Monday, December 14, 2009

Poland's 600 Year Old Muslim Community

Before World War Two, Poland was a multi-ethnic country. Ethnic Germans, Ukrainians and Jews were large minorities within prewar Poland. Post war Poland has a solidly Polish majority. The expulsions of ethnic Germans and the murder of its Jewish minority are among many of the upheavals that along with the redrawing of its borders radically changed the demographics of Poland.

About 15 years ago I read an article about Polish Muslims. I am not talking about recent immigrants, but the descendants of Tatars whose ancestors have lived in Poland for centuries. These are people who speak fluent Polish along with some who speak Tatar, which is a Turkic language. The Central Europe Review describes the background of this tiny minority as follows.

"Bohoniki and Kruszyniany have been Tartar villages since the 17th century, when King Jan Sobieski III allowed Tartars to settle there as a reward for their loyal service. Descendants of those people still live there, which is evident in the Asian features of the Bohoniki keeper. However, he says, "Our original Tartar blood gets thinner and thinner." Yet the village mosques are still in operation, as Polish Muslims are not confined to these two villages, and they do not necessarily have to be Tartars, even though Tartars constitute the majority of Polish Muslims.

They are organized in six religious communities: Warsaw, Białystok, Bohoniki, Kruszyniany, Gdańsk, and Gorzów Wielkopolski. They have three mosques: an 18th century one in Kruszyniany, a mid-19th century one in Bohoniki and a new mosque built in Gdańsk in 1990. There are also prayer houses in Warsaw and Białystok. "It's very difficult to estimate the number of Muslims in Poland, because no census has been conducted thus far. A few years ago, the Polish Muslim Association intended to do it, but the questionnaire they came up with looked more like a police dossier than a declaration of religious creed," says Marek Szymanowicz, a Muslim from Kraków."

Over the years, the Muslim Tatars have become more mixed culturally and racially with Polish people. With a presence dating back 600 years in Polish history, they are an integral part of Poland, although little known. Although there is interaction with recent Muslim immigrants from the Arab world, they have a distinct ethnic identity of which they are proud.

Although there is no persecution of the Polish Muslim Tatars, the community does chafe at lack of recognition of their rituals. A marriage that is consecrated in a mosque, for instance must also be followed by a civil marriage. The community is struggling to finish construction of a clergy training school in Bialistok. Without local or national subsidies, progress is very slow. Polish Muslims do not tend towards radicalism. The Polish Muslim Tatars have a separate association from more recent Muslim immigrants . The Polish Muslims are Sunni. The two other associations are Shiite. It would seem to be wise for Poland's Catholic majority to accept its Tatar minority as a fascinating living remnant from Poland's past.

As leaders of the Association of Polish Tartars , Selim Chazbijewicz, a professor and poet and Dr Ali Miśkiewicz from the University of Białystok have attempted to educate his own community about their rich past as well as the Polish Christian majority. Seeking strength in numbers, they have networked with Tatars of Lithuania and Belarus as well as members of other ethnic minorities in Poland.

Although it is interesting to see the past through archaeology, it is infinitely more vivid to hear of and meet people whose existence and living traditions hearken back to past chapters in world and local history. I am grateful to Selim Chazbijewicz and Ali Miśkiewicz for keeping the memories alive of their tiny minority within Poland. Although I have known of this community for decades, their existence continues to fascinate me. By being themselves and celebrating their traditions, this little community has lent beauty to Poland. For this I thank them. Sphere: Related Content

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