The saga of Hatice Molla Sali: Sharia law and the Greek legal system

GREShariaATHENS, Greece – Hatice Molla Sali will discover on Wednesday, December 19 whether or not she will live in poverty in her twilight years. That’s when the European Court of Human Rights will render judgement on the 68-year-old Muslim’s case against an Islamic court in Greece that deprived her inheritance from her late husband under Sharia law.

Sali’s plight stems from a treaty Greece signed with the newly established Turkish republic in 1922. Under that agreement, the two countries agreed to respect the legal systems of their respective religions of their largest minorities – Muslims in Greece and Orthodox Christians in Turkey.

Ironically, Turkey banned Sharia law in 1923. But Greece honored the treaty, making it the only country in Europe that recognizes Sharia today. Early this year, the Greek government gave Muslim citizens an option about whether to appeal to Sharia or Greek public courts. But many of Greece’s 100,000 Muslims, mostly ethnic Turks concentrated along the Turkish border, still turn to Islamic religious judges in legal disputes.

The woman’s case highlights a peculiar legal dilemma in the cradle of Western Civilization, said Sali’s attorney, Yannis Ktistakis, who also teaches international law at the Democritus University of Thrace. “Two parallel systems can’t exist,” he said. “Only the civil code can exist, because Sharia is from its foundations opposite to European law.”

Sali’s troubles started in 2008 when Sali’s sisters-in-law disputed her right to inherit her husband's properties, including shops and apartments in Thrace and Istanbul and proceeds from successful textile business, even though she could produce his notarized last will and testament stipulating that she would be his sole heiress.

The sisters-in-law took the case to a Greek civil court, arguing that as Muslims they had the right to seek recourse with a mufti, an Islamic judge, under Sharia law. Greek lower courts decided in favor of Sali, but the country’s Supreme Administrative Court finally ruled against her, citing the 1922 treaty. A mufti then ruled that Sali should only receive one fourth of her inheritance under Sharia law while her sisters-in-law received the rest.

"Her husband decided the way he wanted his inheritance to be passed on," Ktistakis said. "The Greek court should have respected his desire."

Some Muslims in Greece oppose Sharia law, saying it doesn’t reflect human rights that Europeans are entitled to enjoy.

For parliamentarian Mustafa Mustafa, a member of the left-leaning governing party Syriza, the fight against Sharia is personal.

When Mustafa's father, Memet Mustafa, died, Memet wasn't entitled to his parents' inheritance because they had passed away when he was a minor. Instead, it should have gone to his uncles and aunts.

But, Memet's legal guardian, his great grandfather – his grandparents had also already died – made arrangements to make sure he inherited his family’s wealth.

“My great-grandfather was a wise man,” said Mustafa. “He took my father, who was still a boy, and transferred to him his part of the family property. I feel like I’m honoring my family by fighting to abolish sharia.”

Under the new law enacted this year, if one of the two Muslims in a Sharia law case prefers a civil court, then the case shall be tried in a civil court. But Mustafa still isn’t content.

“The progressive members of the minority want the definitive abolition of Saria,” he said. “The state should have solved this problem decades ago. Nevertheless, we believe our small society will solve this problem on its own.”

For decades, Greek politicians upheld the treaty with Turkey to placate Muslim leaders who promise them votes. That also suited the goals of Greek nationalists.

“For a long time, it was in the interests of the Greek government to maintain sharia for the Turkish-speaking minority because it emphasized their religious identity more than their ethnic and linguistic [Turkish] identity,” said Yuksel Sezgin, director of the Middle Eastern Studies
Program at the Syracuse University, who’s studied Sharia law in Greece and around the world.

Even if the European Court ruled in Sali’s favor, Sezgin didn’t think the Greek government should dispense with altogether with Sharia law, which is applied relatively moderately. Instead, he thought officials should discuss reforms with the Muslim community and codify Sharia law in Greece. Currently, he added, the laws aren’t written down.

The Greek government should also put Muslim judges on Greek civil courts in regions where Muslims appear before the bench regularly.

“Even in Israel there are Muslim civil judges, while India has 7 percent Muslim judges,” he said.

But simply abolishing Sharia law will probably spark a backlash, he added.

“I’m not trying to defend Sharia, but if you abolish it unilaterally it will only radicalize certain elements in the region,” Sezign said. “And although the community is so well integrated and there’s not one single case of a person going from Greece to Syria to join ISIS, under the current populist regimes, and without knowing how Erdogan might react to it, it will be like setting off a time bomb.”

Photo: Screenshot of Meco Cemali, Mufti of Komotini, Greece during an interview with Deutsche Welle for the program "Focus on Europe." Cemali said "It's important to me that Europe knows Muslims enjoy religious freedom in Greece. We don't observe the complete Sharia, only a part of the family law. We've never chopped a thief's head, or hand, off here."
Credit: Courtesy of Deutsche Welle (06/07/2018)

Story/photo publish date: 12/18/2018

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.
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