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Religion in the Bulgarian Context

By 1989, religion held a marginal position in Bulgarian public life. Though not forbidden, religious practice was strongly discouraged and ideologically persecuted. Religious institutions were under full state control. Yet, in one respect, Orthodoxy in particular continued to be valued—as a stronghold of national consciousness in the grand narrative of the Bulgarian nation. Islam, however, held a completely marginal position, even though locally it continued to be a factor in the processes of encul- turation and socialisation of individuals of Muslim background.

Orthodoxy had become an integral part of the national consciousness since the second half of the nineteenth century when the Bulgarian movement for national formation and liberation gained momentum within the Ottoman Empire. This was not a unique feature of the Bulgarian nationbuilding process. All Orthodox Balkan nationalists worked towards ‘the redeployment of Orthodoxy as a facet of the people’s national identity’ (Roudometof 2001, 131). The transformation of the religious ties into national ones became a major tool of gaining the peasantry’s favour for the national cause (Ibid, 234-235).

Over the decades, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church has preserved its nation-consolidating role. Orthodoxy has retained its prestigious position in national discourses even under state socialism, despite the intense antireligious propaganda during that period. In fact, communist propaganda produced quite ambiguous readings of Orthodoxy. On the one hand, Orthodoxy was praised as an indispensable virtue of the Bulgarian national identity while, on the other hand, religion in general was stigmatised as a representation of backwardness and incompatibility with the socialist morality and way of life. These ambivalent messages were persistently forced upon the wider public by the communist propaganda and resulted in the formation of entire generations of Bulgarian nationals as detached from and indifferent to religion. Religious practice has survived only on a limited scale in the private sphere.

Islam, which is the second largest confession in Bulgaria, has obtained quite a different position, compared to Orthodoxy, in the Bulgarian national narrative. It is rendered as the religion of the oppressor who imposed it by force on Bulgarian soil during the centuries of the ‘Turkish yoke’.2 In the heyday of the Bulgarian national movement, the ‘Turks’ were asserted as the ‘archenemy’, against whom the Bulgarian people had to struggle in order for statehood to be gained. Furthermore, Islam was seen in opposition to the virtues of the Bulgarian nation, based on the values and norms of Orthodoxy. The idea of antagonism between Orthodoxy and Islam has survived through the passage of time. It has become even stronger in the twentieth century with the rapid modernisation of Bulgarian society—a process viewed as a return to European civilisation and departure from the Ottoman legacy. In such a context, Islam and its adherents have started to be seen as an obstacle to and even menace for progress and modernisation.

Bulgaria is the home of a sizeable Muslim minority comprising ethnic Turks, Pomaks (Bulgarian-speaking Muslims), Gypsies and others. The official politics towards them has been quite inconsistent over the years (Kanev 1998). State policy towards Muslims has fluctuated between relative autonomy granted within the religious community and rigid state control. The state has made several attempts at changing the Arabic-Turkic names of different groups of Muslims3 or at modernising them (e.g., by re-organising rural households, introducing secular fashion of dressing, bringing Muslim women to the public stage). By and large, the shifting dominant nationalist discourses have represented Muslims as ‘intolerably backward and degenerate, an affront to “Bulgarianness” and progress’ (Neuburger 2004, 14), as ‘living representatives or vestiges of Ottoman past by virtue of their visible (and sometimes hidden) Turco-Arabic cultural markers’ (Neuburger 2004, 22), and as unreliable and, thus, potentially dangerous for the national security. The Ottoman legacy has been evaluated in a pronounced negative way in Bulgarian national ideology, and this negativism has affected the way in which Muslims are conceived of and assessed. At the local level, however, everyday contacts generate discourses of inclusion and exclusion which interact with national ideologies in an ambiguous way. Gradually and inevitably, the co-existence of Christians and Muslims in mixed settlements, as well as within the Bulgarian society, has made way for cultural convergences between the two groups.

The closeness in practices and mentality had grown even bigger under the impact of communist ideology, which proclaimed social equality and cultural homogeneity as its leading principles—equality and homogeneity which were to be achieved by way of abandoning old ideas, habits and customs, and acquiring new, ‘progressive’, ‘socialist’ ones. The major instruments of the nation-state for achieving cultural unification were education, conscription and media. By the 1990s, especially in urban setting, people of various ethnic and religious affiliations were largely sharing a common, socialist culture. The rural setting had remained somewhat more traditional, retaining traits among Muslims and Christians alike, which were in contrast with modern socialist culture. Due to the fact that urbanisation was slower among Muslim Turks and Pomaks, the latter remained a predominantly rural population until the end of the socialist era.

The late 1970s-early 1980s witnessed a rise of nationalist fervour in Bulgaria and increased the assimilation practices of the communist regime towards local Muslims, especially the Turks. The ‘re-birth’ campaign, which started at the end of 1984, led to the exodus of a large portion of Bulgaria’s Turks to Turkey4 and, ultimately, to the end of the communist regime.

After the fall of communism, conditions allowed for the public manifestations of ethnic and religious differences. During the 1990s religion returned to the public stage. The major developments that featured its public role in post-socialist Bulgaria can be summarised as follows: increased public performances of religious ceremonies, particularisation of religious audiences, political struggles especially within the Orthodox and Muslim establishments, and no involvement of either religious system in the topics of the day. These processes continue to be valid to this day. In addition, the wider Bulgarian public, regardless of their religious affiliations, tend to view religion as part of tradition rather than as religious faith and practice in the strict sense of the word. For Muslims in particular, religion has become a tool for expressing and reiterating ethnic and cultural identity.

In this section, I have tried to outline the role of religion in Bulgaria before and after the 1989 exodus of the Bulgarian-born Turks. Thus, I have also described the context in which many of the re-settlers were brought up and lived, and to which they return, or with which they bear relations as transnational migrants. They came from a society in which religion obtained an ambiguous role, having been pushed away from the public sphere and suppressed in the private sphere. Nevertheless, it was considered, in the case of Orthodoxy, an important part of the Bulgarian national identity. Islam, in its turn, was doubly negated, firstly, as a major impediment to modernisation and progress, and secondly, as being associated with the main antagonist in the national narrative. The influence of the official discourses about religion on everyday life had led to a hidden and progressively shrinking religious practice, as well as to an expanding understanding of religion as tradition. These trends played a formative role in the lives of the re-settlers, who, in their bigger part, were pronouncedly secular and non-practising. Even though they respected Islam, they related to it only nominally—a situation which is valid today too.

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