Tatars are an integrated Muslim minority in Poland with a history of good relations stretching all the way back to the 14th century.
Given their social position and moderation, it is tempting to jump to the conclusion that they present a replicable example of Muslim integration. Indeed, the same can be said of sections of the Muslim population elsewhere in the West.
Nonetheless, the Tatar story should certainly not be used by Islamist organizations to pretend they follow a similar path of integration.
Integration Into Polish Society
Tatars started to settle in the Great Duchy of Lithuania, Poland’s eastern neighbor and later part of the Polish-Lithuanian Union, in the 14th Century. Often enough, they arrived as political refugees escaping the Crimean Golden Horde. In the same period, some Tatars also received permission to settle in Polish territory. In return for their army service, they were given land and became part of the gentry, a status that can be compared to contemporary citizenship.
At the peak, there were 2,000 Tatar cavalry soldiers and around 400 mosques on Polish and Lithuanian territory. Mostly loyal, they fought in wars on the Polish side, even against Turks and other Tatars.
However, in the 17th century, there was a rise in religious discrimination and the Tatars’ noble status was questioned. This prompted some Tatars to take the Ottoman Turkish side. Finally, they rioted against the Polish king Jan III Sobieski and supported Turkey in an attack on Poland in 1672.
The problem was solved when Tatar soldiers accustomed to freedom in Poland became disappointed with Turkish despotism and the Polish parliament responded by confirming their status and property ownership in an amnesty.
From that period onwards, an assimilation process unfolded. Before World War II, during the so-called renaissance of Tatar identity, the community numbered only 6,000 people. Worthy of note is the fact that the Polish Tatars gifted all the funds raised for their mosque in Warsaw to the Polish defense effort as tensions with Nazi Germany increased.
The New Wave of Muslims in Poland
Until the 1980s, Polish Tatars were practically the only Sunni Muslim community in Poland. They were represented by the Muslim Religious Association (MZR).
The situation changed when a number of students came from the Middle East to Poland and stayed in the country. The second wave was swelled by the collapse of the socialist system, which led to the opening of Poland.
This in turn led to the creation of new Muslim organizations. Among them, three are interconnected and linked to the broader Muslim Brotherhood movement via the Federation of Islamic Organization in Europe (FIOE). They are the Muslims Students Association (SSM), established in 1986; the Muslim Association of Education and Culture (MSKK), set up in 1996; and the Muslim League in the Republic of Poland (LM), founded in 2001 and registered in 2004 under a law requiring only 100 members to register a religious organization.
According to Poland’s Internal Security Agency (ABW), these organizations “are under strong ideological influence of Muslim Brotherhood”. Their projection of a very politically correct image is considered as “a guise, divergent from their real goals”.
The exact reasons for the establishment of separate organizations are not clear. Some researchers say it was due to differences in the way Tatars and Middle Eastern migrants practiced Islam. Others point out that membership in the MZR was limited to Polish citizens alone. Another issue may have been the fact that the MZR was not allowed to accept foreign financing under a 1936 law regulating its relations with the state.
There was some cross-over in the past, with Middle Eastern immigrants in Poland cooperating with the MZR. For example, the SSM published translations of the works of Islamist ideologues such as Abul A’la Mawdudi, Sayyid Qutb and Faisal Mawlawi with financial support from the Polish department of the World Assembly of Muslim Youth WAMY, which was at that time chaired by the MZR’s mufti Tomasz Miśkiewicz. Additionally, some Tatars contributed to the LM magazine “As Salam”.
However, they chose different ways in the end. Today, MZR is almost solely a Tatar organization and the LM circles are made up of Middle Eastern Muslim migrants and some converts.
Tatars vs Migrants
Despite this visible division, there have been several misconceptions and straightforward overuse of the Tatars’ moderate record.
In 2006, the Polish Arabist Marek Kubicki juxtapositioned MZR and LM. In his opinion, organizational connections to the Muslim Brotherhood (FIOE) were a token of moderate civic Islam, while links to WAMY were a sign of Saudi Arabian “Wahhabi” influence.
The misconception also became visible in 2010 during protests against the LM mosque in Warsaw. Some journalists recommended openness toward the Muslim Brotherhood organization by citing the example of the Tatars’ integration and their contributions to the fight for Polish independence.
In fact, the LM itself has exploited the moderate image of the Tatars, presenting the group outside Poland as the heirs of 600 years of Tatar tradition, according to Tatar Helena Szabanowicz. On its webpages, the LM presents itself today as a response to the needs of the whole Muslim community of Poland. This is reminiscent of Muslim Brotherhood organizations in the West pretending to represent many more Muslims than they actually do in relations with governments and other stakeholders.
Sometimes the MZR and LM still do come together in cases of anti-Muslim attacks and threats. However, when alleged similarities to anti-Jewish persecution in Nazi Germany are raised by the LM, one can only wonder about the LM following the spiritual guidance of the anti-Semitic cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi and fear that the MZR is being used by the LM as a shield against the latter’s critics.
In addition, a foreign Muslim Brotherhood organization has attempted to exploit the Tatars’ moderate image. In 2013, the Cordoba Foundation and the Polish embassy in London staged a joint screening of a new documentary movie on the Polish Tatars. The Cordoba Foundation had already been labeled by David Cameron as a Muslim Brotherhood organization linked to extremists in 2008, when he led the Conservative party, and in 2013 Cameron was Prime Minister. The Polish embassy’s work with an organization seen by an allied host country as a threat was arguably a form of misconduct.
And there was more. At the embassy event, Anas Altikriti, the chairman of the Cordoba Foundation, lauded the integration of Polish Tatars while the Polish ambassador Witold Sobków praised the multicultural work of The Cordoba Foundation. The peak of hypocrisy was reached in the ambassador’s written remarks from the event. He noted that “thousands of liberated Muslim women worldwide are putting on niqabs” even though most Polish Tatar women do not even wear a hijab.
Tatars Strike Back
The Tatars remained silent until it appeared that their religious community was shrinking and their mosques were at risk of being hijacked by Middle Eastern migrants and converts.
Notable events contributed to the breaking of the silence. One can mention the physical assault on a Tatar official in a Gdańsk mosque by imam Hani Hraish, who is a Middle Eastern migrant and a supporter of harsh sharia penalties; the migration crisis; and the civic court process where a group of converts influenced by Salafism has been trying to take over the MZR’s mosque in Warsaw.
In fact, one of the first and the most outspoken critics of migration was Professor Selim Chazbijewicz, who has served as ambassador to Kazakhstan and Kirgizstan and is a former Tatar imam. On various occasions, he criticized the new stream of Islam in Poland as alien and expressed fear of mass migration into the country. Chazbijewicz also has critical views on the multicultural European project. In his opinion, the conditions of current Muslim migration and the receiving countries are unlike the process that led to Tatar integration. His objection to the “Arabization of Polish Islam” has earned him accusations of heresy and takfiri charges from Polish converts.
For his part, the MZR speaker Musa Czachorowski, an ex-soldier and poet, has complained about the new wave of Muslims not obeying rules laid down in the 1936 law.
In sum, there are obvious differences in religious practice between Tatars and Muslim migrants and converts and the conditions of today’s Poland differ from those seen the Tatars’ historical integration. This makes that integration an example which cannot be replicated. When Islamist organizations do use this historical story, it may be more than a mistake. The actual aim could well be to hide their real agenda behind the moderation of the Tatar community.
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 The Muslim Brotherhood is understood here in terms explained by Lorenzo Vidino in “The Muslim Brotherhood in Austria” as an informal movement of like-minded individuals and organizations (p. 5). https://extremism.gwu.edu/sites/g/files/zaxdzs2191/f/MB%20in%20Austria-%20Print.pdf
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