This article was published by Al Jazeera International.
When he died almost a decade ago, Chatidje Molla Sali’s husband willed her a comfortable widowhood: at least a million dollars’ worth of rentable property in the northern Greek province of Thrace, where the couple lived, and in Istanbul, from where he hailed.
That financially secure life has so far eluded her. Molla Sali’s two sisters-in-law contested the will on the grounds that, as a member of Thrace’s Muslim community, their brother was bound by the precepts of Islamic law, under which they, too, should receive a share of his estate.
The Sali dispute has now escalated into a landmark case at the European Court of Human Rights and prompted the Greek government to radically alter the law governing its Muslims for the first time since they found themselves outside the jurisdiction of the Ottoman Empire in 1918.
Greece is the only European country to preserve a bifurcated legal system in which Islamic law, or Sharia, coexists with Greek civil and family law. Molla Sali was vindicated in lower court, which upheld her husband’s will under the Greek civil code; but this decision was overturned in the Greek Supreme Court, which upheld that the will has no legal standing and Sharia must apply. It ordered Molla Sali to resolve the inheritance dispute under the auspices of her local religious leader, or mufti.
Molla Sali says the decision cost her three quarters of her inheritance. No one to be trifled with, she took the matter to the ECHR in Strasbourg, arguing that Sharia discriminates against her.
“She is a Muslim, so she is subject to Sharia, she belongs to a minority, so she has a minority judge [the mufti], which is not an advantage but a problem, and since she is a woman she has a smaller inheritance, because if she were a widower she would not lose her property [under Islamic law]. So she is the victim of multiple discriminations,” says her lawyer, Ioannis Ktistakis.
The ECHR will hear Molla Sali’s case in the coming months, and the consensus among both human rights groups and the government is that she will be vindicated. The prospect of a Grand Chamber hearing has been enough to spur the Greek government to change its laws pre-emptively.
In January, it passed a legal amendment allowing Muslims to opt for Greek civil law to adjudicate disputes in marriage, divorce, alimony, custody, guardianship, inheritance and independence of minors. Under the new law, both parties in a dispute must agree on using Sharia under the jurisdiction of the mufti, whereas one party may unilaterally refer a dispute to the Greek courts, making Greek law the default option.
“What we’re trying to achieve, with respect towards a minority faith, is to allow the Muslim community to retain that which is important to it, without this putting it outside the main context and direction of Greek society,” Yiorgos Kalantzis, general secretary for religion at the ministry of education, told Al Jazeera.
The part of the law concerning inheritance is in force. By the end of the year, when muftis are equipped with councils of legal advisors and a presidential decree outlines how case law will proceed from the mufti’s decisions, the law will be fully in force.
“The old system… wasn’t really a system. It was chaos,” says Halil Mustafa, a board member of the Hellenic League for Human Rights, which has taken a stand for Molla Sali and hailed the new law. Sharia justice before the mufti was simply too informal to stand alongside an organized legal system, he says. “There was no appeal, so the decision was final, no minutes were kept, and no lawyers were present. So there were no documents that can be used to review the decision. That created an insecurity.”
For the past four decades, muftis have quietly adjudicated inheritance disputes according to Greek civil law, not Sharia, because most of the Muslim community in Thrace prefers it. When disputes escaped the muftis’ orbit and landed in the Greek courts, however, they have been adjudicated according to Sharia, because that is what Greek statute law prescribes in disputes between Greek Muslims. The Molla Sali case illustrates how the Greek courts and muftis have reversed their legal traditions, and the new law now untangles that legal irony.
“In my experience, 99 to 100 percent of Muslims prefer the stipulations of Greek civil law versus religious law when it comes to inheritance. And they have found direct and indirect ways to do what they wish, with the consent of their muftis. But I think that finding ways is one thing, and an official state position is another,” says Kalantzis.
Gaps in the law
The reason Greek Muslims have diverged from Sharia on questions of inheritance is that Sharia favours male beneficiaries, allotting them twice as much as females. It also broadens the scope of beneficiaries to include the siblings and parents of the deceased, eating into the next generation’s inheritance.
“But the biggest problem is that [Sharia] does not recognise wills,” says Ilhan Ahmet, one of three members of parliament for the Rhodopi constituency, where Molla Sali’s case originated.
Ahmet applauds the fact that the law renders the wills of Greek Muslims legitimate, but says it should have retroactive force. “Thousands of wills by Muslim Greek citizens up until December are invalid – isn’t that unfair?” Ahmet asks. “It shakes the feeling of justice and the trust in the state, and it creates a double standard.”
Ahmet also worries that the new law may do away with a provision of Sharia that protects women: the severance, or mehir, paid by a husband to a wife upon divorce. “Under Sharia, both parties must agree the mehir. The law should have made special provision for this, because a man who wants to avoid paying the severance will escape to the civil court system,” says Ahmet.
The ministry is still assessing the impact of the law and hasn’t ruled out further changes. “It took three years of discussions to find these solutions,” says Kalantzis. “The Greek state had to respect religious sentiment. Human rights also had to be protected, and the transition had to be managed. The great success of the amendment is that it isn’t front page news.”
From the ashes of history
There was no such political correctness when the Greeks launched their revolution for independence from the Ottoman Empire two centuries ago. Greek military leaders Yiannis Makrygiannis and Theodoros Kolokotronis document in their memoirs how the revolutionaries slaughtered Muslim communities they had lived with for centuries. The lucky ones were simply pushed out of the fledgling state.
On the eve of World War One, as Greece underwent its second major expansion at the expense of the Ottoman Empire, it handled interfaith matters very differently. Muslims and Jews became part of the growing state with the capture of Thessaloniki in 1913. A law passed the following year gave muftis and rabbis jurisdiction in marriage, divorce and family disputes for their respective communities. In Crete, also annexed that year, the law even allowed for the continuation of Byzantine statutes in family matters.
These special statutes were abolished after World War Two except for that concerning Muslims, because the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, still in force, provided protections for the traditions and customs of Muslims in Greece and Christians in Turkey.
Some people now feel that Sharia could be done away with altogether, bringing Greece in line with the rest of Europe. “When you say that Sharia isn’t satisfactory, you don’t preserve it. When you say the mufti isn’t a judge, you don’t keep him on as a judge,” argues Ktistakis.
“I don’t think it would be prudent for someone to say, ‘I’m going to reform you willy-nilly,’” says Kalantzis, pointing out that Greek Muslims are a rare example of successful Muslim integration in the EU. “Greece is among those European countries which have Muslim communities that did not contribute fighters to ISIL,” he says, referring to the theocracy known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which tried to establish control over Syria and much of Iraq.
This integration is very recent. Greeks and Turks have often harboured suspicion of each other’s minorities. Days of rioting in September 1955 smashed up the Greek quarter of Istanbul and drove most of the community out. Until this century, Greek Muslims were barred from holding positions in the armed and security forces, suffered from poor quality minority schools and were socially marginalised.
In 1997, a group of academics launched a programme to teach Muslims Greek as a second language and keep them in the education system. This has led to a tenfold increase in their university enrolment over 20 years, and led to almost 100 percent secondary school graduation. Whereas almost no Muslim girls attended school, now they are almost at par with boys. And Muslim adult women who never learned to read and write are now enrolling in a new branch of the programme for remedial learning.
The new law offering a choice between civil law and Sharia now adds to this integrationist momentum. Kalantzis sees his policy as being, “to have a discussion and offer choices and give people time to move forward.” At least in minority matters, the Greek state would appear to have come a long way.