Conflicting National, Ethnic, and Religious Belongings.

The Peculiar Case of the Polish Tatars

Marta Wójtowicz, Lancaster University

While European society is characterised by the notions of diversity, tolerance and intercultural dialogue, many European countries experience the rise of nationalism. Right-wing political parties gain majorities in governments, and xenophobia, racism, and Islamophobia are still prominent issues. Due to multiple acts of terrorism as well as the refugee crisis, an unfavourable discourse around Muslims in Europe became a commonplace. Fuelled by the ‘clash of civilizations’ rhetoric, a conviction of the inherent impossibility of Muslims and Christians (or Muslims and non-believers) to peacefully coexist became a widespread argument used by the anti-Muslim groups. Is intrinsic incompatibility between Muslims and non-Muslims really the reason behind the tensions in Europe? Does such intrinsic incompatibility even exist or is it just a myth? The case of the Polish Tatars proves the latter to be true. 

The Lipka Tatars, descendants of the Golden Horde, settled in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in 1397. They could cultivate their traditions and practice their religion - Islam - freely. Such a long time of residence in the Duchy of Lithuania (since 1569 a part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) resulted in their strong connection with Polish-Lithuanian nationalities in the centuries to follow. The reasons behind such a peaceful coexistence between the largely Catholic Poles, Lithuanians and Muslim Tatars remain unclear. For Poles and Lithuanians, one possible answer is that they have never tried to convert the Tatars to their religion. For the Tatars, the very prevalent explanation is that they have been largely respected among Poles for their contributions in battles and wars (sometimes even against their brothers in faith), therefore they have developed a mutual trust between one another as well as loyalty to the Commonwealth. That sense of loyalty to the nation might have been an important factor in the overall construction of the Tatar identity which allowed them to, generally, harmoniously coexist with the Catholics centuries. The identity makeup of the Tatars is unique and crucial in understanding their position and perception within Polish society.

Globalisation and mass migration have made the idea of a singular fixed identity difficult. As explained by professor Margrit Pernau from The Max Planck Institute for Human Development, identity can be understood as ‘the sense of belonging to well-defined communities.’ In the context of the present-day constant ‘people flow’ and migration those ‘well-defined communities’ become more and more dispersed. Additionally, there are undeniable tensions between Muslim communities and Western Europeans. It has been argued that the uneasy relationship between migrants and non-migrants is the result of the former coming to Europe from the imperial European ex-colonies, where the legacy of European oppression is still present in the newcomers’ collective memory. In the context of colonial imperialism, it does not come as a surprise then that a sense of belonging between a migrant and his former oppressor can be challenging. While a sense of community, so crucial in the construction of one’s identity, becomes difficult to establish in the new country of residence. Thus, blunt rhetoric of a ‘clash of civilizations’ proposed by Samuel P. Huntington emerged as an oversimplifying explanation to a complicated issue. Huntington contends that the underlying problem for the West does not lie in Islamic fundamentalism, but in Islam itself. Through such claims, however, he overlooked the existence of Muslims whose identity is deeply rooted in the European context, such as identity of the Tatars, who sometimes speak of themselves as ‘Euro-Muslims’, and who often stress their separateness in morals and values from those of Arab Muslims highlighting their attachment to the ‘European culture.’

Dr Katarzyna Warmińska from the Cracow University of Economics underlines the convection of the Tatars about their right to be ‘here’ and feeling ‘at home’ in Poland. Furthermore, she found that there are three main components that result in the formation of the Tatar identity: ‘the religious, ethnic and national-citizen aspects’ which, to the Tatars, are obvious and logical outcomes of their history and legacy. Their Polishness is a result of over 600 years of presence in the region, cultural commonality (like the Polish language), shared history (especially the military traditions) and their long-standing Polish citizenship. The Tatar leaders’ rhetoric is full of patriotism. They describe themselves to be ‘loyal sons’ of Poland. Interestingly, it is precisely the issue of loyalty that is very prevalent in the debates around Muslims in Europe - those with multiple identities or nationalities often evoke fear of “the insider enemy.” Regarding the Tatars, however, the fear of “the insider enemy” is practically non-existent due to their strong ties with their Polish nation-state identity.

Another important notion is the idea of a global Muslim community – umma. Many devout Muslims consider Islam to be their main source of identity, putting their current homeland or national culture as secondary categories. Radical Muslims in Europe like to proclaim that they are ‘Muslims in Europe, not European Muslims.’ Professor Amikam Nachmani from Bar-Ilan University pointed at another issue that can be relevant in understanding tensions between Muslim migrants and their European neighbours. According to him, many Muslims who reside in Europe go ‘home’ every summer – for example, to Algeria or Morocco. Their vision of those countries is one seen through the prism of summer holidays, thus their tendency to idealise the country of their ancestors is likely to emerge. He writes that ‘physically the Muslim migrants are in Europe, culturally they incline to their countries of origin or alternatively they re-create them in Europe. Either way, it leaves them open to accusations of dual loyalties or refusing to integrate’. Such was not the case with the Lipka Tatars. Their possibility of frequent travels to the countries of their forefathers was limited when they first arrived in the Duchy of Lithuania. Additionally, they were and still are a small minority surrounded by non-Muslims. They have been geographically, linguistically, and culturally isolated from any other Muslim country, therefore, their process of integration cannot be directly compared with the one of Muslims in Western Europe as the latter is characterised by mass migration and technological advancements which allow them to stay in close relationships with the Muslim world. Still, however, they exemplify a possibility of tranquil coexistence between Muslims and non-Muslims.

The case of the Tatars is undoubtedly an exceptional case of integration. It has been set forth as an example of a successful, neighbourly relationship between a Christian majority and a Muslim minority by multiple writers. While it is true to a large extent, the problematic aspects should not be forgotten. Firstly, Islamophobia experienced by the Polish Tatars does take place and, as history shows, must not be dismissed as innocent and utterly harmless, even if the Tatars themselves would like to belittle this problem due to their strong identification with Polishness. Secondly, their anti-Arab/anti-refugee sentiment, expressed by prominent figures within the Tatar community, is highly problematic. Nevertheless, altogether, the Polish Tatars illustrate the intricate complexities of one’s religious, ethnic and national intermixture of identities and belongings to different communities which should never be assumed or taken for granted.