Cracks show in Bulgaria’s Muslim ethnic model
Sun May 31, 2009 8:17pm EDT
By Anna Mudeva
KRUMOVGRAD, Bulgaria (Reuters) – Twenty years after Bulgaria’s then-Communist regime mounted an official campaign of persecution against its Muslim minority, Mustafa Yumer fears rising xenophobia could bring the nightmare back.
Yumer led resistance and hunger strikes against a drive to force Muslims to adopt ethnic Bulgarian names in the spring of 1989. Now he says growing anti-Muslim rhetoric is fomenting ethnic hatred and opening old wounds.
“We are all very worried,” said the 65-year-old philosopher and former teacher. “People are scared by far-right parties who preach and want to see Bulgaria becoming a single ethnic nation.”
Muslims make up about 12 percent of the Balkan country’s 7.6 million people with most of the rest belonging to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. The country won praise for avoiding ethnic clashes after the end of the Cold War, in contrast to the former Yugoslavia which borders it to the west.
Bulgaria is the only European Union member country where Muslims are not recent immigrants. Most are the descendants of ethnic Turks who arrived during five centuries of Ottoman rule that ended in 1878. They live alongside Christians in a culture known as “komshuluk,” or neighborly relations.
But the rising popularity of the ultra-nationalist Attack party and hardening attitudes of other rightist politicians toward the Muslims ahead of a July parliamentary election have exposed cracks in the Bulgarian model.
Attack is unlikely to form part of the next government, but it has helped set the tone for the election campaign.
Ethnic Turks and Pomaks — Slavs who converted to Islam under Ottoman rule — are shocked and dismayed at accusations that they aim to create autonomous enclaves and that some of their villages are nests for radical Islam.
“If we sit and don’t work like Bulgarian patriots, one day they will conquer us indeed. They will annex whole regions,” Attack’s leader Volen Siderov told an election demonstration in May.
There have been over 100 incidents of vandalized mosques and other Muslim buildings in the last 2-3 years.
Girls have been banned from wearing the traditional Muslim scarf in some schools and universities — Bulgaria’s first glimpse of an issue that has raised tensions in western Europe.
Some Muslims fear losing civil rights, gained in the past two decades, and a possible repeat of the repression of the 1980s if nationalists join a coalition government after the July 5 vote.
Commentators say the rise of nationalism has been helped by a combination of voter apathy and discontent at low living standards, high-level corruption and organized crime.
A “revival process” launched by the late communist dictator Todor Zhivkov to forcibly assimilate Muslims culminated with a campaign to force them to change their names, and the exodus of over 300,000 ethnic Turks to neighboring Turkey in 1989. <