Attempts to declare Bulgaria's Slavic Muslims Arabs

On 2 January a small group of Bulgarians in the south-central city of Madan protested Israel’s escalating military operation in Gaza. Braving the cold, some 800 to 1,000 people held up signs written in Bulgarian, English, and Arabic. The demonstration was organized by the local mosque's board of governors and was covered widely in the Bulgarian press. Unlike a prior protest by Palestinians and Arabs living in Sofia, this event was initiated by a group of Pomaks who consider themselves to be ethnically Arab. Two months earlier, at a press conference in the small city of Gotse Delchev, an organization calling itself the Justice Federation proclaimed Bulgaria’s Pomaks a separate ethnicity and demanded their own television channel and political party. Justice Federation leader Sezgin Myumyun insisted that the Pomaks are neither Bulgarian, Turkish, or Roma, the country's three officially recognized ethnic communities. The launch of websites such as is another sign of growing interest in the community, which is centered in southern Bulgaria and neighboring parts of Greece and Turkey.


The Pomaks are largely concentrated in the Rhodope Mountains, where their population is estimated by the Bulgarian chief mufti’s office at between 150,000 and 250,000 (the Greek and Turkish communities are much smaller). They speak a Bulgarian dialect the Greek Pomaks call Pomatsi. Some Pomaks claim a Turkish ethnic identity; others no longer follow Islam and thus are excluded from population counts based on religious affiliation. The group's history has long been contested. Most Bulgarians believe Pomaks to be ethnic Slavs who converted to Islam, either freely or by force, during the 500 years of Ottoman domination in the Balkans, but some Pomaks claim a much older Muslim lineage. Krassimir Kanev, head of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, characterizes the assertion of a distinct Pomak identity as a relatively harmless exercise aimed at winning the community some dignity in Bulgarian society. “The Pomaks are looked down upon by both Bulgarians and [Bulgarian] Turks,” he said. “The Bulgarians do not accept them because they are Muslims and the Turks do not accept them because they speak Bulgarian.”

Some Bulgarians take a darker view. The far-right Ataka party has stoked fears that the assertion of a separate ethnic identity is the first step in a future call for the establishment of a Pomak state. In February 2007 the government took down two Islamic websites for allegedly translating Chechen propaganda into Bulgarian and agitating for greater Pomak autonomy. A key Pomak religious leader, Ali Khairradin, was arrested. The charges were later dropped, but the websites were never reinstated.  A 2004 Bulgarian court decision did indeed recognize the Pomaks as a distinct ethnicity, allowing them to have their own nongovernmental organization for cultural development. Pomak advocates want to create ethnographic museums to highlight the group's unique folklore and traditions, traditions linked specifically to their faith. Young Pomaks have also filed suits with the national Commission for Protection from Discrimination over female students not being allowed to wear headscarves in public secondary schools in the Rhodope. The issue is currently in legal limbo but is likely to resurface.



The village of Chepintsi, located near Madan a few kilometers from the Bulgarian-Greek border, is home to a gleaming new white mosque with two towering minarets. Although Bulgarian is their mother tongue, the locals in Chepintsi do not greet each other like other Pomaks in the Rhodope Mountains. Instead of a cheerful “Dober den,” the men in this village shake hands or answer their mobile phones with the carefully pronounced Arabic words “Salaam alaikum.” Five times a day the call to prayer reverberates across the shallow valley. According to the locals, there is only one Christian in this village of about 2,500, and more than a thousand men crowd into the new mosque on Fridays to hear the imam. Many women here cover their hair with headscarves. In the summer of 2006, the local mosque bought the village's lone discotheque and shut it down, citing the immorality caused by alcohol and “naked women.”

When I visited Chepintsi in 2007, a portly man in his mid-fifties with a closely trimmed beard explained to me that the villagers are the proto-Muslims of Bulgaria. “We were Muslims before the Turks,” he said. “After the Prophet – peace be upon him – died, he sent his followers out to spread the true words of God, and some of them came from Arabia and settled here. We were already Muslim before Boris baptized the Slavs in the eighth century. So we were forced to become Christians, and then forced to be Muslims by the Turks, and then forced to become atheists by the communists. But we were Muslims first. We are the true Muslims of Bulgaria.”

Hairaddin Hatim, the regional mufti of Smolyan, makes a similar claim. “Islam in the Rhodope came directly from Arabia, not through Turkey. That is why we follow the Koran more correctly than the Turks,” he said in a 2007 interview. When I asked him if the ancient Thracian inhabitants of the Rhodope had been Muslims, he smiled and replied, “Why not?”

Recent books asserting a unique and Arabic ethnic identity for the Pomaks have further fanned the controversy. “I believe that the Pomaks are an Arabic minority that settled in the Rhodope because of Byzantine policies responding to the increased strength of the Slavs to the north,” Mehmed Dorsunski, the author of one such volume, said in a 2003 magazine interview. “Byzantium had a long-term policy of settling Arabs along its northern borders. … That is how the Muslim community that lived in the Rhodope in the seventh and eighth centuries was formed.” Historian Petar Yapov echoed Dorsunski's argument in a 2006 book that could not be found in bookstores or libraries but was distributed through mosques. So did Hussein Mekhmed in a volume published the following year. Though more scholarly than the previous two, it was heavily criticized by Bulgarian historians.


What troubles many Bulgarians about Pomak activism is the belief that it is linked to more fundamentalist forms of Islam imported from the Middle East. Some scholars tie claims of a distinct, Arabic identity for Pomaks to Arab missionaries who were active in the Balkans in the mid-1990s. “This theory of an alleged 'Arabic' origin of the Bulgarian Muslims comes directly from Muslim missionaries sent from Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Pakistan,” Maria Todorova, a Sofia-born history professor at the University of Illinois, argued in an article included in the 1998 book The Myth of “Ethnic Conflict.” According to ethnologist Tsvetana Georgieva, “proof” of the theory often came in the form of an inscription found on a local tombstone or mosque by a visiting Arab missionary, an inscription which then invariably disappeared. The mainstream media in Bulgaria has covered the issue with interest, focusing on the growing strength of “Arab Islam” and speculating that the creation of a Pomak political party would undermine the electoral strength of the Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms, a junior party in Bulgaria's coalition government. Indeed, the Justice Federation's Myumyun has broadcast several televised pleas admonishing Pomaks not to “sell their votes” to the Turkish party. In the past six months the government has banned two Pomak organizations accused of conducting religious activity under the guise of being secular nongovernmental organizations. The call for specifically Pomak political representation follows past advocacy for a distinct religious authority, with Pomak leaders demanding an autonomous muftiate, separate from the chief muftiate in Sofia. Pomaks claim to practice a purer form or Islam than Bulgarian Turks, a stance closely linked to the notion of their descent from Arabs, the original Muslims, whose language is that of the Koran.

Ultimately, the claim to a unique Pomak identity may prove fleeting as Bulgarians further integrate themselves into the European Union. But the country’s right-wing politicians could cause trouble for Pomaks and other Muslim voters as this summer's parliamentary elections draw nearer. Ataka has targeted Pomaks as participants in a supposed effort by Turkey and the Arab countries to re-Islamicize Bulgaria. The far-right party – which won enough votes to send deputies to Parliament in 2005 and, polls show, is likely to do so again this year – has taken the lead in protesting the pace at which new mosques are being erected around the country. It has called for a referendum on a new Muslim cultural center in Sofia, and party members withdrew from a governing coalition in the city of Burgas after their coalition partner approved the construction of a mosque there. “If Ataka becomes part of a coalition government, there could be real trouble,” the Helsinki Committee's Kanev warned.


Kristen Ghodsee