Ethnic Georgian Muslims in a Christian-dominated nation

Ethnic Georgian Muslims in a Christian-dominated nation
From Al Jazeera - December 7, 2017

Most Muslims in the southwestern region of Adjara, where about 30 percent of ethnic Georgians follow Islam, live in the highlands.

Hurie Abashidze, a 25-year-old postgraduate psychology student, grew up in one of the lush green mountainous villages of the area, which is close to the Turkey border.

While Muslims have lived peacefully in Georgia for centuries, a country with a majority of Orthodox Christians which considers itself as tolerant to all faiths, most see Islam as alien to the Georgian national identity.

But Abashidze wassheltered from such sentiment amid nation-building in the newly independent Georgia, following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

She used to overhear her mother complain when ethnic Georgian Muslims were branded as "traitors" who worshipped the God of the country's famous invaders - Arabs, Persians and Ottomans, but she had not encountered any negativity addressed to her until 2012.

Generally Christianity is always equated with the Georgian identity so the more Muslims there are, the more risk of losing the Georgian identity, according to them

Hurie Abashidze, postgraduate psychology student

That was when - at the age of 20 - she started wearing a hijab,a headscarf worn by many Muslim women who feel it is part of their religion.

"Generally, if you are not visually recognisable as a Muslim, people are fine with you because they do not necessarily ask about your religion. But if you are wearing a hijab and express your religious identity, you get a different reaction," she told Al Jazeera.

"My family members had such a good reaction to my decision though that I did not pay much attention to the outsiders."

With a nervous giggle, she said typical behaviour from strangers ranged from surprise and judgemental looks to swearing by men and cursing by women.

Hurie gets less of this treatment in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi,than in Batumi, the administrative capital of her native Adjara.

"That's probably because there are more Muslims in Batumi. They seem to think that we are stripping away their national identity. It is associated with losing the Georgian identity," she said.

"Generally Christianity is always equated with the Georgian identity so the more Muslims there are, the more risk of losing the Georgian identity, according to them."

Hurie thinks the only way to confront this is by Muslims becoming more visible in society, and she called on her fellow headscarf-wearing citizens to be active.

To influence positive change, she recently participated in public discussions on the topic and cooperated with the Tolerance and Diversity Institute (TDI) - a non-governmental organisation based in Tbilisi.

TDI commissioned a short video about Hurie's life as part of a project, implemented in the framework of United States Agency for International Development (USAID),to promote tolerance through stories of people with different ethnic and religious backgrounds.

Eka Chitanava, TDI's director, told Al Jazeera that a lack of knowledge created space for myths about other faiths.

"TDI's research has shown that the religious diversity is portrayed negatively in Georgia's school textbooks. For example, Muslims are equated to invaders without following up by explanations of the [historical] context," she said.

"The contributions to the Georgian culture by other religious groups or their representatives are often not mentioned. Also, the fact that religious officials of Orthodox Christian and other faiths used to have strong cooperation and good relations between each other is often missed."

That cooperation and tolerance was broken by the totalitarian system of the Soviet Union and then continued by inertia, she said.

"We still have not found a way out of the Soviet influence. Step by step, we must come out of it by providing more information to especially the young generation so that the ethnical and religious diversity is seen in a positive light and not as a risk of losing our national identity."

'I returned to my ancestors' religion'

Despite their parents' objections, some young ethnicGeorgian Muslims who were born or grew up after independence, are choosing Orthodox Christianity over Islam.


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