Polish historian and diplomat Marek Moron gave a lecture on October 10, at an event organised jointly by the embassy of Poland and Al Rai Centre for Studies.
Poland’s current and previous governments were not favourably viewed in the Arab and Islamic worlds. Their positions on refugees were expressed and couched in an Anti-Islam lexicon.
Moron’s lecture seemed to me part of a charm campaign, an attempt to show that the Polish people have had excellent relations with Muslims.
The Muslim community in Poland is an integral part of Poland. Due to long-supportive attitudes of Polish rulers and authorities throughout the last six centuries towards Muslims, the Muslim community considered Catholic Poland its homeland and was willing to defend it even when the enemy was a Muslim country.
Islam came to Poland in 1324 from Central Asia. The Moghuls, who had conquered the Levant and destroyed Baghdad in 1258 to end the Abbasid dynasty, met their decisive defeat in 1260 in Ain Jalout, in Palestine, at the hands of the Mamluks in Egypt.
The Moghuls then turned to Europe and invaded Poland. Yet they eventually embraced Islam and they became known as Tatars.
Due to their fighting skills and fortitude, they were hired by the Polish rulers to fight on their side. This tradition went on, and the Tatars began to settle in Poland.
When Poland expanded to include parts of today’s Ukraine, Lithuania and Belarus, the Tatars settled in these areas as well.
When Poland was weakened at the end of the 18th century, and was eventually out of existence for 120 years, the presence of Muslims in Poland was severely curtailed.
When Poland, as we know it today, regained its freedom, the Tatars fought alongside the Poles.
In 1925, the Muslim Religious Union of Poland was established as an enlargement of the already existing Warsaw Union, which had been founded in 1923.
The total number of Muslims in Poland is around 20,000, of whom 15,000 are Tatars and the rest recent immigrants. Moron wanted to convey two basic messages: the Muslims in Poland enjoy freedom and have three mosques in the three major cities. Yet, they identify with their Polish identity more than with their religious one.
The second message was that the Polish people, despite the anti-immigration policies and Islamophobic rhetoric, view Muslims as fellow citizens.
Marek is a scholar specialising in “nationalism in south and southeast Asia”. He is a straight shooter and speaks his mind without an attempt to appease. Yet, I believe that his attempt to separate current rightwing policies of some European countries, Poland in particular, from the historical modalities was not very convincing to the audience. He needs to be more forward on modern issues, and should be more attentive to the linkage between Islam in Europe as history and Islam as treated in Europe in modern times.
Poland has Muslims, but does not have Islam.
The organisers of the lecture deserve appreciation for this valuable feast of historical information.
The writer is a former Royal Court chief, deputy prime minister and member of Senate. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.