You probably don’t read a lot of headline-making news out of Bulgaria, but recent events in the Balkan country suggest we should pay more attention to the southern European state. What’s going on there may be a portent of Europe’s future.
In recent days Bulgarian authorities have been confronting thousands of so-called nationalists who’ve been staging violent demonstrations in the southern European state’s second largest city of Plovdiv.
The nationalists are angered at a court-approved bid by local Muslim leaders to have an ancient mosque and its surrounding property in the nearby town of Karlovo returned to the Grand Mufti, spiritual leader of many of Bulgaria’s Muslims.
But it’s not just the future of one mosque that’s at issue. The Grand Mufti has lodged more than two dozen claims to properties lost to the Muslim community a century ago following the expulsion of the last Ottoman Turk overlords from the country in the late 19th century.
According to the online outlet The Sofia Globe, the court applications follow amendments to the country’s Religious Denominations Act, which allow such applications by officially recognized religious groups. (According to a 2011 census, about eight per cent of Bulgaria’s 7.3 million people are Muslim.)
The Mufti’s claims have sparked a series of often violent demonstrations, of which the one late last week in Koslovo was only the latest. Opposition to the Grand Mufti’s claims is particularly strong in Karlova. The town is the birthplace of Vassil Levski, a Bulgarian national hero — he’s been dubbed the Apostle f Freedom — who in the late 1800s led a revolutionary movement to liberate Bulgaria from Ottoman tyranny.
The protestors behavior, both at the mosque and at the nearby Turkish consulate, was certainly ugly what with the rock-throwing crowd chanting xenophobic sentiments — “you are not Europeans, you are barbarians” was a favourite — as it smashed mosque windows. They have rightly been condemned for the pointless violence.
Perhaps, though, some historical understanding is needed. To be sure, Muslims have been increasingly targeted by ultra-nationalist groups in recent years following significant increase in refugees in Bulgaria from the Middle East and North Africa, particularly following the multiple failures of the Arab Spring. But Bulgarians’ memory goes back much further. They also remember that for five centuries – from the late 14th century to the late 19th century – their country was part of the Ottoman Empire and their Turkish rulers were often brutal.
As a one commentator puts it, “The Ottoman rule was a period marked by oppression and misgovernment and represents a deviation of Bulgaria’s development as a Christian European state.”
Only in 1878, after years of revolt, did Bulgaria gain its liberation from Muslim rule.
The current protests, I suggest, reflect this remembrance. The nationalists view the Grant Mufti’s land claims as imperialism-by-stealth, an attempt to Islamicize modern Bulgaria and slowly and quietly restore the lost Caliphate in Europe.
No surprise, none of this historical backstory receives much acknowledgement from the authorities. They denounce the protestors as vandals or hooligans or racists, that favourite, all-inclusive epithet aimed at discrediting people with whom you disagree.
But might this attitude reflect an inchoate concern for the future based on remembrance of the past? The Bulgarians can certainly look elsewhere in Europe to justify their concerns.
In Spain, for example, a growing Muslim population has for years demanded that the Roman Catholic Church effectively turn over the Cordoba Cathedral so it can be a mosque once again. Certainly, the building was once a mosque, when Islam dominated the Iberian peninsula – although Muslims conveniently ignore that it was an Arian Christian Visigothic church in the early 7th century before the Moorish invasions – but it has been a church for nearly eight centuries, ever since King Ferdinand III took the city of Córdoba in 1236 during the long Reconquista campaign to rid Spain of the Moors. (Only in 1492 was Spain finally freed of the Muslim imperium.
Of course, Muslim organizations say they only want to “share” the building, and claim the church’s refusal to allow that is a sign of intolerance. (You have to wonder what she would say about a Christian tried praying at a mosque in Saudi Arabia.) “In no way is this request about reclaiming our rights — far less any kind of reconquest,”Isabel Romero, a member of the Islamic Council of Spain, said in 2004.
Tell that to the two Muslim tourists who in 2010 attacked and seriously injured two security guards who told them they couldn’t use the church to pray to Mecca.
Nowadays, it seems, bids for tolerance, modest occupations, and claims of property rights, are the way to conquer your enemies, not marching armies (although maybe those come later).