ON PATRIOTS AND 'PATRIOTS'

by Christopher Buxton

Reactions to new book highlights Bulgarians' deep-rooted prejudices and nationalism

Dr Johnson defined patriotism succinctly and perhaps unfairly as the last refuge of scoundrels. I say unfairly, because for me there is a vast difference between patriots and people who call themselves patriots. What has never changed is the alacrity with which self-declared patriots label as unpatriotic those who care deeply about their country. Sitting smugly on their moral high ground these self-professed "patriots" feel they have done sufficient. There is no need to engage in any rational argument with those whose views they disagree with. If they expend any effort at all it is to unearth or invent personal details that will blacken the names of their opponents. The high ground they sit on provides enough mud.

Thus it was in the United States during the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights struggle. Those who cared sufficiently about their country to have their heads broken by the Chicago police were routinely labelled "unpatriotic" by self-appointed moral guardians.

In Bulgaria, new interpretations of its history that challenge comfortable prejudices are sufficient to provoke paroxysms of self-induced anger from the patriot brigade. This is particularly true in a country that is in the throes of complex transition and is ruled by a government whose principal concerns are its popularity and looking after its own interests.

The history of Bulgaria contains one uncomfortable and inescapable fact. For 500 years Bulgarian speakers across the Balkan peninsula were subjects of the Ottoman Empire. These 500 years have routinely been labelled as a "yoke," as "slavery," and even as "holocaust" and "genocide." But little has been written up to now about the day-to-day reality. It is enough for the "patriots" to know that, with the rise of nationalism in the second half of the 19th Century, brave revolutionaries and brigands sparked revolts throughout the Balkans that provoked horrific reprisals from the regular and (more significantly) irregular forces of what was a failing empire.

There are obvious parallels with the British Empire in regards to India, Ireland and Kenya. Only the British were far more brutal.

Like the British, the Ottoman Empire left its tangible legacy. Many Bulgarian towns still have medieval mosques. The Bulgarian language still contains many colourful Turkish words and expressions. Arguably, these 500 years played a key role in the formation of patriarchal moral codes. There are significant pockets of ethnic Turkish populations and Muslim Bulgarians – sufficient to ensure a continuous presence in the Bulgarian parliament, and even as coalition partners in previous governments.

However, any Bulgarian who seeks to study Bulgarian lands under the Ottoman Empire runs a terrible risk. Unless they just trot out the accepted black-and-white mythology of vile Turks and brave oppressed Bulgarians, they will be labelled as "anti-Bulgarian" and "agents" of foreign enemy powers.

Consequences can be dire. Any statement about some of the positive aspects of life under the Ottomans will quickly be seized upon by furious "patriots" and transformed into the shit-blanket accusation of denial. It is as though any critic of the current Israeli government is immediately labelled a Holocaust-denying anti-Semite.

As a parenthesis, the use of the word mythology is meant in no way to discredit the truth that lies behind strongly held shared beliefs about the past. Misunderstanding of the academic use of the word mythology has led to one woman being driven out of her home by a mob enflamed by the "patriotic" media – just like the paediatrician in England wrongly labelled by The Sun as a paedophile.

I know what some of my Bulgarian readers will be thinking. Buxton's English. The English have always been pro-Turkish. So, to even up this article, let me praise the writer Orhan Pamuk who has dared to take on his "patriotic" fellow Turks in addressing the massacres of Armenians. This terrible blot on the history of the Ottoman Empire has been a taboo subject in Turkey and it takes a real patriot to dare raise it.

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