By Paul Goble
In the run-up to local elections in Moldova yesterday, some politicians sought to exploit Chisinau’s March 14th decision to register a Muslim group thereby making it appear that Moldova is riven by “a clash of civilizations” — even though Moldova has only 300 Muslims and even though few objected when the registration decision was originally made.
In an essay on Win.ru, Irina Katanina sorts out this discussion which has attracted some attention abroad both in its own right and because of what it says about the way in which electoral politics can divide societies along ethno-religious lines when the minority constitutes a larger share of the population (www.win.ru/topic/7383.phtml).
As she points out, the appearance of “the Islamic factor” in these local elections was “unexpected” given that there are so few Muslims there and that “in the majority of districts of Moldova” – the major exception being Turkic Gagauzia – “the construction of Muslim religious facilities would take place relatively peacefully.
In March, the Moldovan justice ministry registered the first Muslim organization in that country, the Islamic League of Moldova. That body, its leader Timur Turdugulov said, is to “protect and defend the rights of Muslims of Moldova. Earlier efforts in 1995 and 2005 to register Muslim groups there had been rejected.
As Katanina points out, “Moldova is an Orthodox country,” with sociological surveys showing that “not less than 96 percent” of its citizens profess Orthodoxy. And she notes as well that even during the 300 years of Ottoman rule, “not a single mosque was built” in what is now Moldova.
Sociologists report that there are “no more than 2000” Muslims in Moldova, and most of these are entrepreneurs from Turkey or Arab countries. Among Moldovan citizens, the scholars suggests, there are only “about 300” Muslims, a large fraction of whom are “new converts,” who have accepted Islam since 1991.
Within Moldova on this issue, the Gagauz occupy a special place. Speaking Turkish and at one point in the past themselves Muslim, the Gagauz “always particularly stress their attachment to Orthodoxy, and it was a Gagauz community organization, the Union of Orthodox Christians of Bujak who was “one of the first” to protest the March registration.
Consequently, while Moldovans elsewhere in the country would probably react quite peacefully to the appearance of a mosque or other Muslim institution, “it is possible to predict,” Katanina says, that “in Gagauzia there would be “stormy even violent action against such construction.”
That pattern makes the protests that have emerged during the electoral campaign elsewhere particularly instructive. Aleksandr Tenase, the former justice minister who signed the registration before his resignation, says that he had no legal basis to refuse given that “the Islamic League is not an extremist organization.”
And he suggested that “the crusade declared by religious leaders was organized by politicians with a single goal” – to attract attention by attacking anything their opponents had done. His view, Katanina says, is shared by “many observers” who point out that “the protests began not in March when the league was registered and not in April when people learned of it.”
Instead it began when the electoral campaign began. “Opposition communists who during the period of their ruloe did not allow Muslims to legalize themselves supported the priests,” with Igor Dodon, a candidate for mayor of Chisinau even declaring that “if he wins the elections, ‘there won’t be a mosque in the capital.’”
Representatives of “the majority of opposition figures, Katanina says, “also spoke out against” registration, ostensibly because “all responsibility for the possible explosive development of the interreligious situation in Moldova should be placed on the actions of the government of Vladimir Filat.”
“In any case,” Katanina concludes, “politicians of all masks who have been drawn into inter-confessional relations in the context of an electoral struggle well recognized the so-called ‘electoral profitability’ of this factor. “ But “apparently,” she continues, they haven’t reflected on how what they are doing may make the solution of real problems even more difficult later.