AGAINST STEREOTYPES: A September 11 2002 service at a mosque in Sofia, led by the Chief Mufti and with US embassy officials in attendance, in commemoration of the victims of the terrorist attacks in the US the previous year.
On September 11 2002, a year to the day after the terrorist attacks in the United States, the then Chief Mufti of Bulgaria Selim Mehmed knelt in prayer at a mosque in Sofia to honour the memory of the victims. In attendance were the US embassy’s most senior-ranking officials.
A party led by a Bulgarian of Turkish ethnicity and Muslim faith is one of the three members of the current coalition Cabinet, and was a partner in the previous government.
Bulgaria’s leaders speak of the country’s "model of ethnic tolerance" – a dimension of which is the implication that this model is in place in spite of the country having been under Ottoman rule for five centuries.
Yet in Bulgaria it is no easy matter to try to build a mosque in Sofia – controversies around such plans have been ongoing for a long time – and it is not even an easy matter to use loudspeakers to call the faithful to prayer. These loudspeakers were the target of a campaign by ultra-nationalist party Ataka to have them switched off, at the same time that it was alleged that Sofia’s mosque was a hotbed of radical Islam, an allegation that, when put by a television reporter to a spokesperson for the mosque, prompted him to burst out laughing.
The same Ataka, as with the accompanying article on anti-Semitism, has chosen Islam and ethnic Turks in Bulgaria as among its main whipping-boys. Islamophobia is included in the package on these pages because, while March 21 is the International Day against Racial Discrimination, in Bulgaria the Islamic identity and Turkish ethnicity tend to be conflated.
An Ataka election poster in Bulgaria’s 2007 European Parliament elections portrayed what the party claimed would have happened had Bulgaria not served as the final sacrifice in Europe to preserve Christianity – the Eiffel Tower mocked up as the minaret of a mosque.
It is arguable that at least part of the foundation of the anti-Islamic, anti-Turk sentiment that Ataka seeks to exploit arises from Bulgaria’s communist-era campaign against the community that reached its nadir in the 1980s campaign to forcibly rename Muslim Bulgarians to adopt their "original" non-Muslim names.
It is true that allegations have been made, including by informed intelligence sources, that radical Islam is infiltrating Bulgaria.
As The Sofia Echo reported in October 2008, associate professor Tatyana Dronzina – described as an expert on conflict and terrorism research – was reported to have said that Turkish-linked radical sects Nurju, Suleymandj and Miligurush were believed to be active in the eastern part of the country.
There were some grounds for believing that people linked to these sects were trying to make contact with pupils in Muslim religious schools in Shoumen, Rousse, Momchilgrad and in the Islamic Institute in Sofia as well, she was quoted as saying.
And, as The Sofia Echo reported in April 2007, very large sums of money, sourced from outside the country, have been spent in Bulgaria since the mid-1990s on the building of mosques and what may be called "teaching centres" to spread Wahhabi.
Investigators and Western intelligence services probing contemporary terrorism committed in the name of Islam tend to find links with Wahhabi. Again, this is not to suggest that where Wahhabi is found, a terrorist link is inevitable. It does mean that those being taught Wahhabi tend to be the subject of teaching that condemns the West, Christianity, Judaism, Israel, the United States, contemporary European and American culture and values, and for that matter, non-Wahhabi Muslims.
At least some Wahhabi proponents have advocated jihad, meaning holy war, against this list of enemies.
Bulgaria’s long history in combination with recent allegations that radical Islam is on the march in Europe and in this country specifically are open to exploitation by the politically unscrupulous to stoke up fear and loathing.
As it is, a list of anti-Islam incidents bears some similarities to anti-Semitic episodes, including desecration of holy places.
In April 2008, unidentified perpetrators painted a Christian cross on the wall of a mosque in Lovetch. It was the latest in a series of similar attacks.
On March 11 2008, a mosque in Dobrich was temporarily closed because of a bomb threat. Police officers searched the premises and reported that no explosive device was found. On February 16 2008, graffiti saying "Turks, die" was found at the entry to the Office of the Chief Mufti. During the year the mosque in Pleven was vandalized with swastika graffiti at least ten times.
In December 2007 the windows of the mosque in Kazanluk were broken after it was torched in 2006. In May 2007 pigs’ heads were hung on two mosques in Silistra. There were no reports of prosecutions in that incident or in a number of 2006 incidents, including the breaking of a window of the Banyabasi Mosqui in Sofia and the defacement of a mosque in Aytos with paint.
The Chief Mufti’s Office expressed concern that, while the vandals were usually apprehended, they rarely received legal penalties or punishments.
As noted in the US state department 2008 report on human rights, in April 2008, the Blagoevgrad District court revoked the Ahmadi Muslim Organisation’s registration as a nongovernmental organization (NGO). The group resorted to registering as an NGO after it was denied national registration as a religious group in 2005. The prosecution challenged the group’s NGO status, claiming that the Ahmadis went beyond NGO boundaries by proselytizing and holding religious meetings.
The same report said that in February 2008, Bulgaria’s Commission for Protection against Discrimination rejected a complaint filed by three Muslim students from Devin alleging that the school principal had discouraged them from wearing headscarves in classes even though the school had no uniform requirements.
The Commission found insufficient evidence to confirm the principal’s reported warnings. The case followed an August 2006 decision by the Commission to uphold the ban on headscarves imposed by a school in Smolyan that did require school uniforms.
Well ahead of the National Assembly and European Parliament elections to be held in 2009, there has been concern about some politicians seeking to play anti-Turk and anti-Muslim cards. Among those alleged to have done so was Sofia mayor and political strongman Boiko Borissov, while in early March 2009, Yane Yanev, leader of the politically somewhat less significant Order, Law, Justice Party, claimed that in some regions of Bulgaria, people were being coerced into "conversion" to militant Islam.