Polish heirs of Tokhtamysh
Polish heirs of Tokhtamysh
Friday, December 4, 2009
ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News
With six centuries of co-existence behind them, Poles and ‘their Muslims,’ an ethnic Turkic group also known as Polish Tatars, have a long history of peace in their communities and perhaps many lessons for the rest of Europe, where social tensions brewing between locals and Islamic immigrants have pushed people passed their boiling point at times
Much of Europe is questioning its ability to incorporate Muslims into its culture and identity, but the 600-year co-existence of Muslims and Catholics in Poland bucks the trend of cultural tension.
Polish Tatars, often referred to by Poles as “our Muslims,” are part of the country’s national history; even the post-Sept. 11 wave of Islamophobia that swept through other European countries did not bring significant disruption to Polish-Tatar ties.
“Islamophobia touched Poland only slightly,” said Selim Chazbijewicz, a political science professor of Tatar origin at the University of Warmia and Mazury in Olsztyn , Poland .
The history of Tatar Muslims in Poland dates back to the 14th century, when Golden Horde khan Tokhtamysh, whose roots trace back to Genghis Khan’s empire, found refuge in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania after being defeated by Tamerlane, the Mongolian emperor who conquered Central Asia and parts of the Middle East. This event initiated the centuries-long presence of the Tatars, an ethnic Turkic group, in what later became the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth .
The earliest Tatar settlements had a military character and were located in Lithuanian territories in what is now northeastern Poland . Though they were valued as great warriors, Tatars began settling in greater numbers and many left soldiering behind. By the 17th century, many Tatar families had begun to cherish the same aristocratic privileges as other nobility in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth .
This good relationship was complicated in the 1670s, when Tatar units joined Ottoman Turks during the Polish-Ottoman wars, but Polish King Jan III Sobieski soon regained the Tatars’ loyalty when he promised to pay them back salaries.
Tatars also fought in the Battle of Vienna in 1683, when united European powers defended the continent from further Ottoman invasion. In this, the Tatars sided along state, not religious, lines.
By the 17th century, Tatars in the commonwealth spoke the local language yet maintained their separate religious identity. After Russia , Prussia and Austria partitioned Poland among themselves in the 18th century, Tatars continued to remain loyal to their Polish neighbors despite Russian attempts to break Polish-Tatar ties. Many Tatars, in fact, participated in Polish uprisings against the Russians in the 19th century and had their property confiscated along with that of Poles.
When Poland regained its independence after World War I, some 5,500 Tatars became Polish citizens, continuing their military tradition. After a war with the Bolsheviks, Tatars were organized into a Muslim squadron and, until World War II, the Polish military maintained a post for an imam.
Rise and decline
Despite a cultural revival in the interwar period, many Tatars decided to flee Poland shortly before World War II. Those who remained fought in the 1939 Defensive War against Nazi Germany and subsequently suffered along with their Polish neighbors.
The war was catastrophic for the Tatar intelligentsia. Members were killed, deported to the interior of Soviet Union or forced to flee to Western Europe , largely unable to return afterward. As a result, Tatar cultural life in post-war Poland was diminished from that in the interwar period, as territorial changes, along with migration after the war, further scattered Tatars across Polish territory.
Today, there are 4,000 Tatars in Poland , living in northern ( Gdansk ) and western ( Wroclaw ) Poland – far away from their former settlement areas in eastern Poland . The biggest concentration, however, is in Warsaw and Bialystok , to the capital’s northeast.
Patterns of co-existence
Tatars have managed to preserve a cultural distinctiveness not only due to cultural activity, but also through their religious identity. Their cultural identity was further preserved because the community was both rural and isolated from other Muslim centers.
“Tatars in Poland survived mainly due to their religious tradition, but also due to the fact that their ethnic self-identification focused on a military and historical tradition. Apart from that, they took great care in the survival of the group, that is, by choosing to marry within the group,” Chazbijewicz told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review in a telephone interview.
“That is how it was until very recent times. At the moment, there are other ways to preserve the identity,” he added, noting that “[Tatars] identified with Poland because they had a relatively high social status.”
Ali Miskiewicz, a historian of Tatar origin from the University of Bialystok , said the tolerant attitude of both Polish kings and later republican governments helped maintain a feeling of “Polishness” along with a distinct cultural and religious tradition.
Despite this, Tatar culture was free not from the influence of Polish Catholic traditions: At Easter, Tatars paint Easter eggs (“pisanki” in Polish) while children pour buckets of water on their friends on Wet Monday, the day after Easter Sunday. This created a tradition of unique and generally peaceful co-existence between Polish Catholics and Muslims. In eastern Polish towns, public schools open on Saturdays or Sundays to teach young Tatars Islamic basics.
In 2004, Tomasz Miskiewicz, a Tatar, was appointed the first mufti of Poland since World War II. There are three mosques in Poland – in Bohniki, Kruszyniany (both in eastern Poland ) and Gdansk – in addition to 10 Islamic centers and prayer houses throughout the country.
Since the 1980s, students from Arab countries have begun coming to Poland , where some remain today among the 30,000 total Muslims in the country. Although the mufti is Tatar, a number of new organizations and courses have emerged with the support of Arab countries.
Suggesting that relations with the newer Muslims differ based on their origins, Chazbijewicz said, “We [Tatars] have the closest ties with Bosnians and Turks.”
The situation is different in relation to Arab Muslims. “In the eyes of Arab Muslims, the Islam practiced by the Tatars has lost a lot of its original elements.... Tatar women do not cover their heads,” said Agata S. Nalborczyk, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Warsaw .
In fact, few Tatar women ever covered their heads, except during prayer or unless they lived in small villages – where all Polish women traditionally covered themselves.
“Some people attend mosque on Sunday, not Friday, due to a lack of time. Since Tatars for centuries were isolated from the ‘mainstream’ Muslim community, their Arabic pronunciation of the Koran also differs from the standard one. These and other factors create an unspoken tension between Tatars and Arab Muslims,” Nalborczyk said.
Chazbijewicz added that “similar to the economic crisis,” Islamophobia “has touched Poland only slightly.”
“Apart from that, Polish Tatars are perceived in Poland as part of a Polish historical and military tradition, not as an alien element that Poles need to be afraid of,” he said. “They are present [in the Polish consciousness] as ‘our Tatars’ or ‘our Polish Muslims,’ on completely different terms that of Arabs or other peoples.”
Nalborczyk agreed that there is no particular Islamophobia in Poland , though publications drawing heavily on a Western European fear of Islam continue to appear on Polish newsstands. In their quest for news, journalists project global fears about Islam onto both Polish society and Polish Muslims despite the structural differences between Poland and Western Europe.