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, 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.
Misperception and misunderstanding
Abdulwahab Bouali, 31, takes care of the Białystok 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 Dęblin Aviation School.
"The prayer house I'm taking care of—and live in—will only serve its purpose until the mosque is built here in Białystok," 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 minority—not an ethnic, but a religious one. Their cultural and religious life is centered in Białystok and the surrounding region, as well as in Gdańsk. 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 Association.
In 1992, they formed the Association of Polish Tartars, which is headed now by two scholars: Dr Ali Miśkiewicz from the University of Białystok and Dr Selim Chazbijewicz, a poet and publicist based in Gdańsk (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 Białystok and Kraków). The most prominent cultural event of the Polish Tartars is "Orienty Sokółskie," a 20-year-old tradition organized in Sokółka, near Białystok, 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 Białystok. 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 need—whether they have been here for centuries or just years.
Wojtek Kość, 22 January 2001
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