An article in today’s Washington Post by Adam Taylor offers a very disturbing comparison between anti-Muslim sentiment in Poland and France. Actually, the headline focuses on France, and the statistics offer information about many European countries, but after Interior Minister Mariusz Blaszczak’s idiotic statements in response to the Nice tragedy (which I won’t dignify with a link), Poland jumped forward as Mr. Taylor’s main point of comparison.
The picture drawn in this article basically reinforces every orientalist prejudice about the bigoted, xenophobic, “backward” Poles. Whereas recent surveys show that only 29% of people in France hold unfavorable views of Islam, 66% of Poles do. This despite the fact that the Islamic minority in Poland is about 0.1% of the population, compared to somewhere between 5% and 12% in France (since the French census doesn’t ask about religion, we can’t be certain).
I’m not going to deny the validity of this survey data (in fact, it’s confirmed elsewhere), but I do think some caution is in order as we attempt to interpret the numbers. Between 2015 and 2016 there was a 10% increase in the number of Poles expressing negative attitudes about Islam, and anyone following public rhetoric in Poland will guess why this might be. Prior to 2015 there was almost no discussion of Muslim immigration in Poland, for the simple reason that almost no people from the Middle East or North Africa were coming here. Information or debates dealing with Islam were categorized as foreign news, and given little attention. The Polish survey firm CBOS has been asking about attitudes towards various groups of foreigners since 1990, and by 2015 they were measuring responses to 32 different nationalities or ethnicities. Among these, the only examples from the Islamic world were Turks (added to the survey in 2005) and Palestinians (added in 2013). Significantly, though in 2005 a slight majority (53%) of Poles expressed negative attitudes about people from Turkey, this figure fell steadily every year until it reached the mid-30s in 2009. When the Palestinians were added to the survey, they came in at about the same point. This put Polish attitudes towards these two groups at roughly the same level as towards Russians or Ukrainians. As I’ve written about before (on multiple occasions), Polish attitudes towards foreigners of all varieties had been improving steadily and dramatically up to 2015, with only one big temporary spike back towards hostility in 2005-2006. In 2015, this trend was reversed, and in 2016 it is even worse. While every good academic will remind everyone that correlation is not causation, surely it isn’t a stretch to suggest that these trends have something to do with the fact that PiS held power in Poland in precisely these years.
One could argue that having someone like Jarosław Kaczyński in power simply empowers people to say what they really think. Or we could speculate that the prominence of anti-Islamic propaganda in the Polish state media under PiS rule might have something to do with this. Either way, we simply cannot take political culture out of our analysis of these comparative statistics. When Poles express opinions about Muslims they are basing their responses almost entirely on what they’ve seen in the media. Only 12% of Poles claim to have ever met an actual Muslim, and even that figure is definitely exaggerated (unless the few thousand Muslims here are extremely sociable).
My point is not that Poles are paragons of multicultural tolerance—they aren’t. But I refuse to believe that the contrast between France and Poland is as stark as the figures cited by the Washington Post suggest. Even a cursory familiarity with ethnic relations in France shows how much discrimination and hostility Muslim immigrants face in that country, but the cultural norms of civic inclusivity (on the rhetorical level) have led to a situation in which the French feel compelled to say “I don’t have anything against Islam, but….” In contrast, in Poland that sort of linguistic restraint is less acutely felt. Over the past 25 years, Polish public culture has made enormous strides towards instituting such restraint, as shown by the incredible drop in overt expressions of public antisemitism (from 51% declaring their antipathy to Jews in 1993, compared to 32% in 2015). I think we can credit Poland’s elites, including many prominent conservatives, for establishing a public sphere in which it was harder and harder to talk about hatred.
At least, we could until 2015.