Islam in Bulgaria

New Freedoms and New Conflicts

Around one million Muslims live in Bulgaria. Like all religious groups, they enjoyed more freedoms after the political changes of 1989. But the coexistence with Bulgaria's non-Muslim population is not free of political and social tensions. Mirko Schwanitz reports

photo: AP
Bulgarian Muslim women during a wedding ceremony in the Rhodope Mountain village of Ribnovo. About 12 per cent of all Bulgarians adhere to the Muslim faith

​​The village square in Dolno Isvorovo is the scene of an exuberant celebration. A man describes the joyful occasion:

"We're celebrating the circumcision of my neighbor's son. He's invited the entire village to the traditional ritual. Nowadays that is perfectly normal. In socialist times we weren't able to celebrate this publicly. Now we have a democracy and we can hold our celebrations publicly again, there are no problems with that."

Another man feels that the situation of the Muslims has constantly improved:

"Over 21,000 Muslims live here in this area. Some of the problems we had then have been solved. We've gotten our land back, and for a long time now we've been able to use our Turkish names. Our daughters work as kindergarten teachers, some of us have our own companies, and since recently Muslims can even become policemen."

Great political influence of the "Turkish Party"

However, the exuberance of the festivities in Dolno Isvorovo cannot disguise the fact that the relationship between Muslims and Christians has worsened recently. What infuriates the Bulgarians now is what they feel is the disproportionately large influence of the "Turkish Party" DPS, founded along ethnic lines and represented in all the post-communist governments so far.

Just recently its leaders offended the Armenian minority by blocking a parliamentary decree recognizing the Turkish genocide of Armenians.

Aishe Hayrola was the chair of the DPS in Kazanlak for a long time before turning her back on the party. The politician describes the anti-Turkish feeling: "Many Bulgarians believe we are supported by Turkey – there are many rumors afoot. Some act as if we were the fifth column of a new Ottoman occupation. Some time ago the walls of the mosques in the town of Kazanlak were spray-painted with crosses and slogans: "All Turks out of Bulgaria!"

The leadership of the DPS is regarded as corrupt and has the reputation of profiting from their fellow Muslims' dependency on them: those who do not vote for the DPS have difficulty finding a job in Islamicized Bulgaria, i.e., the regions of Southern Bulgaria with a majority Turkish and Pomak population.

Here wages are lower than anywhere else in the country, and the national media draw a connection between this fact and the wealth of certain high functionaries in the DPS.

Ambivalent tactics

The poor reputation of the Turkish political leaders has its effect on the Muslim community in Kasanlak. The new mayor of the central Bulgarian town has had streets and roads repaved, facades painted, industry established. It really ought to be his job to renovate the centrally-located mosque as well.

But the town refuses to give the mosque back to the Muslim community on the grounds that it is a cultural landmark. At the same time, the town shrugs off its responsibility to maintain this cultural landmark with a trick disguised as religious tolerance.

"Even if the mosque doesn't belong to us, we are allowed to use it and generously permitted to conduct the renovation work that is so urgently needed. But that does not alter the fact that the state continues to claim the mosque."

Nationalist propaganda

But what disturbs Imam Mümüm Durmusch still more is the increasingly aggressive fomentation of sentiment against the Muslims, stoked by nationalist propaganda on TV channels such as the private station SKAT. This station is generally regarded as the voice of a relatively new party with the fitting name ATAKA. One of the station's favorite topics is the corruption of the DPS leaders.

"There are different kinds of politics", says Durmusch. "The right thing is for it to be oriented toward the good of the entire people. But when it only aims at filling the pockets of the politicians, that's not good, and it harms the image of the Muslim community; these aren't the right politicians."

Only four men have squeezed furtively through the door of the Kazanlak mosque this Friday to pray with the imam. Here, at least, the Bulgarians' fear of the Muslims seems surreal. The religious renaissance such as the Bulgarian Orthodox church has experienced over the past decade has yet to reach the country's mosques.

"The Bulgarian Muslims are very liberal. Even for big holidays such as Bairam or for Friday prayers, the mosque is as good as empty. So there is not a very lively religious life."

The beginning of the end of liberal Islam?

For this reason Mümün Durmusch set up a Sunday school and a kind of summer camp a few years ago to introduce the region's Muslim children to the Koran. The initiative is viewed with skepticism, seen by Christian Bulgarians as the germ of future Koran schools.

Many already see it as the beginning of the end of liberal Islam. All the more so since it came out that Arab states are sending religion teachers to Bulgaria.

"I think that our image as Muslims depends above all on ourselves. We imams have a great responsibility. How do we educate our community, and especially the young people? I can't say how much longer Muslims and Christians in Bulgaria will live together peacefully. It will depend on us, on the mutual tolerance of everyone who lives here."

Mirko Schwanitz

© Deutsche Welle/Qantara.de 2007

Translated from the German by Isabel Cole

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