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Bulgaria

Capital Sofia
Time Zone EET (GMT+2)
Country Code 359
Mobile Codes 91,92,95,98,99
ccTLD .bg
Currency Lev (1EUR = 1.95BGN)
Land Area 110,993 sq km
Population 7.5 million
Language Bulgarian
Major Religions Orthodox Christianity, Islam

Together But Separated: Stereotypes as Demarcation Line between Alevis and Sunnis in Bulgaria

By Nuray Ekici*

Historically, Turks have not only been engaged in inter-religious conflicts, but also in intra-religious ones. In these conflicts, whether latent or not, stereotypes have played an important role; they have fueled the conflicts, and at the same time been sustained by them. Thus stereotypes have served to draw bold demarcation lines and sharp boundaries between intra-religious groups. The case of Bulgarian Alevis and Sunnis is not an exception to this rule.

The Need to Have “Enemies and Allies”, or just an (Internal) “Other”

In shaping collective identities, “others” play a vital role. “Me” and “us” has substance or significance, so long as “he/she” and “they” exist as a negative reference group: as Huntington puts it “we know who we are only when we know who we are not, and often when we know whom we are against.” That is to say, we are “what the “other” is not.”

When it comes to Bulgaria’s Sunni Muslim community, the “main other” (by definition inferior and in some cases even subhuman), is the Alevis. In the larger national context, Sunni religious identity itself has been formed primary against that of the Christian Bulgarians. But Alevis, more commonly known as Kizilbashes, are also crucial in their identity construction as being the main “internal others.” Indeed, they usually are not perceived as true Muslims by their Sunni peers; for the Sunnis, they are “semi-Muslims” or “Muslim-like people.” Thus they are not even always considered “internal” specifically. In some cases they are even considered inferior to Bulgarians in religious terms.

The Alevis in Bulgaria: A “Minority within a Minority”

Bulgaria’s Muslim community is mainly concentrated in Southeast and Northeast Bulgaria, and is almost totally composed of ethnic Turks. This community numbers approximately 967,000. The vast majority of these are Sunnis; the Alevis of Bulgaria, as a religious group, number around 53,000 people; in a way, therefore, they are a “minority within a minority.”

The presence of the Kizilbashes in Bulgarian public life is barely noticeable, not only due to their small population, but also due to the prevailing social biases, stereotypes and prejudices against them. Historically, they have had to hide their identity in order to survive under harsh political conditions. Today, though such a threat to the very existence of the Alevi community does not exist, most of them still prefer to hide their identity mainly due to the prevailing stereotypes within the dominant group.

Stereotypes

Stereotypes are the most important mental constructs in drawing, shaping and maintaining group boundaries. They are easily “created,” and if necessary “invented,” and then internalized in religious identity through a process of “otherization.” They usually consist of highly sacral values and attitudes on the one hand, and behaviors usually considered as taboo on the other.

This is not a coincidence. In fact, this is the best possible way to draw and sharpen bold demarcation line between the groups. Presenting the unthinkable as undisputable truth will certainly irritate Sunni group members directly from the outset of the socialization process, and turn the Alevis into a kind of semi-human group.

Mum söndü (Candle Blown Out): “Sanctity of Family vs. Incest”

The most widely known stereotype about the Alevis can be summarized by the term “mum söndü.” This term implies a myth of communal sexual intercourse and incest during the Alevi religious ritual called Cem. Contrary to what is practiced in ‘Orthodox’ Islam, men and women usually jointly participate in the Alevi religious rituals, a practice unacceptable for Sunni Muslims. So, this stereotype is constructed first by tacitly referencing the sanctity of the family and the inherent holiness of the mother, and second, by tacitly linking a practice considered unthinkable and unacceptable to a taboo, incestuous relationship. Such a “created combination” certainly puts Alevis into the non-human category and right from the beginning of the socialization process “alerts” Sunni children to stay away from “deviants.”

“Quran vs. Bathroom”

The second myth about Alevis in Bulgaria, which is somewhat less known, is again related to the most sacral values of Islam and family life. It is believed that “infidel” Alevis force their (Sunni) wives/brides to tear a page from the holy Quran and throw it in the toilet. This “infidel” stereotype also places in bold the demarcation line between the two groups once and forever.

Today, these “created” or if you like, “invented” stereotypes about the Alevis in Bulgarian Sunnite society boldly mark the borders between these two groups; they keep alive the image of the “pervert,” the “infidel,” the not quite sufficient “Muslim-like” persona of the Alevi, and even the “semi-human” Alevi. This serves to make group borders sharper, to keep the unwanted “other” at a distance, to reduce the possibility of any mixing up or inter-group marriage, and in general to reinforce existing group cohesion and religious differences. So a vicious cycle, one which continues to poison the inter-group relations in Bulgaria, is created.

However, parallel to the opening of Alevi religious practices to public, particularly to the mass media, nowadays inter-group contacts are increasingly facilitating recognition of Alevi religious identity and mutual understanding. This, in turn, helps in the deconstruction process of the historical mental constructs and barriers. All in all, breaking the vicious cycle in inter-group relations will not be easy and definitely will take time, perhaps even generations.

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*Nuray Ekici is an independent researcher and scholar, currently working on psycho-political approaches to ethnic studies and conflict management in the Balkans.

He has authored several texts on the Turkish minority in Bulgaria and the ethnic Turkish political party there (the Movement for Rights and Freedom). The present article is a synopsis of a longer one presented at a conference entitled “The Turks and Islam,” held at Indiana University in Bloomington, on September 11, 2010.