Demonstrations against refugees where protesters chant anti-Muslim slogans are being held across the major Polish cities of Warsaw, Krakow and Poznań. The marches are organised as a supposed response to the refugee crisis that has unfolded in Europe over the summer, and has resulted in an unprecedented surge in the numbers of refugees reaching Central and Eastern Europe en route to Western Europe.
The response in nearby Hungary was to shut down the main train station in Budapest, build razor-wire fences, and introduce laws to limit refugee numbers. With Poland only agreeing to take in around 1% of refugees, such measures were not necessary. Instead, Poles expressed their fear of the ‘Islamisation’ of Poland in other ways; through public debates, demonstrations and mosque vandalism. While responding to an imagined threat of the Muslim ‘Other’ they are undermining an inter-religious heritage that goes back several centuries.
Once a multicultural country with the largest Jewish population in Europe and a significant Muslim population that have lived in the Polish lands for centuries, Poland is now the most homogeneous country in the EU. Only around 35,000 Muslims currently live in Poland.
According to Dr Konrad Pędziwiatr from the Cracow University of Economics who researches Muslims and Islamophobia, the recent rise of anti-Muslim sentiment does not correspond to the reality on the ground, where Poland continues to be a country of emigration rather than immigration: “For the first time in the modern history of Poland one may observe a significant politicisation of immigration issues in the context of very limited actual immigration. Public expressions of a fear of a Muslim ‘Other’ have become an almost daily occurrence,” Pędziwiatr told The Muslim News.
Until recently, there has been little anti-Muslim prejudice evident on the streets across Poland and the few mosques that are scattered across the country were largely unopposed. This changed when plans to construct the first purpose built mosque in the Polish capital Warsaw were announced in 2010. The construction of this new mosque triggered a torrent of hatred targeted at mosques across the county.
In 2014, a mosque in Gdańsk that was built in collaboration with the local Catholic community in the 1980s was set fire to resulting in damage to the building’s façade. In 2015, soon after the opening of the newly built Warsaw mosque, pigs’ heads were thrown into it. Mosques in Poznań, Gdańsk and Białystok have all been plastered with Islamophobic graffiti in recent years. Perhaps the most devastating – not in scale but in symbolism – was a 2014 attack on the 17th century Tatar mosque in a small village on the Eastern borderlands called Kruszyniany.
The green wooden building is one of two still standing and functioning old Tatar mosques that are a testament to Islam’s long presence in Poland. In the summer of 2014 someone drew a pig on the outside wall of this mosque and desecrated the neighbouring Muslim cemetery with graffiti. The Tatars, having lived in Poland for hundreds of years without experiencing hostility were deeply affected by the attacks.
The recent upsurge in anti-Muslim attitudes has hit the Muslim community hard, and surprised many. Lubna Raad Al-Hamdani moved to Poland nine years ago with her Iraqi-Polish family. She initially enjoyed a peaceful life working as a doctor in Warsaw, yet her visibility as a Muslim woman has recently become the subject of tension. She told The Muslim News: “Since the refugee crisis and the election campaign, attacks on Muslims have gotten worse. I have myself experienced hostility from a co-worker who told me to take off my hijab. The positive thing was that my employer stood by me.”
Both Al-Hamdani and Pędziwiatr agreed that there are two main factors behind the recent upsurge in anti-Muslim attitudes in Poland; the first being the refugee crisis; and the second the recent Polish elections in which the right-wing party won the elections and liberally stoked populist Islamophobic sentiments in their campaigning.
The targeting of Muslims in Poland as an outside group has worrying historical precedent in the previous targeting of the Polish Jewish community. Only recently have Poles started to critically assess their role during the Second World War and take responsibility for their participation in the oppression of Jews. A telling cartoon recently circulating on Polish social media captures this sentiment well. In it two Poles are pictured talking to each other; one asks the other why he hates Muslims so much and the other replies “Because every Muslim is a Jew”.
Dr Kasia Narkowicz is a researcher at the University of York where she currently works on the project Deport, Deprive, Extradite, investigating racial dimensions of citizenship. Her doctoral thesis looked at religious and secular conflicts in Poland, including the recent rise of Islamophobia.