Poland’s Far Right Gains Strength with Government’s Tacit Approval
The current form of Islamophobia and xenophobia expressed by the far right in Poland is rooted in the history of anti-semitism says Konrad Pędziwiatr of Krakow University of Economics, Poland.
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. It was Poland’s Independence Day on November 11th. The day was seized by tens of thousands of ultra-right nationalists, who marched with racist and Islamophobic placards.
In the city of Katowice, far right protesters built symbolic gallows, and called for the execution of six European Parliament members from Poland, for voting in favor of the EU’s condemnation of these recent developments in Poland. On to discuss these developments with me is Konrad Pedziwiatr. He is an assistant professor in the Department of European Studies, at Krakow University in Economics, that is in Poland. His most recent book is ‘The New Muslim Elites in European Cities: Religion and Active Social Citizenship Among Young, Organized Muslims in Brussels and London.’ Good to have you with us, Konrad.
K. PEDZIWIATR: Thank you very much for having me.
SHARMINI PERIES: Konrad, were you surprised by the size of this demonstration for Independence Day, in Poland?
K. PEDZIWIATR: Not really. It’s not the first time the far right has been marching on the streets of Poland, during the Independence Day. They did it in the past. What is different from the past is slightly, maybe slightly higher numbers, and more xenophobic, racist, Islamophobic banners, that were visible during those marches. But the context, the march of these kind of groups on the Polish streets, during this particular day, and the taking ownership of this day by the far right, is not something new. It did happen in the past.
The only difference, as well, is also the fact that this year, the Minister of Interior Affairs said that he did not see any racist banners, and any Islamophobic banners. In the past, a few months ago, he said that racism does not exist in Poland, and he said that he stopped the flood of Muslim emigrants to Poland.
So I was not much surprised by his reaction, and the fact that he was, in a way, supporting, if not supporting, he was not condemning the alt-right, these far-right groups, that were marching on the Polish streets.
SHARMINI PERIES: … is the average Polish citizen responding to having their Independence Day seized by these kind of right-wing nationalists, far-right activists?
K. PEDZIWIATR: Well, Independence Day’s not so much celebrated by the Poles. What is different is that we’re approaching one hundredth anniversary of the Polish independence we gained after the First World War. So, obviously, there is a tendency to make this particular day an increasingly important one, and obviously, you have people who are putting flags out of their windows. But it’s not a very sort of, common thing to do, in Poland.
So, I’m not that much surprised that not an average Pole is taking part in this kind of celebration. What I’m surprised by is obviously, that the state is allowing the far-right groups to take ownership of these kind of marches, and not trying to, in any way, to restrain them, especially in their manifestation of hatred towards different kind of others.
That’s something that surprises me, because, obviously, next year, we’ll have this one hundredth anniversary, and I cannot imagine … if this thing is being repeated again … because, I think, enough is enough, and increasing number of Poles are also outraged by the fact that the far-right groups are taking ownership, and making this a great, sort of, racist promotion of Poland around the world.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now, the fact that this particular march was joined by protesters from nearby countries, making it one of the largest we’ve seen in Europe … how can the ultra-nationalist movement, in a country like Poland, actually be pan-European at this time?
K. PEDZIWIATR: It’s not that much unusual that these groups are joined together in their hatred of various types of others. Muslims are the most important “others” that they try to, sort of stigmatize, and that they are running around all the hatred of Muslims, and Islam. So this is something that connects these groups, although, not all of them are anti-Muslim, and some of the vast majority are.
One of the exceptions is Jobbik, which is the Hungarian far right, which is actually not very much against change, and [inaudible 00:06:25], with the migration crisis, but the vast majority are, and this is one of the issues that very much links these people together, and makes them to come together, and march together.
Obviously, if in other countries, these various leaders of the far right are, in many ways, restrained by the authorities, they see the opportunities they have, a political opportunity to march together with other far rights, or on the streets of Warsaw, and being protected by the police, and being protected, in a way, by the state, obviously, they are more than happy to do so. That’s why they happily come, and march together.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now, Konrad, on Nov. 18th, a professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University, had this to say about the developments in Poland.
PROF. J. MASSAD: What’s most interesting, to me, is the transformation of the European white … from an anti-Semitic tight, to increasingly, a pro-Israel, and sometimes, pro-Jewish right … mostly based on Islamophobia.
Speaker 4: Shared Islamophobia. Yeah.
PROF. J. MASSAD: There are three things that the European right had always been against. Women’s rights, and feminism; sexual rights, and the gay movement; and Jews. Subtly, all the European right has become feminist, has become pro-gay rights, and pro-Jewish, and in fact, these three issues are used to justify Islamophobia, and hatred of Islam, as allegedly anti-Jewish, anti-women, and anti-gay.
Therefore, the European right has adopted these views, and as a way of justifying Islamophobia, pretending that it has always wanted to protect these groups, and that it attacks Islam, for attacking them.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now, Konrad, remembering that Poland was actually occupied by Nazi Germany, do you agree with what Professor Massad is saying there?
K. PEDZIWIATR: There’s some truth in what he’s saying, that there’s a lot of coming together of various far right groups, and I would say, even in right-wing groups … who, in a way, were trying to … justify the fear of the Muslim “other” with the arguments of defense of Christian civilization. It’s very, sometimes, unusual, to see the leaders of the right-wing parties, or far-right parties, who are not religious at all, and use religious arguments in a way, in a cultural sense … saying, that we do not, we want to protect the Christian culture … we wanna protect the Christian civilization.
So, this is true, and I can say the populist far right, the populist right wing, from the region of central and Eastern Europe, largely go in this type of direction, in the recent years. Although I think, I wouldn’t agree with the professor when he says that they are becoming pro-gay, pro-feminist, and pro-Jewish. In the case of Poland and Hungary, Czechoslovak, Czech Republic and Slovakia, you have groups which are becoming increasingly Islamophobic, and putting the, sort of, the defense of the Christian civilization, high on the banners.
But at the same time, the same groups, on the different occasions, march against the feminists, and against the LGBTQ community … and so, and in the case of the region, Jobbik, for example … I would definitely not say this is a pro-Jewish group at all. So, some of it, you can see that it does happen, that these groups have chosen, in recent years, the Muslim “other,” as the most important one. They have somehow, sort of, played down the anti-gay, anti-feminist and anti-Jewish sort of card, but they have not dropped this card completely. They still have it, and they still use it.
So, during these marches, when we have also several individuals that use openly anti-Semitic, also, discourse, and words. There was a case of a Polish priest, who was kicked out from the order, called Jacek Międlar, who made his name on, not only Islamophobia, and basically calling for hatred towards those Muslims, but also, towards Jews.
So you can see that the elements of anti-Semitism are there, and in a way, Islamophobia is growing on the older types of fears, which were not properly dealt with, I would say, in central and eastern Europe. So, because we were part … we’re victims, as you say, we were occupied by Nazis … and millions of Poles, and other central Europeans, died in this war. We were victims of it.
So, in a sense, we did not really fully grasp the problem of anti-Semitism, and other types of xenophobias. In the case of Poland, Poland became a very homogeneous country after the Second World War, which was never the case. It was always a super diverse country earlier. So, this type of homogeneity is also creating a situation that people are not really accustomed to deal with diversity. They do not know the other.
So, for example, they do not know Muslims. They cannot really relate to any Muslims. There’s a lot of research that shows that every ninth or every eighth Pole … so, a very small minority of Poles … have ever had any contact with Muslims, so they do not really know. Their image of Muslims, Islam, is mostly created by sensational media. Also, they are being, especially with the migration crisis, scared by these Muslim refugees, or Muslim terrorists, that would come and invade Poland. A lot of media, certain segments of the media, have been very much using these kind of images.
So, the result of it, for example, in the case of Poland, is that Poles consider, they have pretty good understanding of economic processes, and other types of demographic processes, with some exceptions. One of the exceptions is that they’ve hugely exaggerated the size of the Muslim community in the country. They believe that 7% of Muslims, of Poles, are Muslims at the moment, which is a bit strange, ridiculous, I’d say, 2.5 million. And they say that, by 2020, we’ll have 13% of Muslims in the country, which is completely surrealistic.
Obviously, there are some reasons that people think in such a way. One of the major reasons is that they truly fear Muslims, and Islam, and they were scared, especially by the media images, of Muslims and Islam, that they have … nor, by contact with any Muslims, that they would know … because they do not have this kind of contact.
SHARMINI PERIES: Konrad, is this a reaction on the part of the far right for Poland accepting refugees, Syrian refugees, in particular?
K. PEDZIWIATR: Poland is not a country of immigration. Poland, in the past, it did accept Muslim refugees, above all, coming from Chechnya. Over the years, over the last two decades, almost 90,000 people from Chechnya made it to Poland, and through Poland, to other Western European countries, in, especially. There are still some Chechens in Poland who received international protection, but when it comes to migration crisis, and in particular, the Syrians … who made the largest number of people coming to Europe, in 2015 … they did not, this path of migration to Europe, was not crossing through the Polish territory at all.
But it was happening in a very unfortunate moment in the Polish history, namely, it was happening precisely at the time of the parliamentary election. So, what happened was, basically, a huge politicization of the issue of immigration, supposed arrival of Muslim refugees to Poland. That’s how it was portrayed, and this was very much used and abused during the parliamentary campaign, in a way that was completely unexpected, and never seen before.
Because Poland, as you know, probably, has over the last two decades, contributed hugely to immigration processes in Europe, and Poland has sent over, around, with the migration figures, around two million of Poles left the country in the last two decades, going to the UK, Germany, and other countries of Western Europe.
So, basically, we’ve not experienced any kind of immigration processes, until last year’s. It was, when the processes did happen … and they did happen, in 2015, and 2016 … you see, partially, as a result of the war in Ukraine, an increasing number of Ukrainians coming to Poland, mainly to work, because very few, only a few dozens, got the refugee status. Otherwise, the 100,000 that came in recent years, they came to work, they came to study, mostly. So they are, in no way, to be treated as refugees.
So, Poland did have some experience of receiving refugees in the past. But it acted as a transitional, as a country of transition, for the Chechens, mostly, and it did contribute hugely to the processes of migration in Europe by sending its own citizens abroad. But the issue of immigration was never a political issue. The processes of emigration, the fact that the Poles left, what kind of issues it creates for demography, for economy, this was partially politicized, discussed in the public street. But never the processes of immigration.
What happened in 2015 was that, because of the overlapping of the climax, I would say, of the migration crisis, with the Polish parliamentary elections, that were happening, in autumn 2015 … this was very much used, especially by right-wing parties, and far right, as a very useful political tool, to get more votes.
And some of the parties, at least one party, I would say that some of the votes of the Law and Justice Party were gained with the usage of this anti-immigrant sort of discourse. In particular, it was used by the far right, that joined the group … three was a coalition around the rock star, called Kukiz, and the Kukiz’15. They managed, actually, to get into parliament, and this happened for the first time, when the far right, the farthest right, managed to secure places in the Polish parliament.
So, in a sense, the migration crisis, hugely politicized, contributed to the presence of the far right in the Polish parliament, and when they got there … they, similarly, too, for example, Viktor Orban … they tried to lobby for the referendum on the reception of the refugees. But, very quickly after the new government was formed, in the initial months, the Prime Minister, the new Prime Minister, Beata Szydło, was saying that she would honor the European agreements of accepting refugees … but starting from November, especially December, the tone, and the terrorist attack in Paris … the tone started to change, and by the end of the 2015, the government said that they would not accept a single refugee.
If politicians rarely obey, or if politicians rarely, actually, do what they say, in this particular case … they, as we know, by September 2017, when this program was closed … Poland had not accepted a single Syrian refugee, under the relocation and resettlement program. So, and the issue, and it was very much used by the right-wing government to mobilize support for itself. And it was used very much as a political tool to gain support in the society.
SHARMINI PERIES: Konrad, I thank you so much for joining us, and shedding light on what’s going on in Poland, in terms of the far right. We hope to come back to you, and keep an eye on these developments, not only in Poland, but across Europe. I thank you for joining us today.