Vestiges of the Ottoman Past: Muslims Under Siege in Contemporary Greek Thrace

Vestiges of the Ottoman Past: Muslims Under Siege in Contemporary Greek. Thrace

Embraced by the expansionist Greek nation in 1920, the overwhelmingly agricultural Ottoman Muslim population of Western Thrace came under the tutelage of secular and religious officials appointed by the international treaty, these so-called "Greek Muslims" have faced an array of bureaucratic barriers to social and economic mobility over the years. Effectively disenfranchised from the community of citizens, many have turned by default to alternative opportunities in Turkey, investing capital in business and the higher education of their children there.

An emergent class of educated professional Muslims in Greek Thrace, along with their intelligentsia and followers, now protest against discrimination and exclusion by positing their own internal homogeneity as ethnic Turks rather than Greek Muslims. While their protestations have won them a greater degree of inclusion in the Greek economy, their assertions of ethnic identity clash with the uncompromising supremacy of the Greek national idiom. In effect, they provoke the full force of the Greek penal code which condemns them for creating rifts in the sacred homogeneity of the population and inciting citizens to violence. The actions of these victims cum perpetrators have recently opened the door to inclusion in the national arena, but have prompted an even greater degree of economic and political closure on the local level.

Muslim religious identity of the past has been transformed into Turkish national identity in the present. The old Islamic authoritative discourse of the 1920s was replaced by a new Turkish national discourse. This article will attempt to discern those agencies (forces) and agents (persons) who generated and maintained Turkish national identity among the Muslims of Western Thrace.

In 1922, Greece went to war with Turkey, embarking on an irredentist campaign to regain Asia Minor, and to reestablish an empire that harkened black to the glory of Byzantium. Greek forces were fully routed, and Greece was forced to meet with Turkey at the negotiating table in Lausanne in 1922. The resulting treaty set the terms for a compulsory exchange of populations between the two countries. Some 1.5 million Greek nationals left Turkey, while roughly 500,000 Turks departed from areas of Greek Macedonia. There were, however, two population cohorts that were excluded from the compulsory repatriation and allowed to remain in place as "religious minorities." These included roughly 110,000 Greek Christians in Istanbul and the islands of Imbros and Tenedos and some 124,000 Muslims of Western Thrace.

The Treaty of Lausanne was a legally binding convention that used religious criteria to define the ethnic and national groups covered by its terms. The Greek and Turkish governments were required to guarantee equality before the law for their respective minorities. For that purpose, Greek and Turkish Consulates were established in Istanbul (Turkey) and Komotini (Greek Thrace) respectively. At the time of the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne, more than two-thirds (67%) of the population of Western Thrace were Muslims, who owned 84% of the land. Less than a fifth (18%) of the population of Western Thrace at that time were Greeks, mostly traders, and whose land holdings amounted to only five percent of the region's total. The remainder of the population was comprised of Bulgarians, Jews and Armenians. The percentage of Greeks increased sharply, however, because of the settlement of Greek nationals from Asia Minor in 1923.

Ethnic Divisions: Turks, Pomaks, and Roma Gypsies

The Muslim minority in Greek Thrace, however, was-and still is-far from homogenous. There are three identifiable major ethnic groups among the Muslims: Turks (46% in 1981), Pomaks (18%), and Roma Gypsies (36%). The Turkish-speaking Muslims of Western Thrace (with the exception of the Roma) are largely accepted as being descendants of various Turkish groups that settled the area after the Ottoman conquest in 1361 A.D. Accounts of family ancestry offered by Turkish-speaking Muslims themselves, however, suggest that an ideology of common Turkish descent was constructed among what was once much more of an ethnic tapestry,. Yet, despite the historical heterogeneity of the Turkish-speaking Muslims, that population today appears to many observers, local and outsiders alike, as a strongly homogeneous group. As one Muslim man put it: "Every Christian is a Greek, and every Muslim a Turk."

Pomaks, on the other hands, are a transnational group of Slavic-speakers who were islamicized in the seventeenth century. They inhabit a prohibited military zone near the Bulgarian border. Most Pomaks in the area today, however, manifest a Turkish national consciousness, formed in part through enculturation and education at minority schools, and through inter-marriage with ethnic Turks.

The vast majority of the Roma are Turkish speakers, while a smaller group continues to use the Romani language. Today, Rom neighborhoods are little more than shanty towns. Most Roma are involved in unskilled or low-skilled jobs, finding employment as seasonally migrant agricultural laborers.

However, since the 1970s, the "minority" consciousness presently exhibited by Muslims in Greek Thrace is one that has increasingly found its definition in notions of a transnational Turkish identity whose rights are best promoted and guaranteed by the Turkish nation-state. The mosques and Turkish-oriented minority schools, provided for under the terms of the Treaty of Lausanne, have reshaped the ways in which Muslims perceive themselves vis-a-vis the secular and religious authorities of the Greek nation-state. Such exhibitions of Turkish national identity by the Roma Gypsies come despite the prevailing racism that Muslims of Turkish descent display against them, a prejudice that was formally also directed towards the Pomaks.

Generally speaking, members of all three groups have shared the brunt of public prejudicesand discriminatory government policies, which can be traced back to the 1960s. In 1964, at the height of the Cyprus crisis, the Turkish government moved to deport from Turkey all Greeks who maintained Greek citizenship, most of whom were given only forty-eight hours to leave the country. It has been estimated that in total some 60,000-70,000 Greeks have left Turkey, and were not allowed to sell their houses or property upon departure. Oral sources have it that it was in reaction to this development that the Greek government reinstituted a 1938 law, which did not permit the Muslims to engage in financial transactions. This law was strictly implemented during the Greek military junta of 1967-1974. Discriminatory policies included land expropriations, inability to obtain licenses to operate farming equipment and inability to buy, sell or repair houses. (It should be noted, however, that these obstacles have been somewhat alleviated in the past two years.) As a result, many young Muslim men have migrated to Europe in search of employment. Other families have started to invest their savings in properties and businesses in Turkey or have simply sold their property in Thrace and emigrated to Turkey.

Ideological Schisms: Islamicists and Reformists

At the time of Western Thrace's incorporation to the expanding Greek nation-state, two ideological cohorts could be distinguished among those Muslims of Turkish descent. Most were under the hegemony of the "Old Turks," conservative Islamicists who vehemently opposed the secular, Western reforms that Kemal Ataturk had introduced in Turkey. Their leadership, aided by religious men who had resettled in Thrace from Turkey after the Kemal Reforms, played an important role in keeping the Muslims of Greek Thrace strongly opposed to Turkey through the incessant propaganda they carried out against Ataturk.

To counter the influence of this predominantly conservative religious group, pro-Kemalist reformist elements among the Turkish minority established the Association of Turkish Youth in 1928. Innovative for its time, its activities focused on education, social programs, cultural trends, and athletics, encouraging joint participation by both men and women. The Association offered lessons in Turkish using the Latin script (rather than the old Arabic Ottoman script) to Muslim youth.

Despite the reforms successfully introduced by the Kemalists into Thracian Muslim society, women still remain the true vestiges of the Ottoman past. Unlike their counterparts in Turkey, most women still wear their veils (feredje) in public, and follow "traditional" roles of submission to male members of their family. Only educated women in Komotini appear in public "open," or without their veils.

The clash between Islamicist religious leaders and Kemalist Reformers in Thrace focused on competing notions of a transnational religion and secular nationhood. Only after the fall of the Greek military junta in 1974 did these divisions winter away and a common Turkish national identity began to take hold among the Muslims of Thrace. In order to understand how this process of transformation took place, the agents and agencies responsible for the changes in Muslim society in Thrace must be discussed.

According to Greenfeld, the adoption of a national identity by a given population is linked to the interest of those influential individuals or groups that import it into a given area and promulgate it among local society. By doing so, such agents invest themselves with a powerful form of social or political capital. Issues of identity are intimately tied to definitions of a social collectivity, regardless of its size. In the case of national collectivity, the internal characteristics of ethnicity (i.e., a common descent and culture) are collapsed with those of the nation. Their significance fades as the definitions of one's self become overwhelmingly oriented to notions of the national collectivity. As this theory applies in Thrace, membership in the religious Muslim collectivity was transformed into membership in the Turkish national collectivity.

Contest and Resistance in the Educational Arena

It has been through the politics surrounding education that a new class of Muslim bourgeoisie, and their intelligentsia, have emerged in recent years. They pose an increasingly organized protest against minority discrimination through the promulgation of a Turkish national identity and consciousness. At the time of Western Thrace's incorporation into the Greek state, the overwhelming majority of Muslims were illiterate. Education for Muslim children has been provided largely through minority elementary schools, where instruction was given in both Turkish and Greek. During the interwar period (1920-1940), relatively few Muslims youths were able to go on to attain a secondary education, as this usually required attendance at mainstream Greek schools, which in turn was predicated upon fluency or near fluency in Greek. Generally speaking, it was only Muslim boys from urban families that attended high school. Yet, secondary education alone was sometimes sufficient to propel certain individuals into leading positions within the minority community and within larger Greek society.

Despite the fact that the Muslim minority currently has 268 elementary schools, two high schools, and two religious schools at their disposal, many choose to send their children to schools in Turkey because they find the teachers in Greece poorly trained. In addition, there are many complaints that the textbooks used in minority schools (books imported from Turkey) are subject to many delays in distribution. Quite often, by the time shipments reach their intended destinations, half the school year has already passed.

Caught between the foreign policies and tensions of Greece and Turkey, Muslims in Thrace have been cut off from many paths of mobility open to other Greek citizens. Education remains the only avenue of social mobility open to most Muslims, and yet the majority of them are functionally illiterate within the Greek nation-state, graduates of unprestigious minority schools who are illsuited or uninterested in assimilation with Greek national culture and society. Despite these obstacles, the minority today has come to have within its own ranks professionals with university degrees, be they from Greece or from Turkey. These lawyers, doctors, dentists, businessmen, journalists, teachers, and others now form a new class of urban professionals able to assist other members of the minority in their dealings with Greek bureaucracy. By freeing minority members from dependency on Greek professionals for brokering such interaction, this class of urban professionals has helped to further consolidate both itself and the minority in general.

Traditional Leadership

This new group of professionals and political brokers has now entered the ranks of the minority's "indigenous" leadership which, in the past, consisted mainly of the mufti and his inner circle, the powerful wake (charitable properties) Managing Committee, and the elected parliamentary deputies. The mufti is considered by both the Greek government and the minority population as primarily the religious leader of the minority population as primarily the religious leader of the Muslim community and the mediator between his congregation and the Greek state. There are a total of three muftis in Greek Thrace, one in each of the three prefectures (Xanthi, Rodopi, and Evros). All muftis are state employees and have been appointed to their posts by the Greek Ministry of Religious Affairs, despite the provisions of Greek Law 2345/1920, which mandates that the muftis are to be elected by the Muslim population. The mufti also has legal powers to perform marriages, divorces, and guardianship of orphans, and to prohibit inheritance. These legal powers of the muftis stand in contrast to the role of the mufti during the Ottoman period, when his duties were confined to interpreting Islamic law.

The Treaty of Lausanne also guaranteed for the Muslims the right to control both their religious institutions and their wakf properties, which were administered either by an appointed or elected committee of Muslim notables. The president of the wakf Managing Committee was the second most powerful leader within the minority community. In the past, the elected Muslim parliamentary deputies were also powerful individuals among the minority, but ran in national elections under the ballot of mainstream Greek political parties. Divisions between Reformists and Islamicist elements of the minority were evident in parliamentary elections. As many of their critics maintain, these older politicians did little or nothing to promote minority rights in the past. They were too caught up in mainstream Greek political debates to address the plight of their constituents.

Leading the Brethren into the Future

In recent years, however, political power has become consolidated within the hands of local, secular activists. In 1979, at the suggestion of the Komotini mufti, a Highest Minority Committee was established as the supreme decision making body for minority affairs. Its establishment came in the wake of the reaction to a new wakf property Greek "reform" legislation which attempted to change the management of wakf properties. As a leadership body, it included among its members the president of minority associations that had been excluded in the past.

In 1985, the Highest Minority Committee took the responsibility of collecting signatures to accompany a protest text addressed to the Greek parliament, against Greece's discriminatory minority policies, but they made slow progress. One member of the Committee, however, a surgeon by the name of Dr. Ahmet Sadik, undertook to collect those signatures himself. Sadik claimed to have collected 15,000 signatures by the time the Greek police arrested him on his way to Alexandroupolis (in the Prefecture of Evros). In his 1989 trial, Dr. Sadik was charged with counterfeiting signatures and "scoundreling" against Greece.

This first trial of Dr. Sadik might not have served as a vehicle for protect against past discriminatory policies if it had not been for the government's abolition of all minority organizations which used the term "Turkish" in their titles, such as the Turkish Youth Association and the Association of West Thracian Turkish Teachers in January, 1988. This decision from the Greek High Court was initially triggered by the 1983 establishment of the independent Turkish state of Northern Cyprus and argued that the use of the term "Turkish" was a violation of the Greek Penal Code which prohibits any group or individual from "openly or indirectly inciting citizens to violence or creating rifts among the population at the expense of social peace." In the parliamentary elections of June, 1989, Dr. Sadik headed an independent ballot, and he was elected to parliament, receiving some 23,000 votes.

Immediately after the elections, a new crisis broke. Dr. Sadik and Ibrahim Serif (another candidate on the indepent ballot and who was later elected as the "popular" mufti of Komotini) had used the word "Turkish" in one of their pre-election proclamations, an act for which they were arrested. They were placed on trial together in Komotini during January, 1990, in a series of proceedings that triggered the most violent protest ever in Western Thrace. Dr. Sadik and Ibrahim Serif were found guilty of disturbing public order and were each sentenced to eighteen months in prison. They were immediately transported to the Diavata prison outside Thessaloniki. From his prison cell, Dr. Sadik made the statement: "I am a Greek citizen and a Muslim of Turkish descent."

The trial was videotaped and reported on by the Turkish mass media and effectively served to united the minority. Two days later, a large number of Muslims gathered in front of the Eski Mosque in Komotini in protest. Police were flown in from Athens on special flights to deal with the demonstrators. A number of angry Christians reacted sharply by rioting, beating Muslims, smashing windows and looting Muslim-owned businesses, while the police allegedly stood by passively and watched. In all, a total of twenty-one people were injured, a Greek was killed by a Muslim, and 200 businesses were damaged during the rioting and its aftermath. The Turkish Consul stationed in Komotini was declared persona non grata and expelled from Greece.

Dr. Sadik and Ibrahim Serif were imprisoned for a total of sixty-four days before being released. Dr. Sadik subsequently won re-election as a parliamentary deputy in the balloting of April, 1990. Having weathered the storm, and having brought national and international attention to the plight of the Muslim minority, Dr. Sadik had won the sympathy and respect of the majority of Thracian Muslims. He has become their hero and leader. From now on, most Muslims would turn to a new patron, one more powerful than any particular mufti, Minority Committee member, or parliamentary deputy. As one Muslim reporter from Komotini described the Sadik 1990 victory, "People did not vote for Sadik. They voted for Turkey."

The great controversy that erupted over issues of Muslim minority leadership after the death of the mufti of Komotini in 1985 reflected this shift from religious to secular authority. The Greek government went ahead and appointed Metso Jemali as the new mufti four years later. Responding to the Greek government's failure to implement Law 2345/1920 regarding the election of the mufti, some new leaders of the Muslim minority community held their own elections for the post. Balloting took place at all mosques in the prefecture on Friday, 28 December, 1990, just after the important midday prayer during which all males are required to attend a mosque. While many, in fact, chose to stay away from the mosques (and commit a sin), the elections went forward. Voters elected Ibrahim Serif as what they call "our mufti (and what critics call the "pseudo-mufti"). He is quite clearly a highly political leader - and a prominent symbol of Turkish nationalism - since, as we have seen, he had been convicted for making public statements that he is a Turk rather than a Greek Muslim.

Dr. Sadik's insistence to his Turkish descent struck a chord with most Muslims in Thrace. In Greece today, however, the use of the term "Turk" is considered akin to a sacrilege. Both sides express extreme opinions. For example a non-dated proclamation of minority extremists states:

We are millions and Allah is with us. The time of Nemesis is coming closer...Therefore, stop your disgusting campaign against our motherland, Turkey. You should know and you should remember very well - Western Thrace was and will become Turkish...

On the other hand, a proclamation of Greek extremism maintained:

You live and you exist because of the philanthropic sentiments of the Greeks of Thrace. Do not provoke. Thrace was and will be Greek. Just like Asia Minor was Greek...Stupid Muslims!

Vestiges of the Ottoman Past

Thrace in the 1920s was a land at the crossroads of empires. For centuries it had been administered by Turkish-speaking Islamic officials and Greek-speaking Christian ecclesiastical representatives of the Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul. Islamic law governed nearly every aspect of life for the non-Christian majority.

The Turkish-speaking Muslims of Thrace were obviously aware that they were not Greeks, but this did not mean that they conceived of themselves as Turks. Throughout much of this century their religion had a much stronger role in shaping their identity than an as yet weakly articulated sense of affinity with the new Turkish nation-state to the East.

Yet, as Turkey consolidated itself as a nation-state and Greece did the same (the two quite often doing so in relation or response to each other), those human vestiges of the Ottoman past that the Treaty of Lausanne had left in Greek Thrace had forced upon them a new set of circumstances, both material and ideological. In Ataturk's Turkey, religious and secular powers and authority were separated as nation-building progressed. In Greek Thrace they became conflated.

As the avenues of mobility were closed to "unassimilated" Muslims, many of those who could afford to do so turned to the eager patronage of Turkey. While it is true that Turkish nationalism was "imported" into Thrace, it is equally true that its seeds found fertile ground among a population that had been subject to economic and social discrimination. Unable or unwilling to pursue careers through education in the Greek national system, a generation of Thracian Muslims has been educated in Turkey. They returned to Greece and have become a new class of Muslim professionals with Turkish national ideology. An ideology which now waxes hegemonic, transforming a heterogeneous Muslim minority into an increasingly consolidated group with Turkish national orientation.

More moderate, minoricist critics of this new nationalist movement condemn both the violation of human rights and Turkey's interference in local minority affairs. For their position, they are ostracized by the Turkish nationalists, black-listed, and excluded from decision-making circles. They are prevented from visiting Turkey or even the Turkish Consulate in Komotini.

These people in Komotini maintain that the minority is "under siege." But it seems that these last vestige of the Ottoman past are being pressed upon by two different, mutually opposed forces of nationalism. On the one hand are "the Greeks," who continue to press for assimilation - although not through the harsh measures of the past - in a desperate attempt to hang on to Thrace. For them, there are no "Turks" in Thrace, only Greek Muslims. The Sadik case was a demonstration of the degree of unwillingness in Greece to tolerate any discourse concerning Turkish identity and national minority rights in the region. On the other side are "the Turks," who are attempting to superscribe Muslim religion with a consciousness of a more immediate, secular identity oriented to Turkey.

Higher education in Muslim societies - as elsewhere - is reshaping conceptions of self, society, religion, and nation. Through what Eickelman has called the "objectification" of religious imagination, a religious collectivity in Thrace has been transformed into a new collectivity with a consciousness of national identity. Dramatic transformations in the structures of authority have occurred in the past two decades. As Gramsci noted, intellectuals nurture the seeds of resistance and contestation. In Thrace, an "authoritative" Islamic discourse has been replaced by an new "authoritative" discourse of Turkish nationalism, a process which had its parallels in other Muslims societies. The Turkish national identity that is expressed and debated in the Greek national arena is, as Gallner put it, not "the awakening of an old, latent, dormant force...It is in reality the consequence of a new form of social organization, based on deeply internalized, education-dependent high cultures."

There is little humor in the irony that in Thrace, such assimilationist pressures have combined with nationalism and fanaticism from both sides of the Greek-Turkish border to create a wall stronger and perhaps more enduring than that which once divided berlin.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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