how to get rid of “dangerous citizens”.

Exclusion became the main tool of state policies that sought to define Greekness and eradicate those who could not “become” Greek. Initially, these were the non-ethnic Greek communities that survived the mass population movements of the Balkan Wars and the Greek-Turkish War.

'Unworthy Greeks' once included those who were considered ideological enemies of the State

Following the ‘population exchange’ between Greece and Turkey, which radically transformed the ethnic demography of Greece, the state invested in a project of separating the “worthy” from “unworthy” Greeks. From 1926 until 1998, many ethnic minorities were denied Greek nationality, as they did not satisfy the loyalty criteria that were required for citizenship. To varying degrees, and at different times, Jews, Armenians, Bulgarians, Vlachs, Turks, and Albanians were treated primarily as non-Greek populations.

Moreover, from the late 1940s until the end of the seven-year dictatorship in 1974, “unworthy Greeks” included those who were considered ideological enemies of the State: the communists; the “dangerous citizens”. The mass practice of stripping citizenship from political dissidents was an obvious expression of the policy of exclusion. In private life, disinheritance is the point at which parents expel their wayward children; the stripping of citizenship is the public equivalent. If you were not loyal to the regime, then you were not worthy of being a citizen.

Over two centuries, the Greek “we the people” has transformed multiple times. It reflects the reality of a turbulent history in which shifting borders, moving populations, social and political conflicts converge.

Nothing has stayed the same since 1821. Especially not the way we conceptualise who we are. In Greece, we have experienced a roller-coaster of ways to define Greekness: from revolutionary birth-right citizenship to bloodline citizenship, from inclusion to exclusion on both political and ethnic grounds – and, thanks to the recent shift in citizenship laws during the last decade, towards inclusion again.

Highlighting this itinerary should not lead to relativism, or to Greek exceptionalism. There are many distinctive things in modern Greek history, as in all national histories, but there is nothing that cannot be compared. In that sense, Greece is particular and at the same time typical. Nothing is uniquely itself.

Antetokounmpo’s story is not unique either. If, for a moment, we put aside his talent, then he is like thousands of “second generation” children born in Greece in recent decades. There is a simple question here: do we consider them members of the Greek nation? Do we want them in our polity? Then comes a harder question: who do we want to be, after all?

Who do we want to be?

There are two ways to answer this question: with inclusion and integration, or exclusion and expulsion. In 2015, following a smaller effort in 2010, the Greek state chose integration by adopting a more inclusive Citizenship Code.

Back in 2010, this strategy seemed almost utopian. The slogan “You are born a Greek/You cannot become a Greek” was found not only at the right-wing extreme of the political spectrum; it was the main argument of the Greek judiciary that attempted to reverse the 2010 initiative. Yet the step forward was taken.

Since 2015 a double birth-right law applies: children born in Greece to at least one Greek-born parent automatically receive Greek citizenship. It is only a matter of time before all children born in Greece automatically acquire Greek citizenship. The young Antetokounmpos of our days now become Greeks by law. That was a major step for the country, and this is what the nation as a political community is all about. The nation of the will and the desire to belong: the only democratic kind of nation. This is where all the “Greek freaks” have a place. You do not need to be an MVP to belong here.

Antetokounmpo is Greek because he wants to be. And that should be enough

The Greek revolutionaries of 1821 would no doubt have been astounded if they could have seen that the nation’s biggest individual success story of our own age would be a 2.13cm-tall black man. But two hundred years after the revolution, the era of turbulence surrounding Greek citizenship has come to an end. The inhabitants of Greece are or will become Greek citizens, even if their parents are foreigners.

As we consider the historical origins of the Greek nation on the modern state’s bicentenary, the question of Greek identity will not be answered by a simple formula from the past. It would be completely alien to the spirit of 1821 for us to say today that “Greeks are the Christian inhabitants of Greece”. This is indeed precisely what today’s representatives of the Greek far Right are saying. According to their essentialist argument, a child of Nigerian parents can’t be Greek. But Antetokounmpo is Greek because he wants to be. And that should be enough.

The fear of exclusion and the prospect of social and political integration both have long histories. To keep moving the threshold away from exclusion is crucial for the democratic future of Greece. In that sense, the Giannis Antetokounmpo story is reminiscent of the sweetest tales that one recalls from childhood. It is among the most beautiful, the most instructive narratives of the Greek political nation. Not the ancient Greek democracy, but the modern one. Such things are rarely afforded to us in life.

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