“Please, come in! Just climb up the stairs. I’m waiting on the first floor.” Surprisingly, the door of the small villa in the suburbs of Wroclaw is not locked. Apparently, there are no uninvited guests at the Muslim Cultural Center. Mona Saifi welcomes me with a smile in front of her tiny office. The young woman has been working here for four years and is responsible for cultural and educational events, as well as for the institute’s publications.
A tour around the premises reveals a plethora of different institutions hidden within the inconspicuous house. The Imam, together with three or four employees, organizes the program of the Muslim Cultural and Educational Center, and supervises the academic Institute of Islam Studies, as well as the publishing house, Averroes. A room full of children’s chairs serves as a classroom for teaching the Koran. Muslims from Wroclaw and the surrounding region have two carpeted prayer rooms at their disposal. On the ground floor, men gather around the Imam. Above, women pray on the first floor, where the liturgy is broadcasted via a flat screen TV. The language of prayer is Arabic and Polish, with English subtitles displayed on the broadcast.
Our tour ends with the “Great Hall,” which is roughly the size of a typical living room. It is used for public events, lectures, discussions, and book presentations. Mona Saifi points to two shelves housing her institution’s publications – brochures about Islam, editions of the magazine As Salam, which is released two or three times a year, as well as some hardcover books. “All of our publications are released in Polish. If someone wants to know something about us, he just has to grab a book from the shelf.” Their publications, however, do not only target Polish Non-Muslim readers. The small congregation is very diverse. Since no country of origin predominates and there are also several converts among the community, they mostly communicate in Polish or English.
Students from the Arab “Brother Countries”
If for you, the thought of Muslim immigrants conjures up images of economic migrants and refugees, the Muslim community in Wroclaw may come as a surprise. The city’s universities have drawn the attention of students from Arab countries. Even before the transformation of the system in the 1990s, student exchanges took place between countries of the Warsaw Pact and the Middle East – regions which, at the time, enjoyed a closer relationship. After graduation, many exchange students returned to their home countries. Some stayed in Poland – often for love. “There are many mixed families within the Muslim community,” Mona explains. The young woman from Wroclaw herself has a Polish mother and a Palestinian father. “My mother is Christian. My father is Muslim. I know of many women who converted to Islam in order to marry a Muslim man. But my mother is a more-or-less practicing Christian. Neither my father nor my mother imposed their religion on me.”
Muslims as Part of the Global Brain Drain
First generation immigrants from the 1980s and second generation migrants, as well as converts and the new Arab and Asian migrant generation, meet in Wroclaw’s Muslim community. Approximately two hundred people show up for Friday prayers. In Lower Silesia, Poland’s fifth largest voivodeship with 2.9 million inhabitants, the estimated number of Muslim community members is around four hundred families. In addition to universities, multinational corporations attract employees from all around the world, including from Muslim countries. These international experts, referred to as “ekspaci” (a spin on the English term “expats”), can be found in increasing numbers in the city center. As Wroclaw continues to develop into a multicultural city, the term “brain drain” seems to be more relevant than “labor migration.”
Given the scope of its activities, the Muslim Cultural Center has definitely positioned itself within the academic milieu. The Institute for Islam Studies cooperates with Polish as well as international universities with lectures such as, “Researching Islam – Methodological Problems,” and “Analyzing Islamophobia.” Even the magazine articles in As Salam are rife with dense academic language. The Muslim League (Liga Muzułmańska), which was founded in 2001, edits this publication. Polish names dominate the list of editors and staff members. International authors who are associated with left-wing, anti-imperialist views, and who take a critical stance towards globalization, are published in Polish translation.
I grab the latest edition of As Salam from the bookshelf. A caricature by Carlos Latuff depicting a Muslim dressed as a concentration camp prisoner is printed on the front page. This particular drawing earned the Brazilian cartoonist the second prize at the International Holocaust Cartoon Competition in Iran. His drawings, which equate today’s discrimination against Muslims with the crimes of the Nazi regime, can also be found inside the magazine. These are not the only false analogies that can be found. In his article, “Charlie Hebdo – ‘Freedom of Speech’ and the Specter of New Pogroms in Europe,” Chief Editor Mariusz Turkowski asserts that Arab-Muslim refugees could be threatened by a new mass extermination, a “new Holocaust in Europe”. These comparisons bewilder me.
“Integration is about education. It is about building bridges that allow us to live side by side without us having to necessarily be identical.
On the shelf next to the magazine I find a book about “The Image of the Other and the Image of God in Monotheistic Religions.” Dialogue with other religious communities comprises a crucial part of the Muslim Cultural Center’s activities. In 2010, representatives of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities met for the second time to discuss common and divisive issues during the Wroclaw Convention for Interreligious Dialogue.
Not in Our Name
“Extremists are blasphemists! Don’t be fooled!” The red poster hanging above the door of the Muslim Cultural Center is impossible to miss. To whom are those strong words directed? I ask Mona Saifi. She hesitates, “Well, to everybody. But primarily, we just wanted to show that this is not true Islam.” To emphasize, she adds, “People with those views are not allowed to access the Center. Anyone who even tolerates the activities of ISIS terrorists are not Muslims.”
Following the Paris attacks in November 2015, Wroclaw’s Muslims wanted to give a signal to their community. Using the motto,”Not in our name!”, they protested against the terrorism of ISIS’s self-proclaimed “religious warriors.” They received support from their immediate neighborhood. The Franciscan congregation of St. Anton, situated next to the Muslim Cultural Center, even joined the demonstration. Representatives of the Jewish community, as well as Wroclaw’s Mayor, Rafał Dutkiewicz, also took part.
During the interview with Mona Saifi it becomes clear that the congregation does not need to distance itself from the extremists. Rather, they try to juxtapose the negative image of radical Islam with an alternative vision. “Extremists are not capable of interpreting the Koran. They merely reinterpret a fraction of it, lacking any knowledge about its historical context, to promote their own political aims.”
Not Behind Our Backs
Cooperation with the city administration has been very good in recent years, Mona Saifi tells me. An example of this fruitful collaboration can be found in the large number of new cultural and educational projects. School classes take field trips to the mosque. Events for non-Muslim visitors, such as the Day of the Open Mosque, are in high demand.
Ms. Saifi tells me about a project to train refugee assistants. Activists from Polish civil society, rather than public administration, have agreed to offer trainings to help integrate the first refugees that arrive in Wroclaw, as specified by European quota agreements. The Muslim Cultural Center is cooperating with the coordinating NGO to provide future refugee assistants with intercultural training. “We want to support this project and provide insights into Islam. Firsthand knowledge is critical so that nothing is said about us without us.”
Integration, but also recognition and representation, are at stake. “What does integration mean to you?” I ask. My interlocutor has a comprehensive answer, “Integration is about education. It is about building bridges that allow us to live side by side without us having to necessarily be identical. It is about having your own values, but also being able to make room for universal human values such as justice, compassion, and peace. It also entails abiding by the law of the state that you live in. Being able to express one’s belonging to a particular denomination through attire also plays a part. This, for me, is integration. Being different, but living together.”
According to Mona Saifa, the visibility of Muslims in the public arena is one of the main challenges regarding integration that must be addressed in Wroclaw. The city administration is very concerned about making Wroclaw a tolerant city, she explains. Unfortunately, however, community members, especially those who are easily recognized as Muslim, still face discrimination. This primarily refers to women wearing headscarves. Although Mona herself is not afraid of assaults, Muslim women from the city’s outskirts and smaller towns tell her that they are afraid to wear their headscarves in public transport.
As I return to the city center after my interview, my thoughts continue to wander. The last question that I asked Mona Saifi was about what she wishes for in the future. “Well, my wish would be that people wouldn’t be so afraid of Muslims.” Waiting at the train stop, my gaze settles on a yellow press headline in the window of a newspaper kiosk. “Let’s Ban Islam! – Let’s Defend Ourselves Before it’s Too Late!”
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