Islam and Nationalism in Modern Greece, 1821-1940

(New York: Oxford University Press, 2021)

10 January 2022

Stefanos Katsikas University of Chicago

Islam and Nationalism in Modern Greece, 1821-1940 
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2021)
By Stefanos Katsikas, Associate Director and Senior Instructional Assistant Professor, Center for Hellenic Studies, University of Chicago


The Saga of a Potentially Controversial Book

My book Islam and Nationalism in Modern Greece, 1821-1940 began as a BA thesis more than two decades ago when I was an undergraduate at the Ionian University in Corfu, Greece, and continued as an MA dissertation at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES) at University College London (UCL). After I completed my MA studies, I interrupted my research on the history of the Muslims of Greece in order to conduct research for my Ph.D. on a timely topic of contemporary Balkan history, Foreign Policy Making in Democratizing States: The Case of Bulgaria in the 1990s at SSEES in UCL. I thought my subject was a safe choice that would avoid sensitive topics, such as national minorities, including Greece’s Muslim population, that might be less acceptable to Greek academics when I planned to seek a job in Greek academia. However, my plans changed after I was appointed to academic positions in universities in the U.K. and in the U.S. I did not return in Greece, and have remained a member of Greece’s academic diaspora. 

In 2008, having received a postdoctoral research fellowship from the John S. Latsis Foundation of Athens, Greece, my research returned to the subject of the history of the Muslim population of Greece. The fellowship was part of a collective research project entitled From Religious Communities to National Minorities: Greek Orthodox Minority in Turkey and Muslim Minority in Greece, 1830s to the Eve of World War II. The project, conducted through the Department of History and Archaeology of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, explored the effects of Greek nationalism on the Muslim populations of Greece and of Turkish nationalism on the Greek Orthodox populations in Turkey during the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries. My contribution to this project was to research the impact of Greek nationalism on Muslim communities’ integration into Greek society during this period. The project led to numerous publications, including a book I co-edited, State-Nationalisms in the Ottoman Empire, Greece and Turkey: Orthodox and Muslims, 1830-1945 (London and New York: a SOAS/Routledge series on the Middle East, 2012 and 2017) and my editing of a special issue of the Journal on Muslim Minority Affairs (29.4 December 2009) entitled “European Modernity and Islamic Reformism among Muslims of the Balkans in the Late Ottoman and Post-Ottoman Period (1830s-1945)” for which I also wrote the introduction and conclusion. 

In 2012 I joined the faculty of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to become Director of its fairly new Program in Modern Greek Studies (established in 2009), a position I held until May 2018. Building an academic program almost from the ground up, with limited resources and as a non-tenured faculty member, is not an easy task. It required slowing my research on the history of the Muslim populations of Greece to dedicate most of my time and energy on building the program’s curriculum and increase its outreach and fundraising efforts. At the same time, I felt some ambivalence about continuing this research, given the sensitivity of the subject for Greeks in Greece, Cyprus and in the Diaspora and the risks that a major publication on it might pose to my fundraising efforts and the program’s reception by the Greek communities of Illinois and elsewhere in the U.S. I vividly recall a Greek faculty member of an esteemed university in Chicago arguing passionately that my research into the history of the Muslim populations of Greece lay beyond the field of Hellenic Studies because it concerned “non-Greek minorities and not Greeks.” (If the actual language used by this colleague when referring to the Muslims of Greece and other minorities in Greece and in the U.S had been on the record, it could have easily activated disciplinary action as a violation of university regulations concerning inclusion and diversity, racism, the promotion of hatred and discrimination against minorities.) In this scholar’s view, the role of a program of Hellenic or Modern Greek Studies would more or less be to function as a branch of the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs and to echo the country’s official narratives regarding history and politics. 

In 2014, my interest in pursuing my research on the history of the Muslim populations of Greece with the goal of authoring a book on the subject was reignited when I was invited by the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University to give a lecture o Muslim political involvement in Bulgarian post-Cold War politics, a topic related to my Ph.D. thesis and my first book, Negotiating Diplomacy in the New Europe: Foreign Policy in Post-Communist Bulgaria (London and New York, 2011). While at Georgetown, I had the opportunity to discuss my research project on the history of the Muslim population of Greece with colleagues who strongly encouraged me to write a book on the subject. Moreover, in 2015 increased funding for the Program in Modern Greek Studies brought about the hiring of a number of graduate assistants, whose teaching and research helped allow me more time for research.  Oxford University Press accepted my book proposal, which had been received with enthusiasm by peer reviewers and the editorial board, and in 2016 I undertook a contract to complete a book manuscript within three years. 

The COVID-19 lockdown in 2020 that caused in-person teaching and other activities to be suspended or conducted remotely created much-needed, valuable time to finalize my book manuscript for publication in October 2020, as well as to begin another book, Proselytes of a New Nation: Muslim Conversions to Orthodox Christianity in Modern Greece (forthcoming from Oxford University Press in 2022). I found working on my books to be an effective way to fight the isolation of the COVID-19 lockdown.


The Topic, Long Overlooked, Is Compelling

What has struck me since the time I began to delve into the history of the Muslims in Greece as an undergraduate student at the Ionian University, and to a great extent continues to amaze me, is how under-researched this subject is, and how little attention this vital history has received in relation to the intricate paths of Greek nationalism since the creation of Modern Greece in 1832. Even today, when more and more scholars are elucidating the political, economic, and social life of Muslims, and a number of academic studies on these subjects have been published, the discussion rarely moves beyond the post-1923 Muslims of Western Thrace. These, however, are the “leftovers” of an erstwhile robust Muslim population of Greece that was nearly eliminated by wars, mass emigration, and the forced Greco-Turkish population exchange of 1923. The history of the Muslims in Greece prior to 1923 remains largely at the margins of modern Greek history. A number of factors explain this lack of attention, including the unavailability of lost archival material in Greece, especially for the period 1832-1912 and the inability of many Greek historians to read Ottoman Turkish and thus to conduct research in Ottoman archives. Even those researchers who can read the language are interested in the history of the Ottoman Empire, and are less keen to research aspects of post-Ottoman history. Most scholars overlook Ottoman diplomatic and other sources on the life of Muslim and other minorities in Greece; fail to confront and overcome long-held nationalist views of Greek historiography; and are prone to Islamophobia, or the stubborn view of the Muslims of Greece primarily as a kin minority group of Turkey. In the latter case, researchers’ interest has been limited to helping scholars understand how Muslims were embroiled in and influenced or affected by Greco-Turkish relations, and has not extended to Muslims as a minority group whose history and culture, on their own merits, are an inextricable part of modern Greece’s history and culture. Some scholars may wish to avoid risking their popularity among a conservative Greek public, which often views the Muslims of Western Thrace as Turkey’s Trojan Horse in Greece. 

This is not the case with the modern histories of other nations. It would be unthinkable today to write of U.S. history without considering indigenous peoples or African-Americans. Historians cannot write of British imperialism without any mention of the slaughter of Africans in the Congo or of Chinese in the Opium Wars. Without exploring the development of the relationship between modern Greece and its Muslims, Jews and other religious and ethnic groups, scholars fail to capture the nuances of state attitudes, policies, and perceptions in Greece with regard to its minority populations. At the same time, the hesitation – and often the outright refusal– to research the history of these populations is a way to question the “Greekness” of these people, and to imply that neo-Hellenic identity can only be understood and defined through Greek Orthodox Christianity; Non-Greek Orthodox Christian individuals born in Greece do not merit equal status and rights to those of native-born Greek Orthodox Christians.   


The Book Reveals Fruitful Directions for Scholarship

My book Islam and Nationalism in Modern Greece, 1821-1940 explores the way in which the Muslim populations of Greece were ruled by state authorities from the time of Greece’s political emancipation from the Ottoman Empire in the 1820s until the country’s entrance into the Second World War in October 1940. I chose the period covered in this book because it encompasses the full span of what can truly be considered the “post-Ottoman period.” The rupture caused by World War II was such that in its aftermath long-standing institutions that had persisted in Greece as sort of Ottoman legacy, despite the nonexistence of the Ottoman Empire, ultimately disappeared. 

The book examines how Greek state rule influenced the development of the Muslim population’s collective identity as a minority, and affected Muslims’ relations with the Greek authorities and Orthodox Christians. Greece was the first country in the Balkans to become an independent state, and was a pioneer in experimenting with minority issues. Greece’s ruling framework and many state administrative measures and patterns would come to serve as templates for other Christian Orthodox Balkan states with Muslim minorities, such as Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, and Cyprus. Muslim religious officials were empowered with authority that they did not enjoy in Ottoman times, and aspects of Islamic Sharia law were incorporated into the state legal system to be applied to Muslim family and property affairs. 


The book contributes to a growing scholarly literature that explores the political, social and cultural history of Islam and of Muslim populations in Europe. It argues for the important role of public institutions in the development and preservation of religious and ethnic identity. Religion has been an important element for both individual and collective identity and a defining element in the political, social and cultural life in the nation-states that succeeded the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans, the Near, the Middle East and in North Africa. Islam and Nationalism in Modern Greece, 1821-1940 argues that religion remains a key element of individual and collective identity, but only so long as there are strong institutions and a political framework to support and maintain religious diversity. Due to the absence of appropriate institutional structures and to certain policies adopted by the Greek authorities in the period from 1821 to 1881, many Muslims were prepared to negotiate their religious beliefs and convert to Orthodox Christianity. (This topic is addressed in detail in my forthcoming book Proselytes of a New Nation: Muslim Conversions to Orthodox Christianity in Modern Greece (Oxford University Press, June 2022)). 

After 1881 Greece was forced to adopt an institutional framework that aimed to protect the minority rights of its Muslims. This was an early form of international law on minorities and a blueprint for clauses addressing minorities in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, as well as other treaties of the interwar period that followed it. As a consequence of this change in Greece’s institutional framework, the Islamic religion was preserved as an important element in the minority’s social and cultural life, but only in Muslim communities that were segregated from the rest of Greek society, which treated them as second-class citizens with fewer civil rights than those of Greek Orthodox Christians.

Greece is the first independent nation-state in Southeastern Europe founded on the principles of ethnonationalism, a form of nationalism wherein nation and nationality are defined by shared heritage. In the case of Greece, this included a common faith (Christianity, primarily Christian Orthodoxy), a common language (Greek), and a common ethnic ancestry, loosely defined as Hellenic and connected with Greek antiquity. In this respect, Greece was also a pioneer in experimenting with minority issues in the region. In the period under examination, the newly formed Greek society developed patterns of behavior and practices toward its minority non-Greek nationals, which defined state policies and public attitudes toward Islam and Greece’s Muslim populations for years to come. Greece’s policies and public attitudes also influenced how the societies of other Christian nation-states established in the region, i.e., Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Romania and Serbia, were to approach Islam and their Muslim-minority populations.

By using Greece as a case study, my book also aspires to contribute to the current discussion in Europe and elsewhere of a better integration of Muslims into national societies. In February 2008, the then-Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, proposed that the British government should perhaps consider incorporating aspects of Islamic Sharia law into the British legal system in order to secure fair and equal treatment for British Muslims. What lessons might British and other European societies draw from Greece’s post-1881, forced restructuring that incorporated aspects of Sharia law into its legal system to protect the rights of its Muslim minority?  

Islam and Nationalism in Modern Greece, 1821-1940 argues that Greek nation-building showed little interest in integrating Muslim population into Greek society. The few governments that aspired to do so failed in the end. Ethnonationalism by nature is exclusionary toward minorities. Greek nation-building, in particular, emerged and developed counter to Islam; to the Ottoman Empire, Islam’s political entity in the region; and to its faithful. Furthermore, Greek irredentism, expressed through the Greek nation-building Megali Idea, engaged Greece in a series of wars with the Ottoman Empire, the country’s prime enemy, which prevented hostility against Islam from subsiding. In addition, these wars continually disrupted the country’s young and inexperienced state machinery, and provided fertile ground for injustices and discriminatory policies against the country’s minorities, particularly at the hands of local authorities, whom the Greek government was unable to control. The incorporation of aspects of sharia into Greece’s civil and family law and the adoption of a special corpus of laws that aim to protect the religious freedoms and the cultural autonomy of the Muslim communities proved insufficient to protect the members of these communities from discriminatory policies.

Islam and Nationalism in Modern Greece, 1821-1940 also provides an explanation of the reasons behind the decreasing numbers of Muslims in areas ceded to Greece by the Ottoman Empire, which occasionally took the form of a mass exodus. Existing literature explains the decrease as a result of oppressive measures by the Greek state authorities that were part of a systematic and organized plan. My book argues that there is no evidence of an organized plan by Greek state authorities to force the Muslims out of the country. The Muslim exodus should be understood as the result of a combination of factors. Among these were feelings of insecurity created by the new national political and cultural environment, often exacerbated by the apathy or inability of the Greek government to exercise control over the abuse of power and arbitrary actions and discriminatory policies of local officials. Another factor was conflicts at the local level between Muslin natives with Orthodox Christian migrants. Some Muslims also embraced Islamic fanaticism, encouraged by Ottoman religious agents who visited Greece, urging Muslims to emigrate to territories, such as the Ottoman Empire, where they could practice their religion freely.

My book highlights aspects of a fairly little-known conflict in Muslim minority affairs of Greece and the Balkans between “Old Muslim” conservatives, known also as Palaiomousoulmanoi, and supporters of political and other reforms introduced by Kemal Attatürk after the establishment of the modern Turkish Republic (1923) and the abolition of the Caliphate in the Republic’s territories in March 1924. In a political atmosphere which in many aspects is reminiscent of the current conflict between Kemalists and the Islamists of AKP in Turkey, Conservative Muslims defended the overwhelmingly Islamic outlook of the Muslim community of Western Thrace, the region in Greece where most of the Muslim minority lived after the forced Greco-Turkish population exchange of 1923. They mistrusted the Kemalists’ push to “modernize” and “secularize” Western Thrace’s Muslim minority. This cleavage became more apparent with the arrival in 1923 of a large number of Ottoman dissidents, who became known as the “the 150” (Yüz Ellilikler). Declared personae non gratae by the regime established by Kemal Attatürk, they had fled Turkey and sought political asylum in Greece. During the course of the negotiations for the 1930 Treaty of Friendship, Neutrality, Conciliation and Arbitration, the Greek government of Eleftherios Venizelos agreed to expel a number of individuals from the 150. The purge of the Ottoman dissidents marked a turning point that helped the rise of Kemalists in Western Thrace and the gradual change in the nature of Greece’s Muslim minority from a religious to a Turkish national minority.

Islam and Nationalism in Modern Greece, 1821-1940 aspires to open research to future researchers to investigate unexplored or little explored aspects of the subject and enrich our knowledge and awareness. One such unexplored aspect is that of the conversion of Muslims to Orthodox Christianity during the Greek War of Independence and the life of the converts, known also as neophytes, during the Greek War of Independence and the first few decades of the post-independence years, which is examined in my forthcoming book monograph Proselytes of a New Nation: Muslim Conversions to Orthodox Christianity in Modern Greece (Oxford University Press, June 2022).




1. Islam and Nationalism in Modern Greece, 1821-1940

2. Negotiating Diplomacy in the New Europe: Foreign Policy in Post-Communist Bulgaria (won a Scouloudi Publication Award)

3. State-Nationalisms in the Ottoman Empire, Greece and Turkey: Orthodox and Muslims, 1830-1945

4. Bulgaria and Europe: Shifting Identities


Stefanos Katsikas is Associate Director of the Center for Hellenic Studies and Senior Instructional Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago. He holds a Ph.D. in Social Sciences (History and Political Science) from the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES) at the University College London (UCL). His research lies in the fields of modern and contemporary history of Southeastern Europe, especially in the study of democratization, regional security, and minority-state relations. He is the author of Negotiating Diplomacy in the New Europe: Foreign Policy in the Post-Communist Bulgaria (2011), which received a Scouloudi publication award from the Institute of Historical Research in London. Katsikas is also the editor of Bulgaria and Europe: Shifting Identities (2010); and co-editor of State Nationalism in the Ottoman Empire, Greece and Turkey: Orthodox and Muslims (1830-1945) (2012). His monograph Proselytes of a New Nation: Muslim Conversions to Orthodox Christianity in Modern Greece, 1821-1862 is forthcoming from Oxford University Press in June 2022.