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Calling Ukraine “Relatively Civilized” Invokes a Racist Ranking of Europeanness

We must remember that terms such as “civilized” and “European” are nothing but a colonial fantasy.

Ukrainian displaced civilians wait in the train station as they flee from the war in Lviv, Ukraine, on March 15, 2022.

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CBS senior foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata’s contrast of Ukraine, which he described as “relatively civilized, relatively European,” with Iraq and Afghanistan, where “conflict has been raging for decades,” went viral and offended millions around the globe. This dangerous comment was a sobering reminder of the persisting racism, Islamophobia and colonial mentalities still propagated by mainstream media. While people from the Middle East expressed their shock and disappointment at being labeled uncivilized, I want to focus on the “relatively” part of “relatively civilized, relatively European” and illustrate the danger — historical and lingering — in concrete, regional, Eastern European terms. Bulgaria provides an illuminating example of a country with inhumane policies for acceptance as “fully” European by a xenophobic, Islamophobic Western Europe.

Since the end of the nearly five centuries of Ottoman rule in 1878, a central component of building what we recognize today as modern Bulgaria was coming to terms with being “relatively civilized, relatively European.” According to Bulgarian intellectuals at the time of founding and socialism later (1944-1989), the Ottoman Empire had interrupted Bulgarian “natural” European cultural development. Thus, cleansing all vestiges of Islam and the Ottoman Empire was vital in affirming Bulgarian national identity as a European country with modern European potential. These ideas led to horrific consequences for the tangible, living vestiges of the Ottoman Empire: my Turkish community.

Bulgarian national identity construction during socialism was based on the “Turkish yoke.” Historians and media framed the former Ottoman rulers in classic orientalist terms: Muslim, backward and barbaric. Hostile stereotypes were reproduced in many Bulgarian television productions about the history of Bulgarian plight under Ottoman domination. Additionally, the television productions were harnessed to legitimize a forced assimilation campaign that targeted Muslim communities, including my own. Every Turkish and Muslim person in Bulgaria was forced to change their mostly Arabic-origin name to a Bulgarian one. My mother still has the proof of her name-change document, which she had to present at work to be given her salary. Practicing Islam and associated clothing (veils, shalwar) were banned, speaking Turkish was illegal and Prime Minister Todor Zhivkov declared, “There are no Turks in Bulgaria” after the name-changing campaign was complete. In the late 20th century. In Europe.

Following my father’s escape to Turkey and a lengthy ordeal with the government, my mother managed to get my brother and I out of Bulgaria shortly before the largest act of ethnic cleansing in Europe since World War II, when 360,000 Turks were expelled from Bulgaria in 1989. Following Bulgaria’s transition to democracy later that year, ethnic minority rights were promised and restored, and many expellees returned. However, as elsewhere, despite a democratically elected government and European Union (EU) membership, ethnic minority rights leave much to be desired in Bulgaria, demonstrating how empty terms such as “European” are. For example, Bulgarian authorities’ “failure to tackle entrenched prejudice against asylum seekers, migrants, Muslims and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people is fuelling further violence and discrimination,” Amnesty International notes, leading to a “climate of fear.”

Recently, at the prospect of an onslaught of Ukrainian refugees following the Russian attack on Ukraine, Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov — much like Charlie D’Agata — stated that no European country is afraid of the Ukrainian refugees, because Ukrainians are “intelligent,” “educated” and “European,” in contrast to the prior (Syrian) refugee waves of “people with unclear pasts, who could have been terrorists.” This empathy toward Ukrainian refugees is indeed a stark contrast to Bulgarian policies and practices toward Syrian refugees. During the Syrian refugee waves, instead of protecting Syrian refugees, Bulgaria fortified its borders to keep Syrian refugees out of the country. Though overt xenophobia is ostensibly against EU values, a xenophobic, Islamophobic climate reverberated throughout Bulgarian public discourse and, as we witness again, it is ongoing. Indeed, this xenophobic climate is pervasive in the EU more broadly.

Statements such as “relatively civilized, relatively European” only fuel xenophobia and racism in countries described as such, because elites aspire to full Europeanness, at all costs. In our effort to combat xenophobia, racism and Islamophobia, we must remember that terms such as “civilized” and “European” are nothing but a colonial fantasy peddled as human rights and justice for all.

Edward Said asserted that orientalism says more about “our” world than the Orient itself. The reactions to Ukrainian refugees and characterizing countries in Europe as “relatively civilized” does indeed continue to remind us that the scope, institutions and influence of orientalism are still with us, as they were when Said wrote Orientalism in the 1970s. Yet, I have witnessed the power of the media in toppling elite discourses and promoting intercultural understanding and remain hopeful for the future. Despite the Herculean effort by Bulgarian elites to instill animosity toward Turks and Turkey, Turkish TV series are adored by Bulgarians and have been running on primetime television for more than a decade in Bulgaria. Bulgarian viewers, at first surprised that the Turks in the TV series did not look like the Turks in Bulgarian productions, increasingly recognized the cultural proximity between the two countries and saw Turks for what they are: human beings.

As a former refugee, I can attest: Refugees are in fact human beings — human beings seeking refuge from danger. Who would want to leave their place of birth, comfort and community for an entirely new life, unless they didn’t absolutely have to? A Syrian refugee living in Istanbul told me a few years ago that he wished that people would understand that war could happen anywhere. “Today it’s us. Tomorrow it might be you,” he said. This crystallized for Europeans with Russia’s attack on Ukraine, expressed with shock and open arms to Ukrainian refugees. This support for “relatively European” refugees is most admirable and welcome. Now, let’s extend this humanity to all refugees and remember that tomorrow it might be us.

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