Letter: Distinguishing between 'ethnicity' and 'national identity' in Greece

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The Independent Online
Sir: The Greek ambassador, Elias Gounaris (letter, 16 May), in discussing the threats made against the anthropologist Anastasia Karakasidou, emphasises scholars' freedom of movement and research in his country. I can warmly testify to that freedom, which should, after all, not be remarkable in a democratic member state of the European Union, and I applaud his declaration that Dr Karakasidou 'can rest assured that the Greek authorities will do their utmost to protect her'.

In the same letter, however, the ambassador also describes part of Dr Karakasidou's argument about Macedonian ethnicity as 'unconfirmed', even though her fieldwork was 'extensive'. In rejecting the concept of a Macedonian ethnicity in Greece, he is the victim of a common translation problem: 'ethnicity' and 'national identity', two different though related concepts, are unfortunately conflated in the same term (ethnikotita) in Greek. This leads him to note that language 'on its own, is not (a) criterion of ethnicity'.

He is quite right in one key respect: no single cultural criterion, on its own, necessarily defines an ethnic identity. That is how people can have a Greek national consciousness ('consider themselves Greeks'), while claiming a distinct ethnic identity. Here, in fact, once the basic misunderstanding has been cleared up, we can see that Mr Gounaris effectively confirms Dr Karakasidou's position.

Greece's neighbours have often exploited this confusion of ethnicity with nationality to make territorial claims that have no status under existing international treaties. This, however, is all the more reason for the Greek authorities to endorse a clearer distinction between ethnicity and nationality. The continuing confusion also feeds the venom of ill-informed international audiences, which, through the condescending view that Greece's worth can only be measured by the standard of the ancient past, are partly to blame for what they then often portray as the Greeks' excessive defensiveness about Macedonia.

In order to substitute light for heat, and to discourage inexcusable acts of violence, the Greek authorities should now explicitly and unambiguously condemn the threats against Dr Karakasidou. Raising doubt in the press about her well-established credentials, moreover, may only encourage those elements from which the Greek government, in the person of its ambassador, has so rightly just dissociated itself.

Yours sincerely,

MICHAEL HERZFELD

Professor of Anthropology

Harvard University

Cambridge, Massachusetts

16 May

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