Wednesday 18 November 2015

‎"Romania is Islamic land"

The murder of over 120 people in Paris by Muslim gunmen at the weekend raises the question: can the same thing happen in Romania? To which the answer is, yes of course. Romania is a likely target and if the terrorists badly want to stage an atrocity here they may succeed, but Romania is better protected in some ways than France or Great Britain.

There have been attempts by Muslim fanatics to enter Romania for at least fifteen years, but almost the only  advantage of having been a police state is that the  secret service (SRI) is one of the few effective Romanian institutions. M16 contacts tell me that the SRI know how to do their job.

The Muslim community, even after the recent noticeable influx of refugees from Syria, is very small. The Muslims live mostly in the Dobrudja, in other words the coast and its hinterland, reasonably law-abiding and loyal to the country. Romanian Muslims consider themselves and are in all respects except ethnicity Romanians. This makes it easier for the authorities to keep track of people. Unlike in multiracial London and Paris extremists here, even were they to get in, would not find vibrant Muslim communities in which to hide and be accepted.

Neighbouring Bulgaria was less lucky. A Muslim suicide bomber exploded a bomb on a bus full of Israeli tourists in Burgas in 2012 and six people were killed, over thirty injured.
Syrian Sheik Omar Bakri, who claimed responsibility for the Burgas bomb, was carefully watched and prevented from entering Romania. However, he said in an interview at the time that both Romania and Bulgaria were legitimate targets for attacks, because they are ‘Islamic land’ and because troops from those countries are fighting in Afghanistan. 

"Once Islam enters a land, that land becomes Islamic and the Muslims have the duty to liberate it some day. Spain, for example, is Islamic land, and so is Eastern Europe: Romania, Albania, Macedonia, Serbia, Kosovo and Bosnia."

Actually, the Sheik's history is not accurate, at least not about most of Romania, though he could have dragged in the Ukraine, Hungary, Greece and Southern Italy where Islam did enter (even Rome was sacked, but not occupied, by the Muslims). All of what is now Romania was, it is true, once in some sense part of the Ottoman Empire and shown as such on the maps, but Islam never 'entered' Romania, except for the Dobrudja,, the Bucovina and for 150 years the Banat. The great achievement of the Wallachians, Moldavians and Transylvanians was, when they could no longer resist the Turk by force of arms, to make terms and preserve their autonomy and the property of their landowners. Serbia, Albania, Bulgaria and Greece failed to preserve their system of landownership and government. The three principalities which made up most of what is now Romania simply paid tribute to the Sublime Porte and were untouched by Islam. They were always ruled by Christian princes, owned by Christian landlords and governed by their own laws. In fact, Wallachia and Moldavia were never territories of the Ottoman Empire but protectorates. The only other semi-detached part of the Ottoman Empire which had this form of self-government was the Lebanon. Romanian landlords and nobles were very lucky to escape the fate of their counterparts elsewhere in South-Eastern Europe.

Muslims were forbidden to settle in Wallachia and Moldavia to prevent them from appealing to the Sultan for protection against the Christian authorities. Ethnicity in the era before nationalism was less important than religion and every Christian who owned land was a citizen. Greeks, Serbs, Armenians and Albanians were magistrates and bishops. Jews could settle, but could not be citizens unless they converted.

It is not clear how we should describe the status of the Regat in English, but protectorate or suzerainty are inaccurate approximations. Home rule is not quite right for the Phanariot era in the 18th Century, when the principalities were ruled by Greeks, who bought their throne from the Sultan and did not last long, but would apply to the periods of native princes in the seventeenth century and after the Wallachian uprising of 1821. At any rate the Sultan played no part in ruling the Regat whose rulers had far more freedom from Constantinople than Romania now has from Brussels. Only in 1876 did the new Ottoman constitution for the first time enact that Wallachia and Moldavia were full parts of the empire. The War of Independence followed in 1877, a war, though, that was not really fought for de jure independence, but under compulsion from the Czar who would have marched his army across the principalities in any case.

Romanians tell me that Romania resembles other Balkan countries, especially Serbia and Greece, and they should know much better than me, but I always fancy that the Balkan feeling, which you get in other Balkan countries, Albania most of all, and which is really a Turkish feeling, is sensibly less in evidence here. This may be simply due to the fact that Romanian is, despite all attempts to deny it, a Latin language. But if I am right and it goes deeper than this, this would be the explanation. At any rate, there are no mosques here, except in the Dobrudja,.

I first came to the Balkans in 1990 by train, hoping to see Europe morph into Asia. Strada Lipscani felt utterly sui generis and un-Western, with gypsy or Arab music playing from transistor radios, but, apart from the old town in Bucharest, Romania was Europe and so was Bulgaria, despite her statues of Lenin, mosques and the gypsy quarter in Plovdiv. In 1990, after Romania, Istanbul was almost a bore - it was back to capitalism and Mars bars and foreign newspapers - but it was Muslim and the East. It felt like Asia. Now that I have lived in the Balkans for seventeen years, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey feel as if they have very much in common. At moments they almost feel like the same country, which historically they were - Greater Greece, Byzantium.

I didn’t know back in 1990 that the Moldavian and Wallachian landed class spoke Greek (and dressed like Turks) until the middle of the 19th century or that a Greek general, Alexander Ypsilantis, raised a revolt in Moldavia in March 1821 against the Sublime Porte in order to create a new Byzantine Empire, expecting to win support from Romanians, only to be defeated by Tudor Vladimirescu, who fought for the Sultan. Historians speak of Ypsilantis's revolt as the start of the Greek War of Independence but the Greece he was fighting for was not a national idea but a multiracial Christian state united by Greek culture and religion, Byzantium in fact. Vladimirescu, by contrast, wanted to free Moldavia and Wallachia from both the Turks and the Greek aristocracy. Nevertheless the idea of a Greek-Rumanian confederation still lingered on even into the late 1850s. 

When I went to Constanta for the first time in 1999 and saw the mosque there, overlooking the Black Sea, I felt that I was in an odd, hybrid place. My generation was the last that could forget that there were large numbers of Muslims in Western Europe. That was in 1999 and we cannot forget them now. The roughly 20,000 Romanian Muslims, who live mostly in the Dobrudja, inaccurately called Turks, are a tiny number compared with the millions in England, France, Germany and Spain. The town where I was born, like Constanta, now has two mosques.

I have met three or four Romanian so-called Turks, who were all very nice people. The one I liked most was a very sympathetic young woman (she might have had gypsy blood) in Constanta who told me she had converted to Christianity and in her spare time went around Muslim villages, trying to convert other Muslims. She wanted, she said, to set them free. How different from the Anglican way of doing things. Something about her simplicity moved me a great deal.


  1. Paul, we should go on a trip to a village near Vama Veche, to see Hagieni, an ancient tatar comunity. You can buy cheese from them, they have an old muslim graveyard there, prety interesting. Many houses are ruins, it looks strange. From time to time you can see a mongolian face in a backyard. The place is known for his dobroudjan turtles who can be seen in the forest. And there should be some vipers also there, but i never seen them and survive to tell the story :)

  2. Good piece Paul. You could have also mentioned our exotic visit to that Gypsy Muslim town in Dobrogea, where they only understood we were looking for a mosque when we used the Turkish “Camii” word ( pronounced “jemie”), which our Serbian friend remembered!

  3. Well ... This "sheik-dude" has a big problem (besides the major one, that all this radical islamists have, upthere, "at the attics"; not referring here to all muslims, but just to radicals): he proves deep lack of historical culture. But I believe that's a concept that never was of their attention : culture. … and why is that ... Because ROMANIA's ancient name is DACIA; and our ancestors (like the ancestors of any people in this world), believed in GODS(="ZEI"), not in GOD (="Dumnezeu"). DACIA was part of THRACIA (a wider region ruled by us...) and our ancestors (called "Daci") were named "the most wiser and brave from the Thracs.

  4. This is an rich, informative post that explains the relatively low level of Islamic influence in Romania very deftly, with a personal anecdote that ends the piece on a charming grace note.

  5. I have very much enjoyed reading this article, Paul. Thank you. Romania had indeed paid during its entire history to stay in its borders, to keep its faith intact. I guess 'sacrificiu' its the word that defines us the most and some diplomacy skills.


  6. Paul,

    Also, the Ottomans accepted the restriction imposed by Romanian princes that there were not allowed to construct any mosques on Romanian territory. The first mosque was built only after Romania gained full independence in 1878. The right that could not be taken from them as a tribute-paying state was given freely once they were independent.

    Also, by way of fact, the first terrorist attack (foiled by Romanian security) was in 1970 - at least the first I've discovered. It was an assassination attempt against the Israeli ambassador. Another, again foiled, against Golda Mier occurred in 1971 and there were at least two dozen others over the past 45 years - including successful assassinations and bombings in the mid-1980s, as well as terrorist attacks on Romanian institutions abroad. So, yes, they do have rather direct experience of what happens when security intelligence fails.


  7. Dear Paul your column is great, thank you for this clear overview

  8. Same way we can say most of the Middle East is Romanian land ;) courtesy of the Wallachian and Moldavian princes being the last surviving magistrates of the Eastern Roman empire.

    if this gets serious we can always take the Megali Idea out of storage, and have a public duel with ridiculous ideas.

    1. That's the Good Fight !

      Public ideas are taken too seriously ...

  9. The Muslims of Dobrogea have always called themselves Turks, even they are a mixture of Turks and Tatars. When I was at University in the 80's, I had a couple of colleagues from this minority. They did not call themselves Muslims but Turks even many of them had Oriental looks from their Mongolian genes. One female colleague could have been mistaken for a Japanese woman but not her brother; he looked rather Turkish and her niece (her brother's daughter) had light brown hairs and blue eyes ! All of them spoke an ancient Turkish dialect so they had to learn modern Turkish from scratch. My Japanese looking colleague told me once that in Turkey they are considered Romanians, not genuine Turks.
    Turks and Tatars from Dobrogea intermarry within their religion, so you can see very interesting mixed race people in Constanta county.

    Off topic: in Mongolia, people call themselves Tatar, not Mongolian. The superb Mongolian baritone who won the last Cardiff competition called himself a Tatar.

  10. "All of what is now Romania was, it is true, once in some sense part of the Ottoman Empire..."
    "In fact, Wallachia and Moldavia were never territories of the Ottoman Empire but protectorates."
    "...Tudor Vladimirescu, who fought for the Sultan."
    "...Vladimirescu, by contrast, wanted to free Moldavia and Wallachia from both the Turks and the Greek aristocracy."

    1. These statements are not, I submit, contradictory, though they do require explanation.

  11. While travelling to Heathrow airport, I had a very interesting discussion with the taxi driver, who was of Iranian origin. He told me how angry he was with the mullahs of his country for the Arabisation of the Iranian culture. I told him that the Danubian Principalities prevented the islamisation of their land by paying a enormous tribute money to the Ottoman Empire.
    He told me: This was the best money ever spent!

  12. Romania is an interesting mix of Mitteleuropa, the Balkans and Eastern Europe. Bucharest though is difficult to define. It is several European (and even American - eg. New York) cities in one. But not Paris. "The Little Paris" is a misnomer. Let's hope that terrorists, big or small, agree...!

  13. I didn't know there were Muslims in Romania. Hopefully there is not too much bloodshed on my vacation there

  14. Not so sure - 'feeling thirsty ... and Bulgaria is close.