Bulgaria: The Schools that Aren’t Schools

the schools that aren't schoolsSOFIA, Bulgaria | The imam may have traveled halfway across Bulgaria to meet us, but his first concern as he arrives at Sofia’s bus station is clear: “I hope you’re not going to publish my name.”

As we are trying to figure how he could have blended into the crowd with his thin black tie with white dots, he implores us. “Promise!”

And we do. To protect him, we will call him Mustafa in this article.

Mustafa stirs in his baggy jacket, pulls a bunch of papers out of his bag, and we turn the tape recorder on.

“Muafak is Threatening Me”

Mustafa came to Sofia to lodge a complaint with the Directorate on Denominations at the Council of Ministers. In the complaint, he claims that Muafak al Asaad–a promoter of radical Islam in Bulgaria and representative of the Al Waqf-Al Islami foundation introduced in the first article in this series–came to Mustafa’s village in August 2004, looked him up and threatened him.

The letter of complaint states that Muafak, together with Sheikh Abdullah Abdul Aziz Soreya, had also threatened to take one of Mustafa’s acquaintances to the police or to have the sheik’s bodyguards beat him up.

Mustafa believes the two were exasperated with local newspaper reports that they had been trying to enroll young boys in the school in Surnitsa. “They recognized me as the source of information; that’s why they came after me and that is also why they threatened an acquaintance of mine–to make him confess that it was me who’d said those things,” Mustafa writes in his letter.

In the first article in this two-part series, we described how people around Razgrad, in northeastern Bulgaria, remember the Saudi citizen Abdul Aziz as the person who brought the funds for the construction of mosques built by Al Waqf. We found that the mosques in Bisertsi and Todorovo were fully funded by Al Waqf, that in Brenitsa Aziz bought a house and converted it into a house of prayer, and that in Stefan Karadzha the foundation donated a modest sum for a mosque whose construction had already started.

Muafak is also remembered in Todorovo, where the imam refers to him as “Abdul Azis’ assistant.” And the people of Surnitsa say that he is actually running the local Koranic school.

But Mustafa tells us that the Sheikh and Muafak are not limiting their activities to the area around Razgrad.

Whenever Abdul Aziz is in Bulgaria–and according to police data, he has visited the country almost every summer since 1993, always staying in the spa resort of Pavel Banya where he receives treatment for knee problems–they travel all over the country, making donations for mosques, and giving presents to imams.

Mustafa also claims that there’s always a young boy accompanying the Sheikh as his “assistant”; the boy is replaced every two or three months. “The point,” Mustafa says, “is to assess the boy’s qualities. If the Sheikh likes him, he invites him to the school in Surnitsa.”

“I Studied at Surnitsa”

In fact, Mustafa himself has attended the Islamic school in Surnitsa.

He says that in 1998, while he was enrolled in an Islamic institute in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, he was offered a place in Surnitsa in order to “develop.” He accepted the invitation but “found a community [there] that was unknown to me,” he wrote in his complaint. “I expected to receive good knowledge, but the teachings I saw and heard put me off.”

Mustafa only stayed at Surnitsa for a month. “In fact, as soon as I met my classmates–immature kids–I started having doubts about the quality of the teaching. After all, I could by then [already] read the Koran and considered myself quite advanced.” He wouldn’t grow a beard, a distinctive feature of Wahhabism, and kept shaving, which irritated the teachers.

“They would call me a giaour”–a Turkish word for non-believer–”and I replied, ‘A beard doesn’t make a person. Or was Hristo Botev, who had a beard, Muslim?’” Botev is one of Bulgaria’s 19th-century national heroes (and a non-Muslim).

Mustafa claims that “if a lesson lasted 45 minutes, 30 minutes of it would be devoted exclusively to jihad [or holy war], in particular the jihad against infidels and against Turkey,” infidels being “anyone following other denominations of Islam, as well as Christianity and Judaism” and jihad being a holy war.

An expert at the Directorate of Denominations, Georgi Krustev, said that after careful examination and based on these accusations, the complaint could be referred to the prosecutor’s office and could result in charges.

Mustafa sees the fact that he decided to leave Surnitsa as the main cause of his subsequent professional difficulties. In his letter of complaint he claims that it was Muafak al Asaad who ordered that he should not be employed in any mosque.

Could Muafak be seen at the school in Surnitsa at that time, we ask him. “Well,” Mustafa opens his eyes wide in surprise, “he was there all the time!”

“They are a Dangerous Denomination”

The school is owned and run by Muafak–that’s what everyone we met in Surnitsa maintained.

Or nearly everyone. The head teacher, Said Mutlu, denied that Muafak had anything to do with the training establishment except that “he owns the building” and lets it to the chief mufti’s office.

The town’s mayor, Sukri Yakubov, didn’t know of the Syrian’s involvement in school matters either. “Hasn’t this issue gotten stale yet? Do you know how many times they’ve been here to investigate but never found anything? People in Surnitsa are getting irritated because rumors like that are bad for the tourism in the area,” he said. “You know this is a resort town.”

We certainly hadn’t felt any irritation on the part of the people of Surnitsa when we had been in the town about 10 days earlier–quite the opposite: everyone was willing to confirm in front of our team that the school was owned by Muafak and that we could indeed find him there.

According to Mustafa, the characteristics of “Wahhabism in Surnitsa”–apart from forcing men to grow beards–are: “Intolerance to people of other beliefs. Interpretation of the Koran in their own terms, as jihad–a holy war with weapons and violence. They believe God has a body and clothes, which is unthinkable in traditional Islam. They also forbid reading prayers to dead people–they must be buried like dogs, and going to the cemetery is not allowed. For these people, anyone who is not one of them–a Wahhabi–is an infidel. This means they reject all other denominations of Islam and avoid contacts with them. They don’t accept the sacrificial animal slaughter at the grave of the Prophet Mohammed, nor do they accept the prayers, the Namaz, that come from the Prophet.”

Mehmed Kalic, an imam at the mosque in the center of Surnitsa, confirmed to us that “a different Islam” is taught at the school. “Wahhabis is what they are. They pray with their legs spread apart and their arms held up. They tried to influence me several times, but as they saw they couldn’t, they are now avoiding me.”

We had interrupted Mehmed Kalic’s lunch but he wasn’t in a hurry to get back to his flat. We were standing by the noisy road leading out of Surnitsa–a few meters away from the school walls–trying to protect ourselves from the dust stirred up by passing lorries.

How did they try to influence him, we asked.

“They wanted me to make a statement that what they taught was not wrong,” the imam shrugged. “And I can’t possibly do anything like that. If you know Islam well, you can’t let that happen. However, a large part of the population doesn’t know Islam. The Wahhabis take advantage of this to make breakthroughs. They were successful in another mosque, for example. There are now problems among the people there–some of the people pray one way, some the other. It is a dangerous denomination. It is leading to a schism among Muslims.”

We asked if he had informed the authorities. His reaction was clear: “What authorities? Who would help us?”

A few minutes later we were again with Said Mutlu, the head teacher of the Surnitsa school.

“We hear you’ve had problems with some of the local people,” we said.

“You’ve probably spoken to someone who’s never set foot in a mosque; ask the believers,” he replied. Mutlu maintained that this was not a school but a course in the Koran, and that “everything came from the general mufti’s office–regulations, curricula,” and that the facility had been opened in 1999 (even though informed observers confirmed that it had operated long before that). According to Mutu, “the attacks against us come from Nedim Gendzhev, who has ambitions to resume his power.”

Gendzhev is the former chief mufti of Bulgaria, and is currently appealing a recent judgment by the Sofia city court which appointed an interim management for the Muslim community, consisting of Fikri Sali, Ridvam Kadyov, and Osman Ismailov. Gendzhev claims that he’s the only legitimate leader of the Muslim community.

“Ugly, Bearded Men”

The school in Ustina is among those that the former chief mufti calls illegal and is planning to close down as soon as he regains his office.

Gendzhev doesn’t conceal his ambition but denies being motivated by the prospect of controlling the community’s real estate holdings, as his opponents claim.

Gendzhev expects to re-enter office soon and to deal with “the unlicensed schools that train in non-traditional Islam.”

Gendzhev doesn’t deny his connections with the State Security Service or with Dr Fatih Ali Hasanein, an associate of the Muslim Brotherhood who sponsored the publication of the Koran for him–but he does deny using the schools simply as a tool in his fight for the chief mufti’s office.

In Ustina, we talked with Sebahtin, a representative of the board of trustees of the local mosque who declined to give his last name. He was still upset about provocative questions on suicide bombings and bin Laden that Gendzhev had asked during a school visit with a group of journalists.

Sebahtin said, “They accuse us of preaching extremist Islam! They compare us with Surnitsa! How ridiculous!”

“Why, what’s wrong with Surnitsa?” we asked, and he just snapped: “We have nothing in common with them! They are different–ugly, bearded men. When they came to see our school I kicked them out right away. How could I let them in?!”

The school in Ustina has been operating since 2002 but is not registered with the Ministry of Education and Science (MES). “They are now trying to get a license from MES,” imam Muzafer from the mosque in Ustina told us. He stands in for regular teachers during the summer and feels sufficiently informed to make comments.

The MES Regional Inspectorate in Plovdiv, however, adamantly denied this claim. “This is not true, we’ve never received an application from that institution in Ustina,” an official explained. He stated that to his knowledge, the school fell under the responsibility of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

The MES press center confirmed that there were only three Muslim secondary schools licensed by the Ministry–in Shumen, Momchilgrad, and Ruse. “We have nothing to do with any others,” officials said.

It is precisely because they are not registered with the MES that Surnitsa and Ustina so much object to the term “school” being applied to them. They prefer to refer to themselves as a Koranic course, or a course for imams, although the training takes nine months, is free of charge, and comes provided with board and lodging. The head teacher of Surnitsa, for example, considers the permit to provide a Koranic course from the Directorate on Denominations sufficient proof that everything is in order. However, Directorate officials explain that the key issue is how exactly the course is delivered; they maintain its normal duration should be two or three months and the curriculum should only contain Islamic subjects.

School representatives also boast about the support they receive from the office of the serving chief mufti, Fikri Sali. The schools in Surnitsa and Ustina do in fact enjoy such support, but that’s not necessarily an indication that everything is in order.

“This is a Hall of Residence”

In Delchevo, there is another school. But that is not a description they accept.

“Say the word ‘school’ again and I’ll walk out,” said Mr Dzhinov, head of the real estate division of the regional mufti’s office in Razgrad. He popped up unexpectedly as our team was walking in the yard of the empty building.

What was the facility, if not a school?

“It’s a hall of residence,” Dzhinov replied unfazed.

He explained the rooms were used only to house children who went to school in the neighboring village of Todorovo. This explanation is not particularly convincing, however: people from several villages told us that representatives of the mufti’s office had persuaded parents to send their children to Delchevo. Why would they do that only in order to then send the pupils to school in a neighboring village?

Dzhinov conceded that “in their free time and on weekends they study the Koran.”

But it not a Koranic course, apparently.

“Do you have a permit for a Koranic course?” we asked.

“This is a hall of residence,” the reply came. “Is it Nedim Gendzhev that sent you?”

Renovations were underway at the school, and the supervisor Ibrahim Efraim explained to us that changes were being made because of sanitary requirements they hadn’t complied with, that they did have electricity and running water but without a permit, that the school premises extended into a neighboring plot, and that the school was going to apply for registration with the Regional Inspectorate.

“You keep your mouth shut,” Dzhinov jumped in. “You don’t understand.” He didn’t elaborate which of the statements had irritated him.

Officials from the Regional Inspectorate for Education in Razgrad told us, “We have received no documents from Delchevo. They haven’t submitted any application or anything else.” They added, “Even if they are just a residence hall, they need a permit, and the licensing procedure is long and complicated.” The Inspectorate officials also said they would monitor the facility and report any suspicious activity to the prosecutor.

The school in Delchevo was built in 1997 and 1998. Both Dzhinov and the supervisor there spoke respectfully about Suleiman Hilmi Tunahan, who was born in the village in 1888, graduated in Saudi Arabia and moved to Turkey. It was his followers that built the “hall of residence” in Delchevo, as our hosts explained. Many other people confirmed this information: the foreigners had come there “in order to continue their teacher’s”–Suleiman’s–”initiative.”

In Europe, opinion on such initiatives–and on the followers of Suleiman, the Suleymanci–are divided; media reports in Germany and Turkey highlight their secretive tendencies and hint that their teachings may foster radicalism. It is estimated that around 60,000 German children are taught in the group’s 320 cultural centers, which have around 20,000 adult members. In Turkey, the Suleymanci run around 1,000 student halls with almost 100,000 residents, the overwhelming majority of whom go to secular schools. The residences are known for their strict discipline.

“Long Sleeves in Hot Weather”

It is because of the strict discipline that Kerme no longer wants to attend the school.

We met her by chance, as we pulled over in Ostrovo and asked her mother Fatme if she knew any children who went to Delchevo. “Well, my daughter goes there,” she said laughing and pointed towards the family’s house.

Kerme was 15 but looked older. Her grandmother sent her to buy sweets to treat the guests before she started talking. Eating liqueur chocolates, we listened to Kerme saying she liked it in Delchevo but didn’t want to go back. She had attended Delchevo for a year, but only at weekends and during the summer holiday. The supervisors treated the children well, she said–yet Kerme wouldn’t go back. (According to the prosecutor’s office, one of the supervisors is being sued for pedophilia.) The food was great, but next year she was going to school in Razgrad.

We couldn’t shake off the feeling that Kerme was hiding something important from us. We learned what it was when we asked her about her free time.

“Well, we didn’t have free time,” Kerme replied, smiling uneasily. “We got up at six in the morning, then prayed, had breakfast and read the Koran; then we had lunch and read again. We didn’t go out. The Koran is hard to study. We stayed in all the time. They wouldn’t let us out to have coffee, or watch television, or talk to boys. We were reading and studying all the time. We wore headscarves, long skirts and long sleeves in the hot weather. It was really very hot. And very boring, too. That’s why I don’t want to go back.”

Kerme told us that in the women’s building there were 30 to 40 girls. (Dzhinov had forgotten to mention when speaking to us earlier that there was a separate building for girls. As for the number of boys, he said the building could house “about 20 people,” but Kerme told us there were more boys than girls.)

Kerme said that there were two other kids in the village who were at Delchevo with her. We set out to meet them and Kerme briefed us that “they are brother and sister. Their mum stayed there all the time, so they got on very well with the supervisors. The boy has even been to Turkey–because if you’re a good student they send you to study there. I haven’t asked him how it was there, though, because, as I told you, we weren’t allowed to speak to the boys.”

We reached the house. Little Muzeya, 14, came out, followed by her mother, who immediately told us that she was a widow and that it was very nice at Delchevo, and “Why did they do that? People say they’re going to close it down–is it true? Let the kids study. Why are they doing that?”

Before her mother interrupted her, Muzeya managed to say that she liked it at the school, that the Koran was easy, and that she also went to a secular school in Todorovo. “They teach the children, you see?” the mother said proudly.

It’s easy to understand why a mother who has to bring up her two children on her own is grateful when someone offers a free education plus a bed and food for the children. As Dzhinov had told us, “We travel from village to village to enroll them. Most of them are poor kids–children of divorced parents, or orphans, or their mother’s in Holland and their father in Turkey.”

As we were talking in front of the gate, Ali passed by on his bike. He was 16, had studied at Delchevo for four years and when asked how it had been there, he replied, with a wide smile on his face, “awesome.” We laughed and then Ali told us he had already spent three weeks in Turkey. The last time he went there to choose a school in Istanbul where he would continue to study. He was met by “some imams,” who, he says, were going to take care of him and pay for his education.

“What do you want to be?” we asked.

“A lawyer,” Ali beamed and started telling us enthusiastically what they had been taught at Delchevo: “They were telling us, the end of the world is coming. All people have started drinking and dancing in discos. Now, as Christianity is against these things, so is Islam. That’s what they were telling us.”

The Question

The schools in Surnitsa, Ustina and Delchevo are entirely different from one another in terms of ideas and teaching. What they have in common is the lack of transparency and external control over what they do, and hence the doubts about the true motives that may lie behind their generosity.

In that sense, it is secondary whether the schools are simply a tool in the fight for the chief mufti’s office. What’s important is that despite the lack of oversight and accountability, and despite the secrecy in which their operations and curricula are shrouded, the mufti’s office fully supports them. They are not registered with the Ministry of Education and Science; the Directorate on Denominations is aware of their existence but has no power to regulate them; yet, the mufti’s office sees nothing wrong in backing them unconditionally and dismisses any worries about extremist beliefs or emergent Islamic fundamentalism as nonsense.

But quality control is a critical ingredient in any education system worth its name. Neither the curricula nor the teachers at these schools are evaluated by anyone other than their ideological soulmates–hardly a recipe for a healthy education.


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