Bilewicz: We are all terrorists

Polish terrorism in the 19th century cost two world powers the lives of their leaders.

Patrycja Wieczorkiewicz: Are anti-Islamic lines shouted most loudly by those who could be considered the Polish counterpart to radical Muslims?

Michał Bilewicz: You could say so. Islamophobia holds sway predominantly with people with traditionalist beliefs, attached to fundamentalist interpretations of religion. They are obsessed with images such as that of Polish women being seduced by handsome Muslims. This is a macho politics of sorts, which we saw, among others, after  the shooting down of the Russian aircraft over Turkey. A macho has to show that he is strong. A tipsy hooligan who “defends a civilization” beating up a Syrian Christian in Poznan or assaulting a reggae musician in Szczecin. This is the sort of person both Erdogan and Putin are. After the Russian aircraft was shot down, I was afraid that the world may be on the brink of war because of the ever more evident tribalism. Far right groups are fuelling up one another. This rhetoric has become the populism indispensable to winning elections. In Hungary, Fidesz has been adopting the rhetoric deployed by Jobbik, so as not to lose hardliners’ votes.

But what is the explanation for Polish Islamophobia?

It derives from entirely groundless fears, especially when it comes to what we call the “refugee crisis” and what in fact is a crisis of conduct. Just recently I spent a month in Stockholm: during that time ten thousand Syrians had applied for refugee status. This is a country with 9 million citizens. If there are fifty-two weeks in a year, it means that Sweden might have to consider accepting half a million people. In Poland, over the same time span, there have been only three applications.

It is not the first time that we have to deal with prejudice against groups that barely exist in Poland. Since 1968 we have had anti-Semitism without Jews.

Does it mean that the Poles have suddenly developed an interest in European affairs?

Identity surveys show that we strongly identify with the nation, slightly less with our own community, just barely with our region, whereas we feel nothing about the European Union. And now suddenly the Polish have started to care about what is going on in Europe, losing interest in Poland? We get excited by an issue as foreign to us as the heating of water by nuclear power. It is true that the nuclear power industry increases the temperature of the natural bodies of water neighboring on nuclear power plants, and that the EU has to deal with that problem, especially during heat waves. But this is not an issue for Poland, as Poland has no nuclear power industry. Can you imagine a huge manifestation in Warsaw on 11 November [Poland’s Independence Day] campaigning for a shutdown of atomic plants in France or Spain? And yet here we have another Western European problem that has become the main theme of street demonstrations, the election campaign, debates in the media, and squabbles on the web.

How do we get Islamophobic sentiments in so nationally homogeneous a country?

The homogeneity itself is the reason. Our research shows that it takes as little as a half-year long Erasmus stay in England, Germany, or France for Polish students to become less Islamophobic – and that’s because they get to meet real Muslims, not those from television. It is not the first time that we have to deal with prejudice against groups that barely exist in Poland. Since 1968 we have had anti-Semitism without Jews. In the research we conducted, people who declared aversion to Muslims and whose associations with them were negative, would admit that there are no such people anywhere around them.

Is Islamophobia a new anti-Semitism?

There are some connections, but Islamophobia feeds on different fears. The kind of prejudice we feel toward groups whose status we consider as high are quite different from the prejudice felt toward those on whom we look down. Jews have been depicted as an able, competent, and intelligent group. Anti-Semitism is founded on envy. In the case of Muslims we have to do with a contemptuous image. I would compare this depiction to the Polish stereotype of the Roma.

The difference also lies in the social and legal judgment of such conduct: there is a broader margin of acceptance of anti-Islamic slogans. It was only the burning of an effigy of a Jew that resulted in legal steps.

Also the American media began to pay attention to the growing xenophobia in Poland only after the incident with the effigy – as if a certain taboo had been violated. If the slogans that have targeted Muslims had been used against Jews, I doubt that they would have passed unpunished. But the anti-Islamic lines chanted during the march on Independence Day and during all the anti-immigrant rallies caused no tidal wave of cases in relation to paragraph 257 of the Criminal Code. Today, the leader of the victorious political party can at will employ slogans reminiscent of the Third Reich when speaking of the diseases and parasites that the refugees allegedly transmit, and inspire no general outrage.

If we agree that in Poland the prejudice results from ignorance and having no experience of Muslims, where does the rising popularity of anti-immigrant groups in multicultural Sweden come from?

In Sweden anti-Islamic sentiments usually appear in places where those communities really form deeply isolated groups. In Stockholm there are many neighborhoods inhabited exclusively by Muslim refugees and migrants. This is a mistake that should be avoided in the future. Swedes from other neighborhoods never get to deal with Muslims. Let’s also look at the German case: Islamophobia is in bloom in the country’s east, where there are practically no Muslims.

The attacks in Paris reassured the ruling party in their belief that accepting the refugees is a bad idea. Beata Szydło will inflexibly call for solving the refugee problem beyond the EU frontiers.

Poles, whose knowledge and experience of the Muslim world are paltry, choose politicians whose consciousness is the same as theirs. I have no idea what is the relation between the French attacks with bringing in people from  overcrowded camps. It has been brought up by way of argument that one of the assassins allegedly entered Europe via Greece. In the 19th century, Poles succeeded in attempts on a tsar and a president of the United States: Polish terrorism in the 19th century cost two world powers the lives of their leaders. Luckily, no one back then decided to impose a ban on immigration from Poland. Our research shows that the chief associations with Islam or Arabs among the Poles are terrorism and fundamentalism. Never mind that in Poland there has never been an attack by Islamic fundamentalists, and the only Arabs, if any, that people get to deal with are kebab vendors or doctors. Also in France or Belgium extremists are marginal. Most Muslims throughout the world stand for democratic values and freedom of faith. It is funny that Foreign Minister Waszczykowski, when speaking about the terrorist threat related to the influx of immigrants, pointed to the law of large numbers. People, even the educated ones holding ministerial offices, have difficulties with statistical reasoning, they are unable to assess the likelihood of certain developments. Poor mathematical education may be at fault here.

Not that long ago it seemed that new generations would be more and more liberal and free from prejudice.

This is very puzzling. In most surveys we have carried out in different European countries, the correspondence between age and prejudice was linear – the older the person the more prejudiced he or she was. For more or less five years now, we have observed a reverse trend, e.g. in Hungary, where the youngest are not the least prejudiced, which translates into the growing popularity of the Jobbik party, who address young and educated voters. Further parties emerge that seek to incorporate such “youthful xenophobia” in their programs. That tendency has made its way into Poland, and I fear this has to do with using the Internet and with the epidemic nature of hate speech. Artificial fears have been spun. It was in somebody’s interest. Two weeks before the election, together with Mikołaj Winiewski and Łukasz Jurczyszyn we made a survey of political preferences of young Poles. We found that one of the factors decisive in choosing to vote for the right-wing triad, i.e. either Kukiz or Korwin, or PiS (Law and Justice), was the fear of Islam. Further factors were a sense of deprivation, i.e. a sense of failure, and the set of beliefs generally aligned more with the right wing. All the same, Islamophobia would impact voters’ decisions no matter their political allegiance; and no matter their sense of success or failure. Something of no importance a few years ago has now proved decisive in setting the political scene in Poland.

Gazeta Wyborcza has disabled posting commentaries under their texts about refugees. Is this the right solution?

Only in this way can we stop it. People who are more frequently exposed to the islamophobic hate speech begin to absorb it at as natural. It is most vocal on the Internet, and that’s one of the reasons why antipathy and xenophobia manifest among young people. We made an experiment in which the subjects read texts from news portals and then the comments posted below – Islamophobic or neutral. It turned out that those who read the commentaries full of hate would declare significantly more negative attitudes towards Muslims. They were college students, who originally harbored no such prejudice.

What about TV?

The survey we did with the media scholar Jacek Wasilewski showed that having read a piece of news on an info channel dealing with a terrorist attack sends one’s levels of Islamophobia up. It is, however, sufficient to add to such news a bit on a local Muslim community condemning the attacks and expressing their solidarity with the victims to make the prejudice vanish. And Muslims do protest against attacks: they did so after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, and they did likewise in the wake of the Paris November massacre. But that is what is not attractive for the media, even though the protesters are hundreds of times more numerous than the assassins. When we presented such information to our subjects, levels of Islamophobia would drop, while the ability to engage in a rational critique of fundamentalism would rise. It is about the idea that we, Westerners should help the progressive forces within Islam to cope with problems such  as terrorism or violence against women. We should give support to their modernization, instead of turning our eyes away or pushing them away from the EU borders. This is the mission of  leftist and liberal circles: we need not accept radical political Islam. And Muslims will be our allies in this.

Slavoj Žižek holds it against the Left that it is afraid of being accused of Islamophobia, and therefore it is silent about the real complications consequent to a clash of cultures, e.g. it never mentions the fact that patriarchal societies are coming to Europe from Syria and Africa.

For people of a liberal background, it will be the same kind of challenge as are the rabidly catholic listerners of Radio Maryja. Certainly one has to seriously work on developing such norms of coexistence that will allow for respecting cultural differences. Should we go about it by means of bans and forms of systemic oppression? Let’s not forget that Syria, until recently, had been a secular state. Women didn’t not cover their heads, they had studied and had not been denied their rights.

The staunchest resistance to accepting refugees comes from the lower middle class, who believe their financial standing is bad, and fear that it may further deteriorate.

Over the last dozen or so years Poland has accepted nearly one hundred thousand refugees from Chechnya – did the state prove up to the task, which was integration?

Not exactly. Had it not been for the support and sensible actions of NGOs, their lot would have been far worse, and radicalization could have been much deeper. People who suffer from frustration caused by economic reasons are particularly prone to it. Had it not been for the commitment of such organizations as Stowarzyszenie Interwencji Prawnej or Fundacja Ocalenie, we might well have had Chechnyan terrorists in Poland. This is the only lesson we can really learn from what happened in Paris. France tries to stay blind to cultural diversity. It accepts refugees from Syria and Africa, but it never stops to think about the need for programs facilitating their integration and adaptation. I never heard Prime Minister Szydło, or Minister Waszczykowski, or Minister Błaszczak speak about supporting NGOs, which are indispensable for successful integration, working with refugees with a view to prevent their political radicalization. Those people should be given the opportunity to learn the Polish language or law. In Poland all of that is seen to by NGOs, with governmental support – that is the support of the government of… Norway. If the stream of Norwegian funds flowing to Poland dried up, it would turn out that we have no tools for the due integration of refugees.

To what extent are the emergent xenophobia and nationalism class phenomena?

I think that every analysis of social phenomena must take the class factor into account. However, I disagree with a strictly economic explanation: the deeper the poverty the stronger the prejudice. The research on attitudes toward refugees and Islamophobia in Poland that we have done, shows that it is not the poorest who fear the most. Piotr Ikonowicz once wrote a beautiful column for Krytyka Polityczna, based on his own dealings with the poorest Poles. In his experience, it is they with whom the ethos of helping others is strongest: they will share whatever little they have. This can be observed also in our research. The staunchest resistance to accepting refugees comes from the lower middle class, who believe their financial standing is bad, and fear that it may further deteriorate. These are people who subjectively believe that they are worse off than others, whereas in fact they are much better off than the poorest.

It was them who marched on 11 November, with fascist slogans on their banners?

I wouldn’t be so unambiguous about stating it was fascists who marched. They are chaotic individuals, bent on destabilizing the political situation. During the march we interviewed many of its participants, and our preliminary analysis would indicate that they were not particularly law-abiding citizens, who do not yearn after a totalitarian law-governed state. In psychology, we actually employ the term authoritarianism, which denotes orientation toward order, toward very powerful law that admits of no exceptions for anyone – it has always been a component of rightist thinking. Our research shows that authoritarian individuals, although often themselves prejudiced, cannot stand uncontrolled violence or hate speech. What they want is order and stability. On the other hand, there is another kind of rightist thinking, which we term social dominance orientation, and this entails hierarchical thinking, which today has the upper hand. It presents the world as a jungle, where the strongest survive: a Hobbesian vision of the state of nature. There are better and worse individuals; the industrious should not be encumbered with taxes, and the minority should absolutely accommodate themselves to the majority. This is a social Darwinism of sorts. Timothy Snyder in his recent book says that it was not authoritarianism that was at the foundation of Nazism, but rather an unchecked Darwinism and anti-state sentiments. One after another, the moves of the Polish right seem to validate his hypothesis in relation to our times.


Michał Bilewicz – head of the Center for Research on Prejudice and teacher at the Faculty of Psychology, University of Warsaw. Laureate of the National Science Centre Award in the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Translated by Mikołaj Danderski.

This article was originally published on Dziennik Opinii.




Patrycja Wieczorkiewicz
Journalist and editor at KrytykaPolityczna.pl