Contemporary Polish Racism: the development of neo-Communism?

Contemporary Polish Racism: the development of neo-Communism?

Bolaji Balogun

It was only in 2010 that the former Polish government started giving attention to racial equality that led to the creation of a specialised equality body. However, the current Polish government (Law and Justice Party) considered such a body a meaningless organisation and abolished Poland’s only body for the Prevention of Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Intolerance. Since the removal of the organisation, there has been concern over violence against non-white residents and Muslim migrants in Poland. This suggests that efforts to combat racialisation in Poland still require further attention, as prejudice against Muslims continues to be expressed through Polska Liga Obrony (Polish Defence League) and ‘Radio Maryja’, a Catholic and conservative Polish radio station, still serves as an avenue for intolerance. This has created a problem for how migrants from the Middle East and Africa are perceived within Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries that see themselves as ethnically homogeneous and made up of committed Catholics.

In the current age of terrorism and mass migration, the drive to maintain a specific national identity is one of the most serious problems within the European Union. The re-emergence of questions of identity, nationalism – who belongs and who does not – calls for engagement with the meaning of identity inside and outside Poland. It also raises questions over whether the current political processes in the country are attempts to re-establish Communist tenets. A growing body of literature has investigated contemporary Polish identity and its relationship with European identity. Identity within contemporary Polish society is not that straightforward, as Poles are politically divided in terms of those who associate with Europeanness (dual) or with Polishness (exclusive) (McManus-Czubinska et. el, 2003).

According to this approach, Polish dual identity is open to cultural differences; it does not reject external cultures, and identifies with Europe. Whilst Poles with dual identities accommodate other cultures, those who embrace exclusive identity usually reject multiculturalism; they are culturally restrictive and could be described as racist. This group subscribes to the Polish myth of European purity and whiteness, and expresses the fear that a different culture would have a negative impact on the Polish culture.

A broader perspective is adopted by another study related to Polishness, which suggests that neither a split between dual and exclusive Polish identities nor a disagreement between the ‘Euroadvocates’ and ‘Euroskeptics’ (Galbraith, 2004) explains Polish attitudes towards the Other. The complexity within Polish identity cannot be pinned down to merely economic and political events, but ideologies that are attached to those political events. Polishness and ‘otherness’ should be understood through the country’s portrayal of its religion, homogeneity and conservatism, implying that Polish identity is inconceivable without Catholicism. This leads to an argument that Poland and other CEE countries attach great importance to Catholic traditions, literature and folk life (Szczypiorski, 1982; Szajkowski, 1983; Stachura, 1999, Spohn, 2003). The paradox is that this Catholicism has little to do with spirituality, but articulates a sense of social belonging, national history and memory (Michlic, 2004). In consequence, the idea of bringing Islam or Judaism into the religious sensibilities of the Poles confronts a long and continuous history of discrimination and racialisation of Muslims and Jews.

The portrayal of Catholicism as a sense of national identity and solidarity seems to imply a group of people linked by a common ‘blood’, collective name, common culture and religion, and a shared sense of political ideology (Smith, 1984). The current Polish government uses such a sense of Polishness as an argument for the preservation of race and nation. This implies that Polishness could only contain Catholicism and whiteness, and thus that a Muslim or Sikh person could not also uphold or express some kind Polishness. The collaboration between the state and the Catholic Church – the state’s historical discrimination towards women and ethnic minorities, and the Church’s theological narratives of Catholicism as a counter-doctrine to Judaism and Islam – suggests that Catholicism, Conservatism and Polishness are inseparable.

The Exotic ‘Other’
Although racialisation takes different forms and shapes in contemporary Polish society, the depiction of Jews, Muslims and Blacks now constitutes a new category of exotic ‘Other’ with different history and traces. This implies that Whiteness, Europeanness and Religion hold a strong position in the way non-white and non-Europeans are generally perceived in Poland. The reason for this is threefold. First, to be exotic is to be foreign, not native; to be introduced from abroad, and not fully naturalised. The historical portrayal of the Jewish community as a social scapegoat is an instance of exoticness that has become a continued tradition of exclusion.

Second, the representation of Islam in Poland is similarly discouraging. The recent terrorist activities in the world – the bombing of the world trade centre, the London underground bombings, the Paris attacks in 2015 and the Brussels Airport attacks in 2016 – have weakened relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in Europe. Such events, carried out in the name of Islam, have led to the perception of Muslims as terrorists, preachers of hate, Jihadists and in some cases, anti-Christ that make many Europeans view Islam as a religion of terror and oppression. The portrayal of Islam as a religion of terror is gradually becoming a visual representation of Islam in Poland, where non-Muslims are beginning to question the activities of their local Muslims in a confrontational and aggressive manner (Narkowicz & Pędziwiatr, 2016). Although Muslims only make up 0.1 percent of the current Polish population (Gorak-Sosnowska, 2014), recent protests against the presence of Muslim refugees in Warsaw, Katowice and Krakow, and the publication by wSieci, a right-wing magazine, of a half-naked white woman in an EU flag being assaulted by non-white male hands – suggesting an ‘Islamic rape of Europe’ – constitutes part of the Polish heritage of ‘Racial Europeanization’. Contemporary euro-panics around ‘the Muslim’ may appear reasonably new, but they have very deep roots (Goldberg, 2006).

Third, while Jews and Muslims are stigmatised for their unique appearance and non-European religions, the objection to people of sub-Sahara African descent is mainly based on the darkness of their skin as a representation of exploitation based on racial logics that re-establish and maintain a colour-line. This is consistent with the view that black people are seen through the prism of ‘race’ rather than people belonging to a nation, and identity markers such as culture, origin and colour serve to distinguish between ‘black’ and ‘white’. This is entrenched in a culture that uses skin colour as the basis for the ethnic identity of all blacks. An implication of this is that the ‘other’ is seen and labelled in ways that have been strongly conditioned by another culture, and consider the extent in which the ways of thinking are intuitively shaped by stereotypes that describe black people as foreign in a relatively permanent way, making black and white dichotomy problematic (Zabek, 2009).

In this article, I have made five main claims: First, that some of the policies of the current Polish government are very similar to the Communist regime in Poland, and such policies, especially on minority rights need to be challenged. Second, the ways in which group identities are formed especially in a homogenous state, and the role they play in the state require direct engagement. The concept of ‘who we are’ serves as a preconception of people that do not look or sound like us, which threatens peaceful co-existence of people from different cultures, religions and backgrounds. Third, Catholicism, as a universal symbol of hospitality and peace, has failed to find a common ground between Europeanness and non-Europeanness in Poland. It seems that the same Catholic canon that provides many Poles with a great sense of solidarity and identity does not provide non-European migrants with a positive life in Poland.  Fourth, differences in Polish identities cannot be pinned on a single marker, but a variety of markers that range from political views to social orientations. Nonetheless, identification with ‘local’ allegiances against ‘international’ viewpoints seems to be influential and feeds into parochialism and nationalism. Finally, the portrayal of the Orient as Non-European and exotic constructs a racial difference between Poles and non-European migrants in Poland.

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Bolaji Balogun is a PhD student in Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds, England and visiting Researcher in the Department of European Studies, Cracow University of Economics, Poland. His doctoral research examines blackness, racialisation and curiosity in Poland. Bolaji is a member of Centre for Ethnicity and Racism Studies at the University of Leeds, England.

Image: Latuff Cartoon Collection 2012