Poland, fearing or daring? The challenge of changing and meeting the other

Wroclaw, Poland. 24 May 2016

When you decide to go to a place you barely know something about, apart of a contrasting picture of a land of endless forests full of blackberries and a gray place covered with post-soviet architecture, you have to be ready for every surprise you will find on your way and be curious and open to every discovery, willing to be surprised and maybe shocked. You may discover new thoughts, new mindsets, new unpredictable opinions, that will make you reflect about your own identity and the world that is around you.
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A PAINTING IN THE WROCLAW ISLAMIC CENTRE, IN KASPROWICA STREET. Photo by Silvia Mazzocchin

This could happen when you arrive in Poland, precisely in Wroclaw, and you remain astonished by being surrounded by lovely tiny colorful houses, by a smooth and mellow language, by men that gently open every door before you can step in, and by a smiling kind hospitality and willingness to meet you, talk with you and help you. At the same time, you could remain speechless when, after just a few days after your arrival, you get stuck in an absurd conversation that makes you doubt if it is really happening. You would never expect to start your Erasmus in Poland speaking about Muslims, terrorism and fear, listening to three young students and the idea that Muslim people are increasingly coming to Europe in order to build mosques, to overrule us with their many children, to take control of societies in European countries, and build here their caliphate.

You soon discover that what you think could be just an isolated opinion, is actually part of wide-spread common fears and concerns that affect a large majority of Polish society. Random conversation at the cash of small shops or with taxi drivers, casual meetings and other anxious words pouring out during small talks start to make you convince that the arrival of Islam to Poland seems the biggest nightmare and most frightening perspective for the future of this country. And they make you wonder: Where have I arrived? Is this Europe? What is it going on?

 

Fear, worries and anxieties, in a world that scares. Poland is the most homogeneous country in Europe. Around 98% of the population is ethnically Polish, 95% of the inhabitants consider themselves as Christian catholic, and the number of foreigners is below the 1% of the population. How can it be possible to find such a negative stand towards Islam, when in the country just around 30.000 out of 38 million people are Muslim, is the first question that could come to your mind. May it be that you have just arrived to Poland in a critical moment, with the political shift towards an ultra-conservative right wing leadership and the related massive propaganda, but the more you hear around you, the more you really start to be at odds with what surrounds you. Hate speech in the web and in the streets, demonstrations attracting hundreds of people, discriminations or even direct attacks towards dark-skin people, burning of religious effigies in order to show and protest against the arrival of refugees from Muslim countries. All your hopes and visions of integration, multi-cultural societies and intercultural dialogue seem to start vanishing in front of you, replaced by a gruesome perspective. Terrorist hidden between refugees, aiming at coming to Europe and overrule us. A culture that can not assimilate with ours, because being too different. The need to protect our families, our wives and the future of our children from new violent and sexist rules that would be imposed to us. The compelling imperative to safeguard our identity, our culture and our traditions.

“Poland for the Polish”, “God, honour, homeland” , “Great Catholic Poland” , “Stop Islamisation” are just some of the slogans that was possible to see during many demonstrations and parades of the last months, organized by right-wing conservative, nationalist and extremist movements. Many movements stood up with an often blurred claim to protect Poland from new “invaders” and from an European Union that wants to impose its rules and wishes, such as for example regarding the quota-system agreed upon to deal with the refugee crisis. In their vision, Poland is the last real bulwark of Catholicism, whose pureness and existence needs to be protected and preserved. Some daring words could be heard especially from top-leading politicians, such as the ones of the former Minister of Justice, Jarosław Gowin, who on response to the worrying demographic situation in Poland and Europe said “We will end up like Rome, barbarians will come, Muslims will come, whereas I would very much like Europe to remain attached to such values as freedom of the individual”. Witold Waszczykowski, a member of parliament for the Law and Justice Party, expressed similar opinions.

He said that “These [Arab] communities will demand from Europe to respect the way they are used to living. Only a few people will integrate. We are just afraid that we will have to deal with the same problems related to Muslim existence that some European countries have been facing during the last few years”.

 

A TRADITIONAL MIDDE-EAST PASTRY FROM THE SHOP LOCATED NEXT TO THE WROCLAW ISLAMIC CENTRE. Photo by Silvia Mazzocchin

Words from the young generation. Magdalena, a 23-years-old student of tourism, that describes herself as atheist, vegetarian and independent, help us to understand what Polish people are afraid of, and what this European and Polish identity is felt as. “I feel European, and this means being attached to the values of liberality, democracy, equality, openness to people, high education, culture and standards of living, ability to unite in hard times. In my opinion what unite us European people is hospitality and Christianity, that I feel very strong even being atheist. Polish identity in particular could be described with the features of hospitality, Christianity, pride, flair, complexes, ability to unite in hard times”.

In her opinion “Islam itself isn’t dangerous, but orthodox Muslims are, and unfortunately lot of them are coming here to Europe and trying to force on us their believes and customs. Not every Muslim is an orthodox , so not everyone is dangerous, but unfortunately those who are coming here from middle East are mostly very violent, orthodox and barbarian people. I think that those people pose a threat to us – European people and our customs, beliefs and culture”.

Another student of law, Marek, a 22-years-old student of law that feels himself as an “open minded atheist without much of a belonging to my nation”, thinks that “the most urgent problem of Poland is the conservative, racist and nationalist mindset that a big portion of the Polish society has developed, clashing with the opposite European values, which is very clearly reflected also on the political scene. Connected to this is also the emergence of xenophobia, racism and a sense of being abused and humiliated by the events of World War Two and fifty years of communism that took place after it”. In his view the basic hindrance of the coexistence of Muslim people in the polish society is a matter of the extent of the cultural difference. “I believe that Americans, Europeans and some other peoples that respect our values could live in one society, because we have the same ways of living, same rules in life, a common sense of what’s good. However, I don’t think that people from some Muslim states have the same “rules”. A lot of them, in my opinion, have medieval mindset that simply cannot coexist with the “Western” culture – and by culture I mean the rule of law, democracy, the value of life, human rights, peace. I only see pros in a one “Western society”, and I only see cons in forcing the people with modern mindset to coexist with people that have no respect for peace, human life, human rights and democracy. The cons are internal conflicts, possibly civil war, high crime ratio and a great social discontent”. Marek is afraid that most of the Polish society is not ready to incorporate a Muslim minority, even if they respect laws, because “Polish people are xenophobic and racist enough to put blame on European Union, Germans, Russians, Ukrainians and basically half of the world”.

According to a survey conducted in 2015 by CBOS, Public Opinion Research Centre, to investigate the attitudes towards Muslims and Islam in Poland, almost two-thirds of respondents (64%) share the opinion that most Muslims are intolerant to customs and values other than their own. 63% point out problems with assimilation, claiming that Muslim minorities living in Western Europe do not adapt to the customs and values of the majority of residents of these countries. Furthermore, 57% think that this religion encourages violent actions, and 51% believe that Muslims usually approve of violence against adherents of other religions. However, on the contrary, in the view of half of Poles (50%), the majority of Muslims condemn terrorist attacks committed by Islamic fundamentalists, and many people attribute terrorism to non-religious reasons. Poverty and poor education rather than religious principles of Islam are stated by almost half (49%) as the main factors contributing to terrorism or, in general, extremism.

The picture could be easily oversimplified, into one of that depicts Poles, young university students as well as adults, as overtly intolerant and racist, whereas this picture is much more complex and tangled. It must be decomposed and tried to be understand, digging out reasons, nuances and complexities, related to the local reality, its recent past and history, as well as influences and pressures from abroad.

 

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A PAINTING AND A POSTER ABOUT THE EVENT “REFUGEE CRISIS, CRISIS OF VALUES?” IN THE WROCLAW ISLAMIC CENTRE. Photo by Silvia Mazzocchin

Walking on the side of change, an identity under construction. Poland has experienced centuries of foreign domination, and struggle for independence and freedom. In 1795 the Polish state ceased to exist, regaining its independence in 1918, just shortly before falling under German occupation and then experiencing for the following 44 years the communist rule after the second world war. This troubled recent history has created a sense of strong pride in the society, and a very firm tendency to diffidence and mistrust to everything what seems to be a new rule or system imposed by others. The dangers related to the “stranger, the foreign”, a strong feeling to “protect ourselves” and a fear of any “external control and domination” are usually very felt issues. Furthermore, Poland has been witnessing the example of other countries in Western Europe, the failures to integrate different cultures, the rise of extremist movements and the terrorist attacks, and does not want to replicate the same mistakes and patterns.

According to Konrad Pedziwiatr, professor specialized in the sociology of migration, new social movements and religion, “after the collapse of communism Polish society gained a chance not only to participate more fully in the life of the international community, but also to widen its mental horizons. At the same time, a more active participation in the processes of globalisation on a political, economic and cultural level brought concomitant fears and anxieties. The end of the Cold War and the disappearance of the previous enemy that had existed in the form of communism meant that the world, and Poland, started to look for a new “other.” For many this new enemy is now the broadly conceived Muslim world, even though it is perceived in a most simplistic way” .

The Other, in the form of Muslims, is so perceived as someone different, with an identity that could be more powerful than a one that, even if strong and proud, seems still to be under construction, fluttering between the feeling of being European, and a need to show firmly peculiar traits, independence and autonomy.

Zuza, a 22-years old student that considers herself a “backpack person” fond of traveling, thinks that the images that most Polish people have created of Islam come from negative political stands and from information taken from the media. According to the CBOS survey, only one-eighth of Polish adults (12%) personally knows a Muslim, consolidating their opinions not from personal contacts but from the media. “This populist movement that is spreading all over Europe gives the chance to some politicians to win votes because of their negative opinions to refugees. Politicians and politics is creating this intolerant Poland. Poland was a very tolerant country in the past, where people were allowed to freely express their religion” says Zuza. Until the second-world war on Polish territory there were a lot of ethnic minorities, whereas now, while almost all the biggest European cities are a kaleidoscope of different languages, symbols, smells and styles, in the Polish streets is almost impossible to find dark-skin people, not to mention women veiled with hijab or traditional dresses from other countries. Zuza thinks that “many don’t know any Muslim, they don’t know a lot about religion. They just follow the stereotypes and the news. Media has created a negative view of this problem, showing just rapes and criminal issues. But what is often forgotten, is that in Great Britain [where the overseas-born Poles are the second biggest community of immigrants, after Indians, with around 790.000 people] Polish people are on the first place of the records of crimes and rapes. People are afraid because of not having knowledge”.

For these reasons, Konrad Pedziwiatr defines the peculiarity of Polish case as interested by a ‘platonic Islamophobia’, that is a strong anti-Muslim sentiment in the situation of actual absence of significant Muslim community. In his opinion, the oversimplification and stigmatization are the fruits of processes strengthened by the media. The media, as explained by Vincent Geisser , rather than creating Islamophobia, solidify it by operating within the framework of the existing “commonsensical” views on Islam,  homogenise the opinions gained, simplifying them in order to match existing expectations.

Ignorance and misinformation boost moral panic and the construction of the ‘other’ in the form of a new ‘folk devil’, that Stanley Cohen define as “groups perceived by the mainstream society as deviants, delinquents, wrong-doers, who disturb social order causing anxiety among the public”. The risk of the existence of just one negative narrative can have a destructive backlash in a wider perspective. Stefano Allievi defines the exceptional cases presented by the negative news in the media as “hermeneutical incidents” , which short-term consequences as “mini-clashes of civilisations” but also long-term consequences, because they become points of reference in the interpretation of Islam and its believers, functioning as instruments that preserve collective memory.

How could it be possible therefore to find positive examples and create other contrasting images, when it seems impossible to meet people that practice Islam religion? Is it really an impossible challenge, to see, meet and talk to each other? What is the way to go in order to prevent the spread of contrast and hate feelings? As the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska, Nobel Prize in 1996, reminds, the destructive power of hate and fear is always ready to come out, and calls us to reflect upon some current and worrying developments going on around us.

“See how efficient it still is,

how it keeps itself in shape

our century’s hatred.

How easily it vaults the tallest obstacles.

How rapidly it pounces, tracks us down. […]

Hatred is a master of contrast

between explosions and dead quiet,

red blood and white snow.

Above all, it never tires

of its leitmotif – the impeccable

executioner towering over its soiled victim.

It’s always ready for new challenges.

If it has to wait awhile, it will.

They say it’s blind. Blind?

It has a sniper’s keen sight

and gazes unflinchingly at the future

as only it can”

(Hatred, Wisława Szymborska).

FROM THE LEFT, AHMED, MEHMET AND MARCIN IN A CAFE’ IN WROCLAW. Photo by Silvia Mazzocchin

Looking at the other side. On a shining sunny morning of spring in Wroclaw, Mehmet and Ahmed meet in a tiny café covered with new and old books over the walls. It seems that the conversation about Islam and religions is a very common topic of discussion between them and Marcin, the Polish bartender, going on for long and coloured with jokes, laughs and light irony. The are taking their time to drink a coffee and eat some sandwiches before heading to the north of city, to take part in the weekly ritual in the only mosque of the city.

Both of them are from Turkey and have decided to come to Poland thanks to the Erasmus program for their post-doctoral studies, in chemistry and international relations. They seem to have found a comfortable place of meeting in this cafè, with their new friend Marcin, a mix of a philosopher, free thinker and expert of Italian espresso. They think that Polish people are nice, helpful and smiling, and neither  of them has ever faced any direct discrimination in Poland, because of being Muslim, even if sometimes they feel that people approach them in a different way. However, when they say that they come from Turkey, the reaction slightly changes. “They like Turkey, we are perceived as closer to the Western world, because our history is intermingled with Europe, and so they can read and study about our country. Whereas they don’t know a lot about other countries in the Middle-east and their history” says Ahmed. He tells that sometimes people can not believe that he does not drink alcohol. “I just prefer drinking tea or Ayran! I really think that here they are not familiar with minorities and different people. I think also it has to do with Polish identity, because Poles are between positions, between the Slavic countries, the past communism and Europe. They want to show to be Europeans, trying “to be king more than the king itself”, supporting the West and feeling to protect its identity”.

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SOME FOOD AND OTHER ITEMS IN THE SHOP LOCATED NEXT TO THE WROCLAW ISLAMIC CENTER, RUN BY A LEBANON-PALESTINIAN FAMILY. Photo by Silvia Mazzocchin

Marcin seems slightly offended to hear that Polish people can be seen as racist and xenophobic. In his opinion everything is just about misinformation and ignorance. Poland as a land of racism and xenophobia? It does not really mean anything and has nothing to do with something innate of Polish people. Especially if a traveller has the opportunity to explore the very north-east part of Poland, near the border with Belarus, where it could happen to bump into wooden and church-likes buildings located in small villages. What could seem at first sight churches, are actually old mosques, that have been built by the local Muslim Tatar communities over the past five hundreds years.

The Tatars arrived in the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania in the 14th century, as mercenaries or prisoners of war. They started to settle in villages and small cities in Poland, Lithuania and Belarus, having granted the freedom of practising their religion and becoming known as excellent horse breeders, horse traders, gardeners, horticulturists and artisans. Over the centuries their traditions and culture have mixed and influenced by intermarriages and inter-ethnic exchanges with the Polish society. Even if they have lost their original language, still traditions and customs are preserved, together with their mosques of peculiar architecture and their cemeteries.

Nowadays the Tatar community is concentrated especially in the two villages Kruszyniany and Bohoniki, as well in the bigger cities in the surroundings, Białystok and Warsaw. The  community now accounts just for one fifth of the overall Muslim population of Poland. After World War II the Muslim minority has been enlarged by migrants, former and present students, businessmen, members of the diplomatic corps, refugees and Polish women and men who have converted to Islam. The two official and recognized Muslim unions in Poland are the Muslim Religious Union (Muzułmański Związek Religijny w Rzeczpospolitej Polskiej,  MZR), that was established in 1925 and is Tatar-led, and the Muslim League (Liga Muzułmańska w Rzeczpospolitej Polskiej, LM), that is  Arab-led. The main Muslim centres and mosques are situated in Warsaw, Gdansk-Oliwa and Bialystock, but still the Polish Tatar Muslims consider their position as very special within the context of Muslim minorities in East Central Europe. According to Bogdan Szajkowski, professor of pan-european politics at the university of Exeter, “they contend that by combining certain elements of Eastern and Western culture they can contribute to the moral revival of Europe and Islam. They hope to become the mediator between Poland and the Islamic countries”.

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THE ENTRANCE OF THE MECZET (ROOM FOR THE PRAYER) IN THE WROCLAW ISLAMIC CENTER. Photo by Silvia Mazzocchin

Poland, place of change. Kasprowica street in Wroclaw is a long and straight avenue in the outskirts of Wroclaw. The sides are covered with majestic green trees that over their leaves let the chance to glimpse the tapered form of a church steeple. Next to it, there is a traditional small white cottage, covered with emerald ivy surrounding a sign in Polish, that says “Brothers and sisters! Friends! The extremists swear. Do not follow them, do not remain under their influence”. The house is embraced by the smell of grilled kebab coming from the adjacent Iraqi restaurant and the sounds of talks and laughs coming from the other side, where people from different countries gather around small tables in front of a small shop run by a Lebanon-Palestinian family. They enter the shop to buy halal meat (the meat prepared abiding by religious Muslim standards of slaughter), sweet baklava from Turkey or other delicious pastries coming from Arabic countries, talking together and waiting to enter the mosque situated in the white house, when at 13 o’clock starts the  common prayer led by the local imam. The house is the centre of the Muzułmańskie Stowarzyszenie Kształtowania Kulturalnego (Wroclaw Islamic Centre) and of the mosque where on Fridays the Muslim community of Wroclaw and of the surrounding region Low Silesia, that accounts for about 100 families, meet for the prayer.

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THE ENTRANCE OF THE WROCLAW ISLAMIC CENTER, LOCATED IN KASPROWICA STREET. Photo by Silvia Mazzocchin

On the stairs in the mosque is a Babel of different languages. Arabic, Polish, English and Turkish accompany the worshippers approaching the Mescet, the room for the prayer. On the first floor of the house, is situated the room for men, while on the second, there is the place designated for the women. In this room, covered with a soft carpet and with paintings of the Mecca and of words written with the fascinating Arabic letters, is a coming and going of women that enter barefoot and veiled with colourful scarves. They sit on the ground and listen to the words of the imam, recorded from the underneath room and showed in live-streaming on the television in a corner of the room. The sermon of this day is about good and bad deeds, and the importance of personal intentions behind them. The imam starts speaking Arabic, then it is the turn of the Polish translation, accompanied by English subtitles. After the sermon, the women, around eight, stand up in a ordered line and start the series of ritual bows and moves in the direction of the Mecca, while a young child that has kept smiling, dancing and running around during the whole celebration stare at them with curious and wide-opened eyes. After the ritual, voices, hugs and smiles start to fill the room, while the women great each other and introduce themselves to the new-comers. A girl from Poland, that has entered the room a little bit hesitant, trying to follow the ritual looking at the behaviours of the other women, introduce herself to the others, curious to meet her. Swahk, a young student of Human Rights from Pakistan, tells her smiling: “I immediately saw that it was the first time for you to come here! You know, it is possible to see from the way you wear the scarf on your hair!”. Aldona, the Polish girl, tells that she has recently started to be interested in this religion, and that has been already to the centre to buy some books about Islam. “I had some experiences when I was living in a dormitory run by nuns that made me feel not any more comfortable with Catholic religion and the way of practising it. At the beginning I thought also that Muslims could be just bad, but then I met some Muslim friends and I started to speak with them about their religion. I saw in the eyes of a guy that he was a good guy, and so I have been encouraged to discover something more about Islam. Now I think that I prefer this way of practising religion, honouring God and following the “rules” for being a good person” she tells.

Swahk is totally not afraid to tell people that she is Muslim. “I always introduce myself saying that I am from Pakistan and that I am Muslim. My family is a bit afraid, especially after they heard that a friend of mine was harassed because wearing hijab. But I am proud of it, and I am not a terrorist. I have to show it and show that I am Muslim and a good person, otherwise how could it be possible to create a new image of Islam? People don’t know a lot, some asked me if in Pakistan we have running water, whereas almost no-one knows that in Pakistan women can choose to wear hijab or not. I am a young woman and I am living alone abroad. Everything is about culture, not about religion”. She tells that a friend of her was involved in a project in some Polish schools, where Polish pupils were asked to draw the images that come to their minds with the word “Muslim”. “They started to draw bombs, terrorists, women in the kitchens and completely veiled” she says.

FROM THE RIGHT, MEHMET AND AHMED BUY SOME FOOD IN THE LEBANESE-PALESTINIAN SHOP LOCATED NEXT TO THE WROCLAW ISLAMIC CENTER. Photo by Silvia Mazzocchin

Especially in the context of education and spread of information most of the efforts of the Islamic Centre of Wroclaw are focused. The centre hosts the editorial office of Awerroes, that publish books in Polish by Polish authors or translation into Polish of academic and scientific materials over Islam and contemporary related issues. Along with it, in Poland is possible to find the magazine As-Salam, published in Polish and circulating on a three-monthly basis. The centre is furthermore a place where religious Coranic classes are led, together with lectures, movie-shows, art and music events, as well as festival such as the a food-truck festival organized during the summer at the end of Ramadan, that attracts a lot of guests. Mona, a young Polish-Palestinian woman working for the publishing house, tells us that the Muslim migration to Poland has some characteristics that differentiate it from the usual economic migration that interests other countries in Europe. “Here usually arrive more students and well-educated people, that come from more liberal and open-minded families. Usually the reasons that push them to settle down here is mainly studies or marriages” she says.

The Islamic Centre is particularly involved in projects in schools of the region, encompassing young people and children from the primary school to the high school. Mona, herself an educator and psychologist, tells us about the multicultural projects aimed at showing a new image of Islam and at gathering together children from different religions. “Since long time school classes come here to visit the mosque, or we go to the schools to show women wearing hijab and telling them that we are not just sitting at home in the kitchen. This year we have been granted funds from the municipality for our projects, and soon we will have here at the centre a graffiti show. An artist will paint some graffiti on the walls, helped by Muslim, Jewish and Polish Catholic children. Furthermore, we are organizing a theatre show, to which children from different religions are taking part together”. According to Mona, the key of every change is in the children. “To change adults mindset is so difficult, instead children learn so quickly. I was so surprised when during a class at the kindergarten the children managed to learn and remember 14 out of 28 Arabic letters. They are so critical and open! They ask so many questions, they really want to understand and not just to repeat what they hear”.

Maybe this is the way to walk on, trying to disentangle the negative views and images stuck to Islam and Muslim people, in order to prevent direct and pointless discrimination, as well as the creation of walls and barriers to integration. As the Polish journalist and writer Ryszard Kapuściński wrote,

“three possibilities […] have always stood before man whenever he has encountered an Other: he could choose war, he could fence himself in behind a wall, or he could start up a dialogue”.

 

A WOMAN WORKS IN THE PALESTINIAN-LEBANESE SHOP LOCATED NEXT TO THE WROCLAW ISLAMIC CENTER. Photo by Silvia Mazzocchin

SOURCES

CBOS report, Attitude to Islam and Muslims, March 2015

Bogdan Szajkowksi, An Old Muslim Community of Poland: the Tatars

Konrad Pedziwiatr, From Islam of Immigrants to Islam of Citizens

Konrad Pedziwiatr, Islamophobia as a New Manifestation of Polish Fears and Anxieties

Konrad Pedziwiatr, Muslims in the Polish Media – the New Folk Devil?, 2010

Konrad Pedziwiatr, New Muslim Elites in The City, 2006

Konrad Pedziwiatr, The Established and Newcomers in Islam in Poland or the intergroup relations within the Polish Muslim Community

 

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