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Where Sharia Law Reigns In Europe, And The Muslim Woman Fighting It

By a twist of history and weight of geopolitics, Greek law recognizes the authority of Sharia in settling civil matters for the country's Muslim minority. One widow is fighting to end this European anomaly.

Muslim Eid al-Adha celebrations in Komotini, Greece
Muslim Eid al-Adha celebrations in Komotini, Greece
Adéa Guillot

KOMOTINI — In the privacy of a cosy flat in this city in northeastern Greece, Shatitzeh Molla Sali speaks to us softly, so softly that she is sometimes barely audible. Hers is the voice of a weary 65-year-old who says she always "lowered her head and accepted everything."

But her gaze now shows the steely resolve of a changed woman. Molla Sali has just become the first member of Greece's Muslim minority to lodge an appeal at the European Court of Human Rights against a court ruling based on Islamic Sharia law, in her case on charges that she was deprived part of her inheritance.

When her husband died in March 2008, Molla Sali inherited everything through his will, a Greek document registered at a notary's office. But her in-laws immediately challenged the bequest with the local mufti — a Muslim jurist and theologian — in the name of Sharia law, which forbids Muslims to write wills.

Molla Sali took the matter to a civil court and won. But in a decision published in October 2013, the Greek Supreme Court established that matters of inheritance among the Muslim minority must be resolved by the mufti, following Islamic laws.

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Muftis in Thrace — Photo: Ggia

Does this mean that there is Sharia law in Greece, in the heart of Europe? In the home of Orthodox Christianity where Church and State are not separated? The background to this situation is in the troubled relations between Greeks and Turks. Greece became independent in the early 19th century, after four centuries of occupation by the Ottoman Turks. But the two antagonists did not establish a near-definitive frontier until 1923, with the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne.

The treaty regulated a massive population exchange. The Greeks and Turks agreed to send each other hundreds of thousands of their nationals, with one concession on both sides. Turkey agreed to maintain the seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople in Istanbul and to not expel the city's Greek residents. In exchange the Muslims of Thrace, numbering some 120,000, were excluded from any exchange of populations. This "Muslim minority of Greece" as it is officially known, consists mainly of Turks but also gypsies, Pomaks and Bulgars converted to Islam under the Ottoman Empire and living in mountainous villages.

The Treaty of Lausanne recognizes certain exceptional rights for this minority, including that of living by their customs. Three official muftis, who hold office for life and are appointed by Greek authorities, function as religious leaders but also judges, which allows them to apply Sharia norms to family law, though not criminal affairs. Thus marriages, divorces and matters of inheritance are settled in one of the muftis' offices in Xanthi, Komotini or Didymoteicho, the main cities of Thrace.

"Sharia must rule the world," says Meço Cemali, the Komotini mufti. "These are God's just rules for living your life."

Yet the jurist Yannis Ktistakis, Molla Sali's lawyer, says "the Lausanne Treaty does not mention Sharia law or muftis. It is the Greek state that interpreted things this way. In 1923, Turkish society in Ataturk's time was very progressive and secular. So Greece, which was a very conservative, Orthodox state, decided that reinforcing Islamic laws could help reduce Kemalist influence on the Turkish-speaking community in Thrace."

How can one explain that a little under a century later, the Greek state, a member of the European community since 1981, encourages "rule of Sharia" in its territories? How can one understand its failure to impose the Greek civil code?

The official position is that the government does not want to renege on the terms of the Lausanne Treaty, to avoid possible, negative repercussions on the Greeks living in Istanbul. "The fate of the Thrace minority is closely tied to the vicissitudes of Greek-Turkish ties," says Konstantinos Tsitselikis, professor of minorities law at the Macedonian University in Thessaloniki and author of Old and New Islam in Greece. He adds that "in 1985, faced with a fairly hostile Greek nationalist current, Turkey began to finance a political party in Thrace. The party promoted the minority's Turkish identity and notably claimed the right to elect muftis" for itself.

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Komotini's old city and mosque — Photo: Ggia

There are five muftis in Thrace since 1990: three appointed by the Greek government and two elected by the Muslim minority, but without official recognition and thus unable to act as judges. In light of the Greek government's reluctance to do away with Sharia, the official muftis here are effectively civil servants and official agents of the Greek government.

"There is a geopolitical game here between Ankara and Athens," says Yannis Ktistakis. "Sharia is just an instrument of control to counter Turkish influence. And that's tough luck for the women of this minority, its main victims, who will suffer."

From the 1920s to the 1990s, the muftis' decisions were written in Turkish or Arabic and were not subject to revision by the Greek state. Since 1990, a law requires them to be translated into Greek and submitted to an ordinary judge to ensure they are constitutional. "But the Greek courts have just acted like registry offices, never checking the real substance of the rulings," says Ktistakis. "This is exceptional in juridical terms and unacceptable in Europe. It directly violates the Greek constitution, the European Convention on Human Rights and the UN convention on the rights of women and children.

Ktistakis is clear: Sharia must be eliminated in Greece. "Greek civil code must apply equally to all Greeks. Before being members of a minority, they are Greek citizens and their rights must be respected."

Professor Tsitselikis is a bit more nuanced, suggesting that members of the minority should have a choice: those who want the mufti to resolve their problems "should be able to do so, while those who prefer to go to the civil courts should also be able to do this. It's better to help people, especially women, to free themselves and demand more rights. Otherwise there is always a danger of the most conservative elements locking women up at home or creating clandestine justice systems to determine family affairs in secret."

Following a key ruling in 2000 by a court in Thebes in central Greece, the issue of juridical choice appeared a viable compromise solution. The court had for the first time given a member of the minority the right resolve a divorce through the Greek justice system. Ktistakis says that was an "opening," but "not enough."

So the Greek Supreme Court's ruling on Molla Sali's case has brought the issue back to the fore. The widow says "it crushed me, but I was determined to fight and go to the European Court of Human Rights, because I am a Greek citizen: Europe must protect my rights."

She filed a complaint with the EU court in February 2014. Ktistakis says "this case is a historic opportunity to end, for good, this discriminatory juridical order."

The court will need two or three years to issue its ruling, but as the EU's rights commissioner, Nils Muiznieks, has said, Greek authorities should not wait for that before making improvements. "There is already ample national and international documentation showing how the application of Sharia law is imposing outdated conditions on numerous Greek citizens," Muiznieks said.

Shatitzeh Molla Sali is a very religious woman, and still views the mufti in paternal terms, but she is questioning his legitimacy as a legal authority. She has become the symbol of the fight against Sharia law in Greece.

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