My IPF Project
Islam, the Balkans,
In Europe, particularly in the context of the EU enlargement, Islamic actors with an agenda in the public sphere challenge the domestic politics of the separate EU countries as well as their common policies, and the Wider Europe initiative is facing a broad cultural divide. This necessitates a timely response of both civil society and policymakers in the EU member states, especially with respect to its next enlargement 2007 when the external boundary of the Union will be re-drawn toward the South-East. There are long-standing social and cultural links across the EU external borders which should not be seen as a new barrier. This stimulated the emergence a new European ‘neighbourhood’ project resulting in the formulation of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) which seeks to share the benefits of the EU’s enlargement with the neighboring Eastern and Southern countries. As stated in the ENP Strategy Paper of the European Commission (Brussels, 12.05.2004), the ENP in South and South-East is directed primarily to MENA countries covered by the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (the Barcelona Process) aiming at the creation of a larger area of stability, dialogue, cooperation and exchange around the EU.
The Balkan countries are pursuing their relations with the EU in several different frameworks. Bulgaria and Romania are well advanced and aim to join the Union in January 2007. Turkey is a country with a different timetable remaining for now between ‘candidate’ and ‘neighbour’. The five Western Balkan countries, which are potential future EU members, are developing their relations with the Union supported by the Stabilization and Association Process (SAP). The ENP does not cover any Balkan country but Bulgaria and Romania will be involved in its implementation after they become EU members. There is a variety of perspectives to the EU in South-East Europe where the population is ethnically and religiously mixed, for apart from the Christians there are significant Muslim communities. For all of these Muslim communities the long-standing cultural links with the Muslim-majority world are getting more and more important in the post-communist period.
Bulgaria is the only Balkan country with a substantial Muslim minority (more than 12%) which will become a full EU member during the next enlargement wave. In historical and geographical terms Bulgaria is the natural bridge between Christian and Islamic societies, and Christians and Muslims have coexisted in Bulgaria for centuries. However, due to the nature of the political events of today and the influence of the mass media, the public in Bulgaria perceives the Middle Eastern region primarily in the light of religio-political conflicts, turbulence, violence and wars. A similar tendency can be observed in the attitudes of the Bulgarian public towards some of their Balkan Muslim neighbors, including Turks and Albanians. The long relationship between Christians and Muslims in Bulgaria has bred a mutual understanding and co-existence which are the qualities underlying the term of komshuluk, specific of the Bulgarian lands, i.e. good, neighborly, difference respecting co-existence. However, the mutual understanding, characteristic of this relationship, is mainly found in everyday communication. Yet there is a paradoxical ignorance of Islam as a religion and civilization in the higher social strata and among most of the new political elite. With other words, the Bulgarian public, once part of the Ottoman Empire, is ambivalent about its Ottoman past.
In this context of regional and increasingly globalizing Islam-related challenges, the public policy of Bulgaria to the Muslim-majority world since the democratic changes in early 1990s has been erratic and virtually non-existent on a conceptual level. The activities of the state policy institutions have been of limited scope, mainly reactive and lacking in long-term vision. The public and political discussions on this aspect of Bulgaria’s policies have been fragmental and insufficient. Public interest has been mainly sensation-based, and the vague attempts for public discussions on important issues get drawn in stereotyping, misinterpretations and misunderstanding. As a result Islam is underestimated and misused as a factor in the design of the Bulgaria’s public policy in spite of its full EU membership from January 2007 onwards.
The basic working hypothesis of this paper is that policy analysis and policy design should not simply rely on the modernist strategy which identified religion as the problem and proposed the solution by way of “classical” secularism, which is to avoid religion’s conflictual terrain by setting it outside the public sphere. The intense quest for cultural authenticity within Islam today requires an adequate response, including from the perspective of the ENP. The future success of the European project depends in a considerable degree on the re-conceptualization of the cultural factors in the design of a new neighbourhood policy, which would even be able to go beyond the strict mechanisms of the ENP, particularly as far as Islamic factor is concerned. Given the strong relationship between religious identity and political and social peace in the Balkans, this paper is based on the assumption that it is extremely important to study the impact of the Islamic and Islamist movements and discourses from the Muslim-majority world on the Balkan Muslim communities in the context of Wider Europe challenge. There is an urgent need to search for new strategies, continually re-thinking the role of Islam and its potential to collaborate in addressing the more trenchant problems of domestic and international affairs.