The New Xerxes ‘Lashes’ the Mediterranean: Will the West Remain Inactive?

August 24, 2020
By Polyvia Parara

The representative of the ruling party in Turkey, Omer Çelik, verbally attacked Greece, stating, among other things: "The European Union must not allow Greece to make Europe a Greek theater." The authoritarian President of Turkey and his representative are not aware of the substance of the ancient Greek theater, and this is why they invoke it sarcastically. Greek theater is the child of the Athenian democracy, instituted to serve and instruct the citizenry that no citizen can ever trust the government of one man's rule and that it is only the safeguard of the collective institutions that can assure the prosperity of the state. Does Mr. Erdogan know the ontological content of democracy? Certainly not, since he chose to be a neo-sultan, imprisoning, torturing, and destroying the free voice of his compatriots.

But what can the authoritarian ruler understand from the ancient Greek theater? If he had understood it, he would have already realized that as a new Xerxes he is following in the footsteps of the Aeschylean tragic hero of The Persians, who foolishly wanted to conquer Europe by subjecting the Greek world. "We are traveling in the fairest season of the year, and we will return home as conquerors of all Europe,” said Xerxes, as Herodotus narrates in the Histories (7.50.4). So, here is what the Greek theater says on this expedition: "Xerxes yoked them both to his chariot and placed the collar-straps upon their necks. The one bore herself proudly in these trappings and kept her mouth obedient to the rein. The other struggled and with her hands tore apart the harness of the chariot; then, free of the curb, she dragged it violently along with her and snapped the yoke in two. Xerxes was hurled to the ground and tore the garments covering his body.” (l.190-196). And as history testifies, not only did the arrogant despot fail to conquer the Greek world but he was beaten hollow and he returned humiliated to Asia.

Erdogan, as a new Xerxes, employs authoritarianism to intimidate and subjugate the free people of the Mediterranean, by attacking Hellenism. Based on international law, the sovereignty of islands extends beyond their land and internal waters, and they are described as constituting a territorial sea. At this moment the new Xerxes is violating Greece’s and Cyprus' territorial sea in violation of international law. 

If the West allows this and remains inactive towards these transgressions, it bears responsibility for the nurturing of the authoritarian assault around the European maritime borders and within Europe itself. The West will also have allowed the violation of international law and consequently, its weakening since the law that is violated with impunity loses its force. The power of law is its enforcement.

Everyone will assume responsibility today for the transgressions in the Mediterranean.

The actions – and inaction – speak for each country’s principles and values. And I mean everyone without any exception. The Greek world today stands at the forefront, facing the despotism and expansion of neo-Ottomanism in the Mediterranean. Only democratic France has so far expressed its solidarity to Greece by defending international law and by opposing the neo-sultan's authoritarianism and expansionistic policy, who proves himself to be a threat to the democratic world.

What is the rest of the West waiting for? Will it stand idly watching the encroachment on the legal national sovereignty of two EU member states by a bigoted authoritarian ruler who fantasizes about a ‘Blue Homeland’ in the Mediterranean, that is not his? Will the West, then, admit that in the 21st century it primarily values narrow economic interests and overlooks democratic principles and the rule of law? This is a very sad prospect for the West and for humanity.

The Greeks believed and still believe that “the measure to evaluate every action is the value of the human being.” Undeniably, a golden rule to be followed for the future of Humanity! Having the solidarity of France, the Greeks are defending this golden rule today – as they always did. What will be the stance of the rest of the West? If the West stays inactive in the face of these transgressions, it means that it undermines the very foundations of its identity, which was shaped by the Greek anthropocentric perspective, as captured by Protagoras' aforementioned saying. Based on how it manages the current political process, the West is also responsible for future generations. ‘Neutrality’ towards the attacker and the attacked is often seen as complicity that inadvertently encourages the transgressor to continue its arbitrary acts. It also undermines international law in the short and long term.

The West must understand that the values of the free democratic world are paramount and the narrow economic interest is secondary. In the past, "Xerxes commanded that the Hellespont be whipped with three hundred lashes, and a pair of fetters be thrown into the sea," says Herodotus. As of today, the hubristic new Xerxes "lashes" the Mediterranean, and it is Hellenism and France so far who have stood before him to defend the golden rule of “the measure to evaluate every action is the value of the human being.” The rest of the West needs to face up to the situation in the Mediterranean and set the record straight.

Polyvia Parara is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland College Park.

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