“What was wrong with those attacks,” says the upright Greek businessman speaking of 11 September, “was that they didn’t happen at night. If they had happened then, the towers and perhaps even the Pentagon would have been empty.”
The businessman, let’s call him Giorgos, has one of those pleasant, open faces. He wears a European Commission flag pinned to his lapel, and is explaining, quite calmly, how the average Athenian sees the day that changed the world.
“In Greece,” he murmurs in a matter-of-fact way, “we regard this as a textbook case of David versus Goliath. America is overly arrogant and it needed to be brought down to earth. The attacks were the consequence of all its sins – Kosovo, Korea, Vietnam and Cyprus, a classic case of American double standards; 11 September was a taste of its own medicine.”
In the birthplace of democracy – Nato’s strategic arm in the south-eastern Mediterranean and Euroland’s most recent addition – Giorgos’s views are not unusual. If anything, they are rather tame.
From the moment the twin towers came tumbling down, the Greeks took a decidedly different approach to the tragedy and the ensuing attack on Afghanistan – one that, once again, highlights the divide that separates this country from the rest of the west. While London and Washington were still fretting about forging a common global front against terror, anti-war rallies across Greece offered evidence that it may have been prudent to examine the EU’s inner sanctum first.
Repeatedly, Hellenes topped international league tables in their lack of sympathy for post-attack America. Fewer Greeks supported the US-led war than did Palestinians. Midway through the campaign, polls showed that eight in ten were vehemently opposed to the air strikes, fearing the quest for justice would turn into one of revenge. The vast majority agreed with Iran, and other Middle Eastern states, that they were being prosecuted solely to “promote the west’s powerful interests”.
The news of Kabul’s fall was greeted with immediate scepticism: Uncle Sam, opined one Greek commander formerly attached to Nato, was clearly hoping American troops would establish a foothold in the country.
Over dinner that night, a Greek doctor asked me if I really believed Osama Bin Laden was truly behind the worst terrorist attack in history. After all, he noted, a nationwide poll in Greece had revealed two riveting facts: that only 29.6 per cent of his compatriots thought the Saudi-born fugitive had masterminded the attacks, and that 35.9 per cent were convinced the carnage was the work of the CIA – if it wasn’t a Zionist plot engineered by Mossad (7.7 per cent).
“Why does Blair, that well-known gay, think he knows best?” the doctor inquired gruffly. “Doesn’t he realise that there are some places in Europe where there has been hardly any support for this so-called war?”
In Greece, support has not only been minimal; anti-Americanism has been growing by the day.
My neighbourhood is now daubed with swastika-adorned slogans that scream: “Fuck the USA!” For the first time in years, commemorations marking the 17 November student uprising – the event that triggered the collapse of seven miserable years of US-backed military rule in 1974 – were unexpectedly well attended.
As I write this, the slogans of roughly 7,000 angry men and women waft through my windows. “Down with Bush!” they chant. “Down with Ameri-cans, the murderers of children! No to Nato’s imperialist war!”
Admittedly, those who bother to attend such rallies are, by their own definition, marginalised supporters of the KKE (the Communist Party of Greece), which led similar opposition to the alliance’s bombardment of Serbia in 1999. But unlike any other EU country, what the protesters mirror is the mainstream view. The Greeks are as instinctively anti-western as they are naturally conspiratorial. As a result, anti-Americanism has not only dominated the nation’s political discourse, but it has been cultivated by vote-seekers for decades; 11 September has shown that this is still true.
While the socialist government in Athens has been at pains to assert its unstinting support for Washington – providing military facilities and even despatching the foreign minister, George Papandreou, to central Asia at Colin Powell’s behest – the Greek public, mindful of the old rhetoric, has voiced radically different views.
One poll showed that 30 per cent of the population felt justice had been served. Another poll showed that about 25 per cent of respondents felt “satisfied”, even “pleased”, by the assault. Echoing that sentiment, one prominent conservative commentator compared the culprits to the heroes of Greece’s 1821 war of independence.
The most embarrassing display of anti-Americanism came two days after the attacks, when Greek football fans attending an Athens soccer match against Scotland jeered through the minute’s silence in memory of the terror victims. The doughty Scots looked on aghast as they destroyed an Israeli flag and then attempted to burn the Stars and Stripes in the stands. “I could not believe such anti-American feeling in a European country,” said Alex McLeish, the coach of the Scottish team.
Disgusted Greek Americans, many of whom are tireless lobbyists, say they will now be boycotting the 2004 Athens Olympics. “We condemn and reject the shameless and baseless insults and blatant slander of fellow Greeks in the motherland,” the Federation of Greek Associations of Greater New York snapped in a blistering statement.
“I just don’t get it,” says John Sitilides, who heads the Washington-based Western Policy Center. “Greece is surrounded on three sides by Muslim populations which have in them pockets of extremism. It is the western country most in danger of a terrorist threat when it holds the Olympics. Any international effort that weakens terrorism is actually to Greece’s benefit, but that has not sunk in.”
Analysts point to the Greeks’ delicate geopolitical position as citizens of a Christian buffer state, at the crossroads of east and west. Half a century may have elapsed since Greece’s bloody civil war of 1946-49, but the left has still not forgiven America for its support of the right and subsequent mischief-making to keep the communists out.
Throughout the 1950s, and with US blessing, emboldened right-wing governments became increasingly repressive, so much so that tens of thousands of leftists were either imprisoned in concentration camps or exiled on isolated Aegean islands. Memories of the ruthless 1967-74 dictatorship and ensuing Turkish invasion of Cyprus are also vivid – even if Bill Clinton eventually apologised for Washington’s “failure to support democracy”.
Leftist anger is understandable. What is less so is the anti- Americanism now being espoused by the political right. Earlier this month, the youth wing of the main opposition New Democracy party splashed the burning twin towers across posters advertising a “once in a lifetime” event.
Increasingly, right-wingers have come to equate nationalism with anti-Americanism. According to polls, over 50 per cent of Greek conservatives now “hate” Uncle Sam. American policies in the Balkans are partly to blame. Goaded by the dogmatic Archbishop of Athens, Christodoulos, Greeks of all persuasions see the superpower as the root cause of the plight of their Serbian co-religionists, and the ill repute of Eastern Orthodoxy in general.
“The assault on America was the work of God’s wrath,” boomed the telegenic Christodoulos shortly after the attack.
Across the board, Hellenes live in fear of Washington now exerting “unbearable” pressure on them to root out their own terrorists, not least the 17 November group. To boot, many see the Orthodox Church as the embodiment of Greece’s defensive national identity – the only bulwark left against the threat of multiculturalism, now symbolised by the US-style yuppies who work for multinationals, drive Jeeps and wield their mobiles like firearms.
If 11 September has proved anything, it is that most Greeks remain mentally disengaged from the west. They see the world from the perspective of the Middle East. So why not place them in the Middle East as well?
“Perhaps the time has come to stop seeing Greece as a western country,” writes Takis Michas in his forthcoming book The Unholy Alliance: Greece and Milosevic’s Serbia during the 1990s. After all, he notes, Greece offers the best evidence yet that economic growth and modernisation do not necessarily lead to westernisation. Or to loving Uncle Sam.
Helena Smith is the Guardian‘s Athens correspondent