Sunday, March 18, 2012

In what extent are the religious differences between the Muslim Minority and the Christian Majority in Western Thrace the basis for political and social differences between the two communities?


The relations between the two worlds, The Christian and the Muslim, have since 9/11 come to the forefront of world politics. However this interaction between the two is not a recent one, especially when one examines the history of the two religions in Europe and Asia. The problems of coexistence and power politics restrict the two communities from living together peacefully, especially when analysing a region such as Western Thrace, located in the North East part of Greece and where a “small but politically significant population of about 120.000 Muslims”[1] flourish and which are a key issue in political debates as a problematic group of people, emphasising the regional troubles for both Greece and Turkey. This minority has a historical and political significance both for Greece and the Balkan region, being different from the ‘modern’ Muslim minority in the country, which comes and goes and which acts in a different manner to the one found in Thrace.          
            Greece acknowledges the Muslim minority, although it denies “the existence of ethnic minorities”[2] in its territory. This is the case due to the Treaty of Lausanne which especially talked about the minorities within Greece and Turkey in religious terms. Ethnicity was not relevant then. But today, identity and nationality have been revived as a fundamental issue in world politics and society. This is where the problem lies in this specific region. The case of the ‘Turkish’ minority in Thrace “is a peculiar case where the tensions of transnationalism and nationalism intersect and where boundaries are continuously created and negotiated”[3]. What is disregarded is the fact that the Muslim minority consists of people of different backgrounds; people who originate not only from Turkey (as Turkey states) but also people who are Pomaks, Albanians and Roma.




            Religion is exploited for political and social reasons. This is a main factor especially since the 1950s when the minority has converted into an ethnic one, claiming a common Turkish identity. The Greek government acknowledges this movement as a political game which has started from Turkey and is constantly being evolving with the contribution of the Turkish Consulate in Komotini. This is why “for the Turkish minority, only its religious aspect is accepted to figure in the public domain, whereas the right to collective identification as ‘Turkish’ is banned”[4].   This practice deprives the Muslim minority, which consists of several ethnic groups, of its freedom of existence and self-determination, which is a violation of Human Rights, which Greece has signed.
            This case emphasises the violations of Human Rights within Europe. (Violation of Human Rights is another major theme, where we see many Western countries violating them in order to increase their economic and political wealth, example the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the intervention in Libya –whilst still not intervening in other Arab nations).   Nevertheless, it also points out the political and social problems, whilst emphasising instability in the Balkan region, especially the bilateral relationships between Greece and Turkey. “In 1955, the Greek authorities themselves described the minority as ‘Turkish’. But when Greek-Turkish relations deteriorated, the Greek authorities refused, and continue to refuse, to allow the minority to use this adjective”[5]; due to these practices the European Court of Human Rights have ruled against Greece in many occasions. But this issue should not only be seen by one side. Turkey has violated minority rights, it has expelled Christians from its territories and has moved in a similar manner to that of Greece’s. The best solution is for both sides to stop the discrimination which prevail, unfortunately, even to this day.  Saying this it is important to state here Article 5 of the 1975 Greek Constitution which states that “All persons living within the Greek territory shall enjoy full protection of their life, honour and freedom, irrespective of nationality, race or language and of religious or political beliefs. Exceptions shall be permitted only in cases provided for in international law”[6]
            Due to the political instability within the region other problems occur. One key issue is the election of the Mufti. “The institution of the Mufti has become a political issue causing tension between the state and the minority and even among the minority members themselves”[7].  In Greece today a unique case is witnessed, where in Xanthi and in Komotini there are two Muftis in each region. One is elected by the Greek state and the other by a small number of Muslim activists. Greece’s view on this matter is that since the Mufti is not only a religious leader and figure but also carries out judicial duties and family law matters, therefore he is a civil judge. This means that the state is responsible of appointing the Mufti and not the minority. This case has recently become a political one. Since the 1920s until just recently the appointment of the Mufti by the state was not a problem. Iris Boussiakou states that “Islamic law provides that in non-Muslim states the Mufti can be appointed by the state as the government does not interfere in the religious duties of the Muslims.[8]” The Greek government clearly does not violate this but is concerned about the judicial rights that the Mufti obtains; this is why the civil courts have to re-evaluate the decisions taken by the Mufti, to certify that they conform with human rights norms.
            The case of Thrace is a unique one within Europe, since it is a region where Turkish politics integrate, making it a major problem for bilateral relations between Greece and Turkey.  The Muslim Minority is in a way brainwashed to thinking that it is Turkish, forgetting that they also consist of Albanians, Roma and Pomaks. Understanding that the Balkan region is a vulnerable one then one can identify the significance of this action. The Greek state observes these actions as aggressive and a threat to its territorial integrity. The ‘Big Idea’, a theory which each state in the Balkans had and still have which expresses the imperialistic and expansionist views and policies of each state, still prevail in this region. This problem arises when the Greek-Turkish relations deteriorate. The Muslim minority is a constant “source of diplomatic tension between Greece and Turkey”[9].  The importance of the Muslim Minority in bilateral relations was emphasized with Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s (the Prime Minister of Turkey) visit to Athens when he asked “for the recognition of the elected Mufti by the Greek government”[10].
            Socially the minority issue has produced many problems for the region and for peace within Thrace, between the Muslim and Christian communities. Although these problems are significant and important it is evident that today in Greece these communities are expressing their views through political parties, for example “ASPIDA”[11] which is the political party of the Greek Roma.  Also the two major political parties in Greece (PASOK and New Democracy) have Muslim representatives, which emphasise their integration into Greek society.
            Religious differences between the Muslim Minority and the Christian Majority in Western Thrace are the basis for political and social differences between the two communities. It is a key issue in Greek-Turkish relations and a regional Balkan issue between the Christian and Muslim states within South-East Europe. Religion, identity and ethnicity are elements manipulated by the two communities and through them policies and relations are built or destroyed. Unfortunately “ethnic and religious disputes continue. Greece complains about Turkey’s alleged mistreatment of the Greek Orthodox Church, headquarter in Istanbul, and Turkey protests Greece’s alleged mistreatment of its Muslim populace, whom Turkey refers to as ‘Turks’”[12]. The Greek media has during the past years analysed this matter, seeing its complexity, without being able to find an easy and satisfying solution to this chronic topic. After analysing the many aspects of this question I believe it is imperative to try and find a solution which would help the two communities and evidently the two states, Greece and Turkey, to solve any bilateral problems they have. Questions like the following need urgently clear and valid answers, why does Greece do not recognise the Muslim minority as Turkish, Albanian, Roma and Pomak? Why does Turkey want to implement its ideologies and policies in an allied state? How are the two communities involved in this dispute and how does it affect daily life? These are obviously quite pressing questions and they underline individual issues within the greater interfaith and international relations, experienced by the members of the local communities in Western Thrace. Reasonable, justifiable, legally binding and socially acceptable answers will be the only way forward for the well being and the prosperity of the communities involved, as well as for a stable Balkan region, leaving in the past the hostilities between the Muslims and the Christians in this part of Europe.


[1] Anagnostopoulou Dia, “Development, Discrimination and reverse discrimination: effects of EU integration and regional change on the Muslims of Southeast Europe”, in Islam in Europe- Diversity, Identity and Influence, Aziz Ahmed and Effie Fokas (eds.), (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 155
[2] The Constitutional Rights and Minorities in the Balkans, http://www.sam.gov.tr/perceptions/Volume2/September-November1997/THECONSTITUTIONALRIGHTSANDMINORITIESINTHEBALKANS.pdf, 12.59 p.m., 09/06/2010
[3] Madianou Mirca, ‘Contested Communicative Spaces: Rethinking Identities, Boundaries and the Role of the Media among Turkish Speakers in Greece’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies Vol. 31, No.3 (May 2005), p. 521
[4] Kyriakou Nikolas, European Centre for Minority Issues, http://www.ecmi.de/jemie/download/2-2009-Kyriakou.pdf , 16.32 p.m., 09/06/2010
[5] Hunault Michael, ‘Freedom of religion and other human rights for non-Muslim minorities in Turkey and for the Muslim minority in Thrace (Eastern Greece), Parliamentary Assembly Doc. 11860 (21 April 2009), p.24
[6] Trifunovska Snezana, Minority Rights in Europe-European Minorities and Languages, (The Hague, Asser Press, 2001), p. 479
[7] Boussiakou Iris, ‘Religious Freedom and Minority Rights in Greece: the case of the Muslim minority in western Thrace’, GreeSE Paper No21, Hellenic Observatory Papers on Greece and Southeast Europe, LSE (December 2008), p. iii
[8] Boussiakou Iris, ‘Religious Freedom and Minority Rights in Greece: the case of the Muslim minority in western Thrace’, GreeSE Paper No21, Hellenic Observatory Papers on Greece and Southeast Europe, LSE (December 2008), p. 12
[9] Miller P. Frederic, Minorities in Greece, (Mauritius, Alphascript Publishing, 2009), p. 64
[10] Antoniou Dora, ‘Kales Prothesis me ametakinites thesis’, Kathimerini (15-05-10)
(Translated from Greek: “ζήτησε να αναγνωρίζεται ο εκλεγμένος μουφτής από την ελληνική κυβέρνηση”.)
[11]Pavlou Miltos, ‘Racism and Discrimination against Immigrants and Minorities in Greece the State of Play’,  HLHR-KEMO National Focal Point on Racism & Xenophobia, (Annual Report 2007), p. 17
[12] Migdalovitz Carol, ‘Greece and Turkey: The Rocky Islet Crisis’, Foreign Affairs and National Defence Division Report 96-140 (7th March 1996), p.4

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