Greek, Roma and Muslim: An ill-fated foray into politics

Why Sabiha Suleiman, a minority within a minority, never stood a chance.

Ethnic Roma Greek protesters shout slogans during a demonstration in front of the Greek Parliament in Athens [EPA]

A few weeks before the much-touted European parliamentary elections, there were reports in the Greek press that a Muslim Roma activist by the name of Sabiha Suleiman would be a candidate, running with the left-of-centre main opposition party Syriza. Shockingly, Suleiman’s candidacy was over almost as soon as it was announced.

What was intriguing was that a fellow Syriza candidate, who happens to be a vice president of the esteemed International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) advocacy group, went on record to say that he personally had made every effort to ensure Sabiha Suleiman was struck off the ballot.

Dimitris Christopoulos, the candidate in question, on paper, has an impeccable record in the field of progressive politics and human rights. Apart from his role in the FIDH, Christopoulos is a noted academic, specialising in minority rights. Moreover, he recently edited and co-authored a report examining the rise of ultra-right extremism, xenophobia and racism within the Greek state apparatus, on behalf of a think-tank directly linked to Germany’s leftist party Die Linke.   

What was the reasoning behind what can only be called an attack on Suleiman, who through her work in the Roma settlement of Drosero, in the northeastern region of Thrace, has produced measurable and commendable improvement in the lives of Muslim Roma children and women, through education and self-empowerment? Incidentally, Syriza placed labour activist Kostadinka Kuneva, a Bulgarian immigrant who was the victim of an acid attack because of her political views and actions, on the same European ballot. So striking Suleiman off could in no way be perceived as an attempt at assuaging possibly bigoted Greek voters.

‘A unified Turkish thing’

The reason Christopoulos initially gave for his statements and actions was that Suleiman’s candidacy would be a show of support for nationalism in an area of Greece which is plagued by it, to the detriment of those Greek Muslims who define themselves as ethnically Turkish. He even said that the Muslim minority in Thrace is a “unified Turkish thing”, and – initially – made no mention of those Muslims who define themselves as Roma or Pomak, a Slav-speaking ethnic group.

The reason Christopoulos initially gave for his statements and actions was that Suleiman’s candidacy would be a show of support for nationalism in an area of Greece which is plagued by it, to the detriment of those Greek Muslims who define themselves as ethnically Turkish.

Suleiman at the same time was smeared by those media supporting Syriza as someone who had received funding from the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs and nationalist circles. In response, Suleiman, who defines herself as a Greek Roma Muslim woman, said all this was happening because the Turkish consulate in Thrace was targeting her, as they wanted to ensure that the Muslim Roma were absorbed into the Turkish minority. Worryingly, there are reports that Suleiman has been physically attacked at least twice and that she receives threats almost every day. The mainstream media and the governing coalition parties seized the opportunity to accuse Syriza of catering to the interests of a foreign power.

To say that things got messy and complicated would be an understatement. Before proceeding, let us set out some of the issues in question: self-identification, self-determination, gender, class, ethnicity, social class, citizenship, religion, memory, history, politics, diplomacy. What happens when all these combine to form an explosive mix? And what happens when one minority, itself the victim of discrimination, discriminates against another, less numerous minority?   

To get a sense of why things are the way they are in Greek Thrace, we have to travel back in time to 1923, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, when Greece and the then newly-formed Turkey signed the Lausanne peace treaty. It foresaw the forced relocation of nearly 2 million people, considered a progressive step at the time. The primary criterion for defining ethnicity was religion. Muslims living in Greece were relocated to Turkey and Christians living in Turkey to Greece. Two groups were spared: Those Greeks living in Istanbul as well as on two islands at the mouth of the Dardanelles; and the Muslim population of western Thrace which ethnically was comprised of Turks, Pomaks and Roma. One of the best accounts of what happened, combining exemplary research and a well-written narrative structure, is Bruce Clark’s Twice a Stranger.

In Greece, those members of what the Lausanne Treaty called the “Muslim minority” during the Cold War were treated by the Greek state as a Turkish minority. Turkey was a NATO ally and the fear that the Slav-speaking Pomaks would side with Communist Bulgaria was greater. This changed when Greece and Turkey clashed over the issue of Cyprus, which Turkey invaded in 1974. Relations between Greece and Turkey have markedly improved since, but for those suffering the consequences of diplomacy, there is still a sense of being pawns in a game.  

Petty politics

But let us return to petty politics. In all the mayhem surrounding Suleiman, another candidacy passed comparatively unnoticed: that of Photini Tomai, head of the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ archives, who is running with the governing New Democracy party and who called Syriza’s stance towards Suleiman “treasonous”. Among Tomai’s accomplishments is a book on the Greeks who died at Auschwitz concentration camp, an official publication of the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 

So why mention this? It is less well known that the Roma were themselves the victims of the Nazi Holocaust. No Greek foreign ministry publication has been commissioned for those Greek Roma who were killed, Christian or Muslim. In any case, the Roma, Europe’s biggest minority, remain on the margins of society and discrimination against them is rampant.  

So which minority deserves more support? The regrettable situation for those Greek Muslims in Thrace who define themselves as ethnic Turks or ethnic Pomaks, in the face of the inadequacies of the Greek state, material and political, is a given. But Suleiman bears the additional burden of not being able to rely on support from a renascent Turkey, a country today part of the G20 group of developed nations. An openly pro-Turkey political party has been set up in Greek Thrace, whose discourse is similar to that of the Turkish state.

Moreover, a key member of the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s cabinet hails from Greek Thrace and reportedly takes a keen interest in the area. Interestingly, again because of the Lausanne Treaty, Greek Thrace is the only region in Europe where Sharia law applies. This has specific implications as to the rights of women. Suleiman, as a Muslim Roma woman, belongs to a minority within a minority within another minority. How do political institutions, how do societies, how do social groups, deal with such issues? Usually they do not.  

Ironically, Turkey itself abolished Sharia in 1926, adopting the Swiss civil code. Speaking of Switzerland, apart from being one of the most industrialised countries in the world on a per capita basis, it granted women the right to vote only in 1971. Would that imply Switzerland’s success is based on the limitations of the rights of women? Of course not. It is time we make proper correlations between cause and effect, especially towards those most vulnerable in our societies.

Menelaos Tzafalias is a freelance journalist and producer based in Athens, Greece. He has worked as an associate producer on the documentary “Palikari: Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre”, a story about migrants and labour relations in early 20th century America.