Anti-Muslims sentiments without Muslims?”
A few weeks ago I was asked by Dr Shadi Hamid, a fellow at The Brookings Institution, to write a comment on a report that was published on that think tank’s website: “Imaginary Muslim: How Polands Populists Frame Islam” by Agnieszka Dudzińska and Michał Kotnarowski [WEB]; Unfortunately, after I sent my article, I was informed that the Brookings Institution resigned from the entire project and my text could not be published. Fortunately there is:„Wszystko Co Najważniejsze”…
1. Not at the center of discussion
The paper by Agnieszka Dudzińska and Michał Kotnarowski is one of very few thorough studies on attitude of Poles toward Islam. The authors come to the conclusion that despite the absence of a Muslim population in Poland, anti-Muslim sentiment moved to the center of national political debates in Poland, contributed to rise of the conservative Law and Justice party in Poland. I do not think they are right.
In many European countries the question concerning Muslim immigrants and refugees, Muslim minorities, Islam and radical political Islamism become a central political problem and one of the main points of public debate. It comes up frequently even in people’s everyday conversations in France, Belgium and Germany etc. This is not the case in Poland. For Poles is not a central matter of political dispute, and it does not – at least in the present – attract much public attention.
Reading paper by Agnieszka Dudzińska and Michał Kotnarowski one could get a false impression that the opposite is the case. Of course, the situation was different at the height of the immigration crisis in 2015 and 2016. It is, however, an exaggeration to maintain that the rise of the Law and Justice-party is a result of immigration crisis. “Law and Justice” is not German “PEGIDA” or AfD. Its electoral victory in 2015 was mainly connected with internal affairs, and was later confirmed in six subsequent election, when the question of immigration ceased to be a hot issue.
The reason for that relative indifference of Poles to the question of Islam is simple: there is – as rightly noticed by Agnieszka Dudzińska and Michał Kotnarowski – no significant Muslim minority in Poland. Poland is not under the pressure of immigration from Muslim countries and, fortunately, until now, the phenomenon of radical political Islamism and acts of terror inspired by it is known to Poles only from media reports from other countries. One cannot, of course, exclude that the topic can return, if the EU returns to its planned “immigration pact’.
2. Admission of Muslim immigrants
.The conclusion of the working paper that “anti-Muslim sentiment has moved to the center of national political debates without Muslims” is also questionable for another reason. It suggest that it were irrational emotions and abstract Islamophobia that led the majority of Poles to reject the admission of refugees and immigrants from Muslim countries.
Firstly, if “anti-Muslim sentiment” exist now in Poland, it is a regrettable consequence of European immigration policy and serious tensions and conflicts in multicultural European societies, observed by Poles with anxiety. Secondly, there were quite rational, although debatable, reasons for rejecting the immigration policy of Germany and the European Union.
Poland would not have been affected by the “immigration crisis”, had it not been a member of the European Union. Contrary to for instance Hungary, Poland does was not lie on the immigration route and is not a destination country for immigrants from the Middle East and Africa or Afghanistan. The majority of Muslim immigrants want to reach richer Western European countries, where many already had relatives and where they expect better living standards.
It is worth noticing that the problem of immigration did not become a “European” problem until the wave of immigration from the Middle East and other parts of the world reached Germany. As long as it concerned only the southern European countries, such as Greece or Italy, the problem was rather ignored in EU politics – it was limited mainly to lofty declaration
Poland’s refusal to admit refuges from the Middle East and Africa resulted from a highly critical assessment of Angela Merkel’s policy. As known Merkel abruptly changed her position on immigration. Convinced that it was time to modify the Dublin Convention she opened the borders of Germany for several months. Not only was this policy a violation of European and German law, but it was also highly unrealistic. For these reasons Germany shortly thereafter changed its immigration policy once more. Quietly and rapidly the German government introduced restrictive measures: the closing of the Balkan-route and the agreement with Erdogan to keep immigrants and refugees in Turkey. The famous “Willkommenskultur” soon disappeared from German political discourse. Nonetheless Germany acquired the image of the champion of liberal democracy and of humanitarian help. One can say that the problem has been temporarily solved in the typically European way – through abstract humanistic rhetoric combined with tough Realpolitik while the ‘dirty work’ was left to others.
Poland rejected Germany’s pressure and the EU’s plans of distribution of immigrants throughout Europe, because it was taken against the democratic will of Polish citizens. It was above all a question of the right to decide independently and different assessment of the situation, not a question of irrational sentiments.
Admittedly, if the Poles could have decided for themselves in 2015 – without pressure from the EU and Germany – the decision would have probably been the same for many reasons.
The first reason has to do with a correlation between the acceptance of immigrants and the country’s historical ties and political interests in the region they come from. Unlike many Western European countries Poland has no direct historical ties to the Middle East, Afghanistan or Eritrea, where the most Muslims immigrant came. It has not been colonial power, which intervened in these regions and exploited them. Rather the opposite was that case – Poland was itself a victim of inner-European colonization in the late 18th and 19th century. Presently, there are also no Polish companies, which are active in Africa and Poland has no ambitions to be a political player in Middle East or Africa. Friendly attitudes towards Chechen immigrants and refugees in the early 1990s corroborate this hypothesis. Poles wanted to help Chechens, because the Caucasus is a region with which Poland has historical ties and Chechnya was idealized as a victim of Russian imperialism, so well-known to Poles.
Second, Poles were convinced that the majority refugees are striving for a better life and are not asylums-seeker in the proper sense. After hardship and poverty during the Communist time and a difficult transformation period, the standards of living rose in Poland. They are, however, not as high as in France, Benelux countries or Germany. Thus, the slogans of sharing a part of that newly gained relative prosperity with immigrants were not very popular; the more so as it was only in 2016 that first relatively effective social policy was launched in Poland – by the conservative Law and Justice government.
Third, there was fear of being involved in a violent conflict, which was believed not to be Poland’s matter and in its interests. Poland has not yet experienced an act of terrorism by Islamic extremists. Citizens assumed that mass immigration to Poland could change this. The average Polish citizen does not go into subtle root cause analysis of contemporary terrorism. Yet news from the world, beginning with the attack on the World Trade Centerer and the Pantagon to the attacks in London, Brussels, Berlin, inclined the Polish public to see a connection between these terrorist attacks and Islam. No responsible Polish politician can ignore attitudes of the citizens or would take the risk of exposing Poles to the danger of terrorism, despite the knowledge that the majority of immigrants and the vast majority of Muslims living in Europe are people of peace, hard-working, caring for the future of their families and worthy of respect.
3. Traditional image of Islam
.If there is any „negative framing” of Muslims in Poland, it is a recent phenomenon inspired by news about terror acts, violence and prosecution of Christian in many Muslims countries.
In the past, the image of Islam in Poland was shaped by centuries of neighborhood with the Otttman Empire and the Golden Horde in Crimea. Last year we commemorated in Poland 600 years of Polish-Turkish relations.
Despite wars and “clash of civilization” the image of Islam was not without positive aspects, and even fascination. It is worth mentioning the phenomenon of “Orientalisation” of the culture of the Polish nobility in the late 17th century, and the inferential role of some Poles in Ottoman Empire. One of them was Wojciech Bobowski, also known under his Turkish name Ali Ufki, who lived as a captive in the Ottoman Empire and created the first ever anthology of traditional Ottoman music and translated the Bible into Turkish.
Later the Ottoman Empire become for Poles an important ally in the struggle against Russia. As every Polish high-school student knows, the greatest Polish romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz died in Istanbul, where he tried to organize Polish Legion. The village Plonezköy in Turkey was founded in 1842 on the initiative of Adam Czartoryski for Polish emigrants, participants of subsequent uprisings and the Crimean War. Some heroes of the national struggle for independence – a for instance general Józef Bem – not only lived many years in Ottoman Empire, but even converted to Islam.
There is also a kind of snobbery associated with having Tatarian roots in Poland. There are many examples of Poles of Tatarian origin who are prominent in public life. One of them is Selim Chazbijewicz, political scientist, columnist, poet, former president of Association of Tatars of the Republic of Poland and Imam of the Gdańsk Muslim Community, since 2017 Poland’s ambassador in Kazakhstan and the member of the Law and Justice party.
During communist times contacts with Arab countries became for the first time in Polish history relatively intense. As mentioned in the paper, many Arab students studied in Poland in this epoch. Later on, in the 1970s and the 80s, Turkey became one of the favorite places for travel and small business transactions. After 1989 Turkey and Arab countries become very popular tourist destinations.
In more recent times, ties with the Islamic world were, interestingly enough, driven especially the Polish conservatives. In 2007 the king of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud, received the highest Polish order – Order of the White Eagle – from the hands of conservative President Lech Kaczyński. It was a expression of gratitude for humanitarian aid: Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud financed the operation of separating Polish siamese twins carried out in Riad. This event echoed widely in Poland and caused a wave of sympathy for him and his country.
On the political level Poland – especially conservative governments – appreciate Turkey’s importance as member of the NATO. Until recently Polish conservative politicians looked with respect at the country’s growing geopolitical importance. The Arab Spring was also welcomed in Poland with great interest and sympathy. Conservative intellectuals who currently support the rule of Law and Justice (as for instance leading Polish conservative writer and journalist Bronisław Wildstein) traveled to Tunisia and Algeria to share with local activists their experiences from the times of Solidarity and the Polish anti-communist democratic opposition.
Thus, the claim that a right/conservative party like Law and Justice is guided by anti-Islamic resentments is far from reality, regardless of what some members of that party, some of its supporters or low-level activists may say.
Contrary to the authors of the report, I believe it leads to misunderstanding, to speak about “right-wing” ideology, without specifying, what precisely “right-wing” in a particular political and cultural context means. This is especially important contemporary Europe, where the classification as “right-wing” (not to speak about “populism”) become a tool of defamation and is specific case of politics of stigmatization against some countries of Central Europe. Social-conservative “Law and Justice” party has its roots in the Solidarity-movement, it refers to the republican traditions of the I Rzeczpospolita (Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) and the resistance against the Nazi-Germany during WWII. It condemns communism – a left-wing ideology, responsible for the death of hundred thousand people in Poland and millions in the world.
4. Polish exceptionalism and the attitude to Islam
.The reluctance to accept immigration from culturally distant countries, in particular Muslims, has also deeper grounds.
The social-conservative governing coalition and its electorate are skeptical of contemporary model of “multicultural open society” – without any common symbols and memory, without thick norms rooted in a particular historical, cultural and religious context. Such a utopian model of society is contrary to all that we know from classic sociology – from Durkheim to Parsons, Alfred Schütz and even Jürgen Habermas, if properly read.
It does not mean that Poles prefer a closed society or an authoritarian regime. They travel around and are present everywhere in Europe. Many hundred thousand of guest workers lived in Poland before the pandemic. Yet the majority of Poles no longer want Warsaw to be the Paris of the North, so that neighborhoods near Warsaw would look like Parisian banlieues or certain districts of Brussels, and they would not want to have “cancel culture” and “Antifa” manifestations in Poland. This attitude is based on lived experience. Many Poles are working in western Europe. In their majority they do not live in the rich neighborhoods, but amid of other immigrants from different regions of the world, so they experience a different kind of multiculturalism than the upper or middle classes in the better parts of European cities. They know that social life demands a certain degree of social cohesion and cultural unity.
It concerns also the state and politics. Traditionally-oriented Poles are skeptical of the contemporary radicalized form of liberal democracy. This is, among other things, the result of a different historic trajectory of Poland than that which is taken for granted in the standardized master narrative of European history, in which Reformation, Enlightenment and the French Revolution are the stages of the progress leading to the current form of liberal democracy as the crowning achievement of humanity.
This current model of the society and politics is built upon the premise that religion should be a private matter of individuals (in contrast to sexuality) and should have no direct influence on politics. In Poland, Catholicism never ceased to play an important role in social and political life, although in our country there was never an “established church”. In the 19th century Polish aspirations for freedom and independence were most often expressed in religious language – quite differently than in the case of countries where there was an absolute monarchy and an alliance of the altar and the throne (such as in Spain, France or the Habsburg Empire). During the entire 20th century, with the pontificate of John Paul II and the Solidarność– movement, religion also maintained a public and political role. This Polish way to modernity is seldom analyzed and understand properly, because the master narrative of European history has an undeniably anti-Catholic bias.
Nowadays, despite of the differentiation of Polish society and the existence of the growing number of secularized groups the reference to the Christian religion in politics and public life is still maintained. This Polish exceptionalism, however, differs from the Islamic one. This kind of public and political role of religion in a secular state makes Poland rather similar to Israel or the United States and many European states in the past, when the Christian faith was still alive and regulated social life as a whole. It is not incompatible with parliamentary democracy and old-fashioned liberty and individualism; it is only opposed to that, what is considered to be “liberal democracy” in our epoch of deep cultural revolution (or as some say – decadence).
.Looking from such “right-wing Polish” perspective, the mere fact of a strong presence of religion in political, social and family life in Muslim societies is not a problem. The same applies to the mere fact that Islam is (maybe) principally not compatible with today’s liberal democracy. Polish conservatives think that people have the right to live in different political forms – in this respect we are much more liberal than universalistic liberals. Polish conservatives can also easily comprehend, why in highly pluralistic Western societies, without a common concept of good and without references to transcendence, Islam could for many people be an attractive option, even if they personally think that Christianity is proper one. What for them is a problem is an expansive, oppressive and violent character of (contemporary) Islam. And as long as this problem remains unresolved, they allowed themselves the right to anxiety and concern for their compatriots.
 Robin Alexander, Die Getriebene. Merkel und die Flüchtlingspolitik. Raport aus dem Inneren der Macht, München 2018.  https://www.zamek-krolewski.pl/__data/assets/pdf_file/0016/72142/Podsumowanie-cyklu-polsko-tureckiego.pdf  https://culture.pl/en/article/wojciech-bobowski-the-pole-who-bridged-the-east-west  See M. Krasnodębska, Politics of Stigmatization, Poland as a ‘Latecomer’ in the European Union, London 2021.  See C. Taylor, See C. Taylor, Varieties of Religion Today, Cambridge Mass. 2003, and A Secular Age, Cambridge Mass. 2007, chapters 11 and 12  See J. Casanova, Public Religion in the Modern World, Chicago and London 1994, chapter 4.  For the importance of Anti-Catholicism political philosophy and historical narration in see for instance: C. Fatovic, The Anti-Catholic Roots of Liberal and Republican Conceptions of Freedom in English Political Thought, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 66, No. 1 (Jan., 2005), pp. 37-58, and for 19th century Germany and Italy M. Borutta, Antikatholizismus. Deutschland und Italien im Zeitalter der europäischen Kulturkämpfe, Göttingen 2011.  As I learned from excellent book by S. Hamid, Islamic Exceptionalism, New York 2017.