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To Be or Not to Be: The Tatar Identity..Promise or Problem?

This document outlines the Tatar situation in Poland. It investigates the struggles that this small Muslim community faces in defining itself, and also looks at the potential benefits associated with the assimilation of this minority into the Polish state. 


Issues involving Islam and Islamic minorities have been hot topics for debate in contemporary European politics. While these issues have taken up countless hours of discussion and gained numerous headlines in countries like France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, countries such as Poland seem to maintain some semblance of political immunity from these issues. Whereas the former countries fear that the very identity and security of the state may be threatened by these growing religious minorities, Poland appears to display a stance in regard to its Muslim minority which is not only neutral, but embracing of that group. Why is this?  

Perhaps this is due to history. Countries such as France and the United Kingdom share colorful histories of colonialism, which brought large masses of Muslim minorities from colonized areas such as the Middle East and North Africa. Germany, meanwhile, recruited large numbers of Muslim laborers from its neighbor Turkey after World War II, a community that remains there today and continues to grow.  In all respects, these countries have Muslim communities at home and abroad that are embedded in their respective histories—but what about Poland?   

The Polish nation does not boast the same colonial or industrial legacy that its Western counterparts do; nevertheless, it enjoys a longstanding historical relationship with the Muslim community.  Prior to World War II, Poland contained a relatively large and diverse Muslim minority, as well as significant numbers of other minorities. Today the number of Muslims currently residing in Poland is significantly lower than before the war, and drastically lower than in other European states, estimated at less than one percent of the Polish population.  However, these numbers are steadily increasing; with the influx of Turkish and Chechen immigrants, these figures are likely to rise significantly in the coming years.
While the immigration of Chechen and Arab Muslims to Poland is a relatively new phenomenon, there is one Muslim community that shares over six hundred years of history with the Polish nation: the Tatars. This group first settled in the Poland-Lithuania area in the late 14th century. They were brought to the region by the Great Prince of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, where they were granted settlement rights in return for their military services. (Konopacki, 2008) These settlement rights provided little political freedom, but still allowed Tatars to freely practice their religious and cultural traditions. Additionally, according to University Bialystok’s Dr. Ali Miskiewicz, Professor of Polish Regional History, many of the first Tartar settlers were granted Noble entitlements by the Polish King, which gave them the same land and social entitlements as the Polish Nobility. Regardless of these entitlements, however, due to the Tartars’ religion and later settlement of the area they were always regarded as different, and therefore comprised a separate but explicit part of Polish society.

Neither the Noble entitlements nor perceived differences saved the Tatars from the same fate faced by the Polish nation as a whole. Along with the Polish state, they endured, fought, and suffered Russian occupation, Nazi and Soviet invasions, and finally, Communist domination. Through all of these struggles, the Tartars have remained loyal to the Polish commonwealth; in return, they were allowed to practice their religion and culture. 

Despite the Polish government’s largely hands-off approach towards the Tatars since their arrival in the 14th century, the years of political, military, and social changes in the country have taken their toll on the minority. The clearest example of this is the Tatar language, which was lost sometime in the late 17th century. (Kość, 2001) Because of their long history living in Poland, the Tatars are now an almost indistinguishable part of Polish society.  It is precisely this issue which is our intended focus for this essay: has the long history and assimilation of the Tatar minority within Poland compromised the culture and identity of this Muslim community? 

In order to answer this question, it is important to place the Tatar case in context by focusing on a particular region. We therefore chose to use the Podlaskie region as a case study. More specifically, we examined Białystok and its surrounding area, since the Tatars’ cultural and religious life is centered here. Through interviews with top Muslim officials in Poland, as well as academics in the fields of Polish and Tatar history, we hope to investigate this question. It is also important to note that in addition to the Muslim community in Podlaskie there is also a sizeable community, relatively speaking, in Gdansk, Warsaw, and Krakow. However, due to the restrictions of our research, we thought it more feasible to limit our efforts to the Podlaskie region.  

An Identity Crisis….Or…..Opportunity? 

“I am a Polish Tatar. Poland is my country and Islam is my religion.” These were the words of Tomasz Miskiewicz in an interview we conducted with him on June 24, 2009.  Miskiewicz is a Tatar who was born and raised in Poland, but received his religious and higher education in Saudi Arabia. He defines his identity as being not just Polish, but Tatar and Muslim. According to him, there is no clear distinction between his faith and his nationality. In our interview, he posed the question: why could the two not coexist with one another, since they are both a part of him? We found his commentary to be both profound and insightful to our research, for several reasons. 

The first is that Tomasz Miskiewicz isn’t just any ordinary Tatar; he is, in fact, Mufti Tomasz Miskiewicz, religious leader of the Tatar community in Poland.  In a religion that typically identifies itself not just as a religion but as a political and social way of life, Islam is hardly regarded as just a faith to be practiced; it is an identity to uphold. Comments such as these are rarely uttered from the lips of European Muslims—or Muslims from anywhere else for that matter—let alone its religious figureheads and leaders. 

Secondly, it is no secret that many European countries, such as France, Germany, and Poland, assert that the concept of dual identity is foreign to their national mindset. The example most often cited is that if you were to ask a French citizen, who also happened to be a Muslim, how he or she identified himself, he wouldn’t say French/Muslim, but either French or Muslim.  Thus, to hear a Muslim official make a comment inferring that a Muslim minority might identify as both provided an interesting perspective on the Tatars’ situation in Poland.  

Over the years, the Tatars have assimilated in such a manner that has managed to bypass and transcend the identity conflicts that Muslims and Euro-states currently suffer with one another. In a June 29, 2009 interview with University of Warsaw Sociologist Dr. Renata Włoch, she stated that the open and tolerant policy that the Polish government has taken both historically and recently towards the Tatar minority could serve as a model for Euro/Muslim integration. Under communism the minority suffered just as everyone did in Poland; however, in post-communist times there have been literally no recorded cases of hate crimes or overt discrimination against Tatars in Poland. (Włoch, 2009) 

The Polish government has also been very tolerant and considerate in regards to the rights and customs of these Muslim minorities. For example, Poland allows the Halal ritual to be performed on animals which are to be slaughtered for consumption, a ritual that is forbidden in Germany.  There are constitutional amendments which grant minorities the freedoms to practice their religion and educate their children as they see fit. (Polish Constitution, Art. 35.2) Yet, for the Tatars there is an additional, special bill which guarantees the Muslim Religious Association (a Tatar organization) special cooperative rights with the government. This level of tolerance is fascinating in a post-9/11 environment, especially given Poland’s support of the U.S. War on Terror and its deployment of troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. But how is this so? 
One possible explanation is that, as mentioned above, while Western European countries have experienced increasing Muslim immigration and the establishment of growing numbers of Muslim settlements, these have been relatively nonexistent issues for the Polish state. In particular, Poland does not seem very attractive to those immigrants, who have largely bypassed the country as a final destination; consequently, Poland is less affected by Muslim immigration than other countries. (Nalborczyk, 2004)  In contrast, in Western Europe, with these waves of immigration also came strong civil resistance to immigrants and unrest, creating strong elements of Islamophobia. 

The most evident example of this attitude toward Muslims is the way in which they are depicted in the Western media. Here, the most common stereotypes for Muslims are their tendencies towards violence and use of force to spread Islam, their incompatibility and violent clashes with Christianity, and their positions on women (i.e., issues such as the hijab, lack of rights, and polygamy). All of these have led many European countries to perceive Islamic minorities as the enemies within the state; this, in turn, has caused tensions to emerge in contemporary relations between Muslims and the state. 

While Poland is not immune to these media stereotypes and elements of Islamophobia, unlike other Western European countries, a free mass media did not exist there until 1989, with the lifting of state censorship. Before then, most of the Islamic countries had belonged to the “Third World” which was treated by the Polish Communist regime as a friend and ally; hence, it was not permissible to present them in an unfavorable manner. (Nalborczyk, 2004)  Moreover, Muslims in Poland—including the Tatars—have resided in the country for such a prolonged period, and make up such a small minority of the population, that they don’t seem to attract much attention.  

Another interesting development, to our surprise, has been the fact that the Polish Catholic Church has taken a very inclusive position, and embraced the Muslim community. Whether it is has been parishes allowing Muslims to use the Church for prayer, or interfaith dialogues in areas such as Kruslyniany and Bohoniki, the Catholic Church has served as an opportunity structure for the Muslim people for some time now. These efforts have been spearheaded by individuals such as Mufti Miskievicz who see no reasons why the two faiths cannot co-exist and cooperate with one another. The most dramatic examples are the Tatar delegation’s invitation to and participation at the celebrations in Podlasie on the arrival of Pope John Paul II, the establishment of the Catholic-Muslim Common Council in 1997 to overcome stereotypes, and the conference on inter-religious dialogue held in Gniezno in 2005. (Konopacki, 2008)  

Furthermore, the Muslim Religious Association, established in 1925 but greatly handicapped during and after World War II, has played a major role in promoting the Tatars. By participating in interfaith events such as the March for Justice and Peace in the World, and Islamic Day celebrations in the Catholic Church, they have played a major role in improving Muslim/Catholic relations in Poland. In addition to these tasks, the organization plays a vital role within the Tatar community itself by holding meetings and lectures, publishing materials, and educating. The key aim of this organization is to stimulate action and awareness in the Tatar community, as well as elevate their overall intellectual capacities. (Konopacki, 2008)  Mufti Miskievicz considers the Association to be the heir to the pre-war traditions of the Tatar community, and a vessel by which to promote understanding. Yet, even in light of these successes, gaining community support has been a persistent challenge. 

Such a lack of community support in revitalizing the Tatar culture is not due to the Polish community, but to the Tatar and greater Muslim community. According to Mufti Miskievicz, in the past, attempts were made to revive the Tatar culture in areas such as Bialystok by putting on festivals and dances, which failed due to lack of interest among the Tatars.  Yet, ironically, it is those same Tartars who are most active culturally, and in terms of representing Islam to the Poles. This has led to a tendency to highlight the Tartar features of Polish Islam. (Kość, 2001) 

In fact, today it has become quite popular to be a Tatar. To have Tatar ancestors has become a source of pride within the Muslim community. In reality, there are not many pure Tatars left in Poland, but recently communities in areas such as Bohoniki and Kruszyniany are receiving frequent visits from other Tatar neighbors, leading to increased contact and a greater sense of community. (Lyko, 2007) This is the mark of what many are calling a Tatar renaissance in the area. The notion has become especially popular amongst Tatar youth, who have become increasingly interested in re-creating their historical identity and retelling their ancestral stories. In addition, the Tatar culture and communities have become something of a novelty and tourist attraction. More and more tourists are coming to visit Tatar mosques, cemeteries—“mizars”—and restaurants where it is possible to sample traditional Tatar cuisine. 
However, there are other Muslim associations and minorities located throughout Poland that are not connected to Tartars, such as the Shi'ite Association of Muslim Brothers, the Association of Muslim Unity, the Ahmadijja Muslim Association, and the League of Muslims (a younger, more radical organization). Along with these associations, there are also growing numbers of Chechen, Turkish, and Arab Muslim communities in areas of Warsaw, as well as Bialystok.  As these new sects of Islam arrive and slowly stake their claim in the Polish state, subtle elements of tension have begun to arise between the various communities. Many of the new Muslims in Podlaskie region are critical of the contemporary Tatar ways, and highly skeptical of the Tatars’ devotion to the Islamic faith.  

Controversies such as these seem more speculative than anything, as there is no real evidence to support the claims. In an interview with a Polish intellectual who is familiar with the Tatar community and wished to remain anonymous he informed us that although the Muslim community is very closed-off in Poland and never would admit to any problems, there are signs of a quiet struggle amongst the Tatars over the criticisms and tensions developing within the Muslim community. Having said that, he also warned that, these developments remain quite vague at the current time, and that we are trying to investigate something that isn’t a real topic yet. They speculate that it will be possibly another seven to ten years before the Muslim minorities in Poland have a chance to grow and establish more of a relationship with the native Tatar community. Yet it is these very issues that are causing the Tatars of today to ask, just who are we? 

Even in light of the current Tatar renaissance taking place, most Polish Tatars still cannot speak or read Arabic; they only know some parts of the Koran, and can only recite a few prayers.  It is also not uncommon for them to marry non-Tatars, such as Christians, even though marrying within the group is valued. In such respects, the Tatar culture has become more and more diluted after years of existing  within the Polish state, making them even less ethnically and culturally distinguishable. This is most obvious in their basic appearance, as many of them have lost their physical Tatar features – not all have slanted eyes, black hair, olive complexion and high cheekbones. The other prominent example of this cultural homogenization, aside from marrying outside the religion and physical appearance, is their participation in Christian holidays such as Christmas Whether buying gifts or putting up Christmas trees, many Tatars seem to have adopted this holiday as their own. (Lyko, 2007) 

Developments such as these have caused many of the newly arrived Muslims in Podlaskie to become highly critical of the Tatar community. In our interview with Dr. Renata Włoch, she highlighted the problems that the Tatars are beginning to have with Chechens immigrating into the Podlaskie region.  According to her, the Chechen Muslims tend to be more radical and often don’t even recognize the Tatars as fellow members of the Islamic faith.  Moreover, the extremist tendencies among Chechens have led their being seen as potentially threatening to the Polish state. This has created even greater problems between the two communities, as the Tatars have a longstanding relationship and loyalty to Poland. 

This loyalty dates back to their first settlements in Poland. Up until 1922, the Tatars formed their own special regiments within the Polish Army which gained much respect. Many years earlier, these military formations had actively supported the Polish cause for regaining freedom. By participating in the Kosciusko uprising and the Confederation of Bar, and alongside the Napoleonic forces, the Tatars have repeatedly showed their loyalty and commitment to the Polish state. (Konopacki, 2008) In addition to military service, the Tatars have also been comrades in suffering. Like other Poles, they endured persecution and genocide committed during the Nazi and communist occupations. One could say that this longstanding military tradition and legacy of shared suffering with the Polish state has helped to solidify Tatars’ Polish identity.  

This entrenchment within the Polish state, however, carries the potential to create pockets of separation from other Muslims. A good example of this is at the Muslim Cultural Center, which is essentially a Mosque—though not in name—and is located in the Wilanoma area of Warsaw. Here, we spoke with Imam Nazir in a June 29 interview about the relationship between the Tatars and other Muslims in the area. While he could not—or more likely, would not—acknowledge any element of tension between the communities, he did plainly state that the Mosque was there for Chechens and other Arab Muslims that come to pray and worship. According to the Imam, this is not because of any prejudices on behalf of the Muslim community, but due to the fact that not many Tatars live in the Warsaw area, and of the ones that do, most no longer practice their faith. (Nazir, 2009).

Mufti Miskiewicz is hoping that the construction of the new Mosque in Warsaw will help to unify the Muslim community and reduce any future possibility of tension. The mosque is still awaiting permits to clear so that the construction can begin. According to Miskiewicz, this is the third time that the community has applied for the permits. It appears that the source of the delays has more to do with city bureaucracy than any political resistance. In any case, however, it is unlikely that the Mosque will draw Tatars away from the religious sabbatical that they have been taking, or reverse the assimilation that has taken root within the community. 


The unique and longstanding relationship that the Polish state enjoys with the Tatar community in Podlaskie offers something of an example to the rest of the European community. These Tartars seem to have assimilated perfectly into society, and are almost indistinguishable from ethnic Poles. In fact, they could, for all intents and purposes, be classed as ethnic Poles. Their minority status, as of today, is one of a religion, not ethnicity.

Individuals like Mufti Miskiewicz hope that this cooperation with the Polish state, and the inter-faith dialogues with the Catholic Church, will help to promote a sense of Tatar community and reduce the negative light in which Muslims are portrayed.  He regards the Polish/Tatar case as a prime example that Western culture and Islam are compatible with one another. These ideals were echoed by Dr. Włoch who was somewhat critical of the French and British assimilation efforts with Muslims, stating that “they simply are trying to do much too soon”. In her mind, the Polish/Tatar case is exemplary for demonstrating how a hands-off approach to assimilation allows the process to take place in a peaceful and somewhat natural manner. It seems, judging from the French and British cases, that imposing strict time frames on the incorporation process only leads to civil unrest and discrimination.
Having said this, Poland is far from the peaceful oasis for Islam that many might wish it to be. Dr. Włoch jokingly pointed out that Poles are the most Islamaphobic people in Europe. In a country that is overwhelmingly white and Catholic, any ethnic non-Christian minority will be viewed by the general population with skepticism. In short, Islam is very alien to Poles. Our observations while in Warsaw definitely confirm this: people look baffled when they see Muslim women on buses or walking down the street. This phenomenon is less pronounced in areas such as Podlaskie, but this is mostly due to the fact that the Tatar women do not wear hijabs and are, for the most part, ethnically indistinguishable from other Poles. 

The most significant problem for the Tatar community, as well as for the greater Muslim community in Poland, is related to its size. When such a small community resides within a larger one, there is always the threat of losing one’s cultural and religious identity. Keeping a faith and culture alive requires educated clergy and money, and these are what Muslims lack in Poland. There are only a select few who can conduct religious rituals, and they are rapidly aging. In order to address this issue and educate clergy to serve the Muslim communities in Central and Eastern Europe, a Koran school was built in Białystok. Currently, there is no information available to reveal how successful this school has been. Due to the small size of that community, there is a limited capability for drawing political or media attention. The failure to obtain government funds for the Tatars’ 600th anniversary, and the mostly unrealistic ambitions of granting Tatars a seat in the Sejm, are notable examples of these struggles. (Kość, 2001) 
In addition to their problems gaining a voice in the Polish state, the Tatars are finding it difficult to gain a voice in the Muslim community.  As stated before, there are about 30,000 Muslims residing in Poland today; of these, only about 3,000 – 5,000 are Tatar.  Even among these numbers, it is unclear how many are practicing Tatars. With the continued increases in Turkish, Arab, and Chechen Muslims who are less liberal in their Islamic views, it is hard to predict what will ultimately take place within the Muslim community as a whole. 

Figures like Mufti Miskiewicz have been very ambitious in their attempts to unite the Tatar and other Muslim communities. Given the younger generation’s renewed interest and involvement in orthodox Islam, this may be a possibility. As it stands now, however, the Tatar community stands at a crossroads with regard to its culture and identity. With an entrenched history and relationship with the Polish state, it has undoubtedly become an almost indistinguishable element of the Polish cultural landscape. However, this degree of assimilation has also made the Tatars a very distinguishable part of the Islamic minority in Poland. With the cultural revival currently taking place within this community, the real challenge is going be balancing its identity as part of the Catholic Polish state alongside its religious affiliation with the Islamic faith. The outcome of this balancing act is still up in the air. Only time can tell what it will mean to be a Tatar in Poland. 



Konopacki, Artur. Muslims on Polish Soil. Bialystok: ELKAM, 2008. 


Miskiewicz, Tomasz. Mufti, Leader Muslim Religious Association of Poland. Bialystok, Poland. June 24, 2009.
 Włoch, Renata PhD. Sociologist at the University of Warsaw. Warsaw, Poland.  June 29, 2009. 


Kość, Wojtek. Tartar Source: After six centuries, Poland's Muslims are still misunderstood. Central European Review (January 2001). 
Nalborczyk, Agata S. The Image of Islam and Muslims in the Polish Mass Media before and after 11 September 2001. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften, August 14, 2004. http://www.inst.at/trans/15Nr/01_4/nalborczyk15.htm
Lyko, Magdalena. Tatars: Poland's Muslim Minority. Krakow Post: November 15, 2007. http://www.krakowpost.com/article/741
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