SIRNICA, Bulgaria A young man stands on a balcony, his hand cupped to one ear as he sings out, calling his fellow students to prayer in a small Islamic studies center high in Bulgaria’s Rodopi Mountains. Slowly, groups of men emerge from their rooms and head to early morning prayers.
The center’s location in this lakeside town, surrounded by forests, seems to be the ideal setting for quiet prayer and contemplation. But over the past few months the small, anonymous-looking school has become embroiled in a dispute that is dividing Bulgaria’s one million Muslims and has prompted allegations that the former Soviet bloc state is becoming a haven for Islamic fundamentalists.
The center, which trains men to be imams, is one several Islamic studies institutes that have been branded as “terrorist nests” by parts of the Bulgarian media and Muslim community leaders, who have suggested that the institutes are trying to foist fundamentalist ideas on a traditionally moderate Islamic community.
The suggestions have brought alarm among members of Bulgaria’s Christian Orthodox majority and have led to calls for tighter regulation of religious groups. While these concerns may be genuine, some commentators in Bulgaria say the allegations are a ruse in a dispute that has less to do with religion than with power and money.
Since 2002, rival members of the Muslim community, most of whom are ethnic Turks, have been in a dispute over the appointment of Bulgaria’s chief mufti. Three groups have made efforts to elect their candidates, and the case has been taken to the Bulgarian courts, where it remains unsettled.
In the meantime, the courts have appointed a triumvirate of three Muslim leaders to govern in the chief mufti’s place. Critics of the new body charge that it is slanted in favor of one of the original candidates, Fikri Sali, who was appointed to it with two of his allies.
As leaders of Bulgaria’s Muslims, the three men not only have control over the religious teaching in Muslim schools and training centers, but also over the community’s considerable assets, which include real estate in the capital, Sofia, and Bulgaria’s second city, Plovdiv.
A former chief mufti and backer of one of Sali’s rivals, Nedim Gendzhev, has begun a campaign focusing on the triumvirate’s connections with religious groups in Saudi Arabia and alluding to possible connections with terrorist organizations.
Earlier this year, Gendzhev revealed that Sali had made a trip in July to Saudi Arabia, as the guest of Al-Waqf Al-Islami, a charity that promotes Wahhabi Islam. The charity’s branch in the Netherlands gained notoriety after it was disclosed that six of the Sept. 11 hijackers had attended one of its seminars. There has, however, been no proof that it was actively involved in the attacks or with any other terrorist grouping.
Sali denied he was a guest of the group until recently, when Al-Waqf Al- Islami’s offices in the Dutch city of Eindhoven confirmed that he had been.
The triumvirate has since defended its contact with the group, which has been active in Bulgaria since the early 1990s, helping to fund the construction of three mosques.
“People are looking for sensationalism, especially after Sept. 11,” said Ridvan Kadyov, one of the three triumvirate members, in an interview. The Bulgarian branch of Al-Waqf Al-Islami also drew attention, he said, “but no evidence was found.”
Since then one of Gendzhev’s supporters, Nedzhip Daud, has accused the triumvirate of promoting fundamentalism in study centers under its control, including in Sirnica. Daud also has claimed that children have been recruited to study abroad and sign promises to take part in holy wars.
“I define them as laboratories for brainwashing,” Daud said in an interview. “This is not good for Bulgaria. We are members of NATO and are applying for membership of the European Union.” Daud could not, however, provide any proof that children had been sent abroad to study Islam, or that they had been urged to sign pledges to fight in future jihads.
In Sirnica, the director of the Islamic studies center has become used to fielding such accusations. Said Mutlu said that just one out of more than 100 of his students over the past six years has chosen to continue his studies abroad, in Jordan.
And although the director is a follower of Wahhabi Islam, wearing a thick beard and trousers that stop at the ankles, he maintains that his teachings are in line with the more liberal branch of Sunni Islam that is practiced in Bulgaria and Turkey.
Townspeople in this intensely conservative region, where women of all ages wear head scarves and rarely are seen walking with men, say they are tired of the stream of articles depicting Sirnica as a “terrorist nest.”
“There were a lot of journalists here saying there were terrorists. Who sends them I can’t tell you,” said Ali Talipov, a 54-year-old employee in the town mayor’s office.
“They’re fighting over a bone, and these rumors are made up by people in Sofia,” said Nedzemi Halil, 45, an unemployed man sitting in the town square. Another man sitting beside him nodded in approval. “There are no problems here,” he said. “They’re just pupils.”
Western diplomats have also cast doubts on the claims that radical Islamic groups are gaining a hold in Bulgaria. The Muslim community is strongly represented by the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, a party that represents the Turkish population and holds the balance of power in Bulgaria’s Parliament.
“Muslims here are part of the political process,” said a senior Western diplomat. “There’s little room for Islamic fundamentalists.”
Nevertheless the accusations have had an effect, alarming Orthodox Christians, according to some commentators.
“Bulgarians living door-to-door with Muslims are much more afraid,” said Yana Yordanova, an editor of Kapital, a Bulgarian daily newspaper. She recently wrote a series based on her investigations into fundamentalist groups, which found no evidence of any terrorism-related activities.
Yordanova said the beheadings of two Bulgarian truck drivers in Iraq by Islamic militants in July had “generated more hatred toward Muslims,” and she has urged the government to adopt greater controls over Islamic groups, if only to reassure the public.
The dispute over the chief mufti’s position and the ensuing accusations have also frustrated those who want to see a genuine theological debate in an Islamic community that was heavily suppressed during the communist era.
“There is a genuine question here,” said Velin Belev, a teacher of Islamic studies at the New Bulgarian University in Sofia. “What kind of Islam will there be in Bulgaria? Should they turn to Arab Islam, or retain our current tradition? But people here are not interested in theology. They are only interested in money.”