What does a Pole think when they hear ‘Muslim’?

‘The trivialization of Islamophobia is like trivial nationalism, one that is unconscious. It is the air we breathe. The language, the currency, the symbol. It surrounds us so much that we no longer pay attention to it, reinforcing our ethnic identity. Islamophobia functions in the same way in Poland. We have stopped reacting to it’ – says Prof. Konrad Pędziwiatr, sociologist and migration expert.

Ewelina Kaczmarczyk: When a Pole thinks “Muslim,” what image appears in his head?

Konrad Pędziwiatr: Arab. In Poland, Islam is strongly identified with Arabness. This has its justification related to the origin of the religion and its holy language. Most Poles are not aware that only one in five Muslims live in Arab countries, and Arabs are a minority among Muslims worldwide. CBOS surveys on sympathy and antipathy towards different nations and communities show that Arabs, along with Roma people, are the most negatively perceived groups by Polish society. All possible aberrations are attributed to Muslim men and women. Interestingly, at the same time, Poles envy the wealth of affluent Persian Gulf countries.

The reluctance of Poles towards Muslims was highlighted in a very interesting Pew Research Centre study from 2016, in which respondents across Europe, particularly in Poland and Hungary, greatly overestimated the size of the Muslim population in their countries. People were so afraid of the supposed influx of Muslims that they claimed that there were over 2 million in Poland. They predicted that by 2020, Muslims would make up as much as 13% of Poland’s population, which would mean an “invasion,” in the language of frightened respondents, and a rise to 5 million. Of course, we have not reached such numbers.

So, how many Muslims are there in Poland?

Firstly, when we talk about Muslims, it is worth remembering that their religious identity is incredibly diverse. The use of the categories Islam and Muslim often has a stereotyping aspect. Let’s remember that just as Christianity is diverse, so too is Islam. There are Muslims who have nothing against going for a beer, while others will not touch alcohol. Both groups are worshippers of God, in Arabic Allah. There are many types of Muslim religiosity, not just formal versions of Islam, but religiosity that is diverse within various schools.

We do not know the exact size of the Muslim community in Poland. Estimations are most often made based on analyses of ethnicity, censuses of people attending mosques and prayer halls of certain Muslim organisations in the country, as well as declarations by those organisations. Above all, due to the increasing number of immigrants in Poland, the diverse Muslim community is also growing. Currently, it is estimated that there are between 40,000-50,000 Muslim worshipers in Poland.

Where do they live in Poland?

The largest community lives in Warsaw, where there are several mosques, including the newly-built mosque in Ochota. Apart from that, many Muslims live mainly in Polish cities such as Poznań, Kraków, Gdańsk, Białystok, Lublin, and Katowice. For example, in Kraków, one of the largest groups of Muslims in the city are people who have come to Poland from India. It is not excluded that in the future, Indians will also be one of the largest Muslim groups in Poland. I often hear the question: how is that, Indians are Muslims? Unfortunately, this is still not understood by Poles, even though India has one of the largest Muslim populations in the world. Therefore, I always try to correct editors and use the term “Indians” instead of “Hindus” to describe Indian citizens, which is more appropriate for describing their diverse religious, ethnic, and linguistic population.

What is the current situation of Muslims in Poland today? What challenges do these communities face?

There are many challenges, but I will try to mention the most important ones. In addition to Islamophobia, the problem is internal conflicts, the reproduction of religious identity, and negotiating what should be reproduced at all. What does Muslim identity mean in the context of such a diverse population, when even the understanding of certain rituals differs significantly?

Other challenges include organising religious education, accessing places of worship, and the occasional vandalism of those places. Many mosques in Poland officially adopt the name “Muslim cultural centre” to avoid explicitly referring to religion. Attempts to expand or build mosques in Poland have ended badly, even before a decade ago. Limited access to halal food is also a problem. Poland is one of its largest producers, so theoretically there should be plenty of it, but it does not reach the domestic market and is exported instead.

When was the term ‘Islamophobia’ first used?

The term first appeared in a report by the Runnymede Trust foundation in 1997. Although the word had already been used earlier, the first uses were recorded in French literature at the beginning of the 20th century in the context of French colonies in North Africa. However, the term was effectively discovered or even invented anew.

A report by the foundation showed the scale of Islamophobia in the late 90s and how the reservoirs of hostility towards Islam were starting to be exploited in new contexts. This was intensified by the emergence of new sensationalist media and politicians seeking additional votes by popularising Islamophobic slogans. Later on, this phenomenon only intensified.

How did you become interested in Islam?

When I was at university, I was interested in the issue of religious minorities and the presence of religion in the public sphere. At that time, I participated in a grant project on Christians in the so-called Middle East, led by the late Prof. Fils and Prof. Kowalska. After this project, at the end of the 90s, I went to England for a year-long Erasmus program. It was there that I saw that the problems faced by Christians in the so-called Middle East are similar to those faced by Muslims in Western Europe. At that time, no one was really interested in this topic, especially in Poland.

Then, in 2000, I was on a scholarship at the Oxford Institute of Anthropology. In my early research, I tried to answer the question of why Muslims who came to Europe did not abandon their religion, showing how migrants have reconstructed it in a new reality that previously functioned without institutionalised Islam.

Politicised Islam

After the attacks on the World Trade Center, Islam in Europe became noticeable, and I had a stronger need to continue my research. I looked at the differences in religiosity between immigrants and the next generation, those who were born in Europe. I also studied Muslim identity, attachment to this religion. After numerous projects in the UK and Belgium, upon returning to Poland, I became interested in the issue of immigration and the functioning of the Muslim community in Poland, as well as the issue of Islamophobia. I also conducted research on how Islam was politicised by Muslims themselves in the context of Islamist movements in Egypt and Tunisia, showing how these movements came to power and how they lost it.

However, from my perspective, 2005 and the London bombings were a turning point in the context of the growth of Islamophobia.


Previous attacks were in various ways related to the Old Continent. Their perpetrators were trained here or lived here, such as the Saudi commando attacking the US on September 11, 2001, or the Madrid bombers. However, the bombings on London’s underground and buses were the first in which European citizens decided to die in the name of their vision of Islam. The video testaments left by Mohammad Sidique Khan and his colleagues indicated the involvement of the UK in the war in Iraq and showed that the fight was not limited to Iraq alone, but should also affect British territory.

The media has played a significant role in spreading Islamophobia. They sought sensational opinions from the Muslim world and gave a platform to the most radical figures like Omar Bakri, the founder of al-Muhajiroun organisation, which organised meetings glorifying the 9/11 attackers in many cities in 2005. They had time for the media, and the media had time for them.

It was only after 2005 that journalists realised how dangerous it was to amplify radical voices. Institutions, especially in the context of terrorist attacks and the emergence of the so-called Islamic State, also began to scrutinise narratives about Muslim communities. However, it is important to remember that Islamophobia predates Muslim radicalisation in Europe.

Islamic radicalism has contributed to the reinforcement of certain elements of Islamophobia, but it did not create it. As Sartre said about anti-Semitism, it exists not because there are Jews, but because there are anti-Semites. This phenomenon often operates in the abstract, as is the case in Poland, where hatred is directed towards people who are almost non-existent in terms of their population in the country.

The scale of hostility is often inversely proportional to the size of the Muslim population in the country. The fewer Muslims there are, the greater the hostility towards them. Such individuals are simply easier to stereotype.

What is the difference between the religiosity of Muslim immigrants and the religiosity of the next generation born in Europe?

Islam in Western Europe was created from scratch. Its historical elements have survived only in architecture and language, but they did not really exist in a social context. Its foundations were eradicated by the successful Reconquista in Spain at the end of the fifteenth century. Migrants who came to Europe, especially after World War II, began to recreate Islam in this space.

The religion of migrants is initially invisible to society, and the scope of integration with newcomers is limited. Despite coexisting with people who practise Islam, Europeans did not notice them for many decades. Muslims only became more visible after the process of family reunification, which was accelerated after the oil crisis, when some countries wanted to get rid of seasonal immigrants, and they decided to invite their families here. At that time, most migrants came from North Africa and South Asia, among them Moroccans, Turks, Algerians, and Tunisians. In the UK, many people from India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan arrived.

A strong myth of return

Migrants from Islamic countries first began to make their presence known in the public sphere in the late 1990s. However, debates about the demands of Muslims in the UK began in the 1980s, even before the Rushdie affair. In the first half of the 1980s, there was the Ray Honeyford affair, in which he questioned elements of multicultural policy, such as introducing halal food or migrant languages into schools.

In the immigrant population, religion is strongly linked to ethnicity; being Pakistani or Turkish is ex definitione linked to being Muslim. This can be compared to the traditional Polish post-war identity, which was closely linked to Catholicism. This is often referred to by Gellner as popular Islam, in which magical elements dominate rather than in-depth analysis of the holy books. It is primarily associated with the private sphere. It is a religion that is practised here and now but with a strong myth of return, a longing to go back to one’s homeland. However, most of this generation do not return.

As for the descendants of migrants, they bring Islam into the public sphere. Europeans who convert to Islam play a significant role in this process; they become cultural navigators and demand the same rights for Muslims. The new generation is much better educated in religion, often reads the Quran, and has a better knowledge of the Arabic language. The nature of religion is changing, it is less linked to ethnicity, certain ritual elements are questioned, and sometimes, but not always, it also means greater conservatism. Their desire to return to the parents’ country of origin is disappearing.

Could you refute the stereotypes through which Muslim communities in Europe are often perceived?

Since the mid-1980s, there have been growing concerns and reluctance towards Muslim communities in Europe. In a sense, this is natural: in spaces that were well known, a different culture suddenly appeared. The protests surrounding Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses” were crucial in this situation. In England, there were voices saying that the queen should protect the Muslim religion as well, not just Anglicanism, extending the law on blasphemy to Islam as well.

In France, there was a discussion about politicising the headscarf, which is still highly politicised in the country, and its wearing is often perceived as a manifestation of political Islam. A woman wearing a headscarf is often seen by Europeans as someone who is radicalising and promoting Islam in the public sphere. Meanwhile, many of them do so to show their parents that they are exemplary daughters and thereby gain more freedom. The stereotype about the headscarf is probably the most popular.

Stereotypes about Muslims are also present in popular culture. For example, the Netflix series “Fauda” is a masterpiece, but it portrays Palestinians as terrorists. On the Palestinian side, there are almost no positive characters. I would like to remind you that we used to perceive Palestinians mainly as fighters for their own country’s freedom.

What is the current attitude of Poles towards Muslims in the country?

Since 2015, Poland has been experiencing a normalisation of Islamophobia. Prejudices related to Islam have become part of daily life, and it has become acceptable to say anything about Islam at the dinner table without protest. Those who hold different views or try to remain balanced are viewed as aberrant. This normalisation of Islamophobia is like commonplace nationalism, which is unconscious and surrounds us everywhere. It reinforces our ethnic identity to the point where we no longer notice it. The current crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border, presented as the defence of Christian Europe, is another opportunity to promote Islamophobia. Despite the fact that not only Muslims but also Christians from the so-called Middle East are crossing the border, the crisis is being used to depict Islam in a negative light.

Do you think that the humanitarian crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border represents a certain breakpoint moment?

For me, it is rather a continuation of the politicisation of hatred towards Muslims, a process that was strengthened in 2015 when the number of people coming to Europe increased due to the war in Syria, among other factors. Earlier attempts to politicise Islamophobia were limited to local politics and did not reach the mainstream. For example, the former Polish minister Gowin’s statement about barbarians. The border is a good alibi to reinforce the narrative of hatred. It is a great gift for populists who use anti-Muslim sentiment to build their political position.

However, people who end up there face great hardship. Despite the difficulties, our border is safer than others, such as those across the sea, so it is not surprising that people still choose it. I fear that the humanitarian crisis will become electoral fuel during the upcoming campaign. The level of moral panic surrounding this issue will unfortunately increase.

When I hear someone insulting followers of Islam and making generalisations, I ask if they know any Muslim men or women. This question may not change their attitude, but at least it forces them to reflect for a moment. Of course, the most common answer is no, they don’t know any. How else can we oppose the discrimination of Muslims?

First of all, we need to focus on dialogue and meetings. Everything that you do at Salam Lab makes sense. 

It is worth educating people and trying to explain to them that what they think about reality is totally out of proportion. Show them the complexity of the world and the complexity of Muslim identity.

As I mentioned earlier, part of the Muslim community in Poland has already given up. There have been several appeals, most of which have come to nothing. They are too poorly organised and cannot attract resources to respond to Islamophobic content.

Unfortunately, the media also contributes to the deepening of Islamophobia. In the communist era, the situation was completely different. Firstly, there was a socialist alliance with many Arab countries in the name of the fight against Western colonialism. Secondly, there was censorship and fully controlled media that did not speak critically of Muslims. We must also remember that during the socialist period in Poland, the media were less sensational, they did not have to compete with other content providers. When the fight for viewership appears, more controversial narratives appear.

I myself remember taking civic interventions regarding content that appeared in newspapers, such as saying that all Muslims in the UK are radicals who do terrible things. Unlike Western media, Poland lacks a critical voice from the descendants of second or third-generation migrants who could indicate that some material is extremely Islamophobic. Unfortunately, journalists often seek the so-called confirmation effect, choosing as experts those whose worldview will be consistent with their own. As numerous studies show, Poles’ knowledge of Islam is small, so they do not have the resources to critically analyse media messages. If we see Islamophobic content, let’s react and try to verify it.


Konrad Pędziwiatr – sociologist and migration expert. Professor at the Department of International Relations at the University of Economics in Krakow, vice-director of the Center for Advanced Population and Religious Studies (CASPAR), originator-coordinator of the Observatory of Multiculturalism and Migration (OWIM) and collaborator of the Center for Migration Research at the University of Warsaw. Author of numerous publications on religion and ethnicity in migration processes, Islam and Muslims in Europe, as well as the politicisation of Islam in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.

As Salam Lab, we are part of a unique grant and educational project called EMPATHY (Let’s Empower, Participate and Teach Each Other to Have Empathy. Challenging discourse about Islam and Muslims in Poland), which takes a comprehensive and intersectional approach to countering Islamophobia in Poland. You can read more about it at salamlab.pl/empathy.

The project is co-financed by the European Union. However, the expressed views and opinions are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the supporting organisation. The European Union and the supporting organisation cannot be held responsible for them.

Ewelina Kaczmarczyk – Salam Lab editor and author of texts, graduated in Polish anthropological-cultural philology at the Jagiellonian University. Interested in contemporary migration literature.

Translated by Dawid Mliczek.

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