Attacks on Bulgarian mosques: 'This hatred is new to us'
Violent ethnic riots swept Bulgaria weeks before this Sunday's presidential elections, following the killing of a teenager by a man with links to a local Roma crime boss. Originally aimed at highlighting the alleged corruption of "Tsar" Kiril Rashkov, these demonstrations soon spread across the country, before ugly scenes developed. Rioters turned on ethnic minorities and Muslims and attacked mosques in both Sofia, the capital, and Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second-largest city.
A few months earlier, politicians and the public had gathered to show their support for a unified Bulgaria following violent demonstrations outside Sofia's historic Banya Bashi mosque. But what began as a "peaceful protest" against the volume of loudspeakers that broadcast the call to prayer, ended with supporters of Ataka, the ultra-nationalist party, setting fire to prayer mats and pelting worshippers with stones.
Some observers equated this attack with the creep of Islamophobia being seen in parts of western Europe. Yet it came as a shock to many in a country that prides itself on its history of religious tolerance.
"[That] was something nobody expected," said Mustafa Alish Hadji, the grand mufti and leader of Muslims in Bulgaria, following the protests. "It is worrying for Muslims and Christians because it [creates] tension that didn't exist before."
Ethnic distinctions have become a favoured topic to exploit in the country's post-communist political landscape, particularly since Ataka won 9.36 per cent of the vote in the 2009 parliamentary elections, establishing an informal coalition with the governing centre-right party.
But, while Ataka's hardline rhetoric has served it well, the mosque protests did not get the expected results - ethnic sectarianism is accepted in Bulgaria, religious sectarianism is not. The public laid flowers at the mosque and opposition politicians denounced the attacks as a publicity stunt in the preamble to this Sunday's municipal and presidential elections, in which Volen Siderov, the Ataka leader, is running for president using the campaign slogan, "I am your weapon, use it".
Ataka was condemned in a declaration by Parliament to be "dangerous to the government" with an attitude "completely foreign to the Bulgarian people and their religious and ethnic tolerance".
Irrespective of ethnicity, Bulgarian Muslims face prosecution because they are considered "Turkish" and associated with the rule of the Ottoman empire.
While myths of the terrible Turk are ubiquitous in Bulgarian culture - painted on churches and reenacted in village celebrations - so, too, is a strong sense of religious acceptance.
"This hatred is new to us," said Hadji. "It's the first time we have seen such nationalism and seen such hatred towards others. Most Muslims are rural. The problem is not in rural areas, it is in towns and in cities. Nationalism has more power [there] than in the villages," he said. "In the city, people don't know each other so well. In the village, Muslims and Christians live and pray together. Nationalism has no way to separate them."
Nowhere is this religious tolerance better exemplified than in the villages of the Rhodope mountains, where minarets rise above thick clusters of pine trees and Muslims and Christians live side by side.
On the same day that blood stained the steps of the Banya Banshi mosque in Sofia, a three-day wedding was underway in the village of Musfata Alish Hadji. The celebration shared by Christians and Muslims exemplifies Bulgaria's comfortable blend of Slavic and Eastern traditions. Women with red sequins glued bindi-style to the centre of their brow began the festivities by ring dancing to a pop song. Their performance was followed by belly dancing and exclamations in Greek and Arabic. Around tables spread with banitsa pastry and halva sweets, wedding guests spoke of their shock at the Sofia attacks.
Ramadan, a lorry driver in his thirties who had previously worked in Spain, said Bulgaria was among the most tolerant places in Europe for Muslims.
"The racism in Spain is horrible," he said. "In the south, they treat us Muslims like s***, they swear at us. This doesn't happen here. We are respected."
The greatest challenge for most Muslims in this part of the country, it transpires, is economic rather than religious.
"We have freedom, but we don't have work," said Fatima Emlen, a honey-seller from Yolanda. "It's a hard life, [but] for now we don't have the problems with the Christians that Muslims do in Sofia."
Both Muslim and Christian communities have benefited from religious freedoms in the post-communist era, including the right to religious classes in schools.
"Bulgaria may be the only country where Muslims and Christians live without problems," said Mousa Hussein, the mufti for an estimated 7,000 Muslims in Velingrad, a small town of 25,000. "Ataka are nationalists who have no understanding of the people."
Attacks on Muslims were commonplace in the communist era. Hussein was a child in the last years of communism when anti-Turkish government propaganda was at its height.
He was forced to change his name to Malin in the mid-1980s when his village was surrounded by police who ordered all residents to take a "Bulgarian" name. Those who refused were imprisoned. This "regeneration process" culminated in an exodus of more than 350,000 Turkish Bulgarians in 1989.
"Muslims are never pessimistic," he said. "We hope and believe. Religion tells us if you have difficulties, better things will come for you. Muslims and Christians know each other. This relationship is from the past, it's always been friendly and tolerant. The laws are the same for everyone and I'm proud that I live in Bulgaria."
That optimism persists despite a recent report from the US Department of State Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, showing the Bulgarian government has failed to enforce the legal and policy protections promised to its citizens by law.
Indeed, the chief mufti's office has reported 54 hate crimes since 2007, including assaults and vandalism such as arson, swastika graffiti, the desecration of tombstones and pig heads being hung on mosque walls.
"The level of politics, particularly the competition for votes, is exactly the space where, if one listens carefully, one can catch some discriminatory voices," said Dr Simeon Evstatiev, an associate professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic history at Sofia University and head of the University Center for the Study of Religion.
"We should never forget," he says, "that politics is a struggle over people's imagination."
While Dr Evstatiev points to the condemnation of the mosque attacks as evidence of continued religious tolerance, others see the attacks as a longstanding division between its Slavic and Orthodox identity and Bulgaria's Ottoman past. For Bulgaria to find peace, a shared national history and identity must be reconstructed. Otherwise, parties will take advantage of the perceived Turkish-Bulgarian dichotomy.
"Both the ruling party and Ataka are very much trying to take over the nationalist discourse as well and show that they are more Bulgarian than Bulgarians," said Dr Rossitsa Gradeva, an Ottoman scholar at the American University in Bulgaria.
"If we constantly hear that the Turks and Islam are the greatest threats for us today, I think its very easy to blame our contemporary disasters on somebody else.
"I don't think Bulgarians have been that tolerant. At this moment it sounds very grave to me with what is taking place right now. I only hope that we don't start fighting. I can't understand the logic anymore."
The image of Bulgaria as a historical centre of religious tolerance is an attractive one but, like many national myths, it overlooks sinister parts of Bulgaria's past and its current politics.
Siderov is not expected to qualify for the second round of presidential elections on Sunday, but Ataka offices have proliferated in villages across the country.
As other politicians adopt Siderov's divisive language and a quiet streak of violence reaches Muslims in cities and villages, it is clear that the victims of this hatred are not only ethnic minorities but Bulgarian Muslims of every origin.
Anna Zacharias is a reporter at The National.
Updated: October 21, 2011 04:00 AM