As debates rage in Turkey over whether or not female students should be allowed to attend university classes while wearing headscarves, Greece, despite its economic woes being at the top of its agenda, can offer a valuable lesson in democracy.
Mirto Zaharof, 29, teaches chemistry at two different high schools in Athens while wearing the headscarf that she believes is integral to her newly chosen religion. The possibility does not even occur to her that Greece's National Ministry of Education might investigate the situation. She is treated with the same respect and in the same manner by the school administration and the other teachers that she was in the past before she wore a headscarf. As for her students, they simply admire her as a successful engineer who did her doctorate in London.
In Greece, there is really no equivalent to the typical Turkish questions around this same situation such as: "Didn't anyone act strangely when you entered school and started teaching lessons with your headscarf? Weren't you told this was a public arena and that you weren't allowed as such to wear your headscarf here?" In the end, Athens reminds us why it has the label as "the cradle of democracy."
As Zaharof puts it: "I have one single life in my home, on the street and at school. I don't have to divide my life between public and private arenas. When I first arrived at school wearing my headscarf, I didn't feel any negativity from my students or teaching colleagues." Zaharof's father is a high court judge, and her mother was a graduate of Greek language and literature. Zaharof's life has been a whirlwind of events starting from childhood when, as a young girl, she began questioning religious belief in general, but this intensified when she was 19 after her mother's suicide. She found respite in one particular book. When she met and married Syrian immigrant Enes Mustafa in 2007, she had still not made her choice but she had discovered something that answered the many questions and problems she had come across in life.
Wanting to increase her knowledge about Islam's cultural dimensions, Zaharof had made her way to the Athena Islamic Works Museum. And then one Friday, after the afternoon prayers, in the company of hundreds of immigrant witnesses, Zaharof opened a new chapter in her life as the kelime-i tevhid was read and she repeated, weeping, the words of the imam. After the ceremony she went to her school, without even going home, and straight to her students while wearing her headscarf.
Greece's new Muslims The topic of Muslims in Greece has always been an important issue on the national agenda. Muslims in Greece are mostly a Turkish minority whose rights are set out in the Treaty of Lausanne. With many Turks and Muslim Albanians on islands such as Rhodes and Kos, as well as the hundreds of thousands of immigrants living in Athens, the fact that Athens had no mosque became a matter of scrutiny during the 2004 Athens Olympics.
Greece is now facing a whole new phenomenon on this front -- Greek Muslims. What this means is Muslims who are ethnically Greek. Though their numbers may be nowhere near those of other Muslim communities in Greece, their influence and their activities are notable. They possess none of the natural hesitance that comes with being a minority that characterizes the Turks who inhabit Western Thrace. Similarly their rights are not limited to or defined by the Lausanne Treaty or other agreements on freedoms. Also, they do not lack a firm organization as do the Turks on Rhodes and Kos. Nor do they feel like visitors in the country of Greece, as do so many of the foreigners seeking either a passage to other lands or at least jobs to earn money.
Greek Muslims are well educated, aware of their democratic rights, organized and free thinking. They are Greece's new Muslims, and they know how to work the Greek bureaucracy in order to obtain their full rights. Says Anna Stamou, from the Greek Muslims Union: "As ethnically Greek Muslims, we are no different from other citizens of this nation. We possess the same culture as our fellow Orthodox Christian citizens. We want what is best for Greece. This is the country in which we live in and that we love."
Naim Elghandour, Stamou's Egyptian husband, explains: "What Anna has managed to do since 2006 is worthy of great praise. One night we were watching television when the then-National Education Minister Marietta Yiannakou, chewed out some journalists by saying, 'Why do you keep asking me about a lack of mosques in Athens! Not a single Muslim living here has made an official demand for a mosque.' So immediately the next day, Anna made an appointment and submitted an official request for a mosque on behalf of Muslims in Greece, saying, 'I am a Greek citizen as well as a Muslim, and I would like there to be a mosque in Athens. I do not want this to be with assistance from any outside country such as Saudi Arabia or Iran. We want our mosque to be built with Greek money.."
Recently this request was recognized when Prime Minister Papandreou moved for a decision for a mosque to be built. A mosque is now being planned for the Athens district of Votanikos and is expected to have a 500-person capacity. The land for the mosque has been turned over from the Greek navy and the 15 million euro price tag for the mosque will be covered by public funds. The project will be guided by a seven-person committee comprising two Muslims and five Christians. The mosque will be located within five kilometers from the Greek Parliament in the famous Sintagma Square and will be easily accessible by public transport.
Stamou first encountered Islam in 2003 when she became involved in fundraising during aid campaigns at the start of the Iraq war. Donations were being collected in schools and other public institutions, and this is where she happened to notice Elghandour at a school, while he knelt in prayer on a piece of cardboard in the corner. When Elghandour finished his prayers, he stood up and drove off in a very fine car. Anna couldn't help but think to herself: "How can this be? This man has a good car, but he stands there in the dust, kneeling and praying." She met him formally some time later and they were married soon after.
Elghandour came to Athens 38 ago as an immigrant worker, and at that time, his only dream had been to be able to eat an entire chicken on his own. Later, he was able to reach a point in his life where he owned his own restaurant and was able to convert the second floor into a mescid, thereby giving Athens its second place where Muslims could gather to pray. Stamou was born in Athens, the daughter of a father who was a self-proclaimed atheist. The older of two sisters, Anna studied business management but had an interest in yoga and Eastern religions. She always had many questions about life and after graduating university, these same questions compelled her to finish two different philosophy programs. Interestingly, due to the generally intellectual atmosphere in Anna's home, a legacy she attributes to her grandfather, there was already a Quran in the family's library.
She recalls: "When I met my husband, Naim, I was following yet another philosophy program. After I met him, he was able to provide simple and clear answers to all the complicated questions I had in my mind -- the questions for which I had practiced yoga and read so widely and studied for certificates in philosophy." Stamou says she decided to choose Islam and notes that the greatest change in her life has been "namaz," or prayer. She believes that "namaz surrounds a person from the inside, enlivens that person, renews and refreshes that person." Nowadays Anna works on Internet sites and translations of books for Muslims in Greece.
Church cannot be a barrier to personal freedoms Although new Greek Muslims may be greeted with some surprises in Athens and around Greece, the fact is that they are also approached with democratic maturity.
Left Coalition MP Thodoris Dritsas notes that Greek Muslims have formed an important bridge between minority and immigrant communities and other sections of the Greek community and that "they could well be a great and positive channel of communication between the Greek state and other Muslims." Dritsas stresses that Muslim Greek citizens have equal rights as all other Greek citizens but that immigrants to Greece have a more difficult time making their way, especially within the state. Immigrants will have, for the first time, some limited and conditional voting rights in the upcoming Nov. 7 regional elections in Greece. He adds: "We can really say that the Greek state has quite a democratic constitution. It includes all sorts of factors that extol tolerance towards other religions."
Dritsas says: "There are many Muslims who now live in Greece. It is unthinkable that there be no place for prayer for all of these people. [Coalition of the Radical Left] Siriza and the leftist parties are not a political strength meant to defend religions. However, we support the right for everyone to hold whichever religious beliefs they wish. In this sense, we perceive the requests to have one or two mosques in Greece as quite right," says Dritsa. Haris Konidaras, from the Greek Orthodox Church and the Athens Patriarchate, says, "The Greek Church believes that members of other religions should be able to engage in their own prayer and worship without being limited and that these members also have the right to express what they believe is their moral responsibility without being restricted." Konidaras points to Article 13 of the Greek Constitution, which refers to the "immunity that freedom of religious belief has from being intervened in by anyone. Worship is protected by laws and may take place freely." He notes, "This passage from the constitution is in harmony with European conditions, laws and values."
Konidaras asserts that the Greek Orthodox Church neither has any objections to the building of a mosque, nor that it has any right to such an objection, and that the Church, in fact, looks warmly on the construction of a mosque in Athens and has even donated some of its cemetery land as a place for Muslims to be buried. He says that the Church has been in contact with the Muslim community from time to time and that it will certainly not stand in the way of any steps by the state to improve religious freedoms in Greece. An important writer on issues about the Church and society at the Greek daily newspaper To Vima, Maria Antoniadou, says that there may be some radical fringes around the margins of the Church community but that "The vast majority of the priests in the Church supported the donation of 30 hectares of land from the cemeteries at Shisto for believers of the Quran." Antoniadou also notes that the Orthodox Church has been living in harmony for hundreds of years with Islam, pointing to the Orthodox churches and mosques that can be seen side by side in countries such as Lebanon, Iran, Libya, Syria, Egypt and Turkey. She goes on: "Orthodox Christianity has never ever feared entering into dialogue with Islam. I would like to remind you that it was Patriarch Bartholomeus who started the inter-religious dialogue in the wake of Sept. 11. The Vatican followed after, though later." Antoniadou notes that she believes that the "mosque could be built in two to three years, and that it needs to be built as such."
As for Vangelis Pissias, a professor at Athens Technical University and an activist, he complains about the lack of a solution up until now on this front and offers some views from his own life: "I lived as a child and teenager in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, where there were Greek Orthodox churches, schools and cultural organizations. I visited that city again recently and shortly after returning, I began to feel how unfair the situation is for the thousands of Muslims in Greece, as well as for Greek Muslims, and that they have been arbitrarily left out of the chance to have a place to worship. Recently though, I learned that the location for the new mosque has been decided upon. The construction of this mosque could well be the cause of breaking down of internal borders and barriers that we have in Greece. In this way, we could come to see that the problem is not people possessing a different religion." Greek Muslims resemble Turks Even though Greek Muslims have a wide variety of different reasons for having chosen Islam, they live their daily lives with a certain practicality unique to their group. Theirs does not much resemble the situation with minorities or immigrants to Greece. Greek Muslims interact with all the other Muslim groups in the country, though they see themselves close to Turkish Muslims. Just as there are similarities in terms of cuisine, music and entertainment with the Turks, Greek Muslims also find that these similarities abound when it comes to belief. However, they assert, "We are Greek, we are different."
Eleni Fiotaki, 44, works as a midwife in a maternity hospital for women and a nursing teacher in a state technical high school, as well as working as an editor for books that have been translated into Greek. She says: "I have been Muslim now for nine years. First and foremost, I became a Muslim internally, then two years later I went to the mufti of Gümülcine and officially became a Muslim. In my country, I can exercise my democratic rights. But there is still no good place for Muslims to worship here. As a Muslim, I do not want to bring my children to dirty basement mescids for prayer. Because those places really don't represent us. … As Greek Muslims, we have no other countries that we can go to, so we need to solve our own problems here, on our own."
For Eleni, it is not surprising that she met with some negative reactions from close friends and family after becoming a Muslim. She also does not deny that she has encountered some social difficulties. She explains: "The place where we are freest is our home, but of course, we don't want to remain tied to our home. We want to stake a place for ourselves in social life. We need to be a part of the community. Our Prophet was a member of the community."
Eleni goes on: "Because I wear a headscarf, I do sometimes feel some pressure from society and official institutions. But I understand these reactions, since I myself witnessed the incorrect information that people in Greece receive about Islam before becoming a Muslim myself." She also notes, though, that she has never been discriminated against because of her headscarf, saying : "Greece is a democratic country. If you know the laws, no one can do anything to you. You have to know how to make demands for yourself here. You cannot just go into the corner and let people see you as downtrodden. And we don't, because we aren't." Another person with great knowledge and authority when it comes to questions about the state of Muslims in Athens is Ahmed Eldin. Eldin is best known for his website that has videos of questions and answers about Islam. He takes and answers questions about many topics over the Internet. The bulk of the questions received by Eldin are from young Greeks. He spoke of the new mosque for Athens, noting that it is quite necessary, but that it should not mean that the smaller mescids that have cropped up around the city are closed down. He notes that there are now Muslims in every corner of Athens and that they cannot all go to the same place when it is time for prayer.
Thomas Tsatsis, political writer for the Eleftherotypia newspaper, warns: "If Muslims do not believe that, above and beyond the beauty or well-built nature of the mosque, that it was constructed for them and their values, then they will return to those basement mescids." He adds: "Here there are both Greek citizens, minorities and Muslims who work and live here. There needs to be a response given to their democratic requests. Greece must do this because it believes it. Not for any other reason."