Kristen Rogheh Ghodsee. Muslim Lives in Eastern Europe: Gender, Ethnicity, and the Transformation of Islam in Postsocialist Bulgaria. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010. xvi + 252 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-691-13954-8; $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-691-13955-5.
Reviewed by Isa Blumi (Assistant Professor of History, Georgia State University)
Published on H-Levant (July, 2010)
Commissioned by Amy A. Kallander (Syracuse University)
Transitional Spirituality among Bulgaria’s Pomaks in the Post-Socialist Era
Since the early 1990s, studies across the disciplines have monitored transformations affecting the post-socialist world. Among the more useful and innovative explorations of the former Soviet Union and its Central Asian republics are the works of Neema Noori, Adeeb Khalid, Maria E. Louw, and Farideh Heyet. Examining various aspects of political change, these scholars also focus on those nominally identified “Muslims” whose lives are transformed by shifts in the world’s political and economic order. It is this aspect of the post-Cold War world that has proven the most intriguing for readers.
To a much lesser extent scholars of the Balkans have also investigated how the “end of the Cold War” impacted the lives of Muslim subject populations. Unfortunately, the more successful examples of these studies have been overly influenced by the shocking violence experienced by the region’s peoples. As a consequence, scholars too often ask questions of a community’s spiritual and identity politics from a context tainted by war rather than fusing a historical and sociological analysis of ethnicity, faith, and gender. However, as scholars of Central Asia have noted, as much as the state’s violent policies did transform the Balkans, such violence may not constitute the only source from which social scientists can analyze the experiences of the region’s diverse communities after the fall of the socialist state.
Identity politics in the Balkans is studied most frequently by scholars working on Romania, Greece, and the former Yugoslavia, such as Kevin Brown, Tone Bringa, Gail Kligman, Katherine Verdery, Eric Gordy, and Sabrina Ramet. Curiously, despite the obvious parallels, there have been no substantial studies on Bulgaria. Kristen Ghodsee’s excellent Muslim Lives in Eastern Europe may begin to fill this gap. Over the last few years this fine anthropologist has consistently offered a sophisticated presentation of change in post-socialist Bulgaria. As with her first book, The Red Riviera (2005), which explores the impact of tourism on post-socialist Bulgaria’s Black Sea coastal communities, Ghodsee’s Muslim Lives (2009) addresses the “market” demand for ethnographies of “Islam” in Eastern Europe. Fortunately, she carefully steers away from the sensationalism evidenced in so much post-9/11 scholarship on Islam. Ghodsee considers religious identity in Bulgaria in the context of economic collapse in Eastern Europe--avoiding cultural essentialism--and its effects on the lives of Muslims in the Rhodope mountain region of Bulgaria.
As Ghodsee composes a polished and well-organized analysis of transition, she interweaves the testimonials of Pomaks (Slav Muslims who are distinct from the “Turkish” Muslim population living in other regions of Bulgaria) with a socioeconomic analysis that recognizes the diversity of their responses to these changes. Assuming a direct linkage between the collapse of a previously male-dominated regional economy, and the visible spiritual reorientation of the inhabitants of Madan/Rudozem (towns where Ghodsee spent most of her time in the mid-2000s), the book adroitly weaves a history of the region’s mining industry with what she asserts is a profoundly different social order by 2005. Ghodsee thus shines light onto the Rhodope’s varied Muslim communities as they try to adapt to a world turned upside down by the collapse of state-owned industries and not necessarily by a uniquely ethno-religious proclivity to “clash” with non-Muslims who make up the majority of Bulgaria’s population. This analysis adds depth to any number of earlier works on similar processes throughout the former socialist world.
While a map would have been useful to situate the Madan/Rudozem towns in a Bulgarian and larger Balkan context (it does seem economic isolation of these Pomak communities is as much a geographic reality as a structural, political, or cultural one) the nature of the story should be easy enough to follow for scholar and novice alike. Yet as she presents her often detailed evidence of economic decline in the context of a post-industrial Bulgaria (chapters 2 and 3) Ghodsee’s preferred audience seems to be the international agency bureaucrat more than fellow ethnographers. This proclivity to keep it simple, means Ghodsee largely avoids falling into the trap of “terrorism studies” that equates a generic “Islam” with a growing threat to so-called European values. Disappointingly, this simplicity makes the book more appropriate for students at the undergraduate level, than as a critical analysis of identity, political economy, and gender relations in Bulgaria.
Ghodsee’s tone targets a general readership, causing her some problems when directly analyzing the effects of transition on Madan/Rudozem’s Pomak population and their possible connections to a purported rise in religiosity. By integrating the local dynamics of economic marginalization and a new focus on institutionalized identity claims among some of the region’s inhabitants, Ghodsee succeeds in demonstrating how her subjects’ trials and tribulations fit into the larger Bulgarian, and Balkan, regional dynamics. This is especially important as it is the Pomaks, more so than the “Turkish” Muslim population found elsewhere in Bulgaria, who are directly targeted by the foreign aid organizations long thought of as proselytizers first, agents of economic development second. But the question arises: can such a narrative afford to ignore the larger methodological issues raised by Ghodsee’s colleagues?
Ghodsee’s focus in chapter 5 joins the work of scholars and international bureaucrats who study the so-called Islamic foundations as the engines for change in places like Madan. A major weakness of this literature is that interactions between the targeted population and “Arab” agents of radical Islam lack context. Ghodsee expands the discussion to highlight the tensions that such groups bring to communities conflicted by economic depression as much as cultural traditions. She demonstrates that Saudi or Kuwaiti money does not simply buy new Islamic practices. Rather, the introduction of “missionary” operations like the International Islamic Relief Organization animates a variety of distinct and often internally contradictory reactions, such as the conflicted relationship between religion and politics in Bulgaria. In this respect, her treatment of the tensions within the institutional hierarchy of the larger Bulgarian Muslim community serves as an excellent case for those interested in studying political rivalries and their links to state institutional control after the 1990s. The competition between Nedim Gendzhev and Mustafa Alish Hadzhi for the position of Bulgaria’s chief mufti is similar to struggles for institutional power in Kosovo and Bosnia today, which also involve fights over who controls Christian and Muslim institutions. One of Ghodsee’s most useful contributions is to thoroughly inspect (and frequently quote from) the material produced by the different factions striving to control state-sanctioned Muslim institutions. As they vied for ascendency over larger Bulgaria’s Islamic community, this printed material proves a useful tool in making Ghodsee’s argument about the often contradictory elements that contribute to religious orientation among Pomaks. It is with the use of this same material, however, that Ghodsee runs into methodological trouble.
For one, Ghodsee seems to misuse Talal Asad’s invaluable methodological corrective by relaying a few select quotes to articulate for the reader a set of professional debates about how to present Muslims in the context of changes long associated with modernity. As Ghodsee undoubtedly knows, a study of transformations on the scale of those in Madan,requires a more rigorous engagement with the scholarship questioning how we study Islam in academia. Asad’s interventions are not mere corrective definitions/clarifications of how to characterize the sensibilities of a subject’s faith vis-à-vis religious “orthodoxy.” Rather, they present a methodological challenge to engage the subject as part of a constant reorientation of the scholar’s own practice of analysis.
Context proves crucial to initiating a different kind of representation of the changes Ghodsee’s subjects are experiencing. Rather than taking the opportunity to invest more time engaging scholars like Asad and Lila Abu-Lughod (listed in the bibliography), Ghodsee appears to have excised all engagement with the latter's work, which I believe proves extremely informative in understanding how other women experience changes in ways comparable to Ghodsee’s subjects. She could have expanded her study even more by exploring the work of some of Asad’s former students, especially Charles Hirschkind’s study on the engagement with cassette tapes and broadcast sermons in Cairo. Ghodsee could have used Hirschkind’s example to be more direct with her subjects with respect to the interpretation of the materials she helpfully includes in her book at great length.
Ghodsee frequently resorts to literal translations of a wide range of educational material disseminated by numerous outside and national Muslim organizations in order to highlight the strategies of indoctrination presumably at work. Unfortunately, this material forms her basis for drawing conclusions about the impact such material has on the way Pomak women choose to orient their spiritual and social lives. And yet, even on the rare occasions that Ghodsee consults directly with her subjects to help the reader understand the range of experiences, their responses hint that personal stories mediate the instructional material they may or may not read about Islam. As Hirschkind and Abu-Lughod have so clearly demonstrated, the translation of a material Islam into actual experience cannot be reduced by way of simply repeating the formal text/sermon. Observing those reading Web sites in a local Internet café or speculating on how locally produced publications like Ikra (Arabic for “read”) or Myusyulmansko Obshtestvo (Bulgarian for “Muslim society”) influences the Pomak reader does not relieve Ghodsee of her task of actually engaging the interpretive process. Put differently, identifying a clearly motivated woman whose relative success as a result of her transformation into what others deemed an “Arab” cannot be simply associated with the instructional material she reads.
Ghodsee’s arguments about the increasing role of faith in women’s lives is problematically reduced to women’s dress. The notorious “hijab” (zabradki in Bulgarian) becomes as much a contested marker for Pomaks that something was indeed changing in southwest Bulgaria as in other parts of Europe (and the Middle East). Like many others, Ghodsee identifies the turn towards a new form of public religiosity via the hijab by some of Madan’s women as an indicator of a larger problem. What is often treated as a generic phenomenon in the larger scholarship is especially evident in Ghodsee’s own observations about how women very purposefully modify their choice of clothing in the broader context of veil politics. Yet the overt attention to the rest of Europe’s own veiling stories detracts from the analysis of the tensions between presentation, personality, and personal interpretations of faith experienced by Madan’s women. A larger set of questions directed at more than a few women would have been useful to really develop this last section of Ghodsee’s work.
In this respect, more could have been said about the educational experience of those influential local and national figures who had traveled to Jordan, Saudi Arabia, or elsewhere. More testimonials could have served to advance the theme of the book and indicate how they adapted to the pace of daily life in economically depressed Madan. It is not enough, I believe, to simply juxtapose the “Arab” dress against miniskirts. Women in Bulgaria and their ideological orientations are clearly not as narrowly defined by their clothing as suggested by this crude opposition of miniskirts and veils, as hinted at by Ghodsee herself in references to nostalgia. The veil may “empower” rather than suppress women; it shielded the subject from the misogynists of the pre-1990 era in Bulgaria who undoubtedly harassed enough women to make them feel the veil was in fact a solution to a larger problem.
To her credit, Ghodsee concedes that the link between the veil and a certain kind of religiosity is a reductive calculus that may adversely affect her analysis in chapter 6. She admirably adheres to her larger point that these controversies are as much a product of complicated socioeconomic factors as simple indicators of radicalization or conservatism. Thus, Ghodsee generally escapes the trap of explaining the spiral towards intolerance often found in depictions of Muslim polities in the Balkans since the early 1990s by capturing with nuance a set of conflicted, ever-changing dynamics afflicting very different people in different ways. The veil, in other words, (and shifts towards a more recognizably “conservative” orientation) proves in Ghodsee’s study to be more complicated, often connected to a political economy of transition rather than simply male-dominated cultural politics.
These significant methodological concerns aside, Ghodsee accomplishes a great deal with Muslim Lives in Eastern Europe. She thoughtfully engages a community of Pomoks whose lives are transformed by the collapse of the local mining economy. She suggests that through the filter of international organizations seeking to gain new influence within the region, we can recognize significant personal transformations that require our rethinking of the way Muslims (and all Bulgarians) are experiencing the changes. As such, this work may be a useful teaching tool for classes focusing on political transitions and may help steer young students and international bureaucrats away from crude stereotypes about Muslims in the Balkans.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-levant.
Isa Blumi. Review of Ghodsee, Kristen Rogheh, Muslim Lives in Eastern Europe: Gender, Ethnicity, and the Transformation of Islam in Postsocialist Bulgaria.
H-Levant, H-Net Reviews.
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