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Introduction: Religious Identities and Regional Identities

Regionalism is usually understood as the distinct project of crafting a sense of belonging based on territorial proximity, common domestic policies or cooperative foreign policies. In most cases when regionalism is discussed with reference to the Black Sea, the question that is posed and remains open-ended is the following: is the Black Sea a ‘region’? The Black Sea area when studied or qualified as a ‘region’ has been criticized as an ‘intellectual construct.’ Like nations, regions may be ‘imagined’ by political elites, but they are not imagined out of thin air. One may argue that a Black Sea regional identity has not stood very high in the foreign policy agendas of littoral states. Nevertheless, as Charles King (2004, 7) has pointed out, one thing to remember is that a region is less about commonalities of language, religion and other traits and more about connections: deep and longstanding linkages among people and communities that seem to distinguish one geographical space from another, one cultural space from its neighbours.

If the Black Sea stands out as a region, this is due to the intricate pattern of connections that the legacies of empire and the complexities of the new global economy have woven across its geographical space. For the past two centuries, the geopolitical environment of the Black Sea has been shaped by the interaction of three factors: the shifting balances of power among European and Eurasian states and empires; the political ambitions of newly founded smaller states surrounding the Black Sea littoral; and the status of the region as a transit point for people and goods alike. Part III of this collection explores contemporary echoes of imperial legacies and examines the repercussions of hybrid identities on contemporary identity politics.

More precisely, Magdalena Elchinova’s chapter discusses the role of religion for the Turkish minority in Bulgaria, with special reference to the 1989 re-settlers from Bulgaria to Turkey. This chapter should be read against the backdrop of the history surrounding the concept of minority recognition and religious difference. The 1648 Peace of Westphalia was the first political context where traces of the concept of minority can be found. In one of its articles, it states that, ‘Christians living in principalities where their denomination was not the established church were guaranteed the right to practice their faith in public during allotted hours and in private at their will’.1 Subsequently, in 1878 the Congress of Berlin further shaped the meaning of borders and religious identities, with specific territorial reference to the Balkans, as it granted special protection to specific religious groups living in the Ottoman Empire. In this sense, the development of the notion of ‘religious minority’ was closely linked with the European colonial agendas vis-a-vis the decay of the Ottoman Empire. Religion became a salient factor for claims of group recognition within international relations and politics. This political practice of collective identification and group recognition was employed in different situations, from social engineering projects implemented by nation-states in the West to socialist affirmative policies in former communist regimes. Elchinova’s chapter explores the intersection of imperial legacies, socialist agendas and modern communal identity politics by examining the case of the Turks of Bulgaria and their emigration to Turkey after 1989.

Finally, Babak Rezvani’s chapter challenges conventional approaches to ‘regional identities’ and ethnonational boundaries through its engagement with the Fereydani Georgian population of Iran. Rezvani’s study explores the permutations of identity construction experienced by an Islamicized Georgian-speaking group which resettled in Iran in the seven?teenth century. Here resettling in the new homeland is explored via historical memory and mythological tradition. Religious similarities between the Sh’ia Islam and Eastern Christianity are explored through narratives of self-identification that aim at coherence and cohesion, while the role of Georgian language is discussed as a cultural node demarcating group boundary. Thus, the collection closes with two chapters that engage with a broadly conceived Black Sea regional history of inter-faith encounters, and in particular encounters between Orthodoxy and Islam.

Note

1. The Treay of Westphalia. (1648). The Avalon Project Yale Law School. Accessed March 12, 2016. http://www.straatvaart.com/ index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=98:peace-of- westphalia-164 8& catid = 43:modern-history&Itemid = 70

Bibliography

King, Charles. 2004. The Black Sea: A History. Oxford: Oxford university Press.

 
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