Respect Your Own Traditions

So, first, there’s this (.pdf). It’s a report about human rights in Georgia, which factually outlines a number of accomplishments and a number of shortcomings.

Then, there’s this, an open letter from some Georgian folks in response to the report.

In this open letter, the signatories, described ironically as “intelligentsia”, criticize the report’s author, and all of Europe, and hippies, apparently in an effort to spread the blame for this report across as much space and time as humanly possible rather than accepting any kind of responsibility for the state of their own society. The letter is entitled “Respect our Traditions!”

Frankly, it’s sad how stupid and misguided this letter is. The letter essentially argues that the freedoms of speech and assembly are not fundamental human rights, but are conditional rights granted only to those who adhere to society’s moral code. The letter further argues that the Western failure to comprehend and enforce this doctrine is responsible for the moral collapse of Western Europe, and that in order for Western Europe and Georgia to get along, it would be best if Europeans reoriented their moral and social compass toward the Georgian model. I don’t really think this argument merits refutation – it’s clearly nothing more than self-serving, nationalist poppycock – but there is an interesting blind spot in this open letter, and that’s what I’d like to address.


The letter points out that Georgians have a long tradition of tolerance, particularly religious tolerance, as indicated by the coexistence of Christians of different sects, Muslims, and Jews. As far as I know, this is more or less true.

What the letter does not mention is that the Georgian Orthodox Church has deliberately and openly abandoned that tradition. In its place, the Church has decided to attempt to achieve a monopoly on the Georgian soul by forcefully and at times violently stamping out the competition.

The Church seems to have absorbed a number of thuggish individuals by extending its protection to some members of the Georgian Mafia in the 1990s, perhaps in return for donations the Mafia used to make towards certain church-building projects. These individuals and their disciples have led violent attacks against Jehovah’s witnesses, have prevented Muslim Georgians from meeting for prayer in eastern Georgia, have protested a law giving non-Orthodox churches official legal status as churches, have removed a minaret from a mosque in the south of Georgia, and, of course, have led and participated in violent attacks against peaceful demonstrators on May 17th, 2012 and May 17th, 2013. Lately they have introduced a provision into a parliamentary law that, if passed, will make it illegal to “offend the feelings of the faithful”. All the while, they have promulgated the idea that to be Georgian is to be Orthodox Christian.

This is a serious departure from Georgian tradition. The idea that Georgia will not extend an equal welcome to members of different nations, religions, or denominations is a radical innovation and many Georgians have been slow to accept it.

Attempting, sometimes successfully, to bring the power of the Georgian state to bear against religious minorities – by lobbying against their legal status, tearing down a minaret with a building code as an excuse, and by seriously considering an anti-blasphemy law that violates Georgia’s constitution – is a violation of Georgian norms of hospitality and centuries of traditions of religious tolerance.

Gathering angry villagers to prevent Muslims from praying, beat Jehovah’s Witnesses, and attack peaceful civil rights demonstrators is a direct affront to the Christian teachings of peace, love, brotherhood, and non-violence. The Patriarch is fond of “distancing” himself from the violence committed in his name. How cowardly. Christians are not supposed to distance themselves from violence – they are supposed to oppose violence, to meet violence head-on, and to overcome violence with the power of their ideas and their love.

It is apparent that the violent oppression of non-Orthodox groups in Georgia is an invention of the post-Soviet environment. Misha suppressed the violence during his regime, but Shevardnadze decidedly failed to do so, and Ivanishvili/Georgian Dream look to be heading in the same direction. To Georgians of about my age, this way of life might look normal. They’ve never not heard the Patriarch’s propaganda, never lived in a society with true religious pluralism, and so they could conceivably mistake this religious nationalism and the accompanying violence for tradition. They know that Muslims and Christians and Jews coexisted peacefully in Georgia for centuries – they have just forgotten how they coexisted peacefully.

I’ll tell you one thing: Ilya’s way – throwing out tradition and jealously attacking ideological competitors through a combination of legal, illegal, and quasi-legal means – is not going to work. (Food for thought: ask a Russian how their attempts to repress Caucasian Muslims have worked out.) Georgian Christians may think they’re doing themselves a favor by ridding the country of any un-Orthodox people or ideas – and they might even be right, if you dig homogeny – but if that’s the path they’re going to go down, then they should at least consider a rhetorical strategy that doesn’t make them look like a bunch of stupid hypocrites. “Respect our Traditions?” Indeed.

Here’s some free advice: if you don’t respect your own traditions, nobody else is going to either.

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8 Responses to Respect Your Own Traditions

  1. Richard says:

    Not just non-Orthodox Christians. I was alarmed on a recent visit to Georgia over the treatment of Armenian Orthodox (actually Apostolic) churches which had been seized during communist times and which the Georgian Orthodox Church has been trying to claim as its own.,_Tbilisi


    • Very true, sadly. Most of the Armenian Churches of Tbilisi (and there used to be many of them!) have been appropriated and are now either operated as Georgian Orthodox Churches, or are left to ruin. Apparently the GOC prefers that these churches collapse than be given back to the Armenian Church.

      That being said, there’s an old saying that goes something along the lines of “what goes around comes around”. After all, the Georgian diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church manifestly joined the leadership of the Georgian Church in leading the violent attack on the peaceful demonstrators on May 17, 2013.


  2. misha says:

    For a letter that boils down to ‘Let us hate the gays,’ it drops some pretty serious bombs. Dismissing the entire Enlightenment and presenting Georgian history as an example of a more peaceful and harmonious culture (mostly because Georgia was too often occupied to have an opportunity to victimize anyone). A whole lot of small-nation psychology here, and I wonder how on board with it that very long list of signers is.


  3. kp Attman says:

    It is amazing to see what excuses people will use to hate each other. And how sad when it’s used to influence a whole nation.


  4. Pingback: Free Speech | Georgia On My Mind

  5. Pingback: I take it back: don’t respect your own traditions | Georgia On My Mind

  6. Natarajan says:

    Homogeny and/or hegemony. Is the mafia thing well attested? It reads a little TMZish, though certainly plausible


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