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

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 stark reminder about the pervasive racism, Islamophobia and colonial mentalities being propagated today 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. It was crucial to rid the country of all vestiges and remnants of Islam and Ottoman Empire in order to make Bulgaria a European country with modern European potential. These ideas had devastating consequences for the Ottoman Empire’s tangible, living remnants: 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. Many TV productions from Bulgarian about the history of the Ottoman occupation of Bulgaria used homophobic stereotypes. The television productions were used to legitimize an assimilation campaign targeting Muslim communities, including mine. Every Turkish and Muslim citizen of Bulgaria was forced to change to a Bulgarian-origin name. My mother still holds the proof of her name-change document. She had to present it at work to get 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. Instead of supporting Syrian refugees, Bulgaria acted as a buffer country during the Syrian refugee wave. fortifiedIts borders are designed to keep Syrian refugees out. Although xenophobia is not ostensibly against EU Values, a xenophobic and Islamophobic climate reverberated through the public discourse of Bulgaria. This is continuing, as we see again. This xenophobic climate is more widespread in the EU.

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 OrientalismThe 1970s. But, I have seen the power of the media in toppling elite discourses. It has promoted intercultural understanding. And I am hopeful for the future. Despite the immense effort of the Bulgarian elites, which attempted to instill animosity towards Turks and Turkey, Turkish TV shows are beloved by Bulgarians. They have been on primetime TV for more than a decade now in Bulgaria. At first, the Turks in the TV series looked different from the Turks in Bulgarian productions. However, viewers in Bulgaria became more familiar with the cultural similarities and began to see Turks for the human beings they are.

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 few years back, a Syrian refugee living in Istanbul said that he wished the world would realize that war could occur 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.