In the Name of Allah, The Beneficent,
After six centuries, Poland's Muslims are still misunderstood
The village's only street, tightly flanked by two rows of
low wooden houses, leads past an insignificant green building,
also made of wood. Walking through a pleasant yard, one has
to negotiate a path between old cherry trees that lead up
to the entrance door, where visitors often catche a glimpse
of a crescent shape atop the building before knocking. A jovial
keeper opens the door and gestures visitors inside. There
are Koran verses on the walls. The keeper points out a window
which faces distant Mecca: "You may even see it, if you
look hard enough," he laughs.
Welcome to Bohoniki in eastern Poland. Bohoniki, and nearby
Kruszyniany, are most often mentioned because of their mosques,
quite an unlikely feature of a village in Poland.
An unknown minority
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,
Bia³ystok, Bohoniki, Kruszyniany, Gdañsk, 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 Gdañsk in 1990. There are
also prayer houses in Warsaw and Bia³ystok. "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.
Misperception and misunderstanding
Abdulwahab Bouali, 31, takes care of the Bia³ystok prayer
house. He is a member of the Muslim Students Association in
Poland, a union of followers of Islam from Muslim countries
in the East who have come to Poland to study. Born in Algeria,
he has lived in Poland for 14 years now and is a pilot who
graduated of the Dêblin Aviation School.
"The prayer house I'm taking care ofand live inwill
only serve its purpose until the mosque is built here in Bia³ystok,"
he says. "What we're doing here is ensuring local Muslims
get a chance to practice their faith. We also organize lectures
for people of other creeds, because the picture of Islam they
get from TV is distorted. It is associated with terrorism
and a lack of rights for women, but the truth is that Islam
is the only creed that does assure women true rights."
The lectures, however, have been scarce, because the people
that would potentially organize them are already full members
of the Polish community; they have jobs and, therefore, their
time is limited. Last year, there was only one lecture.
Preserving their culture
But Abdulwahab Bouali brought his religion from his native
country. Most of the Polish Muslims, however, have been here
for centuries. They can be considered a minoritynot
an ethnic, but a religious one. Their cultural and religious
life is centered in Bia³ystok and the surrounding region,
as well as in Gdañsk. A small group of about 5000 people,
they have maintained their cultural identity both under Communism
and today. The Communist authorities hindered their activity
by not allowing them to associate in a civil organization.
Before 1989, the only Tartar organization was the Muslim Religious
In 1992, they formed the Association of Polish Tartars, which
is headed now by two scholars: Dr Ali Mikiewicz from
the University of Bia³ystok and Dr Selim Chazbijewicz,
a poet and publicist based in Gdañsk (who also works
in the University of Warmia and Mazury in Olsztyn, northern
Poland). The association's main goals are popularizing knowledge
about Polish Tartars using publications and the mass media
and also preventing young people from leaving Tartar communities.
The Polish Tartars' Association has 120 members now, but is
planning to cooperate with Belarussian and Lithuanian Tartars,
as well as with members of other religious minorities.
Since the early 1990s, there has been a tendency to underline
the Tartar features of Polish Islam. There are other Muslim
associations in Poland that are not connected to Tartars,
such as the Shi'ite Association of Muslim Brothers, based
in Pruszków, and the Association of Muslim Unity (also
Shi'ite) and the Ahmadijja Muslim Association, both of which
are from Warsaw.
But it is the Tartars who seem to be the most active culturally
and in terms of presenting Islam to the Poles (or rather,
to Christians, as Tartars have Polish citizenship and are
as Polish as anyone else between Bia³ystok and Kraków).
The most prominent cultural event of the Polish Tartars is
"Orienty Sokó³skie," a 20-year-old tradition
organized in Sokó³ka, near Bia³ystok, under
the auspices of the local culture center. The event's main
features are lectures on Muslims' history in Poland and the
problems they face today.
Facing the difficulties ahead
These problems may seem minor, but as such a small community
there is always the threat of losing cultural and religious
identity. Keeping their faith alive requires educated clergy,
and this is what Muslims lack. There is only a handful of
people who can conduct religious rituals, and they are aged.
In order to educate clergy for the Muslim communities in Central
and Eastern Europe, a Koran school is being built in Bia³ystok.
The progress is slow, because construction began without state
or local government subsidies, and funds are running low.
Another problem is the mosque in Bohoniki. Since it dates
back to the mid-19th century and is considered a historical
monument, any renovation for pilgrims requires consent from
the local authorities.
Wider access to the mass media would certainly augment Poles'
knowledge about this little-known community, but getting to
the media seems to be more difficult than building a mosque.
The Polish state did not hear pleas for greater funding for
celebrations of the 600th anniversary of the Tartars' settlement
in Poland (possibly because most Poles associate the arrival
of the Tartars with their preceding scorched-earth invasions).
Selim Chazbijewicz's idea of guaranteeing Tartars one seat
in the Sejm seems totally unrealistic in this context.
"Islam is alien to Poles," says Abdulwahab Bouali.
"People are still baffled when they see a Muslim woman
on the bus. But a few more years and it will be like in France
or Germany; normal, that is." Less misunderstanding and
more respect is what Polish Muslims needwhether they
have been here for centuries or just years.
Wojtek Kość, 22