Race and Muslimness in Bulgaria

 In Blog
*This article is part of the wider project “Balkans of Colour – A Handbook for Decolonial Encounters” 


Bulgaria’s contemporary anti-Roma discourse and rampant Islamophobia have indicated how widespread racism is. Most scholars have regularly foreclosed the notion of race to assess such a phenomenon, favouring the notion of ethnicity rather than race itself. The perpetuation of the myth of racelessness from the historiography and political landscape of Bulgaria has diminished the shared connections between ethnic minority groups and other typically minoritised communities that are ascribed around their race. Elana Resnick argues that, in the Balkans, such a denial unravels a form of white supremacy and asserts the existence of racialized hierarchies. The entanglement of modern racism and power is not only appropriate to studying the chronological history of Europe but also paramount for rejecting the issue of racist politics as an unfortunate and unexpected identification with whiteness.

The tandem of race and racism can propel the same value-laden rationale behind which the research approach of Critical Race Studies (CRS) provides as a better lens of investigation. Numerous intersecting and overlapping threads that pertain to the notion of race and phenomena of racialisation show multiple forms of discrimination and exclusion which have been similarly shaped by global white supremacy. The concrete tension between being unable to engage vs. being unwilling to examine racism and anti-blackness is of great importance even in the Balkans where “ethnicity” matters the most.

Does race, or do racial hierarchies, exist in Bulgaria?

Among others, the case of Pomaks provides a critical perspective for unraveling issues of internal racism and domestic coloniality in the contemporary history of Bulgaria. Within the country, according to Dušan Bjelić, race relations and internal (domestic) colonialism can be found in the race discourse against national minorities such as Turks and Muslim Pomaks. Subjected to racial-type laws and policies of assimilation, which almost led to cultural genocide, Pomak identity remains hotly debated. Bulgaria’s endorsed official historiography depicted members of this group as most probable descendants of Bulgarian Christians who converted to Islam during the period of Ottoman rule. Historically, they have retained the Bulgarian language as well as certain Orthodox practices, yet their self-identification with Islam has been stronger.

Source: Lost Bulgaria – Българи помаци от Родопите, 1932 г.

After the Balkan Wars, Bulgaria and other Balkan states were quite young, somewhat lacking in national pride, and in desperate need of a dignified collective identity. As Myuhtar-May noted, the Slavic-speaking Pomaks were recast as “pure-blood” Bulgarians who spoke the “purest” Bulgarian language and preserved the “truest” Bulgarian traditions. During the interwar period, the process of Nazi Germany’s ethnic self-racialisation vis-à-vis Jewish ethnicity understood as an internal sub-race, did not differ much to the long-standing post-Ottoman process of Bulgaria’s “ethnic self-racialisation” vis-à-vis Muslim nationals and ethnic Turks. While the latter were privileged by a former empire’s minority status, Pomaks were instead subjected to forcible Christianisation and name-changing campaigns since the 1910s. In the 1940s, the Nazi-allied Bulgarian Monarchy passed the “Law for the Protection of the Nation” (Законът за защита на нацията), which resembled and recuperated some logics and interactions of the Nuremberg Race Law. Ironically, Slavic majoritarian populations were equalized to other coloured races in the early 20th century, especially after the rapid production of racial hygiene policies and implementation of eugenic measures. These were about to counter ‘qualitative’ aspects of the implementation of Slavic and colored populations themselves along with their racial characteristics.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, Michel Foucault introduced the concept of “internal racism” by referring to eugenics. Despite the takeover of Communist forces and anti-imperialist stances, Bulgaria’s domestic colonisation unfolded violently within specific ethnic landscapes. This typical form of “internal (domestic) colonialism” was rethought by Foucault himself as a form of governmentality impinging on individuals in their most basic relations to themselves and others. Foucault argued that not only Nazism and Western ethnocentrism, but even socialism and Marxism were racist from the outset. Meanwhile, in Bulgaria another wave of vigorous attempts was made to oblige Pomaks to abandon their Muslim and Arabic names and adopt Bulgarian ones. Paraphrasing Foucault here, Bulgarian socialism showed its racist component by taking up, developing, re-implanting, and modifying its basis or its modes of working. Race relations between Bulgarians and Muslim Pomaks were presented as existing inside the “same type”, where the political conversion of ethnicity into race was central to account the history of Bulgaria. Race of Pomaks, in this sense, was an operative category of identity-remaking over their specific ethnic space – namely, the Rhodope region. Hence, Pomaks themselves were simply considered pure-blooded Bulgarians who had just been forced to convert to Islam during the Ottoman Empire. This form of auto-referential racism came into shape through the so-called ‘Rebirth Process’ – namely, an often inconsistent and contradictory policies of nativisation that the Communist Bulgaria Party orchestrated and implemented on the ground against ethnic and religious minorities. The rhetoric was that of salvation and progress, more precisely of “cultural uplifting” (e.g. културно издигане), which echoed a particular tradition of humanist practices with a long colonial career. As Gerhard Meinsenbeg would have argued, the words ‘culture’ and ‘race’ happened to be interchangeable. Likewise, Angela Saini wrote that particular cultural features had been historically chosen arbitrarily, through a superficial selection of external characters. Culture mattered only because it had a political meaning attached to it. When the word “race” had been prudently replaced by ‘population’, racial differences came to replace the notion of ‘human variation’. Moreover, socialism’s auto-referential racism showed how the traditional relationship between race discourse and nationalism had the tendency to reverse itself.

Affirming the superior value of the majoritarian cultural self, Communist Bulgaria’s nationalist turn of the 1970s became a function of racism. The power of nationalism has historically been to tell different peoples to descend from greatness, that they have been genetically endowed with something special, something passed down to them over generations. Both mechanisms of dissimilation and assimilation against Pomak identity and history were possible discourse strategies of the internal racism discourse. Expanded into an internal war that defends the core society against the threats born in its own body, the ‘Rebirth Campaign” mulled over Pomak identity, history, and ontologies. The central scope was to engine a policy of nativisation of all mediating cultural devices among different communities and reinforce the ‘unity’ of the nation – the ‘Edinstvo’. Literally “oneness”, Edinstvo was introduced as a performative societal model during socialism; its philosophy dragooned everyone into a sort of ‘epistemic self-colonisation’ implemented through institutionalizing a new normative history. Accordingly, Pomaks and other minorities would have taken an absolute distance from their own past, their legacies and ontologies. Becoming the ideological watchword of a society without divisions, the Edinstvo was an operative category of “socialist unity” blatantly depicted as a step further to a full-fledged classless society. Under the parapet of such a State-run ideology, the purpose of the Edinstvo was that of regrouping and reanimating Bulgarian-ness as a locus of state sovereignty.

Communist Parade in Sofia. “Unity” – “Friendship” – “Socialism”

Communist Bulgaria showed its nationalism’s internal supplement, as Balibar would refer to it. It was not a merely exacerbated xenophobia, but, in a sense, the very opposite: the rejection of the Bulgarian “complementary enemy”, namely, the Muslim identity of Pomaks and their Turcophilia. The term “complementary enemy” was firstly coined by Germaine Tillion during the war in Algeria against the French colonisation. During socialism, Bulgarian authorities attempted to re-humanise non-Bulgarian subjectivities and heal wounds of Turkification. Paraphrasing Franz Fanon’s argumentation on the nexus between coloniality and race, the Rebirth Campaign launched between the 1960s and the 1970s had the aim to re-humanise Pomak Muslims, and not dehumanise them. Pomaks themselves were not simply excluded and violently targeted; on the contrary, they were also forced to reject their Muslim and Turkic-sounding names along with their traditional attire in order to leave their status of backwardness. In order to uplift themselves to the status of Bulgarians, they were supposed to return to their Bulgarian ancestry and be liberated from the inhuman condition prescribed by some former rulers. It followed that birth control, prohibition of abortion, selective breeding, and sterilization, were all some of the eugenicists’ technologies for racially enhancing the ruling ethnic majority. If compared with Samera Esmeir‘s understanding of judicial humanity in British-colonialized Egypt, Communist Bulgaria’s purified ideal of humanity was only aimed at safeguarding the central authority of power and the danger of imperilling the sovereignty of the Bulgarian statehood.

All of these cannot gloss over the discourse over domestic colonisation which, since the end of the 19th century, was not only associated not only a biological race thinking, but also embedded in the colonial roots of ethnic nationalism. After the Ottoman Empire, in fact, Bulgarian institutions had to forge a new nation out of the crumbled structures of the old colonial regime and transcend them. The new “foreign nationals” were soon considered the outsiders to the new state. They were not outside the border of the state itself, but rather present and belonging to it. To conclude, even if the ‘word’ race was not being used, the idea of race and race thinking was there, deep within the bedrock. Within it, Western Europe’s colonialism penetrated Bulgaria as well as the Balkans and Eastern Europe in the same sequential order, informing each other via the boomerang effect of colonial practices.

Main References

  • Neuberger, Mary (2004) The Orient Within: Muslim Minorities and the Negotiation of Nationhood in Bulgaria, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.
  • Dušan I. Bjelić (2018) Toward a Genealogy of the Balkan Discourses on Race, in: “Interventions International Journal of Postcolonial Studies”.
  • Myuhtar-May, Fatme (2014) The Vŭzrotidelen Protses: Identity Crisis and the Forced Renaming of the Pomaks, in Identity, Nationalism, and Cultural Heritage under Siege, Leiden: Brill.
  • Erlenbusch, Verena (2017) From Race War to Socialist Racism: Foucault’s Second Transcription, in: Foucault Studies, No. 22, pp. 134-152.
  • Angela Saini (2019) Superior. The Return of Race Science, Boston: Beacon Press.
  • Samera Esmeir (2012) Judicial Humanity. A Colonial History, Redwood City: Stanford University Press.
  • Fanon, Frantz () The Wretched of the World, London: Penguin.


Please accept statistics, marketing cookies to enable Social Share buttons.
Recent Posts