Pomaks: the Misunderstood within the Greek Muslim Minority

By Nickolaos Angelis

Dealing with minority issues around the world definitely sparks the interest of various readers. Many are curious to learn about the indigenous peoples. The natives. The people who used to live in their ancestral homes before they were “discovered”. Ranging from the Sámi (Lapps) of Scandinavia to the Aborigines of Oceania, the examples of such peoples are numerous. Over the centuries these peoples have changed dramatically, forming today’s minorities. Historically, too, many prominent personalities who left their indelible mark on history came from minorities. Lenin had Kalmyk roots, Stalin was Georgian (a minority in the context of USSR), Hitler was Austrian, while Napoleon Bonaparte was from Corsica.

In the beautiful area of Thrace, which is also the birthplace of the popular historical figure Spartacus, one can find Pomak villages, where Pomaks have been living there for centuries. There is no point in making any reference to the many theories of their origin; that would be a matter for ethnologists and folklorists to consider and analyse. In our case, the only thing worth mentioning about the Pomaks, with a view to making the analysis more understandable, is that the Pomaks are an ethnic group which speaks a distinct old Slavic language, embraces Sunni Islam and is scattered mainly in the Eastern Balkans.

Speaking of minorities, it is crucial to emphasise that in Greece there is only one recognised minority, and in fact a religious one, according to what is mentioned in Articles 1 and 2 of the Convention Concerning the Exchange of Greek and Turkish Populations (1923). This minority was excluded from the exchange on a reciprocal basis: the Greeks of Constantinople were to stay. Naturally, Turkey has been attempting to influence and win over the Muslim populations of Western Thrace, just as Ankara has previously done regarding the Linovamvaks of Cyprus, with the sole purpose o satisfying its strategic interests. Proof of this claim is that, historically, the Muslim populations of the Balkans, considered by Ankara to be “Ottoman remnants“, have no ethnic affiliation with the Turks, with a few exceptions, such as the Turkic peoples of Western Thrace and of Bulgaria.

According to statistics, the generalisation that is often attempted by Turkey on the issue of the minority is, to say the least, hasty and misleading. Out of 98.000 Muslims, 34.300 are Pomaks and another 14.700 are Romani. It is a fact, however, that the Muslim minority was treated by the Greek state as a second-class population group. To add to that, the Greek civil war further harmed the reputation of the Pomaks, as slavophone populations were associated with the “communistic peril.” This changed, on the one hand, due to the dynamic tendencies of the country’s Europeanisation and on the other hand due to the political crisis of 1989-1990, which turned the Muslim pro-Turkish deputies into important factors when it came to political developments in Greece. Another element that has certainly influenced the Greek Government’s policy at the time was the management of a similar issue regarding the Kosovo Albanian Muslims in a collapsing Yugoslavia. Thus, in 1991 the Mitsotakis government announced a policy which affirmed the equality between Christians and Muslims and abolished the administrative measures imposed by the Junta in 1967 to the detriment of the minority.

The composition of the minority population as well as the geographical proximity to Turkey and its quasi-economic capital, Instanbul, are factors that multiply Turkey’s interest (and influence) in it. Both the Pomaks and the Greek state are the losers in this equation. Education, used either as a weapon of Turkification of the entire minority or a shield against it, is crucial for the survival of groups such as the Pomaks.

Given the outdated protocols and laws, the Pomaks of Thrace, today are experiencing something unthinkable and completely dangerous for the preservation of their identity. The education provided in the minority schools is in Turkish and only secondarily in Greek. In the case of Pomaks, their mother language, Pomakian, has no presence whatsoever in minority schools. It is also worth mentioning that bilingualism in minority schools is not in the interest of Muslim children either. The standards of Greek university admissions are lower for them. Nonetheless, a muslim student who does not intend to return to their place of origin, is only hindered by this system, as the knowledge of Turkish and inadequate Greek minimize their opportunities in the labour market.

Τhe Pomaks are an extremely interesting ethnic group in terms of their culture, folklore and historiography. They also act (unintentionally) as a potential obstacle to Ankara’s expansionism, which includes the instrumentalisation of human rights issues. Individuals who have dedicated their lives to highlighting the disadvantaged position of the Pomaks within the recognized minority, such as Sebaidin Karahotza and his brother Ritvan, have paid the price for their fight to preserve their identity. Other successful people with prestige and access to media of international influence which also come from the land of the Pomaks, such as Rita Wilson, can also raise public awareness of this issue.

To conclude, by remembering the Pomak Macedonian-warrior Hafuz Ali Ziroglou who operated in the city of Drama and the Slavic-speaking Macedonian warrior Captain Kotta (Kotte Christof) we believe that, in rare occasions, for the formation of national conscience, language and religion may not always be the primary factors.

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Alexandros Sainidis

I am an International Relations Analyst and the creator of the blog Pecunia et Bellum. I have studied International, European and Area Studies at the Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences in Athens, Greece. I am a bilingual Russian speaker and I am currently learning Mandarin in order to gain a deeper understanding of the current International Affairs in Eurasia.

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