Bulletin N°21

septembre 2018

« Old » and « New » Islam : the case of Muslims

Konstantinos Tsitselikis

Muslims of Greece do not form a homogenous group of population, neither on the social or economic level, nor as far as language, national or ethnic identity is concerned. First of all, Muslims of Greek citizenship belonging to the minority of Thrace (both Turkish-speaking and Bulgarian-speaking) and the Dodecanese islands [voir la carte en début de dossier] constitute a separate group with an important degree of internal coherence (Old Islam) despite ethnic and linguistic differences within the community. Special legal status attributed by the Treaty of Lausanne and implemented by a series of legal acts have contributed to this cohesion. Other Muslim groups of traditional settlement, such as the Muslims of the Dodecanese islands, do not have real social bounds with Muslims of Thrace.

The second category of Muslims, the immigrants (New Islam), who settled mostly in urban areas and especially in Athens, create a network of Islamic society apart, segregated through the national affiliation of each community. Islam, however, creates a common denominator which renders all Muslims a distinct ‘minorised’ group.

Historical Background

The Greek revolution of 1821 which led to the independence of Greece (1830) from the Ottoman Empire was the first successful national movement in the Balkans, and it established a pattern that was followed by similar national revolts on the part of other nations based on the belief that the ‘Christian nations’ had ‘awakened’ and thrown off the ‘Ottoman yoke’. In this ideological, political, and institutional context, Muslims became a minority subjected to differentiated legal treatment well before the establishment of the minority protection system by the League of Nations during the Inter-War period.

In 1830, Muslims constituted a very small group within the then borders of Greece with almost no special institutional protection. By 1881, with the annexation of Thessalia-Arta (1881), Muslim communities (numbering about 40,000 at that time) acquired protection as a minority by the Treaty of Constantinople. In effect, the Ottoman millet system (ethno-religious communal institutional autonomy) was preserved and the local muftis acquired quasi-judicial authority in personal status matters. Muslim schools and religious foundations (waqfs) were recognized in Greek law and were administered by local Muslim Community Councils. By the end of the Balkan Wars (1913) and with the annexation of the New Territories by Greece, the same status was extended to more than 500,000 Muslims who became Greek citizens. The legal status of the Muslim communities was consolidated, community schools and the waqfs were kept under their authority, and the Mouftis acquired advisory jurisdiction on personal matters, according to the Treaty of Athens, signed between Greece and the Ottoman Empire in 1913. Worth noting is that Crete too, before its union with the Greek Kingdom at the same time and during its political autonomy from the Empire (1889-1913), offered a sophisticated legal framework to the Muslim community of the island.

After the Greek-Turkish war of 1919-1922, a compulsory population exchange took place under the Lausanne Convention of January 1923 and 450,000 Muslims left Greece for Turkey. According to the Convention, 92,000 Muslims of Western Thrace (Turkish speakers and Bulgarian speakers or Pomaks) were exempted from the population exchange, as a counterweight to the Greek Orthodox population of Istanbul, Imvros and Tenedos who were also exempted from the exchange. Another 25,000 Albanian-speaking Muslims in Epirus and Macedonia were extra-conventionally exempted. Being sympathizers of the Italian/German occupation forces after 1940, Muslims of Epirus (Chams) were forced to flee massively to Albania in 1945. In 1947, when the Dodecanese Islands were annexed by Greece, a population of about 12,000 Muslims (Greek and Turkish speaking) became Greek citizens.

Contemporary status (2018)

Muslims with Greek citizenship residing in Greece (in total about 120,000) are mainly concentrated in Thrace (about 100,000) and in the Dodecanese Islands (Rodos and Kos), with about 2,000 on each island). Another 15,000 have emigrated from Thrace for economic reasons to Athens or other Greek cities. For political and economic reasons in the context of Greek-Turkish confrontations of 1960s and 1970s, a wave of Muslims emigrated from Thrace to Turkey and Germany or elsewhere.

By late 20th century, Muslims migrated to Greece, part of a broader migration wave, in the context of the collapse of bi-polarism, the wars in the Middle East, Iraq, Afghanistan and the extreme poverty and environmental disasters which struck Asia and Africa. As a result, a ‘New Islam’ brought by immigration gradually enriched Greece’s Islam with new elements in parallel to the minority ‘Old Islam’. They belong to a series of different communities, and to a certain extent their population is variable as undocumented immigrants tend to leave Greece after a short or long period of residence.

Both groups coexist but have considerable different characteristics. Beside the formal threshold that citizenship draws (Greek citizens/aliens), immigrant and minority Muslims have quite a distinct profile. They live apart, share different ethnic and linguistic identities, confront different legal, economic and societal issues vis-à-vis the Greek state, law and society.

The Muslims of Greek Citizenship of Thrace still protected by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne

They are the only recognized minority in Greece. They are mostly Turkish speakers and express Turkish national feelings. About 20,000 of them have Pomak (a Bulgarian dialect) as their mother tongue, partly expressing an ethnic Pomak identity, often along with a Turkish (national) identity, and about 5,000 speak Roma (partly expressing an ethnic Roma identity), although most of the Muslim Roma are monolingual Turkish speakers. As religion and mother tongue ceased to be a question in the national census after 1951, all the above figures are rough estimates. Minority Muslims are all Sunni except of 2,000 or 3,000 who are Bektashi[1]Bektashi belongs to heterodox Islam, has affinities to shia Islam and Allevis in Turkey. The identity issue in Thrace has remained controversial insofar as Greek and Turkish nationalism confront in order to keep a control over the minority. The respective judgements of the Greek courts and the European Court of Human Rights[2]Among others see: ECtHR, Tourkiki Enosi Xanthis and Others v. Greece, no. 26698/05, judgment of 27 March 2008. are indicative of a really astonishing and persistent ideological use of law by the Greek courts, regarding the right of associations to use the term “Turk/Turkish” in their title.

Minority Muslims of Thrace work mostly in agriculture, construction or industries. They are mainly field workers, peasants and farmers, owners of shops, merchants, and employees in the private sector. Only very lately Muslim employees –although in very small numbers- are hired in the public sector in Thrace or the Dodecanese islands. The elite of the minority is considered as those university graduates: Pharmacists, dentists, lawyers, physicians, engineers as well as the Muslim teachers working for the minority schools.

Since 1923, the minority of Thrace is governed by the chapter of the Treaty of Lausanne on minority protection (art. 37-45) which creates mirror obligation for Turkey and Greece regarding non-Muslims and Muslims respectively. This legal protection system reflects for once more millet-like percept as the attribution of religious and linguistic rights is effectuated through religion. Since early times, and especially after 1964 and 1974, minority protection suffered from Greek-Turkish antagonisms through the notorious principle of (negative) reciprocity. However, the ‘Lausanne system’ survived unchanged after the new era that the United Nations system brought in minority protection and the post 1991 new multilateral minority protection system established in Europe. Thus the status of the Turkish/Muslim minority of Thrace encompasses specific minority rights regarding religious freedom and linguistic rights in parallel to the general human rights:

a. Three muftis are based in Thrace and they have a special status as civil servants having a special jurisdiction over Muslims on family and inheritance matters. The judicial competence of the Mufti should be preferential and supplementary in the sense that Muslims are free to choose between the Civil Court and the Islamic jurisdiction, which was not always the case. A relevant case was recently adjudicated by the European Court of Human Rights[3]ECtHR, Molla Sali v Greece, 20452/14, Grand Chamber. The judgment is expected by the end of 2018. The selection of the Muftis became an issue of major importance for the Muslims of Thrace and the Greek-Turkish relations and today in parallel to the three government-appointed Muftis, another two are elected by some members of the minority[4]European Court of Human Rights, Serif v. Greece, No 38178/97, Judgement of 14 December 1999.

b. Minority schools offer bilingual education. Christian teachers teach the Greek curriculum and Muslims the Turkish curriculum. There are about 140 elementary schools, and four high schools (gymnasia/lycea). Two of them are religious seminaries (medrese). By 1997 a special quota of 0.5% for Muslims from Thrace to enter Greek university has been adopted thus facilitating social integration.

c. Muslim community property (waqf) is administered by councils, which are not elected but appointed by the government since the times of the junta in 1967. The relevant Act 3647/2008 is not implemented. Waqf exist in the Dodecanese islands (both community and private). Also Egypt owns waqf properties in the city of Kavala and in the island of Thasos. Last, a waqf once owned by Albanian Muslims is set under sequestration in Thessalia.

A series of minority associations operate in Thrace (and Rodos and Kos islands). Other community organizational structures or prerogatives have been lost through time, such as the election of community councils, special quotas for political representation to the parliament, or exemption from military service. Two or three minority deputies from Thrace are usually elected in the Parliament as candidates of the main political parties. Muslims are also participating in the elected boards of local authorities throughout Thrace. A series of newspapers and journals are published in Turkish (and one in Pomak language) and radios are broadcast by members of the minority.

As far as the place of worship is concerned, there is a sufficient number of mosques in Thrace (more than 250, and another four in the Dodecanese islands) functioning for every day ritual needs.

Immigrant Muslims: a challenge to Greek Islam?

They have an important presence in Greece since 1990 as part of the general flow of migration. Muslim immigrants come from African and Asian countries, and from Albania. Sunnism is the most popular form of Islam and is followed by immigrants from Africa, Bangladesh, Pakistan and the Arab countries. Shi’ism is far less widespread, existing mainly among Kurdish, Pakistani and Iranian communities, while Alevism is found mostly among Turks and Kurds. There are no reliable statistics according to the 2011 census, about the number of immigrants. They could be about 8% of the overall population totalling 1,000,000. Around 200,000-300,000 of them supposed to be Muslims, not including Albanians, the majority of whom do not express affinities with Islam. By 2018 among the immigrants with an Islamic affiliation, the following communities should be mentioned: Afghanis, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Palestinians and Jordanians, Syrians, Egyptians, Iraqis and others. They are mostly settled in Athens. Yet, such figures are highly unreliable, as there is a large number of clandestine immigrants and constant population mobility, and leaders of Muslim associations are tempted to exaggerate community figures in support of political and social claims.

Muslims living outside Thrace, in Rodos and Kos islands, have no opportunities to enjoy their freedom of worship, while no official mosque operates outside these areas. In Athens, Thessaloniki and some other towns, about 90 masjits are operated by immigrant Muslim communities. Only five out of them have an official status.

If migration has led to the reshuffling and rebalancing of several social factors, and the redefinition of social positions, and status, Muslim immigrants played a key role in this process. Although immigration has strengthened growth indicators in the Greek economy (1995-2005), Greek society and the Greek authorities have not responded positively to the new multicultural picture. Moreover, in the context of the economic crisis that commenced in 2009 Muslims faced increasing racism and xenophobia often triggered by members of neo-nazis who herald racist violence and Islamophobia. “Golden Dawn”, which is one of the leading far-right political parties in Greece, is thus represented in the Parliament since the 2012 elections.


The era after the population exchange of 1923 was marked by the drastic reduction of the Muslim population from Greece and the minorisation of the Muslims of Thrace (and after 1947 of the Muslims of the Dodecanese islands). Hence, the Muslim minority became part of a political balance of bilateral relations between Greece and Turkey and its welfare is safeguarded by an old-fashioned legal status stemming from the Treaty of Lausanne. Moreover, the arrival in Greece after the 1990s of hundreds of thousands of Muslim immigrants seeking political asylum or economic prosperity has created a ‘new minority’ which struggles for a better position within the Greek society. However, Islam is still perceived by the majority of Greeks as incompatible with the Christian/Greek prevailing identity. The Greek society seems to suffer from inertia, when she remains reluctant to acknowledge and incorporate the transformations in society which in the near future, if not today, embody Greek Islam.


1 Bektashi belongs to heterodox Islam, has affinities to shia Islam and Allevis in Turkey
2 Among others see: ECtHR, Tourkiki Enosi Xanthis and Others v. Greece, no. 26698/05, judgment of 27 March 2008.
3 ECtHR, Molla Sali v Greece, 20452/14, Grand Chamber. The judgment is expected by the end of 2018
4 European Court of Human Rights, Serif v. Greece, No 38178/97, Judgement of 14 December 1999
Pour citer ce document :
Konstantinos Tsitselikis, "« Old » and « New » Islam : the case of Muslims". Bulletin de l'Observatoire international du religieux N°21 [en ligne], septembre 2018. https://obsreligion.cnrs.fr/bulletin/old-and-new-islam-the-case-of-muslims/
Numéro : 21
septembre 2018

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Konstantinos Tsitselikis, professeur – University of Macedonia, Grèce

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