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What it means to be a Greek-Cypriot?

Published in the Cyprus-Mail, May 17th 2015.

In the case of Cyprus one must distinguish between the dual-meaning and usage of the dominant cultural identity.

The identity and label of the Greek Cypriot (GC) can have two completely different meanings: there is a constitutional (civic) definition and a cultural definition. The civic definition is that which is found in the 1960 constitution of the Republic of Cyprus, where a GC is a member of the Greek national group. Nevertheless, the civic definition of being a Greek Cypriot includes Armenians, Latins and Maronites, who “chose” to join the GC ethnic group back in 1959, only months before the introduction of the new constitution, as well as recently naturalised third country nationals.

As such, to be a GC in the civic sense does not mean being a member of a historical association based on a common sense of belonging to a community of fate, religion, lineage, language and customs. Rather, it means being a member of a civic group dominated by a specific cultural group.

By being a member of this constitutionally-recognised collective, the groups whose culture is different from the dominant group, are subject to assimilation because their own culture is not recognised.

The civic definition therefore is: the constitutional recognition of a collective that identifies based on the values of the dominant group of a country, but whose membership spans beyond the cultural natives of that dominant group; people from different (minority) cultures are assimilated to it — they are identified as members of the dominant culture and in doing so are denied their native cultural identity.

The civic conception of culture is able to accommodate more members than the alternative, ethnic “cultural” conception, which forms the core of the civic identity, since the former provides the values upon which the latter is based. The cultural conception relies upon ethnicity as its determinant of identity and as such, it is less welcoming and more exclusionary than the civic conception, since it can only accommodate people who are born into the culture. The cultural definition includes the members of one imaginary community — in the case of the Greek Cypriots it includes those members who are being identified as part of the Greek ethnos. The agency of the individual members has little relevance. One cannot cease being a Greek Cypriot; membership to an ethnic culture is a blood bond rather than a product of voluntary decision-making. Individuals need not espouse the bundle of identities that make up the ethnic whole in order for them to be considered rightful members of that culture — blood is enough. For instance, one can be a Greek Cypriot whilst being an Atheist, thus diverging from the ethnic definition of Greeks as Christian Orthodox; or one can be a GC without speaking the Cypriot dialect of the Greek language, like the children of expats, which are nonetheless considered members of the GC culture.

In the case of Cyprus it is of utmost importance to understand that the identity of the “Greek Cypriot” can have a dual meaning, describing two different groups of people. The civic definition includes the members of the Greek ethnic group but goes beyond it to include the post-1959 new recruits — Maronites, Latins, Armenians — whilst at the same time promoting the values, customs and history of the dominant ethnic group.

It would therefore be a mistake to assume that there is a uniform culture of Greeks Cypriots, conceived as a solidified and homogeneous group whose values must be guaranteed by the state. Only when the dual meaning of being a Greek Cypriot is grasped, will one be able to proceed and question whether it is desirable, or even politically legitimate, to apply and reinforce the dominance of the ethnic identity upon the members of the civic group.

Thus, in the first instance, when one reflects on the case of Cyprus, one must distinguish between ethnic and civic conceptions of national cultures, which are then to be distinguished from the individual cultural allegiances, or lack thereof, of their members.

In Cyprus, the dominant narrative on both sides of the divide is to refute the fact that the cultural distinctions established and institutionalised with the 1960 constitution resulted in the assimilation of people whose ethnic identities diverge from the two constitutionally-recognised ones, or of people who do not perceive themselves as members of either cultural group. This dominant perspective has survived throughout the second half of the 20th century, and has found its way into all the solution plans (constitutions) negotiated since then. All the constitutional solutions to the Cyprus problem treat the two cultures as exceptional by granting them more rights than the rest, allowing for the gradual extinction through assimilation of those cultures that are civically-classified as members of the GC, but are nonetheless cultural members of other associations, and therefore not members of the Greek ethnic group.

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