The one where Poland became an anti-terrorist meme
Poland is in the news again, by not being in the news. Scan Twitter for the mentions of Poland and you will get a stream of recent tweets, of which these are just the top three at the moment:
The inspiration for these sentiments seems to be this meme which has been circulating over the past few days in the right-wing social media-sphere:
The map itself comes from a Map of Global Terrorist Attacks produced by Centre for Strategic and International Studies, using the University of Maryland’s START database for all terrorist attacks between 2012 and 2015. You can see the complete map in its full glory here, and play with it to search by country or city, or zoom in and out to see the information about every coloured dot. It’s a fascinating resource.
What can one say about the map itself as well as the policy conclusions that many have recently drawn from it regarding immigration and terrorism?
Firstly, the map shows all the terrorist attacks, not just Islamist ones; hence you will find terror attacks committed by ethnic separatists (Basques, Corsicans, Irish), terror attacks committed as part of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, as well as acts of environmental and other terrorism. This is something to particularly bear in mind when discussing the situation in Europe, as bloggers and Twitteratti are, as opposed to the Middle East, where the source of the violence is much less varied.
Secondly, it’s not just Poland that is colour spot-less; so are Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Romania and Slovenia; all former communist countries of East and Central Europe. Then there is Norway. Having said that, Poland is clearly the most substantive state on that list, by virtue of its size, population, as well as its role in European and EU politics. And while there indeed have not been terrorist attacks in these countries – jihadi or otherwise – there have been arrests made of suspected Islamist terrorists (4 in Poland and 11 in Romania in 2015, according to Europol (page 45 of their “European Union Terrorism Situation and Trends Report 2016”).
All that noted, what about Poland then – why no terrorism? Is it due to its “very strict immigration policy”?
The first important thing to note is that Poland is extremely ethnically homogeneous nation. According to the 2011 census, 98.1 per cent of the population are native-born. In addition to tiny numbers of mostly German and Ukrainian born citizens, around 600,000 people, out of the total population of over 38 million, consider themselves members of other ethnic minorities – around 50 thousand German and 37 thousand each for Ukrainian and Belorussian, but overwhelmingly (420 thousand) Silesian, which to somewhat simplify the issue is a Polish-German mix with its own dialect and traditions. This monoethnicity is a relatively new development in Polish history, dating back only to the genocide, ethnic cleansing, and border readjustments during and in the aftermath of the Second World War.
This monoethnicity, undoubtedly, is the major reason for Poland being terrorism-free: ethnic minorities in Poland are relatively small and very peaceful, their rights well accommodated by the state and the society. There are no violent separatist movements fighting for the reunification of some border areas with their German or Ukrainian fatherlands.
What about the “I” word itself? Not many people are aware that Poland has had its own Muslim minority for some six centuries; significantly longer than most other European countries except for the Balkans and Spain. They are descendants of Muslim Tartars of the Golden Horde who were either taken prisoner or settled peacefully during the Middle Ages. My family historians tell me we have one such ancestor in the 16th century in our family tree. Polish Muslims have been very well assimilated over centuries and have been staunch Polish patriots throughout the turbulent history of wars and occupations. There are still around 20-30 thousand Tartar Muslims in Poland, indistinguishable from their neighbours but for their religion (or increasingly lack thereof – in the 2011 census only 5 thousand people listed Islam as their religion).
The only other Muslim population of any size currently in Poland are the Chechens. Throughout the years of the conflict in the Caucasus, Poland has taken 80,000 Chechen refugees; today only 6000 remain, the rest having used Poland as the gateway to the Western Europe. Before the resistance turned Islamist, the Chechen cause was quite popular in Poland, which has its own history of conflict with the Russian colossus.
It is true that Poland has very restricted immigration rules – less than 700,000 our of 38 million residents are foreign born, of which only 150,000 were born in countries other than Poland’s neighbours Germany, Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania. Only 63,000 currently have a citizenship other than Polish. Lest Poland be accused of blatant Islamophobia, it’s not just Muslims; there are very few foreigners of any particular nationality, ethnicity or religion.
And the Chechen experience provides another way of looking at the Polish question: not many people actually want to migrate to Poland in the first place, dreaming of starting a new life along the Vistula and living “the Polish dream”. The heart of the matter is that Poland is (still) a relatively poor country by the European standards, with a meagre welfare safety net and few opportunities for work for non-native speakers. Poland’s only attraction to potential migrants from the developing world is as a transit lounge on the way to much wealthier, more welcoming, and more migrant oriented countries of the Western Europe.
Having said that, while Poland is not particularly keen on any migrants, there is definitely no appetite for receiving Muslim refugees or migrants. Some 71 per cent of the population is against – the largest percentage in Europe. Latest opinion polling, conducted only last month, replicates this percentage:
Fifteen per cent says Poland should accept migrants from Muslim countries, and 14 per cent has no opinion.
What accounts for such an overwhelming sentiment?
It would be glib to suggest that the long national memory of acting as a “bulwark of Christendom” against the Ottoman Empire, including the relief of the siege of Vienna in 1683 by King Jan III Sobieski, plays a large part, though no doubt it feeds into some cultural attitudes. Much more contemporarily, the Poles only have to look to the west and see what large scale migration from the developing world has wrought – and they don’t like it. You have to try to look at things through the prism of the last three hundred years of the Polish history, which included a grand total of less than fifty years as a sovereign nation and instead 123 years of non-existence, revolutions, uprisings, wars, occupations and dictatorships. One of the main battlefields of both world wars, Poland lost one sixth of her population in the second and was the main staging area of the Holocaust. After all this, there is a bit of an attitude “give us a break; we’ve had enough of all the shit; we don’t need any more.”
As I mentioned above, while probably the most economically successful of all the post-Communist countries, Poland is still a relatively poor country, which feels it can’t well afford to take care of others when it is struggling to take care of its own. This is all relative, of course, and to many foreign observers can seem quite ungenerous, particularly in light of Poland’s (declining) Catholicity as well as the perceived debt Poland owes to the West (“we’ve been taking in and taking care of Polish refugees for decades”).
But if the ethnic homogeneity, lack of irredentist minorities, and very limited immigration, including Muslim immigration, are the prime reasons why Poland has been so far terror free, how applicable are these factors as policy solutions for the Western Europe?
Not very much. All significant countries in the West are already multiethnic and multicultural, either as a result of history or the post-war immigration policies. Ironically, the East is much more monoethnic within the current nation states of the region, partly as an outcome of the war, and partly in the aftermath of the Cold War, with the breakdown of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, including the subsequent ethnic cleansings and population movements. This will not be repeated in the West.
Secondly, it’s unlikely that historic minorities in the West will be granted nationhood, certainly in the case of the Basques, the Catalans, and the Corsicans, less certainty in the case of Ireland. This is not to say that pro-independence terrorism will be with us forever; IRA and ETA today are but the shadows of what they used to be decades ago. More peaceful accommodation seems to be the order of the day.
Thirdly, the boat has sailed long ago (so to speak) on the Muslim migration in Western Europe. Even if further immigration was stopped (an issue complicated by the European Union-wide rules), all countries already have significant Muslim minorities, which no one, apart perhaps from a few neo-Nazis, dreams of expelling.
Lastly, it should be noted that while most of the Islamist terrorism in Europe is carried out by the residents of the affected countries, the global jihad is a very mobile phenomenon, and terrorists not infrequently travel to other countries to commit their outrages (there seems to be a particular nexus between France and Belgium). Nothing is stopping an ISIS-inspired jihadi from, say, Germany from traveling to Warsaw and blowing himself up or running people over with a car. That this has not happened so far probably means that for the terrorists the Eastern Europe, even if more pro-American than the West and with a history of involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, simply isn’t the main game.
So – Poland has indeed been lucky, but the lucky mix of an otherwise unlucky history and circumstances is not replicable elsewhere. You can indeed “draw your own conclusion”, but I’m afraid you can’t do much else with it.
A couple of months ago, Czech President Milos Zeman made an unusual request: He urged citizens to arm themselves against a possible “super-Holocaust” carried out by Muslim terrorists.
Never mind that there are fewer than 4,000 Muslims in this country of 10 million people — gun purchases spiked. One shop owner in East Bohemia, a region in the northern center of the Czech Republic, told a local paper that people were scared of a “wave of Islamists.”
Now the country’s interior ministry is pushing a constitutional change that would let citizens use guns against terrorists. Proponents say this could save lives if an attack occurs and police are delayed or unable to make their way to the scene. To become law, Parliament must approve the proposal; they’ll vote in the coming months.