The Republic of Georgia is an avowedly Christian country, but one out of every ten Georgian citizens is Muslim. Eye-catching headlines in recent months have touched on the ethnic Chechen and Kist villages of Pankisi Gorge in the country’s north-west. A small number of residents have left for Iraq and Syria, to fight and die for ISIS. But the story of Islam in Georgia today neither begins nor ends with foreign jihad.
Likewise, 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, and 64% (240,000) – Orthodox Christians.
Unlike Azeris, 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.
I met Fatima* in a fashionable coffee shop in the seaside town of Batumi, the capital of Adjara. Fatima attracted a great deal of attention. A year ago, no one would have batted any eyelid; she was then one of many girls sporting short skirts and low-cut blouses under the blazing Black Sea sun. These days, Fatima barely shows any skin – just her face.
Since discovering Islam, half of Fatima’s family refuse to speak to her, and she had to leave her job with a local NGO because her employer was uncomfortable working with somebody wearing the hijab.
‘My boss kept on discussing my appearance, asking whether I was going to attend meetings in public dressed in this way. During my last days at work, she preferred to have me stay in the office and not go to any meetings.’
Political scientist George Sanikidze writes that ‘Christianity plays a particularly important role in the Georgian national narrative and Georgian national consciousness, as suggested by the slogan of the nineteenth century Georgian national movement, “language, homeland, faith [Christianity]”.’ In short, the church is one of the main pillars of Georgian national identity today. People cross themselves whenever they see one of thousands of churches dotting the Georgian landscape, and a few minutes later they toss a couple of coins into a donation box for the construction of a new one. At every supra, a traditional feast, at least one toast will be raised to God or the patron saint, Saint George. The opinions of Church leaders are highly valued – especially those in defence of ‘traditional family values’.
Natia, another student from Batumi, had always received good grades, but never discussed her religion. One lecturer often praised her for her outstanding academic performance. Upon discovering that she was a Muslim, the lecturer was shocked. Surely, he thought, the religion must have been forced upon her, as there are no educated and bright Muslims.
Despite having some Muslim ancestors, the only family member who supported her decision to convert was her Christian godmother,. Everybody else berated her – Georgians must be Orthodox Christians; Islam is a religion for foreigners.
Fatima’s story is unusual, however, for there are few Georgians who choose to accept Islam. But her experiences are not uncommon for all Georgian Muslims.
Islam in Adjara
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 (the Jewish Autonomous Region in the Far East can be considered the second). As an aggressive Soviet atheism removed religion from the public sphere, so ethnicity became the main pillar of identity for Adjarans. Perestroika and Glasnost saw the return of both Christianity and Islam. But during the rise of religious and ethnic nationalism in the 1990s, Georgia ensured that Islam never regained its pre-Soviet influence, and slowly ceded its positions in Adjara to the Georgian Orthodox Church.
A Christian nation
The Orthodox Church is currently the most popular and arguably the most influential institution in Georgia. The country’s constitution stresses the special role for the GOC in Georgian society. The church is the only religious institution that is guaranteed yearly funding, and is allocated $12.5 million USD from the state budget for 2015. A further $2 million of public funding is to be divided among four minority religious communities – among them, Muslims. Notwithstanding this clear preferential treatment by the state, the church enjoys the overwhelming support of 82% of the Georgian population.
The Georgian Orthodox Church, in short, is one of the main pillars of Georgian national identity today.
In 2012, the Institute for Policy Studies in Tbilisi published a study Generations and Values, which surveyed 1,058 people. An absolute majority of 93.4% identified themselves as Georgian Orthodox, with almost two-thirds of the respondents stating Christianity, rather than nationality, as the basis of their identity.
At the same time, Islam is perceived as the enemy in the popular Georgian mindset. Given that Georgians have had to defend their land against Ottoman and Persian armies throughout their history, this should hardly come as a surprise. The current historical narrative taught in public schools thus presents Christianity as a primordial part of Adjara’s history, while associating Islam with the rule of the Ottoman overlords.
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.
‘It was hard during history classes,’ recalled a young history student I met in Batumi ‘When we’d start talking about religion, other [Christian] students would say that we should not be Muslims, because in the past Georgians were Christians, and Islam came from Turkey.’ She is determined to prove one day that Islam is not a foreign and alien concept in Georgia’s history.
However, state historical narratives are not the only rationale behind the othering of Georgian Muslims, or the pressure they face from peers to convert to Georgian Orthodoxy. Muslims are seen not only as incomplete Georgians, but also as inherently less educated and more backwards than Orthodox Christians.
A clash of traditions
All Georgians take pride in their hospitality. This revolves around the supra, a traditional feast led by atamada (toastmaster), a role usually assumed by the head of the household or an honorary guest (invariably a man). A supra can hardly be imagined without national cuisine, which includes several different pork dishes. Each and every toast is washed down with a full glass of homemade wine or even stronger spirits. Georgian Muslim men understandably experience difficulties when they are expected to perform the role of a host or a guest during a supra. If a man refuses to drink, he loses part of his masculinity, becoming less of a Georgian in the eyes of the others. Should he follow the custom, and has a drink or two, he is still seen as a weaker person – as somebody unable to be true to his religion.
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. 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.
In this context, the hijab not only forces unwanted attention on a woman in public, but affects her professional life as well, as Fatima found. Other women whom I met also recounted a number of stories where they were refused a job simply because they were wearing the hijab to a job interview. Sometimes, they said, mentioning that they were Muslim was enough to bring the interview to an end.
Converting to Christianity
The Constitution of Georgia guarantees freedom of religion. Nevertheless, scholars agree that the steady stream of conversions to Christianity in Adjara is strongly connected to social status. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Islamic revival has retreated to the mountainous and more remote parts of Adjara; and the municipality of Khulo (Khulos rayoni) has become the heart of it. But even in Khulo, Christianity has slowly taken over.
Khatuna*, principal of one of the schools in the Khulo municipality, is a mother of three. Two of her children have recently converted to Christianity. Khatuna did not oppose their choice.
‘Christianity is more Georgian than Islam,’ she explained, before adding that she will remain Muslim, because it is her husband’s religion, though her children are free to do as they please. ‘It is very popular to convert to Christianity. People say that we, Georgians, must return to our traditional religion. For me, religion is more of a personal affair rather than something cultural or traditional, but for the majority, religion is closely related to their identity.’
In the early 2000s, some 30% of Adjara’s inhabitants were Muslim. Although the preliminary data for the 2014 census are not available until later this spring, an educated guess can be made. The feeling of being strangers in their own land, it would seem, is making Georgian Muslims forget Mohammed and convert to Christianity – to the Georgian Orthodox Church.
*All names have been changed.