In the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States and the subsequent increased global preoccupation with terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, a small Slavic Muslim group in Bulgaria, known as Pomaks, has become the subject of a national controversy. At issue is the identity of a people who have historically remained separate from the country’s majority Slavic Orthodox Christian population as well as from the vast majority of its 12 percent Muslim minority, who are of Turkish origin.
The Pomak population lives in the Western part of the Rhodope Mountains near the border with Greece. Although scholars contest the history of the Pomaks, popular opinion claims they were Slavs forced to convert to Islam during Bulgaria’s occupation by the Ottoman Empire. Over the last century Bulgaria’s democratic and totalitarian governments have made attempts to forcibly assimilate the Pomaks into the “true” Bulgarian culture, either Orthodox Christianity or secular Marxism. These attempts were met with sustained resistance by the Pomaks, reinforced by their geographic isolation. During communism the Bulgarian state redrew its border with Greece many kilometers inward from the actual geographic border, leaving most Pomak villages either within this artificial border zone or in remote mountain locations. Consequently, there was little economic investment in these regions in terms of industry, cooperative agriculture, or even basic infrastructure. Today the Pomak region is among the poorest in the country with some of the highest rates of unemployment.
In the immediate post-socialist period, religious and cultural freedoms in Bulgaria were celebrated, and the Pomak population was largely left in peace. In 1992, Bulgaria ratified the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which provided protection for ethnic and religious minorities. In preparation for Bulgaria’s expected accession to the European Union, the Council of Europe urged Bulgaria to transpose its commitments under the ECHR into national law. Bulgaria did so in the form of the 2002 law called the “Confessions Act,” which explicitly outlined eleven religious rights, including the right to establish and maintain connections with religious persons and communities in other countries and the right to receive religious education in any language. During this time religious and foreign language education was also permitted under the Law on Education, adopted in 1991. So long as religious secondary schools teach the approved national curriculum they are permitted to operate; and public schools impose no restrictions on wearing headscarves or other religious dress and symbols. Bulgaria’s Muslim minority also had political representation through its own political party, the Movements for Rights and Freedom (MRF), an important coalition partner to almost every government since 1989.
Traditionally, Pomaks have professed a moderate, almost secular, version of Islam. However, as the region’s economic situation deteriorated following the collapse of communism in 1989, proponents of a more fundamentalist Islam secured international aid to build new mosques, provide job training, and create schools. Dozens of shimmering new mosques were erected with money from abroad, and today their bright silver domes and spires shine across the otherwise dilapidated landscape of the Western Rhodopes. Foreign trained fundamentalist Islamic clerics have been streaming into Bulgaria and are allegedly targeting young unemployed Pomak men and women.
In 2003 the former Chief Mufti of all Bulgarian Muslims, Nedim Gendzhev, accused his successor of accepting bribes from foreign clerics to allow them to operate illegal Islamic fundamentalist schools in Bulgaria. Gendzhev singled out the Western Rhodopes as the most vulnerable region, claiming that Wahhabi fundamentalists were trying to recruit future “terrorists.” The story was picked up in the national and international media, and has stoked domestic fears that Western countries might accuse Bulgaria of harboring terrorists. In particular, the Bulgarian press reacted strongly to the discovery in late 2004 that at least six insurgents fighting in Iraq had Bulgarian passports. In early 2005, Gendzhev was reinstated as Chief Mufti, and continued to claim that his rivals were dangerous Muslim radicals. Gendzhev’s rivals, on the other hand, accuse him of having been a member of Bulgaria’s state security services under communism, and of possibly being involved in the assimilation campaigns against Bulgarian minorities in the 1980s.
While this new influx of foreign financial resources has been welcome in the poor Pomak villages, many Pomaks still regard the ability to practice their Muslim faith—in whatever form that practice takes—as an important cultural and religious right. The government, however, considers radical Islam and Arabic as alien to Bulgarian Pomak culture, and therefore not defensible as a “cultural right.” Article 7 of the Confessions Act allows the government to suspend religious rights if they are “directed against the national security.” This provision has been much criticized in that it gives the government sole discretion over the definition of “national security,” and the government can therefore suspend religious rights at will. It is this provision that the Bulgarian state can use against the more radical Pomak Muslims.
The issue of Pomak cultural identity is at the heart of this controversy. While most Pomaks believe that they are formerly Christian Slavs who converted (or were forced to convert) to Islam during the Ottoman occupation of Bulgaria, other Pomaks insist that they are ethnically Turkic, Aryan, or Arab. The possibility of an ethnic Arab Pomak identity forms the basis for the rising influence of Wahhabism, and the growing number of calls for a return to the “true” Muslim faith among Pomaks. Since the MRF is popularly associated with Bulgaria’s Turkish minority, some Pomaks believe that their interests are not adequately represented in parliament.
In the post-socialist period, Pomaks have been eager to create a separate and distinct identity for themselves. Many Pomaks fear that they are once again being forced to assimilate—but this time it is the Muslim Turks rather than the Christian Slavs who are interested in Pomak political support, and who want the Pomaks to accept Turkish leadership in Bulgaria. Wahhabism (or Salafism, as it is also known) offers the Pomaks who embrace its teachings a clear way to distinguish themselves from Bulgarian Turks. By rejecting the very moderate version of Islam practiced by the Turkish Muslims—who eat pork, drink alcohol, rarely fast for Ramadan, and read the Koran in Turkish or Bulgarian—Pomaks are carving out a unique cultural niche.
The contested cultural identity of the Pomaks has placed the Bulgarian Government in an increasingly awkward position. On the one hand, as a rather young post-socialist democracy in the EU, Bulgaria must uphold and respect the religious and cultural rights of its minority populations. On the other hand, as a new member of NATO and a participant in the “coalition of the willing” in the war in Iraq, Bulgaria also wants to be seen as a reliable ally in the international “war on terror.” In the aftermath of 9/11, security concerns are slowly overtaking public opinion. For example, the Bulgarian Government decision in 2003 to close down Islamic centers in the south of the country has met with little opposition. This is in stark contrast to a situation in 2000 when outraged domestic and international human rights organizations loudly protested the deportation of a Jordanian-born radical Islamic cleric by Bulgaria’s pro-Western, “democratic” government.
Bulgaria’s majority Christian population still views the Pomaks as a painful reminder of Bulgaria’s 500 years of oppression by the Ottoman Empire. After repeated failed attempts at forced assimilation, they have now only grudgingly come to accept the Pomak identity. In this setting, Bulgaria’s support for the war on terror inadvertently aids both majority Slavic Christians and minority Turkish Muslims who seek to forcefully shape the Pomak culture into something more acceptable to mainstream Bulgarian society.