Tartars and Arabs in Poland

Tartars and Arabs in Poland
Friday November 05, 2004 by Bjørn Stærk

Michael Farris sent me this translation of an article in Rzeczpospolita about the conflict between Polish Tartar Muslims, who have lived there for centuries, and newly immigrated Arab Muslims.


By Elzbieta Poludnik

In Poland, two versions of Islam are in contact, one domestic and traditional, the other fundamentalist and Arab. Will the (Polish) Moslem community give way to the new missionaries?

True blue Polish Tartars and the party of God When, on Good Friday, the Imam in a Pomeranian mosque ordered (Moslems) to not wish their (non-Moslem) friends Happy Easter, Polish Tartars were boiling mad. Arabs living in Poland explode in rage when they hear they should Europeanize or Polonize.

Conflicts between the Tartars who have lived in Poland for centuries and Arabs, who've been here for a much shorter period of time can be seen more and more clearly. They are divided by several hundred years of living in a different culture. The tension has become thicker due to the situation in the Middle East, accusations of Islamic terror and the war in Iraq.

The Tartars have a difficult choice. On the one hand, they have a long tradition of co-existence with their Christian neighbors, memories of serving in the Republic's army. On the other hand, they have a history of faithfulness to Islam. And (now) both religion and the Arabic language are most commonly taught by Arabs. At the same time they transmit customs and rules that are unknown in the Polish version of Islam.

The first such Mufti

In Poland, there are about 5000 Tartars. There are five times as many Arabs.

"We have open ourselves to (other) Moslems to survive. There are fewer and fewer Tartars." emphasizes Józef Konopacki, vice-chair of the Moslem Religious Association of the Republic of Poland, founded in Vilnius [former Polish city of Wilno, became capital of Lithuania after WWII] in 1925. The association reserves membership to Moslems who are citizens or who have permanent residence.

Foreigners have organized the Moslem League, which the Association does not have close ties to. "It's hard for them to accept being open to the Polish environment, and we're not always comfortable with their conservatism," Konopacki explains.

(But) Arabs aren't the only ones who want to convert the Tartars to the "true faith". Young Poles who are converting more and more to the religion of Muhammed say (paraphrase) "That Tartar Islam isn't really entirely Islamic."

Polish Moslems lack a religious authority. They suffer from internal conflicts. The first mufti in Poland after the war, the Tartar Tomasz Miskiewicz, educated in Saudi Arabia, has not adopted an unambiguous stance the evermore clearly delineated conflict. It's known that during the several years he was abroad he soaked up Arab culture. "I remember how in Tartar homes they would put up Christmas trees and paint Easter eggs. Those aren't Islamic, but rather Christian traditions. Everybody (else) is uniting, why shouldn't Moslems unite?" he asked in an interview with Rzeczpospolita.

Tamed by a Slavic environment

"We've been tamed by a Slavic environment," is how Maciej Musa Konopacki, a Tartar born in Vilnius describes the situation. He emphasizes that their Tartarhood is the inheritance of the Republic of Both Nations [old Polish Lithuanian alliance]. "We're old Polish Tartars, and professor Irena Slawinska of the Catholic University of Lublin called us "True blue Polish Tartars". Over the centuries we've lived in a Slavic environment. We eren't
persecuted. We were fellow citizens. Maybe that caused us to be so tied to the Republic and to lose our language, even our Eastern facial features. But we've preserved Islam," he added.

One of the verses of the Quran says 'After our families, our neighbors are closest to us.' "We can't be unfaithful to that (idea). For six hundred years we've been encased in this Slavic environment. Even our mosques look like (Eastern Orthodox) or Catholic churches. But they are mosques, so there's no need (for Arabs) to convert us," he states.

It is true that many Islamic traditions have been lost. When repatriated Moslems from Vilnius after the war visited Bohoniki or Kruszyniany, the local people greeted them with a kind of hospitality that was for from Islamic. [Eastern dialect- "What kind of Tartar are you if you don't even drink vodka?"] could be heard. Today the ban on alcohol and pork is observed. On Fridays, Tartars gather for prayer in their mosques.

They don't want to walk around in the veil

In the family home of Halima Szahidewicz in Bialystok, since 1947 religion has been taught. "My father, aunt and the imam taught (us). We always preserved the Tartar-Moslem traditions, she emphasizes. In those times, they talked a lot less about the rules of Islam. Reading and reciting prayers in Arabic were taught. Many learned the Quran by heart without understanding the text," she says.

Now she's glad that children can learn religion and the liturgical Arabic language in school. "Arabization isn't a threat for us, it's based more on lifestyle connected with where you're from," she says.

Some, however, are afraid of the Arabic teachers. The imams are trying to introduce customs that are foreign to Tartar culture. "Our mothers and grandmothers didn't wear the veil. We're Europeans. Our girls would rebel," says Dzenetta Bogdanowicz. At the settlement in Kruszyniany transmitted to the Bogdanowiczes still (in the times of) Jan Sobieski III, she organized a "Tartar Yurt". She serves dumplings, pierkaczewnikies (?) and trybuszok (?) [regional foods I've never heard of]. She tells turists about the traditions of the Polish Tartars.

The Mecca of the North

Before WWII the homeland of the Polish Tartars was Kresy [multicultural borderlands, with a history of passing between different countries and empires]. "Vilnius wasn't only the Jerusalem of the North, it was also the Mecca of the North," states Maciej Konopacki. That's why the Tartars (originally) from Vilnius are surprised when young people on an excursion to Vilnius are forbidden to enter churches - and told it's a sin.

Today, the role of religious and cultural center of the Polish Tartars has been taken over by Podlasie. This is where the oldest mosques and cemeteries - mizars- are located. Bohoniki and Kryszyniany come alive during Moslem holidays - bajrams. But there are fewer and fewer Tartars. They feel weaker and weaker. In the census, most declare themselves to be ethnic Poles, paradoxically, this deprives them of (government) funding because the budget (only) gives money to ethnic minorities, not religious ones.

"Years ago in the French press I read about Moslems there. The author said that if the state doesn't aid moderate Moslems, then radicals will gain in power. And that's what's happened. I hope the same thing won't happen in Poland, " said Józef Konopacki.


Urszula Doroszewska, president of the Democratic East Society

Arabization is a dangerous trend for the entire Moslem world. Arabizers say there is one nation, the nation of God, one language, the holy language, one party the party of God. In Uzbekistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, in the Crimea and in Poland the same threat can be seen. Traditions and local culture are judged (by outside Arabizers) to be sinful. The Arab missionaries have money and the young in poor countries where there's no work or future are easy targets for them. Under their influence the young do not accept the authority of their seniors, which is such an important thing for Moslems. In the Crimea I saw how a grandson yelled at his grandfather for praying in a way that the Arabs didn't approve of. He said their house wasn't big enough for the both of them. A rich part of (these Moslem) nations are funeral prayers, but then the Arabs come along and say, 'No, that's a sin' and introduce their prayers, all in Arabic. I think that European Moslems need to begin to work together and resist these trends that (can) destroy them.


Michael adds:

Two more notes: Most Arabs in Poland came either as university students or as small business people and I think the author overestimates how conservative they are, all the ones I've known are pretty secular. There are some failed university students (can't keep up with studies but don't want to go back and stay illegally) who are more overtly religious, but there are fewer of them. There are also some refugees and illegal immigrants. There are also Saudi missionaries (for the lack of a better word) who are the ones causing most of the tensions mentioned in the article. The author also overestimates I think the number of Polish young converts to Islam (I've taught at a university here for over ten years and have had a lot of contact with students of Arab studies and I've known several Arabic teachers, Polish and Arab, and I've yet to hear of a single conversion). They exist, but there aren't that many of them (and some drift through such a stage the way college students might go through a vegetarian stage).

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