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Islam in Poland

Interview with Konrad Pędziwiatr, lecturer at Kraków University of Economics. Interviewer: Luc Maffre. 

May 19, 2017 - Luc Maffre - Interviews

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LUC MAFFRE: What can we say about the Muslim population in Poland today?

KONRAD PĘDZIWIATR: The statistics office argues that there are around 5,000 Muslims in Poland (data from 2011). However, the data is not based on people’s responses, but solely on registers. Muslim organisations and associations give their answer to the question of “how many Muslims are registered in your institution?” and they provide their numbers according to the registers. The problem is that those registers are very old and not really updated. Consequently, they do not include adequate and representative information. For instance, I know someone registered in two organisations, the Muslim Religious Union and the Muslim League. Thus the numbers are flawed.

If we want to develop a better understanding and acquire more accurate numbers, it is important to take into account the type of research, how the question is being asked and how you frame your research. Usually, the question is whether you consider a certain religion to be “your” religion. Still, it raises some issues: for instance, if I am a Christian, it does not necessarily mean that I am going to church on a regular basis, which is “believing without belonging”. There will be less of those who go to church and participate in the rituals. When it comes to Muslim and people having affinities with Islam, I believe there is around 30,000 to 40,000 of them in Poland based on some of the calculus I have been doing and taking into account the number of people coming from Muslims countries.

And how about the Polish Muslims – the Tatars?

In the past, several studies reported that there were around 5,000 Tatars in Poland. But one should remember that it is an aging community, and so the numbers are probably lower than that. I have seen a survey, which talks about 1,112 Tatars after identification (Census 2011 data – GUS 2015). In total, you have maximum 2,000 people associating themselves with the Tatar national identity. However, they do not always identify themselves as such in the census. Some of them refuse to identify as other group than Poles, since they feel completely Polish. In addition, some Tatars from Crimea have recently moved to Poland to the Bialystok area.

What do you think about the future of the Tatar community in Poland? Do you think they will be able to preserve their legacy?

The Tatars have been living in Poland since the times of the Polish-Lithuanian shared monarchy, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and they are treated as a part of our heritage, which is true. Historically, more Tatars lived on the Lithuanian territory than on the Polish one. Some of the communities remained in Poland, but throughout history they became dispersed, for example some of them moved to Gdansk. Therefore, the community has been under an increasing pressure to assimilate with the wider society. For centuries they were integrated politically but they lived in their own communities. Nowadays they live in mixed communities and it is increasingly difficult for them to maintain their identity. Yet, there is no doubt that their identity is still very strong and they have a lot of resources to help them preserve their heritage, such as language classes and many other different activities. Finally, it is important to mention that they are doubly recognised in Poland: they are treated as an ethnic community and they are also being recognised as a major Muslim community, which is, by the way, quite problematic. In spite of the decreasing numbers they are still treated as the main Muslims of Poland, but statistically they are not, they are in minority.

What are the relations between the Tatars and the Muslim newcomers?

The relations between the communities are rather complicated. There are two main organisations in the country: the Muslim Religious Union (or MZR, with all the key positions occupied by the Tatars and at least 15 per cent of members being now immigrants and converts) and the Muslim League. The first organisation has a culture and a language which is valued and legitimated by the state. They have been looking after two historic mosques in Kruszyniany and Bochoniki and a prayer house in Białystok, and they are in charge of the modern purpose-­built mosque in Gdańsk and the Islamic Center in Warsaw. They are also very active on their website. The Muslim League was set up in 2001 aiming at countering the exclusiveness of the MZR. They are recognised as a religious community and they have their own mufti, trying to challenge the religious authority of the MZR. The competition between the MZR and LM reached its peak in 2008, when The Muslim League managed to build the Islamic Cultural Centre in Warsaw, while MZR’s mufti pointed to the historical elements legitimising the priority right of the Tatars to construct such an edifice in the Polish capital.

Islamophobia seems to be on the rise in Poland and many Polish people are reluctant to help refugees, for instance. How do you, as a specialist in Islam, feel about that?

In the recent years, there has been an increase in racist discourses in the public sphere. I have recently written a report citing an increasing number of attacks based on police statistics (Pędziwiatr, K., “Islamophobia in Poland: National Report 2016”. In: Enes Bayralki & Farid Hafez, European Islamophobia Report 2016, Istanbul). Unfortunately, those attacks are not being taken seriously by the government. Lately, the minister of higher education dismissed a call from the rector to sort out the problems of racism on the campus, arguing that there was no such problem, although there were well-reported cases of violence against some students who had been beaten. Even if there had been no attacks on Muslim places of worship as such, the Muslim community can feel the pressure.

Would you say that Muslims are the new folk devil, as you stated in one of your articles?

To some extent they are. In one survey about sympathy of Poles towards other nations, Arabs (categorised as a nation) were the most disliked group together with the Roma people (CBOS). A 2015 study on the perception of Islam and Muslims showed a similar trend (Pedziwiatr K, “Islamophobia in Poland: National Report”, 2015. In: European Islamophobia Report 2015), and studies on the perception of refugees show similar results. It is true that a majority of Poles do not want their country to accept refugees. On the whole, the people promoting hate speech are protected, for example the sermons of the former priest Jacek Międlar. This kind of Islamophobia is not being treated as a problem and remains unpunished. As a result, this group feels empowered and they feel they can violently attack others, both verbally and physically. Even people who are not Muslims can feel it. For instance, in 2015 in Poznań an Iraqi was mistakenly taken for a Muslim and was severely beaten, he ended up in hospital. Since 2015 the report has gotten thicker and there is a growth in hate speech statistics. Such violence has become banalised, since there has been no campaign addressing it. There used to be a parliamentary commission dealing with racism and xenophobia, but it was dissolved by the current government which is promoting a short-sighted version of nationalism, in my opinion.

Are the Tatars still included in the Polish national narrative?

Yes, they are. President Andrzej Duda even went to the mosque in 2015. The Tatars are presented as “ours” while other Muslims are presented as “others”, treated differently and perceived differently. Although there are exceptions and some extremists argue that the Tatars should be expelled from Poland, for example Myriam Shaded, a public figure involved in politics, who delivers this kind of speeches at some universities.

Konrad Pędziwiatr, PhD,is a lecturer at the Kraków University of Economics focusing on Muslims in Europe, social movements, and sociology of migration.

Luc Maffre is a recent graduate in political science at the University of Warsaw.

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