The decision to scrap Turkish and Arabic name-places in Stara Zagora has to be understood through the lens of an anti-Islam rhetoric that has banally presented social attitudes of Bulgarians and political institutions that continue to divide and rule while remaining deaf to minority groups in general.
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By Francesco Trupia
Almost four years onward the controversial case of the “Roma Radicals” in Southern Bulgaria, the decision of the Local Council of Stara Zagora to “Bulgarize” 838 place-names with a clearly Turkish or Arabic origin has inflamed a socio-political issue related to an endless debate in the post-Communist history of Bulgaria. While ruling nationalist groups from the Bulgarian town have announced the “great victory” for all Bulgarian patriots and “Bulgarianism”, their follow-up suggestion to adopt such name-changing legislation in other municipalities has given more credentials to a widespread perception of both fear and mistrust toward Muslims – no matter if refugees or autochthonous members of Muslim minorities.
In Bulgaria, suspicion against Bulgarian Muslims and potentially Turkey’s interference through manipulation of minority groups and migrants has always been salient historically. It has never stopped increasing since the breakup of the “2015 Syrian Refugee Crisis”, meanwhile strengthening a national mythology that depicts Bulgarians as victims of Ottoman Turkish-Muslim conquerors.
Paradoxically, but unsurprisingly, the name-change regulation voted by the Local Council of Stara Zagora happened during the Presidency of the Council of the EU and a few weeks later the Sofia Summit, where Bulgaria called for an implementation of the EU integration plans for the Western Balkan countries whose Muslim and Turkish heritage is part of their national identity. Above all, this possible wave of “Bulgarization” of place-names cannot be taken for granted in Bulgaria.
A step forward to the past?
In South Eastern Europe, Bulgaria has always been far from any kind of involvement in ethnic turmoil that instead erupted all over the Western Balkans after the demise of Yugoslavia. The country indeed has neither faced a breakaway campaign by “Turkish separatists” to take control over Muslim-majority territories, nor has been harmed or suffered from a radical and pro-jihadi mood among Bulgarian Muslims. However, a pathological desire for revenge constructed by literature, conflicting memory and ethnically defined stereotypes of the former Ottoman oppression has managed to keep among Bulgarians a vivid and salient form of banal nationalism, by which Bulgarians’ search for a “pristine identity” is historically consequential of a long period of time in the waiting room of Ottoman and Soviet policy.
Perhaps, what has been proposed and further voted by the Local Council of Stara Zagora does not surprise the majoritarian cultural system. Rather, it began immediately to bring the collective memory of Bulgarian Turks and Muslims back to the so-called “Great Revival”. The latter, which occurred in the last years of the Communist experience, was the harshest period of an anti-Islam policy that the Communist ruling élites had been carrying out since the 1950s.
After state confiscations of the properties of charitable foundations (waqfs), destruction of mosques and texts of Qur’an, reduction of the number of teachers (ulama) and persecution of religious leaders, a few of whom forcibly convinced to deny such anti-Islam policy and further persecution, the “Great Revival” (also known as “renaissance process”) gained definitely force between 1984 and 1989. After a secret decision of the Party Central Committee, the regime attempted to change the collective identity of Bulgarian Turks by giving them a Slavonic “ethnic code” by imposing name-change from original names to “more Bulgarian” ones, whose acceptation followed along undefined Bulgarian ancestor connections in order to channel the Muslim community into the socialist-majority population. A few years earlier than the dissolution of the Communism in Bulgaria, the “Great Revival” had provoked a mass-scale migration in direction of Turkey of 350.000 Turks, the majority of whom (about 100.000) later returned to Bulgaria in their “historical land of origin”.
The threatening power of the powerless
Unreported rumours said that the “Great Revival” was sustained by the Communist regime in the attempt to ruin Bulgarian Turks’ hidden struggle for the establishment of a separate entity in Southern Bulgaria with an external support of the neighbouring Republic of Turkey, as had happened in North Cyprus. As a matter of fact, however, in Communist Bulgaria Islam was far harder to break down than Christianity and considered an overwhelming obstacle to manage to take control over Muslim groups and bring them to the “right track” toward Communism. In 1984, in preparation of the 1985 census, the anti-Islam policy was thereby carried out to give the impression of a national unity.
Nowadays, Bulgaria’s ethnic makeup shows an approximately 15% of non-Bulgarian population. Among others, Turks, Romani and Pomaks are the most relevant ethnic minorities that count a large number of Muslim believers from within. Although Bulgaria has always paid a particular attention to Muslim communities in order to avoid cross-ethnic relations with Turkey and the Muslim world, ethnic minority groups continue to remain trapped into a powerless position.
More likely, restrictions for the recognition of ethnic political parties imposed by the Constitution (Art. 11, Paragraph 4) have paved the way to an enigmatic position of certain parties, such as the Movement of Rights and Freedoms (MRF), which have gained sympathy among Turkish and Roma minority members. Within the political spectrum, however, ethnic minority issues are not (apparently) taken into account, leading to a paradox of an “enigma-within-an-enigma”. In fact, a “grey zone” that permits Bulgarian Muslims to live socially as well as politically into an everyday unvoiced position, keeps the dilemma open whether Bulgarian Muslims would impinge human security from within the Bulgarian society. To a certain extent, such overall lack of recognition in terms of legal and political representation may multiply threats to the public realm if juxtaposed to the form of idiosyncratic Islam that has recently exposed Bulgarian Muslims to outside confessional reconstruction.
As the case of Roma Radicals has shown, in which dissemination of Salafism in tandem with attempts to radicalise the minority community have been unravelled by the State Agency for National Security (SANS), Bulgarian Muslims are exposed to manipulations of charismatic recruiters and their ideological dogmas and incitements to interethnic enmity.
However, the majority of Bulgarian Muslims who identify themselves “as Muslims” strongly condemn terrorism, and the degree of non-acceptance of terrorist organisations has increased. Muslims in Bulgaria are more likely to be concerned with keeping a set of social practices and moral rules that have traditionally framed over time their everyday life in their private sphere: families, groups and so forth. In addition, Muslims of Bulgaria, the majority of whom “happened to be Muslim” because converted to Islam throughout the Ottoman presence in the Balkan peninsula, do not straightforwardly practise their faith. Even though they do not look secular and open-minded, they have historically had a very low understanding of Islam and sacred texts of Qur’an as they do not speak fluently Arabic. In retrospect, Bulgarian Muslims represent a different audience of believers whose religious performativity is unconsciously kept only with the purpose of self-identification within their marginalised and isolated communities rather than with Islam, the tradition of Sunna and its jurisprudence (fiqh) and the nonbinding legal ruling (fatwa). Interestingly enough, such idiosyncratic form of Islam has succeeded in maintaining Muslim/Turkish-majority Bulgarian territories untangled from Islamist and jihadist intrusion, whose attempts have been truncated by rejection of local Muslims and local security service.
In conclusion, whether Islam has never created an oasis of persistent hatred and violence as some nationalist groups continue to portray, Muslim ethnic minority groups have never managed so far to build up an oasis of tolerance, cooperation and interethnic comprehension in Bulgaria. Therefore, the decision to scrap Turkish and Arabic name-places in Stara Zagora has to be understood through the lens of an anti-Islam rhetoric that has banally presented social attitudes of Bulgarians and political institutions that continue to divide and rule while remaining deaf to minority groups in general.
Francesco Trupia, a PhD Candidate at Sofia University, has partially devoted time to the study of Balkan Islam and Bulgarian Muslims.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.