A Greek paradox: leveraging Sharia to promote religious freedom

I will cop to being a relative newcomer to the world of Greek international relations. It is something that interests me, and seeing as how I reside in Washington, DC I do try to be in the loop regarding the activities of the Greek-American community. However, I will readily acknowledge I am still learning some of the ins and outs.

I think it’s fair to say that one of the key issues of interest to the Greek-American community is that of the rights of the Christian minority in Turkey. The re-opening of the Orthodox Halki seminary in Turkey in particular is of great importance. The framing of this issue as one of international religious freedom is something I absolutely agree with Endy Zemenides on-though this position is apparently widely held within the Greek-American community. Turkey ought to allow Halki to re-open, in accordance with international norms as well as its own secular constitution. Not doing so amounts to effective interference in the right to religious freedom of the local Orthodox minority. This minority is largely comprised of ethnic Greeks, and it makes perfect sense that the Greek government would seek to protect their interests. However, I will agree with the Greek side that this should not be a part of any Greek/Turkish Quid pro quo as Turkish PM Erdogan has apparently recently suggested when he said “While we return something, we have the right to expect the return of other things”.

Be that as it may, the Turkish side brings up the fact that the Greek government has chosen for the past few decades to directly appoint the muftis of the Muslim minority in Greece, putting an end to the electoral process that used to be in place. Likewise with Greek interest in the Orthodox minority, the Muslim minority in Greece is largely comprised of ethnic Turks-which would provide the official justification for why the Turkish government would take a public interest. I don’t know if the Turkish side officially frames it as an international religious liberty issue or not, though the Erdogan statement linked to above would indicate that if they do, it’s not a distinction they’re very keen to insist on.

The Greek side’s way of shielding itself from criticism on this is to respond that the muftis perform a judicial function, and therefore that “Turkey should have no opinion” on this, as Zemenides succinctly puts it.

And this is where things get a bit more complicated.

An alert reader might wonder at this point how the concept of muftis performing judicial functions differs from Sharia law. The answer is that it doesn’t. This is the very definition of Sharia law, and the Greek government is apparently happy to keep it alive in the 21st century-in an apparent misguided attempt to apply the letter of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne for its Muslim minority. There is one caveat, and that is that Muslims are officially allowed to choose Greek civil law. However, how this choice between religious and civil law is applied in practice is confusing even for one of the country’s highest courts. This has not gone unnoticed by the US State Department, which mentions the implementation of Sharia law with apparent concern (which I share) in several places in its 2012 International Religious Freedom Report. Ironically, Turkey abolished Sharia in 1926, replacing it with Switzerland’s civil code.

To summarize: a part of the Greek government’s strategy to deflect international criticism of its treatment of its Muslim minority is dependent on continuing the practice of Sharia law. If the muftis were stripped of their judicial authority, then they would remain solely religious leaders, and the Greek government would have a much harder time justifying its insistence on appointing them directly. At the same time, the Greek government lobbies -among others- the US government to put pressure on Turkey to grant more religious freedom to the Orthodox minority of Turkey.

My own personal estimation is that this will not prove to be a winning strategy for the Greek side on the very specific issue of its efforts to put pressure on the US government. For one, it’s very hard for Greece to maintain its moral authority with the US government when it is the only European country that still sanctions something as problematic as Sharia law. Furthermore, the US approach to religious freedom is through the application of strict constitutional separation of church and state. Sharia (not to mention the privileged status of Orthodox church within the Greek government) is the exact opposite of church/state separation. By contrast, the Turkish secular model is much closer to the US framework-albeit with significant differences in both theory and practice. Something which the Turkish side would likely appeal to in discussions with the US.

What this translates to is that the US side will probably not be terribly sympathetic to the Greek side’s repeated insistence on judicial powers for the muftis as a conversation stopper. Which is exactly why the Turkish side doesn’t really lose by insisting on the issue as it stands today. Because by refusing to budge on Sharia, Greece demonstrates that its commitment to religious freedom is more about rhetoric and less about action.

2 thoughts on “A Greek paradox: leveraging Sharia to promote religious freedom

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