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Young Muslims in Poland: Renewal of a Centuries-old Legacy

By William Barylo


As tackling Islamophobia seems to be the decade’s challenge for Western European Muslims, Poland, in spite of its low rate of Muslims, offers a completely different approach.

A Tatar mosque in the village of Bohoniki, Poland – Photo : William Barylo

A Tatar mosque in the village of Bohoniki, Poland – Photo : William Barylo

Contrasted with Western Europe, where bashing or restraining minority rights is part of a well-developed electoral strategy for both right and left wing parties, Poland is taking a more constructive path. Muslim families, Tatars, settled here in the 14th century and are an officially recognized community. With no more than 3,000 individuals, today Tatars are a minority within the 40,000 Muslims living on Polish territory. Poland is among the countries with the lowest rate of Muslims citizens in the world, estimated to no more than 0.1 percent. Most of them are immigrants. Neither Muslims or other minorities are a concern for politicians. Happily, in Poland Muslims do not suffer hate speech or criminal oppression.

As centuries passed, most Tatars slowly left the regular practice of Islam until the fall of the Soviet Union. A few imams were the only ones who had preserved Islamic knowledge. However, as Poland opened its borders, young Tatars met Muslims visiting from different part of the world. This fostered a renewed sense of curiosity and thirst for knowledge among young Tatars, who have regained an enthusiasm to return “to their Islamic roots” with a more regular practice and rigorous study.

There are less than ten mosques in the country. Ritual slaughtering (Kosher and Halal) was banned in November 2013, and access to Islamic literature (mainly in Arabic, French and English) remains difficult, although the Internet offers a platform and tools to learn more for people embracing Islam. Organisations like the Institute for the Study of Islam in Wroclaw, along with groups of volunteers, are working on the translation and printing/uploading of books by Muslim scholars and thinkers. Yet living as a Muslim is often described as a positive experience by people I have interviewed.

Professor Katarzyna Górak-Sosnowska – Photo: Facebook

Professor Katarzyna Górak-Sosnowska – Photo: Facebook

Polish society is portrayed as open to cultural and/or religious differences. Non-Muslim citizens distinguish between Islam, Muslims, and stereotypes found in the media... terrorism, extremism, human rights violations, and so on.

Nevertheless, Polish society is not kept unspoiled by Islamophobia. Professor Katarzyna Górak-Sosnowska of the Warsaw School of Economics writes about “Platonic Islamophobia,” describing hatred against Muslims from people who have never met them, with an attitude that “even though we have no Muslim districts nor ghettos, we do not like them.”

Islamophobia in Poland takes place mainly on the Internet. A quick glance at Youtube and Facebook reveals an abundance of negative comments about (Polish) videos related to Islam or discussions posted by Muslims. Comments are often built following such simplistic stereotypes as ‘Every Muslim is a terrorist,’ with no further argumentation. According to Górak-Sosnowska and K. Pędziwiatr, hatred against Muslims has no ideological roots, therefore does not stand on rational arguments. However, far-right organisations and web-based discussion groups often import idioms from Western Europe’s far-right parties, with theories such as the ‘invasion/islamisation of Europe’ or ‘the loss of Europe’s cultural legacy.’ These arguments fall flat given that about 0.1 percent of the population is Muslim after more than six centuries of Muslim presence.

Polish Muslim associations in the country focus on the perception and understanding of Islam by society at large. Volunteers do not have identity issues, finding it normal to bear Polish and Muslim identities together. Although they may not have an official status, they nevertheless remain impressively active. Take the distribution of roses in the streets by the Alejkumki Muslim young women’s association, for instance.

This group of Muslim girls in Warsaw regularly engages in Christian-Muslim dialogue initiatives; they are invited onto Polish television shows and are very active on the Internet, especially on Facebook. In November 2012, they wrote a letter describing Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, summarising his life. This letter was attached to a red rose flower and distributed on the streets of Warsaw by the girls dressed in black and red. This operation, ‘Roze Milosc’ (Roses of Love), was beautiful. The whole stock of roses was given to people, with some keeping just the letter, rather than the flower.

On Facebook Professor Górak-Sosnowska monitored an experimental dialogue between Muslims and Islamophobic people. The Facebook results are mixed – no serious discussion came of it. The comments thread was rather an endless iteration of arguments from both sides. However, the Facebook experiment was followed by a ‘real life’ meeting in a Warsaw coffee shop. Gathering approximately a dozen of people, the discussion went on and lasted for half a day. Participants found it to be ‘constructive’ and felt they had learned something about each other.

Volunteers involved in Muslim charities use traditional principles such as proximity, conviviality, solidarity, brotherhood, gift, faith, and love in different ways, from conflict resolution to setting rules and guidelines. For instance, “smiling” is a traditional Islamic principle often put forward in charities. This can also be observed in the decision-making processes they follow, based on the Islamic consultation, Shura, rather than voting. Thus, in society they tend to give a fresh expression of concepts like politics and citizenship.

In modern society, the idea of citizenship has been related more to a legal status of belonging (like the ancient Roman acceptation of citizenship) than to the perspective of a person active in society (which is closer to the ancient Greek definition of a citizen). In Polish social science studies, “literature has rarely questioned the link between figures of citizenship and forms of collective action, and modes of public participation” (Cefaï 2007). Yet if citizenship may be considered an attempt to define a “national form of humanity” (Walzer, 1989), Rudolf Martin Rizman suggests that “to the passive acceptation of citizenship, one should substitute an active role comprising civic responsibilities and virtues” (2005).

Although Muslim volunteers are not involved in political parties, they clearly participate to politics in its essential meaning of “public life,” bios politikos, (Habermas 1978). They are active in the city, the Polis, this “open space where political action occurs” (Emden & Midgley 2012). This is what Daniel Cefaï calls “concrete citizenship.” Muslim charities can clearly be conceived as a birthplace for what Thomas Dewey, in The Public and its Promises (1927), called democracy “at home,” referring to home as the neighborhood.

In sum, although having little religious infrastructure, the small community of Muslims in Poland offer an actively engaged approach to citizenship. Their activities come from the grassroots, prioritising proximity, friendship, and hospitality in a society where distorted understandings of “progress” and “success” cause individualistic trends to emerge.

In contrast, the larger Muslim populations in France and in the UK ironically appear to be an obstacle, with Muslim organisations behaving as cultural introverts. Younger generations are seeking to overcome this inclination, allowing divisions based on ethnicity to fade and to help a pluralistic society emerge, sowing the seeds of mutual understanding.

The relations of Muslims to Polish society at large, engaging in common-interest fields of activity, is a great step towards defining the image of Muslims as active citizens. Moreover, it shows how different cultures and traditional values applied in modern societies can redefine and reform key concepts of politics and citizenship.