|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
20 - 26 September 2001
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Finding IslamWhat is going on in the Muslim community in post-independence Bulgaria? While participating in the Intercultural Studies Dialogue at Sofia University Margot Badran set out to discover answers
The first thing the grand mufti of Bulgaria told me after I stepped in his office was that he was 40 years old. Taken aback by what I thought to be an odd introduction I quickly realised the mufti made it possible for me to place him. Mufti Selim Mumun Mehmed had spent three out of the four decades of his life under Communist rule when religion officially did not exist. The grand mufti's opening words underscored the situation of the Muslims of Bulgaria. The leadership of the Muslim community grew up with no public Islam. They are restoring Islam to public space after 40 years of official erasure.
Muslims today constitute about one tenth of the population of Bulgaria which altogether numbers about eight million. Among Muslims the two main groups are Pomaks or "ethnic Bulgarians" who are mainly concentrated in the southern mountainous religion and those of Turkish background, who still speak the language, clustered in the northeast. The majority of the Muslims live in villages and small towns. Bulgarian Muslims are more highly integrated into the general society, unlike for example, their co-religionists in Macedonia with their distinct ethnic differences as Albanians. This does not mean however that prejudice and problems do not exist.
Six hundred years of Ottoman rule have left their traces in negative feelings toward Muslims, which mainly exist below the surface. However, some of the uneasiness is now beginning to be acknowledged and confronted. The Intercultural Studies Dialogue at Sofia University represents one important initiative in this new direction.
In the process of reconstituting itself and moving ahead the Muslim community faces hard challenges. Education is a pressing need for Muslims, as for Christians, who were deprived in the previous era, although the latter were relatively more advantaged. (Presently, among Muslims 0.05 per cent hold diplomas of higher study and the figure is 8.50 per cent for Christians.) Religious education as publicly organised was totally lacking under Communism.
When I asked the grand mufti, who has been in the position for only seven months, what his main priority was he replied, "I want to create a situation in which Muslims are Muslims because they believe. Generally people are Muslims because they were born Muslim. We have gone through a period of atheism." Underscoring the same sentiment, mufti of Sofia, Ali Khairaddin, who is also editor of the newspaper Mysulman, told me, "I want to help Muslims who are believers to develop their faith and as well as Muslims who are not believers and know nothing of Islam because of the recent past. This is a new era of Muslims with religion."
With financial help from Muslims outside, including Arabs, the High Institute of Islamic Studies was created in Sofia in 1991 to train a new professional religious elite. The grand mufti noted that a number of Muslims have studied Islam abroad. He himself went to Istanbul for a brief period of study in the mid- 90s. But, he insisted "We need indigenously trained religious scholars. We don't want Islam to have an alien shape."
If a problem of education is the view from the top it is also the view from the bottom as I learned in Sveta Petka, a Muslim village some two hours south of Sofia in the central Rhodopes. Nevrie, a student at the Economics University in Sofia, made it clear that education, including advanced education, is highly prized. But the education she was referring to is secular education. About a third of the young women from the village are studying at universities in different cities throughout Bulgaria. More would be studying, she insisted, if they could afford it. The economy is bad and women have to work to help make family ends meet. It was evident from driving through many villages, whether Christian, Muslim, or mixed, that life is hard.
Clockwise from top: the legacies of both Ottoman and Communist rule struggle to define Bulgarian identity today; mosque at Sveta Petka; the women's section at the Sveta Petka mosque; Badran meets the Grand Mufti of Bulgaria
Vaida, a sprightly woman with sharp blue eyes, now on pension, said it wasn't always that way. She and her friend Emine, who was occupied in knitting, were sitting on a log in front of a house. Nearby was Vaida's 100 year old mother. Vaida invited us to take coffee in a modest below-ground, single-table coffee house. We fell to talking. During the Communist period she had worked in the timber industry in this heavily wooded mountain region. She used to plant saplings. She said during the Communist period people had jobs. Vaida had done well. She was sent on work missions far and wide, once all the way to Odessa. I asked, "What about your mother? In the period before Communism did she have a job?" Yes, her mother had also worked but in her day they worked privately on their own lands. Under Communism, Vaida continued, "We had more privileges as women." Then came the "name change." This occurred in the mid-80s when the Communist state ordered all Muslims to change their names to Bulgarian names (effectively, Christian names). "We did not expect that of them," she confided.
Before people had jobs but no religious freedom. Now they have religious freedom but jobs are scarce. Sveta Petka is doing a bit better because of a private kilim factory set up there that exports to the UK. While we were talking a couple of men entered the café, sitting off to one side. When I asked who works in the factory everyone answered in a single voice, "The women." Kilim-making, whether manual or mechanised, is "women's work." Because of the job scarcity this means many women in this village are the family breadwinners. Ramadan, one of the two men who had just joined us, the father of Nevrie, admitted that the men do not feel good about this. "The Qur'an says that men should feed the family," he said. I asked if by supporting the family women had acquired more power. An amused expression came over the face of Vaida. I glanced at her and we broke out laughing. Ramadan continued, "The Qur'an says that men should help women." The question was left unanswered, or rather answered through the languages of evasion and laughter.
The conversation took another turn as everyone huddled in this dark little café agreed that the fighting in Macedonia would never happen in Bulgaria, echoing what I heard in Sofia. They claimed it was because Muslims in Bulgaria are more integrated into the general society. Back in Sofia they explained that is was because of the "Bulgarian model of stability." Ramadan remarked that before Muslims in Macedonia as part of Yugoslavia had been freer under Tito's strong hand than the Muslims of Bulgaria had been. Some men from Bulgaria had even gone to Macedonia to study Islam during the Communist period. However, now the situation for Muslims is better in Bulgaria than Macedonia. The other man who had just joined the conversation, a recently retired driver, pointed out that people have always gone back and forth across the border between Bulgaria and Macedonia. Bulgarians and Macedonians also speak the same language. Never mind that the Bulgarians call it Bulgarian and the Macedonians call it Macedonian. The ex-driver said Macedonians are still coming to the spa in Velingrad about an hour's drive from Sveta Petka and less than two hours from the border.
When word came that the imam and his key were found our little group made its way to Sveta Petka's newly painted mosque. It had re-opened at the beginning of the 90s just after the end of Communist rule as had mosques and churches in other villages, towns, and cities throughout Bulgaria. (There was a burst of mosque building in the immediate post-Communist period resulting in 150 new mosques. Christians meanwhile built 1900 new churches.) Inside the refurbished Sveta Petka mosque the wooden ceiling and walls gleamed. Colorful local kilims covered the floors. Vaida and the other two women darted up the stairs to the women's section. There was a wood-burning stove that has obviously seen good use and a cupboard full of Qur'ans. In the 90s mosques became sites for Qur'an lessons and girls were encouraged along with boys. Muslims, like Christians, were back to the public practice of religion.
Back in Sofia I visited the High Islamic Institute where I met the Director, Dr Ibrahim Yalimov and a professor of theology from Turkey, Aydin Topaloglu who earned his doctorate at Izmir University. The latter acted as interpreter speaking to Yalimov in Turkish. A man in his mid-sixties Yalimov illustrates another feature of contemporary Muslim leadership. Starting off with religious training, Yalimov came of age during the early Communist period. He was sent to the University of Moscow where he earned a PhD in political science and later enjoyed a long career at Sofia University. Coming full circle he has returned to realm of religious education now in the form of chief administrator of the highest institution of Islamic learning.
Yalimov began our conversation with a capsule history of Islamic education in Bulgaria. Following the end of Ottoman rule in 1878 a local school to train muftis called Nuvop was established in Shuman in the northeast of Bulgaria. In 1914 a school for religious teachers was opened and a higher school added in 1930. With the advent of the Communist period these institutions were all shut down. Immediately post-independence (in 1990) Nuvop re-opened in Shuman. There are now three Nuvop schools operating under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education and the Grand Mufti's Office. I asked Yalimov, who had studied at the Nuvop in Shuman in the late 40s just before it was closed, if the re-opened Nuvop schools were providing a new Islamic education. "There is not much difference," he said, referring to the religious training for muftis, imams, and hojas or religious teachers. But, he pointed out that general subjects have been added to the curriculum in the Nuvop schools.
The High Islamic Institute that Yalimov heads is the training ground for religious personnel. Its graduates include the present grand mufti. From 1993 to 1998 it received support from the Turkish Fetullah Gulen a progressive religious group that played an important role in education (now outlawed in Turkey). Since the end of the 1990s the Institute has been operating under the aegis of a Commission composed of representatives from the Bulgarian and Turkish Muslim communities, regulated by an official protocol signed by the Bulgarian and Turkish states.
In 1993 the Higher Islamic Institute opened its doors to women who now constitute one-third of its students who come from different parts of the country. It would not be surprising if some of the women go on to teach Islam in the state schools where religion was added to the general curriculum two years ago. What is less predictable is higher religious posts for women. While making use of their new training for the good of the community these young women could also contribute to the family income in these exigent times.
Members of the new religious establishment I met were at pains to point out the Bulgarian umma's location in Europe and the West. The grand mufti stressed that Bulgaria is in Europe, in the West. "We need to represent Islam in the best possible way." He said that Muslims must have an image not lesser than that of the Christians. The Director of the Higher Islamic Institute explained, "We are trying to integrate with the West. We need to live with European Christians. We need to know why and what they believe." The Muslim leadership want Muslims to be modern. But, Yalimov said revealingly, "While we are trying to be modern we need to think about Muslim countries." The cliché that to be modern was to be Western seemed to loom large. The lack of awareness of Muslim countries and of their modernities was striking.
Bulgarian Muslims, certainly the educated, are aware of belonging to the larger Islamic umma. Their sense of a pan-Islamic connection was demonstrated in a recent study conducted by Simeon Evstatiev, a professor of Islamic history at the University of Sofia. However, Bulgarian Muslims seem to construe the umma as "Eastern." Among those I met there was no mention of fellow Muslims in the West where Islam is now the fastest growing religion.
Breaking through its four-decade isolation from "the West" and "the East" what are Bulgarian Muslims, who now have opportunities to establish new links, to do? Geographically Bulgaria is poised at the eastern rim of "the West" and the western rim of "the East." It has all the possibilities and all the pitfalls of its borderland position. Muslims in Bulgaria, however, seem caught in contradictions they are not ready to examine. When change might be deemed too radical or undesirable the same persons who were eager to "catch-up" with the rest of "the west" claimed they must proceed slowly out of consideration for other Muslims.
Gender is always a good litmus test of forward or backward movement. Since women are being trained in Bulgaria's High Islamic Institute producing the new religious personnel it seemed logical to ask if a woman can be mufti? The grand mufti paused in evident amazement at my unexpected question. He then declared that from a religious point of view a woman can serve as a mufti. But, he added, the job requires heavy administration and is therefore not suitable for a woman. The same question elicited from the Higher Islamic Institute Director an amused smile. In the moment of silence that followed I told him what the grand mufti had said. The Institute Director conceded that it was religiously possible for a woman to be mufti. But he went on, while we are trying to be modern we need to think of Muslim countries. The Islamic world is not ready for a woman to become a mufti." It was striking that the arguments advanced were social and cultural rather than religious. And, equally striking that stereotypes about "Muslim countries" were brought out in defense of a conservative position.
During the period of Soviet domination when religion was officially outlawed, the Mufti of Sofia Ali Khairaddin noted that women had kept religion, especially ritual, alive at home. They persisted even during the ominous period of the "name change" in the middle of the 80s when life was particularly precarious for Muslims. I asked if preserving religious practices at home (not necessarily a safe haven) enhanced women's standing?" He replied, "The men [still] controlled the women." Muslim women like Vaida simultaneously showed their mettle in the public work they performed during the Soviet period. They sustained their own, their family's, and their communities lives while shouldering jobs in the state economy. The younger generation of women are now trying to get higher education. In this era of freedom what about high positions for women in the Muslim community? In the Bulgarian umma will the question of women be the stumbling block on the road to modernity, to say nothing of social justice? Will Bulgarian Muslims be out of the loop of progressive Islam being articulated and practiced in other parts of the global umma?
Men in high positions of responsibility in the Muslim community claim to be trying to move forward and to help others find Islam, as they do so as well. The closure of the Nuvop at the end of the 40s finished off Yalimov's religious education. The grand mufti grew up when religion was banned as did the mufti of Sofia. Now men like these are in the forefront of the Muslim community. Ordinary Muslims like Vaida who worked hard side by side with men during the Communist period are happy to return to the public practice of religion. They see compatibility between education and work for women and Islam. Indeed, these have been intertwined in their everyday lives. If the women persisted in sustaining Islam behind the scenes during hard times why in post-independence Bulgaria should they not be able to shoulder new communal responsibilities at all levels? This was an answer I did not get. Old clichés and old stereotypes do not produce new realities. If your slate has been wiped clean, you have the good fortune to start from a clean slate. Finding Islam, in all its amplitude, does not appear to be easy.
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