Islamophobia in East-Central Europe

06/01/2015 07:58 am ET | Updated Jun 01, 2016

It's often said that anti-Semitism continues to exist in Poland even in the absence of a large Jewish community. The recent Polish film Aftermath, about a farmer who uncovers the terrible truth about his village's treatment of its Jewish community during World War II, makes that point vividly and tragically.

The same can be said about Islamophobia. It too has taken root in countries in East-Central Europe where the Muslim populations are miniscule, like Poland and the Czech Republic. Anti-Islamic sentiment has also flourished in areas further south where the spread of the Ottoman Empire left sizable Muslim communities in Albania, former Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. Some of this Islamophobia is racism toward indigenous populations; some is xenophobia against immigrants.

"Islamophobia gets all mixed up with chauvinism toward indigenous communities: anti-Turkish, anti-Bosniak, anti-Tatar elements," Taskin Tankut Soykan told me in a meeting in Warsaw in August 2013 when he was working for the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)'s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights as the adviser on Combating Intolerance and Discrimination against Muslims.

"There are also racist elements mixed in with this," Soykan continued. "And it's all somehow linked to historic conflicts. Muslims in the region have been accused of helping the Ottomans during the invasion of the Balkans. They were treated as traitors. In Greece, anti-Turkish chauvinism is mixed with Islamophobia in a way to show how the Greeks were right when they were saying that Islam was a threat to their country and finally the West is recognizing their position. In the meantime, they also spread racism and xenophobia against immigrant communities, with neo-Nazi organizations physically attacking Pakistanis and Middle Eastern people. In Eastern Europe anti-Roma sentiment is also mixed in because many Roma people have Islamic background especially in Southeastern Europe. They are discriminated because they are Roma and because they are Muslims."

There have been incidents of hate crimes in Poland against Muslims. But perhaps the oddest example of Islamophobia was a demonstration in Warsaw against the construction of an Islamic cultural center that would also include a mosque. Soykan was there to observe the event.

"It was a very strange thing to observe," he told me. "There was a core group of maybe 100 or 150 people. Many of them were not in fact from Poland. A lot of them were well-dressed middle-class people. They weren't skinheads. They were part of this loose network called Stop the Islamicization of Europe. Some Polish people attended this event. The real organizers were trying their best to show that they were not racist. They brought in not only Buddhists but also people of African descent so that you could see they were not racist. They were also displaying Israeli flags to show that they were not anti-Semitic. The posters that they were using were not specifically targeting Muslims. They always said that they were trying to target terrorists or radical extremists. On the other hand, they were saying that mosques were places where terrorists are recruited. They also said the Islam is not a religion, but an ideology."

Despite the protest, the center was eventually built.

In Bulgaria, meanwhile, the grand mufti sent a list to the OSCE of more than 100 incidents of hate crimes against Muslims. "None of them had been prosecuted," Soykan reported. "Not even one investigation had been launched. We immediately decided to go to Sofia. We had meetings with civil society organizations from all communities: LGBT, Jewish, Roma, also refugees. All of them were telling us that hate crimes against Muslims were an issue in Bulgaria. But when we started talking to government officials from the ministry of justice and the prime minister's office, they told us exactly the opposite, that there was no problem, that Bulgaria was a European Union member state, and that such things could not happen in a European country. They were very angry at the office of the grand mufti for sending information to an international organization. They were basically saying that the mufti was lying."

Soykan met with the vice minister of interior. "I showed him pictures of graffiti, the destroyed gates of mosques, the vandalism of graveyards, and I could see that he was turning red," he continued. "He was really disturbed. He said that he'd never seen these incidents before. He'd never been informed. But we knew that the European Court of Human Rights had made a number of decisions indicating that the Bulgarian authorities had violated their obligation to look into the motivation of the crimes when they happened. So the vice minister of justice must have been aware of the situation."

But out of this effort, the OSCE and Bulgaria agreed to establish a training of law enforcement officials on hate crimes. "Afterwards, we signed MOUs with several other countries, but Bulgaria was the first," Soykan related. "The program is called Tackle, and now we are training many law enforcement officers. This project in fact is implemented with the police academy. We devise the curriculum and we train trainers, and these trainers start training other police officers."

Because of the improved communication, Muslims in Bulgaria have begun meeting with the police and chief prosecutor on hate crimes. In addition, an OSCE training module for imams in Bulgaria on recognizing and reporting hate crimes has been adapted for use throughout Europe.

We began by talking about the diversity of the Muslim communities in East-Central Europe and then moved on to discuss media representations, cases at the European Court of Human Rights, and the future of Islam and Islamophobia in Europe.

The Interview

You mentioned the diversity of the Muslim community here in Poland, and the differences between the indigenous Muslim community and the Muslims who are coming here from outside the country.

This is not just in Poland. In other countries too, there is a similar perception. But it is more visible here. Usually, the Tatars are identified as the indigenous Muslims of Poland. They are well integrated and are considered Polish Islam. They are indeed quite different from Muslims in other parts of Europe or in the Middle East in many respects.

For example a few years ago, there was a visit of a Saudi delegation to Poland to establish commercial relations between the two countries. Poland wanted to show that Islam is part of the culture of the country. They wanted to take the Saudi delegation to visit the Tatar mosque in Bialystok in the eastern part of the country. But when they saw this mosque, the delegation was surprised: the mosque didn't look like a mosque. It didn't have a proper minaret. It looked like a kind of church. Nonetheless the delegation wanted to continue.

When they approached the mosque, they saw the imam sitting at a table in the courtyard. They said hello. But when they came close, they realized that he was sitting there with a glass of vodka. This was a huge surprise for the Saudi delegation. They said, "This is not Islam." But from the Polish side, it was their Islam!

I witnessed something similar when the Organization of Islamic Conference organized a conference on Muslim communities in Eastern Europe. The mufti of Poland was cohosting the event. He came to the opening ceremony with his wife. She was wearing a miniskirt. For many imams and sheiks, this was quite shocking. But for the Polish mufti, this was quite normal.

So in this way you can also see how the image of Islam is constructed in Poland. Poles always want to distinguish "our Islam" from foreign Islam. If they want to say something negative about Islam, they say that it is external, that it looks different and is coming from the outside. In a way, they are normalizing and legitimatizing xenophobia against certain groups. Immigrant communities always fear that they are isolated because of their religion. Even if they share the same religion as the indigenous people, they feel that it's not the same and that they can't be part of the societies. If they want to show their Muslim identity, they feel alienated. That's one of the reasons why, when they experience hate crimes, they don't go to the police. They keep it to themselves.

At one point, when representatives of the minister of justice wanted to talk to the Muslim community about hate crimes, they came to me to help with outreach. I talked to the representatives of the mosque in Wilanow, who were so anxious that police officers wanted to pay a visit to the mosque. They thought that if the neighbors saw police officers surrounding the mosque, they would immediately think that the mosque was a dangerous place, that they were doing something bad and that's why the police were there. For many other Muslims, for Tatars or Turks, this is not a big issue. But Muslims from the Middle East or Indonesia, who more strongly identify themselves with the religion, have this perception. But this is not only specific to Poland. In other countries, you would have similar problems.

For instance, in Moldova a couple years ago, there was a big issue around the registration of the Islamic community. According to the law on religion, in order to conduct religious ceremonies in communities, the religious community had to be registered. If they didn't get registered, it was actually a crime. The Muslim community wanted to be registered, but the minister of interior refused their application because it was made by Muslims with immigrant backgrounds -- Muslims from the outside -- who were considered more extremist, even though they never committed any crime. After the refusal of their registration, they wanted to continue their usual community practices. But when they conducted Friday prayers, they were arrested and put in prison.

This couldn't continue. So the Moldovans who had converted and become Muslims were encouraged to apply for registration under a different organization, the Islamic League of Moldova. And their application was accepted. But there was a huge reaction from the Communist Party and from the Orthodox Church. They organized demonstrations in front of the main church, also in front of parliament. The government had to step back and reconsider the registration. In this way you can see how the conflict between "our" religion and the "outside" religion plays out. It doesn't help to promote any kind of tolerance.

You can also see it in Western Europe in the rhetoric and discourse about how to create a European Islam. Of course, in many places in Eastern Europe, there are big indigenous Muslim populations -- a Turkish minority in Greece and in Bulgaria, the community in Serbia in Sandjak, the Bosniak community in Bosnia, the Tatars in Ukraine, and all kinds of Muslim ethnic communities in Russia.

Islamophobia gets all mixed up with chauvinism toward indigenous communities: anti-Turkish, anti-Bosniak, anti-Tatar elements. There are also racist elements mixed in with this. And it's all somehow linked to historic conflicts. Muslims in the region have been accused of helping the Ottomans during the invasion of the Balkans. They were treated as traitors. In Greece, anti-Turkish chauvinism is mixed with Islamophobia in a way to show how the Greeks were right when they were saying that Islam was a threat to their country and finally the West is recognizing their position. In the meantime, they also spread racism and xenophobia against immigrant communities, with neo-Nazi organizations physically attacking Pakistanis and Middle Eastern people. In Eastern Europe anti-Roma sentiment is also mixed in because many Roma people have Islamic background especially in Southeastern Europe. They are discriminated because they are Roma and because they are Muslims.

Have there been hate crime cases here in Poland motivated by Islamophobia?

Yes, there were some incidents. In Bialystok, this year, an Egyptian person was attacked with an axe. He was hospitalized. He had darker skin and looked like he might have been Muslim. You will see and hear this quite often. If you have darker skin and you come from the Middle East, people think that you are Muslim. There are incidents like this, but very few of them make headlines. You have to go to the Muslim community and you have to ask. Then they will tell you. But first you have to explain what a hate crime is. The understanding of hate crimes among Muslims is actually quite low. They think that only brutal attacks are hate crimes. They don't see that if you are harassed on the bus because you are wearing headscarf, it's a hate crime. Or hateful graffiti. They wouldn't report it. Even if you ask. You need to talk with them and explain to them what hate crimes are and give some examples, and then you'll see that many incidents take place.

Usually they don't take place in Warsaw. It's mostly in rural areas. Warsaw is becoming a bit more multicultural. The people here are getting used to people with different backgrounds. But still there are some places in Warsaw, like Praga, that are dangerous and you wouldn't go there if you're wearing a headscarf. I can give you a list of these incidents. This late September, we will have an annual human rights meeting, and Muslim organizations will organize a side event to discuss hate crimes and provide a more detailed picture.

I read a brief description of an anti-mosque rally here in Warsaw that had strange organizing partners. One of the partners was a Buddhist organization. And they wee working with skinheads.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.