Sunday 27 October 2019

Islam and Life of Muslims in Non Muslim Countries: Georgia

Georgia is a country in the Caucasus region of Eurasia at the border of Western Asia and Eastern Europe. Georgia is bordered by the Black Sea, Russia, Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. The Republic of Georgia is an avowedly Christian country, but one out of every ten Georgian citizens is Muslim.  Orthodox Christianity accounts for 83.4% of the population. Muslims constitute approximately 9.9%[2] of the Georgian population. According to other sources, Muslims constitute 10-11% of Georgia's population. 

Islam in Georgia was introduced in 654 when an army sent by the Third Caliph of Islam, Uthman, conquered Eastern Georgia and established Muslim rule in Tbilisi. Within the Muslim community, there are are two major groups: the Sunni Hanafi and the Azerbaijani Muslims which are separated largely by region.  In July 2011, Parliament of Georgia passed new law allowing religious minority groups with “historic ties to Georgia” to register. The draft of the law specifically mentions Islam and four other religious communities.

During the Arab period, Tbilisi (al-Tefelis) grew into a center of trade between the Islamic world and northern Europe. For several centuries, the Georgian kings and aristocrats converted to Islam and served as courtiers to the Iranian Safavid, Afsharid and Qajar dynasties, who ruled them.
Sunnite Mosque - 1880 [Photo:  Wikimedia Commons / Author: Dmitri Ivanovich Yermakov / Source ]

Islam first arrived in Adjara in the 16th century. A former region of the Ottoman Empire, Adjara was ceded to Russia – and joined to other Georgian territories – in 1878. Nevertheless, Adjarans continued to feel an attachment to Turkey and their Islamic faith – sometimes in opposition to Orthodox Christian Georgians and Russians. In 1921, under the Treaty of Kars between Turkey and Soviet Russia, an autonomous Adjara was created to protect local Muslims. Adjara became one of two autonomous entities in the Soviet Union established not on ethnic, but religious grounds. However, Adjara’s Muslims occupy a peculiar position in the popular mind. They are not real Georgians, because they are not Christians. But neither are they enemies, because they share the same language.

The life of Muslims doesn't seem to be easy as observations by onlookers are varying. The Autonomous Republic of Adjara on the Black Sea coast in western Georgia is home to a large and much overlooked Muslim community. The last official census in 2002 showed that 30% (115,000) of Adjarans considered themselves Muslim. Chechens or Kists, Adjaran Muslims are ethnic Georgians, living in a country where Islam is seen by many as a hostile religion. Georgia’s Muslim community must repeatedly prove its loyalty to both the Georgian nation and Islamic faith and culture every day; no mean feat, given the widely differing expectations that entails.

After 70 years of Soviet atheism, the newly independent state promoted Orthodox Christianity as central element of Georgian identity. The Muslims, be they Sunni or Shi'ite, are theoretically under the central authority of the imam of Tbilisi's central mosque, Akhund Hadji Ali, himself dependent on the Baku-based Administration of the Muslims of the Caucasus. The reality shows, however, that there are two major separate Muslim communities living in Georgia: the Shi'ite Azeris and the Sunni Adjars, who scarcely co-operate. in Adjaria, Sunni Adjars are resisting attempts at (re)- Christianization.
Central Mosque in Tbilisi [Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Author: Henri Bergius  / Source]

Muslims have their mosques for offering prayers together in every Muslim community. Mosques in Georgia operate under the supervision of the Georgian Muslim Department, established in May 2011. Tbilisi's Jumah mosque is shared by Sunnis and Shia because Soviets destroyed the Shia's house of worship decades ago - it was never rebuilt. In 2010, Turkey and Georgia signed an agreement by which Turkey was yo provide funding and expertise to rehabilitate three mosques and to rebuild a fourth one in Georgia. On a reciprocal basis, Georgia was to rehabilitate four Georgian monasteries in Turkey. The Georgia-Turkey agreement allowed the reconstruction of the historical Azize mosque in Batumi, Ajaria demolished in the middle of the last century.

Although, Muslims have lived peacefully in Georgia for centuries, the attitude of Christians is rather indifferent, A large number of people see Islam as alien to the Georgian national identity. This attitude is a source of much frustration in its southwestern region of Adjara, where about 30 percent of ethnic Georgians follow Islam. Generally Christianity is always equated with the Georgian identity so the more Muslims there are, the more risk of losing the Georgian identity. "Generally, if you are not visually recognizable as a Muslim, people are fine with you because they don't necessarily ask about your religion. But if you are wearing a hijab and express your religious identity, you get a different reaction," one Muslim woman told  Al Jazeera.

Inga Popovaite in her article "Georgian Muslims are strangers in their own country" writes about Hijab and plight Muslim women observing Hijab. "For Georgian Muslim women, the biggest challenge is probably wearing the hijab in public. Many Muslim women I met in Adjara did not cover their hair on a daily basis in an attempt to blend into Christian society. the hijab not only forces unwanted attention on a woman in public, but affects their professional life as well. Those women who chose to wear the traditional Muslim attire walk the streets while their fellow citizens whisper 'Iranian', 'Turk', and 'Go back to your own country' behind their backs." [2]

On another forum, Ghada E, expresses similar concerns. She says: "I have just returned from Georgia today and as a hijab-wearing Arab woman I found the majority of Georgians exceptionally rude/giving me the cold shoulder - some people even refused to help when I asked for simple things such as directions etc. I have experienced subtle racism before but I felt in Georgia the hostility towards Muslims is very direct/in your face. The nicest people were those working in the tourism sector (tour guides, hotel staff etc) but then again they are paid to be nice to guests so I cannot really say it was genuine. " [3]

There are two major Muslim groups in Georgia. The ethnic Georgian Muslims are Sunni Hanafi and are concentrated in the Autonomous Republic of Adjara of Georgia bordering Turkey. The ethnic Azerbaijani Muslims are predominantly Shia Ithna Ashariyah and are concentrated along the border with Azerbaijan and Armenia.

The Meskhetian Turks, also a Sunni Hanafi group, are the former inhabitants of the Meskheti region of Georgia, along the border with Turkey. They were deported to Central Asia during November 15–25, 1944 by Joseph Stalin and settled within Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. Of the 120,000 forcibly deported in cattle-trucks a total of 10,000 perished. Today they are dispersed over a number of other countries of the former Soviet Union. There are 500,000 to 700,000 Meskhetian Turks in exile in Azerbaijan and Central Asia. 

Those Meskh who remain in Georgia live a very lowly life. Watch a video on the plight of Meskh Muslims in Georgia:
Author's Note: The data for this post has been collected from the references as given below. If any one differs with the material contained in this post, one may consult the references and their authors.  If someone has more material about the subject, he/she is most welcome to share in the comments box to make the post all encompassing.

To know more about life of Muslims in other non Muslim countries, please visit our page: Islam and Life of Muslims in Non Muslim Countries

Photo | References: | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 |
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