Islam and the Imagery of Fear in Bulgaria
The Barbarians of Batak

A research project at the Free University Berlin on historical and present-day anti-Islamic stereotypes in Bulgaria has led to massive protests from Bulgarian nationalists. At the center of the conflict is a patriotic painting from the late 19th century. Sonja Zekri reports

​​Today, Wednesday, at six o'clock in the evening, it will once again be time to ask if a country that puts a bounty on the heads of scholars has more in common with the Middle Ages than with the European Union. Every Wednesday and every Thursday, the Bulgarian broadcaster Skat TV calls upon its viewers to send in a photo and the address of the art historian Marina Baleva for a reward of 2500 leva, roughly 1250 euros.

Skat TV is owned by the right-wing extremist party Ataka, which has posted a video on the Internet showing an election rally where this appeal is even more inflammatory. It claims that Baleva belongs "on the scaffold," and that her colleague Ulf Brunnbauer, the "German Jew," should be "tied to the stake."

An intentionally fostered misunderstanding

This has been going on for months. When Martina Baleva tells how this all came about, she begins to falter. "I can't understand it to this day. It is all a great misunderstanding." It seems, however, to be an intentionally fostered misunderstanding.

Early this year, Martina Baleva and Ulf Brunnbauer, academics at the Institute for Eastern European Studies of the Free University Berlin, planned an exhibition and a conference on a picture by the Polish painter Antoni Piotrowski from the year 1892 entitled "The Massacre of Batak."

The struggle against the Ottoman tyrants

The painting is based on a historical event – the murder of Christian Bulgarians at the hands of their Muslim neighbors in the city of Batak in the year 1876.

Piotrowski, however, staged the event within the framework of the then awakening Bulgarian national consciousness. A local conflict was thereby transformed into a fateful struggle by the Bulgarian people against the Ottoman tyrants. Men in turbans glance indifferently at the white, glowing corpses of defiled women – a clear graphic image in the context of the time.

Piotrowski had previously made photographic studies in Batak for his painting, although this was already years after the crime and under the influence of a whole genre of anti-Ottoman literature and painting. Subsequent postcards from the church in Batak show mounds of sculls and arrangements of bones – a production after the fact in the service of the nation.

A "terrible provocation"

What is fact and what is legend? Why has Batak, of all places, become a site of pilgrimage? This is what Baleva and Brunnbauer wanted to discuss, but their plans were thwarted. In May, just before the exhibition in Bulgaria, both were hit by a wave of hate. Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov called the project a "terrible provocation," because it supposedly denied the massacre – an accusation akin to an incendiary bomb.

"We never questioned the existence of the massacre, but, of course, we would have discussed the nationalist interpretation of the event," says Brunnbauer. Yet, no one was interested in such subtle differences. "The European election was underway and the Socialist Party was attempting to win right-wing votes.

Nationalist historians argued that Europe had already demanded a great deal from Bulgaria and was now ready to sacrifice the country's history."

The director of the national museum, Boschidar Dimitrow, even proposed the theory that the exhibition was being paid for by Turkey to present the Ottoman period in a better light in the hope of preparing Turkey for accession to the EU. Brunnbauer was given temporary police protection at his institute. His colleague, however, had it much worse.

Fanatics spray-painted the house of her parents in Bulgaria with slogans calling for her murder on the walls of every floor. And then came the Wednesday evenings on Skat TV.

Declaration of solidarity

Things have since calmed down. The tabloid press has let the topic drop and there are now articles in the respectable press and especially on the Internet that seriously discuss the conflict, says Baleva. Hundreds of Bulgarian academics have signed a declaration of solidarity. Although there are still defamatory posters hanging in the district where Baleva's parents live, the neighbors have removed the inflammatory graffiti.

Now that the catalogue has been printed and is available in Bulgaria, the hate could soon flare up again. "If things start up anew, hopefully my parents won't be held responsible once again," says Baleva.

Nonetheless, she is determined to see something good arising from all the trouble. "Today, eight million Bulgarians know that the term ‘legend' can refer to two different concepts – to a fairy tale and to a construction based on a historical event."

And even if not all eight million are up on the finer points of post-modern historical theory, the wider public has experienced a lesson in the political misuse of history. For this alone, says Baleva, "I am grateful to the bloodhounds and defamers."

Sonja Zekri

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

© Süddeutsche Zeitung/ 2007

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