Eastern Europe and Islam — Not Only Hatred and Fear

15. 3. 2017

In terms of a successful integration of Muslims and of the historical heritage of coexistence with the word of Islam, it is the European East which could quite often serve as a source of inspiration for the West.

There is a dominant belief in the European media that the deep division of the European Union into the East and the West has been recreated. The key difference here is supposed to be the attitude towards Muslims, closely associated with the migration crisis. Central Europe is alleged to have shown its true, ugly face and proved to be what it always was, that is Eastern Europe. This is supposedly confirmed by Islamophobic statements by mainstream politicians from the region and large anti-Muslim demonstrations.

This interpretation is, of course, not without some foundation. Mainstream politicians in the West would never speak about Muslims in the way they are described by some Central European leaders. Suffice it to quote Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the Polish right, who stated in October 2015 that “There are already signs of the emergence of very dangerous diseases which haven’t been seen in Europe for a long time: cholera on Greek islands; dysentery in Vienna; various types of parasites, protozoas, which aren’t dangerous in the organisms of these people [Middle East refugees], but which could be dangerous here.” We have been waiting for the epidemic in Europe since then.

Even more absurd is the case of the Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who claims that he is a socialist. He declared, for instance: “We’ll never bring even a single Muslim to Slovakia; we won’t create any Muslim communities here because they pose a serious security risk.”

However, the split of Europe into the East and the West is by no means obvious. Another relocation of refugees is supported, with some reservations, by the majority of Eastern European countries: Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, and Slovenia (the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary are against it). On the other hand, the migration crisis led to a significant growth of support for extreme right parties in many Western European countries. In the first round of the French local elections in 2015, the National Front gained as much as one quarter of the popular vote.

Islam—Not as Alien as They Paint It

One of the claims which frequently appears in articles about Eastern Europe is the belief that the countries from this part of Europe are completely unprepared for coexistence with Muslims. But the most Muslim country in the EU is Bulgaria. Muslims constitute almost 15% of the population. Their presence is not a serious challenge for the country’s security, despite the opinion, widespread among Islamophobs, that “the more Muslims, the bigger the danger of terrorist attacks.” In Romania, Muslims form a small part of the population, but in one region of the country (Dobrogea) 7% of inhabitants are of Islamic origin. Croatia and Slovenia have in recent decades become the home of quite numerous Muslim immigrant communities (citizens, legal and illegal immigrants, temporary labor migration). Their integration is really successful and may serve as a model for some Western European countries.

At least several million citizens of Eastern Europe live in large Western European cities with Muslim diasporas. Within Eastern Europe itself you can observe significant differences between the widespread hostility of Slovaks and Czechs towards Muslims and a significant minority of Poles and Hungarians who do not support Islamophobia. The attitude of Croats or Bulgarians to Turkey, the former “colonizer,” is at least neutral. Croats declare their sympathy for Muslim Bosnians and vice versa. An even more interesting case are Romanians, the most pro-Turkish nation in the EU. (It is worth comparing this situation with the clearly negative attitude of Latvians or Lithuanians towards Russia.)

Islamophobia is often presented in Western media as supposedly closely associated with nationalism in the countries of Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, although the idea of a Christian bulwark defending Europe from Muslim “onslaught” is present in the case of some nationalisms, until the refugee crisis it had been of clearly secondary importance. What is more, some nationalisms in the region display evidently pro-Muslim tendencies. A very important element of Hungarian national identity is Pan-Turanism, proclaiming that Hungarians are brothers of Turkic people, the overwhelming majority of whom are Muslim.

This trait of the region is best seen in the case of Croatia. Liberal and left-wing intelligentsia was outraged by the ruling right’s nomination of Zlatko Hasanbegović, a Muslim accused of sympathies for radical Croatian nationalism, as minister of culture. The media reminded him of his articles from the early 1990s where he declared his support for the Ustashe, Croat fascists responsible for the genocide of the Serbs during World War II. Indeed, the leaders of the Ustashe were pro-Muslim, and their Führer Ante Pavelić, the icon of the Croat extreme right, had been brought up in a Muslim village in Bosnia and held a profound belief that Bosnian Muslims were “the best quality” Croats. During World War II, he built a great Mosque for them in Zagreb and incorporated them into the country’s elite. Although an ardent Catholic, he often posed for photographs in a fez and introduced the custom of celebrating the Ramadan in Zagreb.

Forgotten Heritage

In the collective memory of Eastern Europe there are two archetypes of the relationship with the world of Islam—that of a bulwark and of a bridge. At the first glance they are diametrically opposed to each other. In fact, they frequently coexist in a given culture and collective memory. One of them cannot be imagined without the other and vice versa. What is more, none of them is evidently positive or negative. For a bridge can be used for boarding an enemy ship or storming a fortress, while a bulwark clearly demarcates the border between two words—without making territorial claims.

The archetype of a bulwark is strongly mythologized in many Eastern European countries. The number of nations eager for the status of a bulwark of Christianity in the region is greater than the pages of history can fit. Some nations which believe themselves to be defenders of Europe against Muslims, such as Poland, have scant traditions of wars against the Ottoman Empire or its rule. And yet the Polish right aims at building Polish identity as a bulwark of Christianity. President Andrzej Duda announced an assertive historical policy at home and abroad, promoting the vision of Poland which saved European civilization in 1683 at Vienna. (In fact, the battle of Vienna was the swan song of Ottoman Turkey, with Austria marking the maximum size of its expansion.)

Located on the opposite pole against the Polish president is Gediminas Kirkilas, former Lithuanian prime minister and now deputy speaker of the country’s parliament and VP of the Social Democrats, who said: “We have a lot of experience accommodating different cultures and different people. Lithuanians are very proud of our country’s history. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania was among the largest countries in Europe from the 13th century to the 16th. It is at that time that Lithuania started its comprehensive policy of immigration. The 13th and 14th centuries saw the Tatars coming to Lithuania […] The Tatars remain precious and distinct, although tiny, parts of the Lithuanian population, as well as its culture and heritage.”

Indeed, in the countries of Eastern Europe we may find numerous and original examples of coexistence between the world of Islam and the inhabitants of the region. Unfortunately, Polish or Hungarian elites are not aware of this potential in public diplomacy abroad or deliberately reject it. The latter option, meaning a lobotomy of your own history, is all the more astonishing when Polish and Hungarian right speak a lot about national pride. The fact is that Poles or Hungarians could really be proud of their relations with Muslims, often unique throughout Europe. From the 10th to 14th century Hungary was a home to quite a numerous Muslim community from the Volga region and Central Asia. From the 14th century until today, the Tatars, a Muslim minority, have lived in Poland and Lithuania. Since the 16th century onward, their presence made Lithuania and Poland into unique countries in Western culture.

From the 16th until 18th century, the pro-Turkish and pro-Austria factions competed with each other in Hungary. John Zapolya, Imre Thokoly, and Francis Rakocsy, prominent figures in the Hungarian national pantheon, belonged to the former. During the famous military campaigns leading to the sieges of Vienna in 1529 and 1683, Zapolya and Thokoly fought for the Ottoman Turks against the Habsburgs. Protestant Hungarian clergymen presented Ottoman Turks in their pamphlets as protectors against the Catholic Habsburgs. Thokoly and Rakocsy, as well as the leader of the Hungarian Spring of Nations (1848) Lajos Kossuth found refuge in Ottoman Turkey. In the 18th and 19th century, Ottoman Turkey similarly became a safe haven for Polish political migrants. One of the earliest was the Polish king Stanisław Leszczyński and one of the most important ones was Adam Mickiewicz, the greatest Polish poet, with Tatar roots.

Poles and Hungarians living in Ottoman Turkey and often converting to Islam played a huge role in modernizing this country. Ibrahim Müteferrika founded the first Turkish printing press, while Celaleddin Pasha, a.k.a. Konsanty Borzęcki, wrote the work Les Turcs anciens et modernes, which made a great impact on Kemal Ataturk. Poles (including Polish Tatars) also made a very significant contribution to modernizing other Turkic people. Their leaders treated Polish Tatars as a source of inspiration, confirming that it was possible to adopt Western civilization while preserving your own identity. And Sarmatism, the most original current in Polish culture founded in the 16th century, cannot be imagined without intense contacts with the Muslim Orient. The same regards Romanians, whose national architectural style Brancoveanu emerged in the 18th century from combining various artistic forms, including Islamic ones.

Due to regular contact with Muslims, people from Eastern Europe often played a role of intermediaries between the Orient and the West, expanding the knowledge about the world of Islam in London or Paris. One example is the figure of the Romanian prince Dimitrie Cantemir, living at the turn of the 18th century and author of monumental works on Islam and the Ottoman Empire. The development of Turkish studies cannot be imagined without the outstanding achievements of Hungarian scholars, such as Armin Vambery, founder of the first Turkish studies chair in the world and a friend of the Sultan.

The East and the Orient

As we can see, juxtaposing the West in the East by means of a simple opposition (positive values against negative values) more obscures then explains European reality, which is ridden with contradictions. It is a paradox that the East, in Western Europe traditionally identified with the Islamic Orient, is now defined in the European media as an enemy of Islam within Europe. These two Easts (European and Oriental) are joined in the Western narrative by the belief in their essentially authoritarian nature, which is a classic Orientalist cliché. Certainly, such opinion stems today from the intent, openly declared by Kaczyński or Orbán, to build a non-liberal majority democracy. However, perceiving the whole European East through the prism of these politicians means using simplifying and unjust generalizations. Liberal critics of Orbán and Kaczyński from the countries of the region should remember that identifying them with the “bad” East, they unconsciously cultivate the myth of the Western bulwark, threatened by Eastern despotism, this time attacking from the inside.

Kaczyński and Orbán present themselves as unique carriers of true Europe, who have to defend traditional culture, modernization on your own terms, and sovereignty against the expansion of the decadent West. They do not realize how much they resemble some Muslim politicians in their rhetoric, defending their societies against—usually imaginary—expansive West. And how much the uniqueness of their countries is based inter alia on relations with the Orient, which they so much fear and reject.

The ambivalence of historical relations of Eastern Europe with the world of Islam is best personified by the figure of general Józef Bem, Polish and Hungarian hero of the fight for freedom against invaders. Foreign ministers of both countries recently proclaimed him the patron of the eternal Polish-Hungarian friendship, one of the most important binding elements supposedly being the defense of Europe against Muslim refugees. But they “forgot” to say that Bem ended his life as a Muslim and a general of the Ottoman Empire.

Adam Balcer

is a political scientist, expert in Polish foreign policy. He works as a Project Manager at WiseEUROPA and a National Researcher at the European at Warsaw University.

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