WARSAW – On being designated prime minister of Poland last December, Mateusz Morawieckimade the extraordinary statement that he and his government want to "transform [the European Union], to re-Christianize it."
Struck by this grand vision of Poland's destiny, and particularly interested in the near-total ban on Muslim migrants (Morawiecki again: "we will not accept migrants from the Middle East and North Africa in Poland"), I just spent a week in Warsaw to understand why that country differs so sharply from Western Europe and what this implies.
I found a raging debate over the country's civilizationist (usually and inaccurately known as "far-right") party, called Law and Justice (PiS, pronounced peace). More precisely, Poles disagree on: Did PiS foment or respond to anti-Muslim feelings?
PiS critics portray it (like other civilizationist parties) as riding imaginary fears and specious emotions to political power. Other than the 1683 siege of Vienna, they point to Poles' historic good relations with Muslims, including seven centuries of exemplary ties with the tiny Turkic-speaking body of Muslims living in Poland, the Lipka Tatars; the Polish nobility's romantic notions of their Iranian ("Sarmatian") origin; the Ottoman Empire refusing to recognize the partition of Poland; and PiS itself warmly welcoming Chechen immigrants to Poland in the early 2000s.
In this interpretation, PiS and compliant media raised the specter of violence and other tensions concerning Muslims in Western Europe, scaring sufficient numbers of Poles that it could form the first single-party government of the post-Communist era. Critics argue that PiS demagoguery debases and endangers Polish democracy while undermining the European Union.
PiS supporters reverse this account. In their telling, a steady diet of news from Western Europe of jihadi violence, taharrush, "grooming" gangs, honor killings, female genital mutilation, criminal activity, welfare fraud, and cultural aggression prompted a demand from below for the party to adopt an anti-immigration and -Islamization platform. The Merkel Tsunami of 2015-16, with its million-plus Muslims walking through Europe, frightened Poles. Accordingly, some 75 percent of them reject Muslim immigration. So, even if PiS' main rival reaches power, they note, the Muslim ban will stay.
Of these two interpretations, I find the second far more convincing. PiS is no more responsible for the fears of immigration and Islamization than Europe's other civilizationist parties, such as Austria's Freedom Party or Italy's League. They all respond to a growing unease, mainly from the bottom of the socio-economic spectrum. They represent Europeans who fear for their civilization.
That said, there is much to criticize about PiS. It lavishes money on welfare payments the government cannot afford and has adopted the idea of "dependent market economies" from the anti-capitalist economic theorist Thomas Piketty. In a surprising nod to the Communist past, PiS wants to make the state more powerful, for example, by taking control of the judiciary. It engages in conspiracy theories (especially about the airplane disaster in Smolensk in April 2010). It sponsored the idiotic law that would land someone in jail for referring to "Polish death camps" then made things worse by talking about "Jewish perpetrators" of the Holocaust. (Though, under international pressure, it did back track last week on the threat of prison.)
Noting these problems, I maintain that the party should be educated and monitored, not demonized, so it can learn from its errors while protecting the country from the potentially existential threat of Islam's intrinsic drive for power.
Why have Poles responded so differently from Western Europeans to Muslim migration? The homogeneity of the country and its precarious history (it disappeared from the map for over a century) are both factors but what I found decisive was Poles coming late to the game, seeing the massive errors of their western neighbors, and resolving not to repeat those.
What are the long-term implications of excluding Muslim migrants? That Poland avoids Western Europe's looming crisis. As countries, starting with Italy, try to control their borders and expel illegal migrants, tension, insurrection, and violence will follow. In contrast, Poland (and its former Soviet-bloc neighbors) will sit out that crisis and may take in expatriates from Western Europe.
Though those expatriates head primarily to Australia, Canada, and the United States, Poland might soon – given its proximity, personal security, and inexpensive cost-of-living – become an attractive destination, especially for pensioners and for Jews, singled out as targets in Europe's West but increasingly safe in Poland.
So, while the EU won't be re-Christianized anytime soon, neither will Poland be Islamized.