Editor's Note: The below review article appears in Balkanistica13 (2000), pp. 199-200. Internet readers are free to cite this work to the original, which is why page breaks are provided.

Turkish and Other Muslim Minorities in Bulgaria

Ali Eminov

1997. Routledge. New York. ix, 218 pp. Glossary. Tables. Appendices. Maps. (ISBN 0-415-91976-2)

Reviewed by Linda L. Nelson

State University of New York at Potsdam

Awarded the 1999 John D. Bell Bulgarian Studies Association Book Prize, Turkish and Other Muslim Minorities in Bulgaria sheds considerable new light on a complex and emotional subject. The author, anthropologist Ali Eminov, was born in Bulgaria and immigrated to the United States where he now teaches at Wayne State University in Nebraska. He was inspired to undertake this research by the Bulgarian government's claims in 1985 that there were "no Turks in Bulgaria"; that all Muslims in Bulgaria were a result of forced conversions of previous centuries; and that since the 1960s Muslims in Bulgaria had been undergoing a "process of national revival" and reclaiming their Bulgarian identity (p. vii). Following publication of several articles on the subject, Eminov was approached by representatives of the Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs who suggested expansion of those articles into a monograph which has resulted in the work under consideration.

This work is notable for a number of reasons, first of all for its scholarly approach to inflammatory and controversial issues which have been subject to falsification, distortion and exaggeration. Secondly, the range and insightful analysis of sources from Turkish, Bulgarian, other European, and North American publications are impressive. These comprise government communications and documents, articles from the periodical press, the works of prominent scholars and publicists, and reports from human rights groups. A third significant feature of the book is that while the primary focus is on Turkish Muslims, considerable attention is accorded to Gypsies and Pomaks (Bulgarian Muslims). The fourth point of merit is the extensive range of supporting and supplementary materials which include a glossary of Turkish/Muslim terms, demographic tables, maps, and appendices containing documentation of the Bulgarian government's campaign against the Muslims in the 1980s. These materials provide excellent support for the arguments presented and make the subject matter accessible to broad range of readers.

p. 200

The work begins with a well-informed discussion of the history of Bulgarian nationalism and its impact on Muslim minorities, then traces the history of Islam and Muslims in Bulgaria from the mid-14th century to the present. Eminov's treatment of the Ottoman period places significant developments of the era in historical perspective, emphasizing that although "The Ottoman period in Bulgaria was not a golden age of toleration and equality," it was not a centuries-long dark age of unrelieved cruelty toward Bulgarians either (p. 47). He deconstructs the myth of mass forced conversion, replacing it with a model of Islamization as a gradual and mainly individual process and also shows the traditional Bulgarian view of the devsirme (recruitment levy) system as "an unmitigated demographic disaster" to be "a gross exaggeration" (pp. 32-48).

From the 1878 liberation from the Ottoman Empire to the 1930s, Turks and other Muslims in Bulgaria were in an overall favorable situation, with little interference in their educational, religious, and cultural institutions. The prejudices of individual Bulgarian politicians and the stresses of various wars prompted the anti-Muslim pressures that were manifested during this period. However, the rise to power of an anti-Islamic regime in 1934 sparked a period of deteriorating conditions which became worse after the communist seizure of power in the postwar period (pp. 50-51).

The initial communist approach to Islam was a program of eradication through atheistic education and anti-Islamic propaganda. The failure of these measures led to the forced assimilation campaigns of the 1970s-80s which employed stringent measures, especially against the Turkish-speaking population. As Eminov demonstrates, the Bulgarian government distorted statistics to produce a demographic scare, claiming that the Muslim population was growing at twice the rate of the Bulgarian population to justify the assimilationist campaign (pp. 91-99). Ultimately, however, these measures backfired, resulting in a heightened sense of ethnic difference and group exclusivity.

The situation in the post-communist period is mixed. The Muslim population has for the most part reclaimed their cultural and civil rights without armed conflict under the leadership of the Movement for Rights and Freedom which stresses cooperation and consensus. However, tensions remain just below the surface as Bulgarian nationalists continue to use Turks and other Muslims as scapegoats for the social, political, and economic problems of the transition to a democratic society.

Eminov's work has shed light on many previously distorted or misunderstood issues and presents a model for further research as archival materials become increasingly available. Most of all, this work can serve as a "cautionary tale" for the present. Eminov has clearly demonstrated the dangers and ultimate futility of assimilationist campaigns, false rhetoric, and distorted data. The future of a peaceful Bulgaria lies in the construction of a pluralistic state affording equality to all ethnic groups.


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