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Poland's Lipka Tatars: A Model For Muslims In Europe?

Tatars In Poland Describe Challenges For Muslim Minority
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BIALYSTOK, Poland -- The darkish tint in Bronislaw Talkowski's otherwise rosy cheeks provides just a slight hint that his ancestral roots may reach back further to the east.

Talkowski is a Lipka Tatar. Unlike other minorities in this Central European, overwhelmingly Catholic country, that fact has never precluded him from being considered a Pole.

Members of this Muslim community, whose ancestors first arrived in Poland six centuries ago, say their experience here can provide a blueprint for newly arriving Muslim immigrants. But they warn that assimilation comes with its own inherent risks in a community that now numbers only in the thousands.

As Talkowski tells it, the Tatars did "a service" to Poland and the state paid his community back.

The first Tatars arrived in northeastern Europe in the 14th century. The Turkic settlers, called "Lipka," after the Crimean word for Lithuania, had honed their military skills during Genghis Khan's Eurasian conquests and committed early on to serving the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In return, they were given noble status and allowed to flourish in the lands that today make up Lithuania, Poland, and Belarus.

Until 1939, Poland enlisted special Tatar military units, known for their loyalty, to defend against encroaching armies.

Talkowski, chairman of the Muslim parish of Kruszyniany, a small village 60 kilometers from Bialystok, uses an anecdote about the visit of Britain's Prince Charles to explain Tatar loyalty to their adopted country.

Talkowski says: "when Prince Charles visited Kruszyniany he asked our guide, who was accompanying him on his visit, 'why did the Tatars fight their brothers in Vienna?' The answer was simple -- we don't fight our brothers, we fight the occupier."

Bronislaw Talkowski
Bronislaw Talkowski
But the 20th century and its upheavals -- the Nazi decimation of Poland during World War II and decades under communism -- tested the perseverance of a group that now claims about 5,000 members in Poland.

Talkowski says the greatest challenge has been the erosion caused by assimilation.

"It's difficult for a small nation like the Tatars to influence such a large nation -- one where 97 percent of people are of the same denomination," he says. "Here there is a threat for the Tatar people -- that they assimilate even too much with the Polish nation in terms of culture and even religion. And this is a threat to our small community."

'An Example' For Muslims

Still, their experience marks a stark contrast to other minority groups that have had sometimes tragic histories in Poland. Jews in Poland once numbered in the millions, but the community was virtually annihilated during the Holocaust. Now, a wave of attacks against minority populations, including Muslim immigrants from the Middle East and Chechen asylum-seekers, has sparked fears of a far-right resurgence.

While the effects of assimilation have led to a shrinking population in the centuries since they first arrived, the Tatars have largely been spared racist vitriol and violence.

Tomasz Aleksandrowicz, a Tatar who leads on organization of Muslim communities in Poland, says this position of respect can be used to help other Muslims both adapt to Poland and gain acceptance without sacrificing their religious traditions.

Tomasz Aleksandrowicz
Tomasz Aleksandrowicz
"Islam is also Tatars -- people who are assimilated and who work for this country, the people who live next door, who we know. These are the kinds of Muslims that we want. Here, we set an example," Aleksandrowicz says, pointing to Internet forums where users respond to nationalist attacks on Muslims by citing the rich history of Tatars in the country.

But Tatars appear to have more than a symbolic role.

The Polish government provides state-funded religious education for grammar school students and a small portion of that budget is given to Tatar organizations for Islamic classes and cultural programming.

Talkowski and Aleksandrowicz both say they also work with struggling Muslim populations to help them resolve ad hoc issues, like violence in the community. Aleksandrowicz, who speaks some Russian, has worked closely with local Chechen community representatives.

Still, Aleksandrowicz says any process of assimilation will be slow.

"What we created here with Poland is our common good," he says. "It took centuries to achieve that. It didn't happen overnight."

With contributions by Anna Zamejc
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    Glenn Kates

    Glenn Kates is the former managing editor for digital at Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. He now reports for RFE/RL as a freelancer.