Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Tourkokritikoi: Our Muslim Brothers

For Generations, throughout the Balkans and Middle East, religious identity and ethnic identity have been one in the same. For the Greek ethnos, this has resulted in the alienation of many of our ethnic kin based solely on their religious affiliation. However, there are some in the region that have begun to challenge this age old notion. Not Greeks, but Armenians, cementing themselves, yet again, as true trail blazers.  The Hemshin people are ethnic Armenian converts to Islam, which have begun to gain recognition by the Armenian mainstream as their ethnic kin regardless of their religious affiliation. The question I venture to ask now is, perhaps, it is time for Greeks to do the same.


The foundation of the Modern Greek identity, much like the Armenian, is based on a religious identity. Historically, the Greek identity has been associated with Greek Orthodoxy, regardless of the ethnic or linguistic traditions of the population in question. This was a result, in part, of the evolution of religious identities in the Ottoman Empire into national identities. For example, the term Turk was used to identify individuals of the Muslim Millet inside the Ottoman Empire, while the term Romios, was used to describe individuals of the Greek Orthodox or Roum Millet. As a result of this, many ethnic Greeks, who became Muslims, were no longer regarded as Greeks but rather as ‘Turks’. Their reasons for adopting Islam vary from forced to voluntary conversion. When those decided on voluntarily convert to Islam it was often done for socioeconomic reasons [1] [3] or as a direct result of the corruption of the Orthodox Church [2].

Just as, Armenians have the Hemshin people; Greeks also have some ethnic Greek Muslim communities living outside the borders of the Modern Greek nation-state. One example of these is the Cretan Muslims, which resident primarily in Turkey, but also in Libya, Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon. Normally referred to as Cretan Turks, these Cretan Muslims are notable cases in Ottoman history, as they are primarily a result of voluntary conversion to Islam by the indigenous Greek population [3]

Throughout Ottoman history, these Cretan Muslims remained Greek-speaking [4], even though the language of the Empire’s administration and Muslim upper class was Ottoman Turkish. Slowly with the transformation of the Roum Millet into the Modern Greek identity and the emergence of Greek Nationalism, these Greek-speaking Muslims became labeled as ‘Turks’ [5]. This would set the stage for Sectarian violence to devastate the island during the 19th century, with ethnic Greeks massacring ethnic Greeks all in the name of Abrahamism. As a result, many Cretan Muslims began to migrate to other parts of the Ottoman Empire, and the few remaining would be eventually exchanged for Greek Orthodox Christians from Anatolia in 1923, under the terms of the Treaty of Lausanne.

Lebanon: A forgotten Helleno-Islamic Oasis

In my search, to learn more about the Cretan Muslims, I came across a small community living in Lebanon and a man named Ali Ibrahim Bekraki, who was born in the city of Tripoli in 1972. Ali is one of the founders of the Cretan Association, Uli Noha, and was kind enough to share his thoughts and opinions concerning his community. Known to the indigenous, as Cretan Emigrants or ‘Mouhajirine’, in Arabic, Ali shares that, “members of our community are easily identifiable within the native Muslim population simply because of our different surnames, which end with AKI”.

“We proudly and clearly say that we are Cretans, and we are quiet sorry that we were forced to leave our homes because of the persecutions against us by the Romiyos (Roum). No one says that he is a Turk, but we do love our Ottoman heritage”. Ali’s words touched me. Here, was an ethnic Greek Muslim, who sure didn’t identify as Greek, but did proudly identify as a Cretan. One cannot blame the Cretan Muslims for not identifying as ethnic Greeks, why would they? Orthodox Greeks had denied their Greekness due to their faith and sectarian violence had forced them from their homeland.

When I asked if any within the community still spoke the Greek Cretan dialect, Ali told me, “Yes, in my family all my uncles and aunts still speak the original Cretan dialect very fluently, however, the new generation, knows very little and the language is fading away”.  It seemed that this small cluster of Cretans was quickly assimilating into mainstream Arab society. What saddens me the most was not just the disappearance of the Cretan language, but also the struggle to overcome poverty, which was a serious issue for the community.  Ali expanded on the situation stating, “Some Cretan Muslims are no longer interested in our past, and no one is interested in returning to Greece, so many change their surnames to look more like the locals”.

Ali, fortunately is an optimist, and was kind enough to share with me the outstanding work that his Uli Noha Association has achieved over the last 6 years. “Since 2006, and even before our official recognition from the Lebanese Government, our organization has been involved in activities such as feeding and distributing essential goods to about 200 families. We try to accomplish at least two projects a year”. I curiously asked, if members of the community would be interested in learning the Cretan dialect today and was told, “I’m sure that lots of people from our new generation would like the opportunity to learn Greek, especially the Cretan dialect if funding and assistance could be found, but I believe that more wide and general projects must be thought of, which could include language. For example, the establishing of a cultural center for Cretan Muslims, that would be able to teach language and provide social assistance such as medical aid. This is one of our topic priorities for our association”.

As Ali told me more about his community, what interested me was the lack of connection with Turkey.  It seemed that many had lost touch with Turkey long ago, mostly due to the difficulties of communicating over long distances. We must remember that there was a time when the internet didn’t exist, and phones were not available to all. One can only imagine how difficult it must have been in 1898. Those who had settled in Turkey also seemed to have fallen onto hard times, as well. Many had their surnames changed in 1930s due to Ataturk’s reforms while others had trouble adjusting into Turkish society and, therefore, were unable marry. Many Cretan emigrants were subjected to slurs from mainland Turks who referred to them as ‘Romiosporo’. 

Throughout it all, poverty, war, and racism, these Cretan Muslims still held a fondness for the Ottoman Empire. They were after all rescued and evacuated from the island by the Ottoman Navy. They received homes, pensions, and a lot of support from the Ottoman Empire, specifically Sultan Abdul Hamid II, a person who is still respected and love by the community. The town of Al Hamidiyah in Syria is named after him. It was established by the Sultan’s direct orders as a place for Cretan Muslims in 1897. The overwhelming population till this day is of Cretan origins and the Cretan dialect can still be heard throughout the town.

According to Ali, “Many Cretan emigrants see Turkey as an ally, but not the motherland. Our motherland is Crete not Turkey. We speak Cretan not Turkish. This alone is reason enough not to seek Turkish assistance; on the other hand, communication with the Greek State is difficult. The Greek state is based on Christianity and religion. Our situation is the result of the basic conflict, which eradicated the Islamic presence in Europe and specifically Greece. Now, things are slowly getting better, since Greece is no longer plagued by Christian fanatics as in the past and great improvements in the relationship between Greece and Turkey have happened. I feel that we, Cretan Muslims, can benefit from such warming of relations”.


In the end, I asked Ali one straightforward question. How do you feel the community would react, if they started getting Greek assistance and acceptance as ethnic Greek Muslims? This was his response, “Well, let us here these words like acceptance first, before talking about any reaction from the community. We have the feeling that we are that lost part of history, that nobody is interested in remembering, neither the Turks nor the Greeks, and I think this is the truth. Today’s Turkey has nothing to do with the Ottomans of old, and Greece doesn’t want more trouble, especially since it has an enormous economic crisis”.

So we are left with the same question we began with, Should Greeks follow in the footsteps of our Armenian friends and start accepting lost ethnic Greek communities, which are Muslims as our ethnic kin? I’m sure many ethnic Greeks of the Orthodox persuasion will be mad at me for even daring to ask such a question, however, the time for such questions is before us. I for one think we should push ahead like the Armenians and reclaim our lost brethren, heal the wounds that have divided us and March headfirst towards a new dawn of unity and understanding that will strengthen the Greek ethnos.


Ali Ibrahim Bekraki, email interview, January 9th, 2011

[1] Topalidis, Sam. “Crypto-Christians of the Trabzon Region of Pontos
[2]Arnold, Sir Thomas Walker. “The preaching of Islam: a history of the propagation of the Muslim faith”, pg. 135-144
. [3] Bayraktar, Elif. “The Implementation of Ottoman Religious Policies in Crete 1645-1735: Men of faith as actors in the Kadi court”. Bilkent University, Anakara.
[4] Williams, Chris. “The Cretan Muslims and the Music of Crete”, in Dimitris Tziovas, ed., Greece and the Balkans: Identities, Perceptions, and Cultural Encounters since the Enlightenment
[5] Tziovas, Dimitris. “Greece and the Balkans: Identities, Perceptions and Cultural Encounters since the Enlightenment; William Yale, The Near East: A modern history Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1958