Greece is the only European country to preserve a bifurcated legal system in which Islamic and Greek civil law coexist.
By John Psaropoulos
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 Greece’s northern 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 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 ruled the will has no legal standing and Islamic law 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. She took the matter to the ECHR in Strasbourg, arguing that Islamic law discriminates against her.
“She is a Muslim, so she is subject to [Islamic law],” Ioannis Ktistakis, her lawyer, tells Al Jazeera. “She belongs to a minority, so she has a minority judge (the mufti), which is not an advantage but a problem.”
Describing his client as “the victim of multiple discrimination”, Ktistakis adds: “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].”
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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.
But the prospect of a Grand Chamber hearing has been enough to spur the Greek government to change its laws preemptively.
Old system ‘created chaos’
In January, the government 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 Islamic law 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, tells 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 muftis’ 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.
Islamic justice before the mufti was too informal to stand alongside an organised legal system, he says.
“There was no appeal, so the decision was final, no minutes were kept, and no lawyers were present,” Mustafa continues.
“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 Islamic law, 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 Islamic law, 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.
According to Kalantzis’s estimation, some “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,” he adds. “But I think that finding ways is one thing, and an official state position is another.”
Gaps in the law
The reason Greek Muslims have diverged from Islamic law on questions of inheritance is that Islamic law favours male beneficiaries, allotting them twice as much as women.
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 [Islamic law] does not recognise wills,” says Ilhan Ahmet, one of three parliamentarians 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 Islamic law that protects women: the severance, or mehir, paid by a husband to a wife upon divorce.
“Under [Islamic law], both parties must agree the [severance]. 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.
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The ministry is still assessing the effect 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.
Writing in their memoirs, Greek military leaders Yiannis Makrygiannis and Theodoros Kolokotronis documented how the revolutionaries slaughtered Muslim communities they had lived with for centuries. The lucky ones were simply pushed out of the fledgeling state.
On the eve of World War I, 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 II except for those concerning Muslims, because the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne provided protections for the traditions and customs of Muslims in Greece and Christians in Turkey.
That treaty is still in force today.
Some people now feel that Islamic law could be done away with altogether, bringing Greece in line with the rest of Europe.
“When you say that [Islamic law] 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,'” he adds, 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 (also known as ISIS), the armed group that tried to establish control over Syria and much of Iraq.
Mutual suspicion of minorities
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 10-fold 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 on 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 Islamic law now adds to this integrationist momentum.
Kalantzis sees his policy as one designed to foster “a discussion and offer choices … and give people time to move forward”.