Chapter 1 Byzantine and Ottoman Pasts, Modern Politics

Religious Belongings and Balkan Secularities

In: Islam, Christianity, and Secularism in Bulgaria and Eastern Europe

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The chapter tackles the patterns of religion and identity in the Balkans with a special emphasis on Bulgaria to foreground the concept of secularities instead of the “fixed” notion of a single path of secularism matching the classical Western ideal. Discussing the religious underpinnings of Balkan secularities and the lack thereof, we draw on Benedict Anderson’s notion of imagined communities, which marked a new way of using the term “imagined” in understanding politics and political action. Anderson’s concept is straightforward, arguing that ideas of political community are not given but are actively constructed, and contested, by those who hold them, and historically situated. Anderson’s insightful term was readily expanded by analogy from describing how nations took shape to the analysis of religious experience—not only for Christians and Muslims but also for other faiths. There has been resistance to use of the term “imagined” because it suggests to some an unreality. However, as the chapter argues, the term highlights how social and political forms get shaped by individuals and collectivities to become social facts. The notion of politics as centered on power relations and interests alone cannot account for how members of a society interact, cooperate, and sustain social cohesion. Overt political struggle is framed by implicit understandings of belonging and, of course, the arbitrary enforcement of what is permitted and forbidden. Pursuing this struggle about people’s imaginations, the chapter elucidates the relevance of two concepts invoking both Byzantine and Ottoman notions implicitly underpinning modern politics—symphonic and milletic secularism.