D-r Petar Kanev – Models of Interaction between Ethno-Religious Communities in Central and South-East Rhodope Mountains (Bulgaria)

Project “Does the Bulgarian ethnic
model exist– myth or reality within the common European problem of the
tolerance between Christians and Muslims” – (2006-2010)

Anthropology and Religious Studies BAS

 Bulgarian Ministry of education’s Fund for scientific research in close cooperation with the Institute for research in philosophy in BAS,

project’s field work. in-depth study semi-structured biographical interviews the Paul Thompson’s oral history method.

Models of interaction between ethno-religious communities in the Central and East Rhodope Mountains. Does a uniform Bulgarian ethnic model exist?

Dr Petar Kanev, Research Fellow

In November 2007, the three-year (2006-2010) “Does the Bulgarian ethnic model exist – myth or reality within the common European problem of the tolerance between Christians and Muslims” project was launched by a research team from the Anthropology and Religious Studies section at the Institute for Research in Philosophy at the Bulgarian Academy of Science, with the financial support of the Fund for Scientific Research of the Bulgarian Ministry of Education and Science. The project aims to re-examine the “Bulgarian ethnic model”, a popular construct during the transitional period in Bulgaria (since 1989), in the light of real empirical data gathered during an extensive in-depth study in some of the areas with mixed religious and ethnic groups where such a model is supposed to exist. The study employs the method of in-depth analysis of field semi-structured biographical interviews adopting Paul Thompson’s oral history methodology. The target group of the study are religious leaders and believers belonging to the two major religious groups – Orthodox Christians and Muslims – in the Central and East Rhodope Mountains. The empirical data analysis has had a unique character not only because the chosen region has remained largely uninvestigated so far but also due to the interdisciplinary nature of the analysis which avoids conventional sociological models and instead applies anthropological views in the context of philosophy of religion and the specifics of inter-religious dialogue.

The goal of this project is to explore concrete issues in the field of philosophical and religious discourse, through the prism of several basic problems: Are people who declare themselves Christians or Muslims religious at all? Does the religious syncretism in Bulgarian domestic forms of Orthodox Islam and Orthodox Christianity imply a predisposition to religious fanaticism? What are the actual latent conflicts between Christians and Muslims? Can they escalate? Does the Bulgarian ethnic model exist?

The project also focuses on the philosophical aspect of the issue of understanding the inter-religious dialogue between Orthodox Christians and Muslims.

Use of cultural-and-anthropological and philosophical analysis could also contribute to deciphering the double meaning of religious dialogue as both a precondition for the freedom of belief and a prerequisite for religious enculturation.

The empirical data of this project consists of a large (and growing) database of interviews, biographical material and reports in the field of cultural and social anthropology. The biographic interviews with priests and believers provide the most important basis for this research. Predisposing respondents to a relaxed conversation enables them to share their views at length, often saying more than they have originally intended. The biographic interview has a free form, in the sense that the interviewed person is not asked any direct questions; it is a dialogue between the interviewer and the interviewee, with the interviewer steering the conversation to specific subjects.

The interviews per se are essentially an example of practicing dialogue. Further oral inquiries with the local priests have provided various interpretations of common values, metaphysical, ontological and religious ideas, semantic relations and ethical and cosmological worldviews. The interviewers have complemented these inquiries with their own impressions and observations of the condition of the respective church and life in the parish, as well as the overall atmosphere in the town or village eparchy and in the district, vicarage and bishopric.

Systematizing the information involves answering the question how to analyze the empirical research data – which theoretical point of view and which method(s) should be used. Here, a specific interdisciplinary approach has been applied.

My own research is based on the assumption that Christianity can be analyzed as a specific religious and ethical-metaphysical paradigm. This thesis considers dialogue as a form of sustainable practice and renewal of traditional Christian patterns and propensities in the context of today’s Europe. How and why dialogue guarantees the freedom of belief is not as simple as it may seem. The analysis of the tolerance of Bulgarian priests derived from the database with biographical interviews reveals two different kinds of tolerance: virtual – based on prejudices, and genuine – based on real communication and dialogue with the others.

The present thesis aims to present the first results from the analysis of the semi-structured biographic interviews with Christians and Muslims from the Central and East Rhodope Mountains. Its chief goal is to juxtapose the findings from the empirical data collected and processed so far with the construct of the “Bulgarian ethnic model” widely used over the past 20 years and to assess the extent to which it corresponds to reality.

What does the term “Bulgarian ethnic model” usually mean?

If we choose to disregard the fundamental imprecision and theoretical incorrectness of the construct “Bulgarian ethnic model”, we can easily identify the semantics this politically correct slogan has been embodying over the 20 years of the democratic transition.

The term “Bulgarian ethnic model” arose as an antithesis to two other unfortunate ethnic models from the recent past: the failed Bulgarian model of assimilating the Muslim minorities during the last years of Todor Zhivkov’s regime, and the confrontational ethno-religious model in former Yugoslavia which led to much bloodshed, a militarist devastation and disintegration of Bulgaria’s western neighbour, lending to the entire Balkan peninsula the permanent label “a cask of gunpowder”.

The term “Bulgarian ethnic model” was purposely coined to demonstrate that Bulgaria was the only stable region on the Balkan Peninsula, owing to its working, peace-guaranteeing model of ethnic and religious interaction and a policy of recognizing and favouring the rights and freedoms of minorities. Minorities enjoyed not only complete equality and perspectives for their independent development within the Bulgarian state but also their own political representation in public government: the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), a self-proclaimed liberal party that has recently created a sort of economic hegemony, according to its leader Ahmed Dogan. Throughout the transitional period, the Bulgarian ethnic model has served a two-fold purpose: it has been used as an advertising buzzword to build a good image of Bulgarian policies before the international public, and also as a means of political blackmail – Ahmed Dogan has repeatedly threatened that MRF, being the only guarantor of the ethnic peace, can easily provoke an outbreak of ethnic and religious conflicts should its interests be neglected.

It was this mixture of a state advertising campaign and partisan blackmailing that embedded the “Bulgarian ethnic model” slogan into the politically correct language of the transitional period, from the Parliament and media to local cafes and public attitudes. The post-Communist neologism received a special emphasis on its pacifist aspects of preventing ethnic and religious conflicts. Its ethno-cultural implications transformed it into an ideal for a new Bulgaria: a “multiethnic country” in which all ethnic groups live both according to their own ethno-cultural traditions and in complete harmony with one another. In its religious context, the Bulgarian ethnic model is often cited as the perfect example of religious peace achieved through religious pluralism, tolerance and inter-religious dialogue. In its social context, it is presented as the source of an exceptionally favourable social climate with respect to minorities. It is routinely glorified as an example par excellence of liberal pluralism in the spirit of the most modern libertarian ideologies – the perfect economic and political model of ethnic and religious peace, rights, complete freedoms and equality for all minorities in Bulgaria.

However, it is seldom questioned whether this brave new model is not in fact merely an advertising fabrication and to what extent it corresponds to empirical knowledge – the actual ethnic and religious interaction between people from Bulgaria’s mixed regions.

When we juxtapose the mythical image of the Bulgarian ethnic model with actual empirical data from those regions, we come across considerable inconsistencies going as deeply as the very correctness of the terms pieced together in this conceptual construct – “Bulgarian”, “ethnic” and “model”.

The study of the actual interaction between Christians and Muslims in the Rhodope Mountains naturally leads us to ask ourselves whether the model of this interaction is really Bulgarian. As far as everyday human interactions are concerned, is the model not characteristic for all of the Balkan countries, ex-Yugoslavia included? Has it not been inherited from the model of ethno-religious relations typical for the Ottoman Empire? Has it not been ideologically shaped by a system of politically correct treatment of minorities which is neither Bulgarian nor European but rather transatlantic in nature? (It should be further noted that while the original model grants privileges to the minorities, the Bulgarian modification essentially imposes a state of isolation and dependence on the major part of minority people, simulating their integration and showering favours on a small group of political and economic “representatives”.) And since this model is presented by some Bulgarian politicians as a “Euro-Atlantic civilizational choice”, should it be called Bulgarian at all? Ultimately, how should we define it – as specifically Bulgarian, all-Balkan, traditional Ottoman or Euro-Atlantic?

The next group of questions revolves around the “ethnicity” of the Bulgarian ethnic model. Here, we have to decipher another fuzzy concept from the politically correct vocabulary of the transitional period – “ethnicity”. A relative newcomer to the Bulgarian language, it should generally convey “national characteristics/affiliation”. However, PC language has far extended its semantic connotations, as demonstrated by the fashionable epithets “ethno” and “ethnic”. Ethnicity no longer implies only a national or tribal affiliation – it has become an advertising tool, helping attach value to various symbols singled out from fading traditional cultures: embroideries, round loaves (pogachi), ornaments, national costumes, legends narrated in tourist-friendly versions, recordings of song performances by “authentic” old men distributed by labels called Gega (Shepherd’s Crook), etc.

Furthermore, no matter what we mean by it, “ethnicity” does not apply to one of the major Muslim groups in the Rhodope Mountains – the Pomaks (Bulgarians who have converted to Islam). Their folklore, costumes, dialect and some of their beliefs and customs place them together with the Bulgarian ethnic group, while their religious tradition is typically Muslim – it is what distinguishes them from Christian Bulgarians. Therefore, what makes a Pomak community different is its ethno-religious specifics rather than any purely ethnic characteristics. This is also a source of confusion for Muslim Bulgarians themselves when they have to determine their identity and national affiliation. In terms of nationality, almost all Pomaks in the Central and East Rhodope Mountains (except for the regions of Madan and Rudozem) identify themselves as Bulgarians and want to be recognized as such by all of their Christian compatriots. On the other hand, Pomaks are the most devout followers of Islam in Bulgaria, not because of some recent Islamization but by virtue of a long-standing tradition passed down from one generation to the next. We must also bear in mind that a significant part of the Turkish-speaking ethnic groups in Bulgaria are not particularly religious, and some of them, such as the Kizilbash, have not traditionally been Orthodox Muslims (it is only recently that local authorities, under the auspices of Turkey, have tried to convert them forcefully to Islam). Therefore the model of interaction between Christians and Muslims in the Rhodope Mountains comes down to interactions between Christian Bulgarians and Muslim Bulgarians rather than between the Bulgarian and Turkish-speaking ethnic groups. Should we not, then, regard this model of peaceful coexistence as religious or ethno-religious rather than ethnic?

Additionally, if we insist on discussing an “ethnic” model, we should describe precisely the ethnic groups that make it up. According to the cliché, in ethnically mixed regions of Bulgaria, two ethnic groups coexist – Bulgarians and Turks. An empirical study, however, paints quite a different picture, with a lot more ethnic and ethno-religious communities – Christian Bulgarians and Muslim Bulgarians, Western Pomaks and Eastern Pomaks, Gagauz people, Circassians, Tatars, Kizilbash people (who are not Muslims in the strict sense of the word), Muslim Roma (also known as Turkish Roma) and Christian Roma, Roma with no clear religious affiliation, Roma claiming to be either Bulgarians or Turks. Nor should we omit the other traditional communities from the overall ethnic picture: Armenians, Jews, Walachians, Sarakatsani, even Greeks. It is also important to remember that especially on the territory of the Rhodope Mountains, the issue of ethnicity has become something of a taboo, baffling any attempt at scrupulous research – it has been toyed with so many times, suffered such incredible mystifications and falsifications that we may well say the truth about the history of ethnic groups in the Rhodope Mountains is completely unknown, intentionally shrouded in a thick fog.

It is for those two reasons that the Bulgarian ethnic model cannot be properly called “ethnic”: on the one hand, it is not purely ethnic but rather ethno-religious; on the other, we have no idea which ethnic groups make up this model. In fact, if there is a model in the Rhodope Mountains, it is one of eradication, eroding identities and assimilation of ethnic groups and their specific traditions, and not one of interaction between distinct groups.

The existing diversity of traditional communities in the various regions of the Rhodope Mountains is sufficient to question the presumption that there is a single, uniform Bulgarian ethnic model. Instead, the empirical observations point to a number of different models, some unique in themselves and hard to compare with the others.

Also, if we look for a common sociocultural model of interaction between communities in the Rhodope Mountains, that should rather be the model handed down from the totalitarian rule of Todor Zhivkov: one of fear and obedience, of quiet repressions, purchased submission, authoritarian control and centralization of a military/police type, blackmailing and pressuring the population. In fact, this inherited power model has become so uncontrolled and entrenched in the region that it has started resembling Feudalism in certain respects. Therefore, if this is the true image of the Bulgarian ethnic model, it can hardly be called European, much less law- or market-regulated or democratic.

From a political point of view, the myth of the Bulgarian ethnic model once again falls short of the empirical data. In the Central and East Rhodope Mountains, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms does not serve the actual needs of Muslims, and Muslims themselves do not support it. The practicing Orthodox Muslims (Sunni) in this region are mostly Bulgarians (Pomaks), and Pomaks have traditionally (until recently, at least) not voted for MRF – which is also why they have been often “punished” by regional governors and local mayors with threats, blackmailing, infrastructure freezes, cutting their water supply and electricity and even overt repression (a telling example is the case of the village of Pripek). Nor is it correct to claim that MRF serves the needs of the Turkish ethnic group, its chief electorate until recently – there is no single Turkish ethnic group in the area but a number of Turkish-speaking separate groups. MRF cannot be said to serve their needs because it does not stimulate their ethnic uniqueness in any way; quite the contrary: it has been actively eroding and substituting it for a Turkish national (not ethnic!) identity.

To illustrate this, we can consider an example from the regions that have been traditionally inhabited by Alevis (Kizilbash). The Alevis have never had Sunni mosques but have rather performed their esoteric religious rites in tekkes (cult sites) <пропускам "меджити", понеже не мога да го намеря, а не се появява пак>. All minarets in the area have been raised in the 1990s; some of the buildings they are attached to have obviously never been Sunni mosques, having probably been built in the 18th or 19th Century without any minarets, and some are located outside of the town or village, which directly contradicts Orthodox Sunni tradition – it is typical for the construction practices and religious functions of Alevi tombs and tekkes. At the same time, for many Orthodox Sunni mosques in the villages of Muslim Bulgarians, the buildings are dilapidated, receive no support from the municipality, and valuable old manuscripts get taken out and disappear. Even the funds sent to Pomak believers by Islamic foundations do not reach them but vanish somewhere in the municipalities governed by MRF. The destruction of the old Muslim cultural and historical traditions takes on another aspect too: throughout the region, the most valuable cultural monuments of Islam are being demolished and replaced by concrete mosques of the most kitschy fashion of contemporary Turkish nationalism. Inside, visitors can help themselves to free magazines, brochures and even comic books in Turkish, carrying markedly anti-Christian, anti-Bulgarian and anti-Greek messages, both implicit and explicit.

Obviously, the chief characteristic of the Bulgarian ethnic model in this respect is the obliteration of historical memory, the excision of all traces of cultural and historical tradition, including the authentic Islamic one, and its extensive substitution with a modern foreign culture – that of Turkish national ideology.

In order to complete the empirical picture of the Bulgarian ethnic model in the Central and East Rhodope Mountains, we must also consider the manner in which it has been fostered by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. The Plovdiv Bishopric entirely fails to meet the needs of its Christian parishes in the Rhodope Mountains – it has virtually abandoned the believers’ communities, their churches and religious services, and it has been constantly making difficulties for the priests who sincerely wish to look after their parishioners. The entire region is served by only three or four Orthodox Christian priests who have to be present in dozens of churches in dozens of towns and villages, some quite distant from one another, which is evidently impossible. Some of the priests are forced to leave the parishes they are in charge of, not without the tacit consent of the bishopric in Plovdiv, and those who refuse to do it risk to face constant problems in their work and life, especially if they do not voice their support for the Movement for Rights and Freedoms or at least the extreme nationalist party Ataka (Attack); the logic apparently goes like this: if a priest does not want to show his obedience to the party in power, let him at least act as a scarecrow for the Muslim Turkish-speaking electorate. Priests who are conscientious and popular, both among Christians and Muslims, are soon removed or forced to give up their activities, so that all churches are left without a minister, or the ministers are only unpopular, aggressive or even mentally unstable individuals. As for the churches themselves, their situation is similar to that of mosques – old churches are turned into dumping grounds, and (unlike the massive concrete mosques full of believers) newly erected churches stand locked, often unfinished, with no parishioners or activities. We must also mention the enormous estate problems faced by active Christian parishioners in their struggle to conserve the ancient churches in the Rhodope Mountains, and the failure of the Holy Synod, the Plovdiv Bishopric and the state and municipal authorities to maintain even those churches that are or should be cultural monuments.

Therefore, if we analyze the empirical data conscientiously and unbiasedly, it turns out that the widely promoted Bulgarian ethnic model is neither Bulgarian nor ethnic – it serves as a mere slogan. Unscrupulous politicians use it not to reinforce the rights and freedoms of traditional ethnic and religious communities, but rather to blackmail, politically and economically, and even assimilate their authentic representatives – the local population of the Rhodope Mountains.

In spite of this, the Bulgarian ethnic model is still presented to the general public as a panacea for religious and ethnic tolerance and peaceful coexistence for the various Rhodope communities. Tolerance and peaceful coexistence do exist in the interaction between Christians and Muslims as well as Bulgarian-speaking and Turkish-speaking ethno-religious groups in the region, but they have nothing to do with the post-totalitarian political model of repressive governance. Instead, they are part of a century-old sociocultural tradition of good neighbourship, agreement and mutual help. Practicing Muslims and Christians in the Rhodope Mountains still look at one another like in a mirror and so reinforce – each through their own faith – the ethical and religious principles passed down from their ancestors. These traditional Rhodope Christian and Muslim principles are in fact the opposite of the principles of social interaction imposed by the political authorities and status quo in contemporary Bulgaria.

The truth about the “Bulgarian ethnic model” in the Central and East Rhodope Mountains is that the traditional model of peaceful coexistence of communities is still fostered in various places by a genuine interpersonal dialogue between Christians and Muslims, but not by the self-proclaimed political and economic elite, neither Turkish nor Bulgarian. If we choose to call this model of good coexistence of different ethnic groups and religious traditions the authentic “Bulgarian ethnic model”, we would have to emphasize that it has nothing to do with the repressive character of the governance in the region but exists only in the interpersonal, everyday interactions of Christians and Muslims. It is rooted in the long-standing sociocultural Christian and Muslim tradition of the Rhodope Mountains; a tradition that, unfortunately, would probably disappear in the next few decades.

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