Romania is not exactly the place you'd expect Muslims to make political history. The small eastern European country is overwhelmingly Orthodox Christian, and its government sent thousands of police officers to its borders during last year's refugee crisis to keep Syrians out.
And yet a country where only 0.5 percent of the population is Muslim might soon have the European Union's first Muslim head of government. Sevil Shhaideh, a 52-year-old member of the ruling Social Democratic Party whose father emigrated from Turkey to Romania, is expected to soon be named prime minister after her party won 45 percent of the popular vote in elections earlier this month and formed a coalition with the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats.
Shhaideh hasn't made headlines in the past. After studying economics, the most high-profile job she held was secretary of state in the Ministry of Regional Development. It lasted for only six months. That lack of experience has become a source of criticism, with opponents arguing that Shhaideh is only being nominated as a figurehead while Social Democratic leader Liviu Dragnea rules behind the scenes.
Dragnea was convicted of electoral fraud in April this year and was unlikely to run for the office of prime minister. Instead, his critics say, Dragnea chose a largely unknown politician who will be dependent on him.
The party chief's decision to nominate Shhaideh is also unusual for another reason. Shhaideh's husband is a Syrian businessman and former official in Bashar al-Assad's Agriculture Ministry. He left Syria in 2010, shortly before the Arab Spring began, but he still owns several properties in government-held parts of the country. Media outlets in Romania have put a particular focus on Shhaideh's husband since her nomination became public.
But while Shhaideh has been criticized for her potential role as Dragnea's puppet, she has not faced opposition over her religion. Sunni Islam has a history in Romania that dates back hundreds of years. Most Romanian Muslims live in the southeast of the country, in a region only about 150 miles from Turkey.
Because of the nation's Muslim roots, Shhaideh's faith has raised less attention in Romania than it might have in other eastern European countries. Politicians in Romania have so far refrained from fueling divisions between Muslims and Christians. In neighboring Hungary, by contrast, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has used that divide to further his own political gains, critics say.
In 2015, at the peak of the refugee influx, Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper published an op-ed by Orban in which he claimed he was defending European Christianity against a Muslim influx by stopping thousands of refugees from leaving Hungary. “We shouldn’t forget that the people who are coming here grew up in a different religion and represent a completely different culture. Most are not Christian, but Muslim ... That is an important question, because Europe and European culture have Christian roots,” he wrote.
Shhaideh is expected to be nominated for the office of prime minister after Christmas. She would officially take office after receiving approval from the president and a majority vote of parliament.