13 February 2010

Muslim Minority in Greece

Greeks have an unusual relationship to 'their' Muslim minority. One feature of this relationship is that they do not easily accept criticisms from non-Greeks (let alone Turks!) regarding this issue. On the other hand, Greeks themselves are free to criticize their government for making 'mistakes' in this field. The Greek public (or, let say, public opinion as reflected in the media) is also highly intolerant of criticism from members of the minority. Critical statements are usually branded 'provocations' in the media. And the individuals making the criticism are immediately branded as agents of Turkey. A further feature which is regrettable in a highly democratic Greek society is the absence of any form of public dialogue between Christians and Muslims. It is a common feature to watch TV debates on the problems of Thrace - recoderd in an Athens studio - with politicians from Athens and not a single Muslim voice.

Before the compulsory Exchange of Populations in the 1920s the Muslims were a clear majority in Western Thrace. This numerical predominance has been changed by the systematic policy of Greek governments in settling Christian refugees from Turkey in these areas. It is recorded that in this process of resettlement great areas of land occupied by Muslims were squatted upon by the Greek newcomers from Anatolia and Eastern Thrace. This land question was a significant issue in Greek-Turkish relations at the time. In the course of the population exchange and the settlement of Greek refugees in the area a significant number of Muslims from Western Thrace left their homes and properties volutarily. That this emigration did not reach dimensions dangerous to the existence of the minority is due mainly to the religious conservatism of the Thracian Muslims who where clearly at odds with what was happening politically and socially in post-Ottoman Turkey.

This religious conservatism was supported by the presence of anti-Kemalist-forcest, who had found refuge in Western Thrace after 1923. The most prominent among them was the last Mufti of Constatinople (the Sey-ul-Islam), the highest spiritual leader in the Ottoman Empire and an outspoken enemy of the Kemalist reforms. It was only in the 1930s that the Greek government bowed to Turkish pressure and expelled the Muslim religious leaders from Western Thrace. This move was major significance for the further development of the minority.

One of the major complaints of the minority concerns the shrinking of land ownership. Several sources reveal efforts by the Greek authorities aiming at reducing the amount of Muslim-owned land. A veriety of methods are said to have been applied to reach this goal as of the mid-1960s. Firstly it is reported that the purchase of land by members of the minority was made difficult - or practically prohibited. On the other hand, Christians are said to have been encouraged (with long-term loans) to purchase land from Muslim farmers. Another complaint heard again and again in this regard pertains to petty discrimination in many spheres of every day life. According to these reports, which in recent years have also been publicized widely in international Human Rights reports, members of the minority were only rarely granted permission to build houses or to repair existing ones. Another point of complaint pertains to discriminatory practices as regards the issuing of driving licenses, especially for tractors.

Muslims: Turks, Pomaks and Gypsies (Ronald Meinardus, in Minorities in Greece: aspects of a plural society (Richard Clogg, 2002)
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