The Polish Tatars and lesson for Vietnam

The story of current treatments towards Cham Muslims, a minority ethnic people in Vietnam, perhaps, while it might not be so bad, isn’t good either. For a long time, due to long historical duel between the majority Kinh people and the minority Chams, which once had even had a mightier civilization called Champa, the current Vietnamese Government, led by the Communists, distrusts the Chams. In current situation, while Cham Hindus are no longer regulated, the Cham Muslims still have a level of restriction. Of course it would be very good if this is used to combat Wahhabism and Salafism, or radical Islam; but to ban their faith, is another question.

Even people know that Islam is still trying to catch up with current world, and trying to fight against wrong teachings, somehow, people still have fears. That’s the same for Vietnam though.

But, in spite of difficulties, there exists a significant different. They are Muslims, but they are secular and friendly, they hold no grudges and they are loyal. They are the Lipka Tatars – a Muslim people who reside in Poland, Ukraine, Latvia, Belarus and Lithuania (known as Polish Tatars; Lithuanian Tatars…).

Who are the Lipka Tatars?

Lipka Tatars in Poland during early 20th century
The Lipka Tatars can be traced back to the conquest of the Mongols into Europe. During the conquest, a significant group, called the Tatars, under Khublai Khan, invaded from Russia to Poland, Hungary and other European states. However, after the Mongols left, the Tatars were re-settled by the Lithuanian Duchy. Because of this, they are called as the “Lipka” – which was derived from “Lithuania” itself.

But it wasn’t until 16th century, when the Union of Lublin finally incoporated Poland and Lithuania into one single nation, known as Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Lithuanian Tatars joined the nation along with Poland and they became part of the Commonwealth. From then, Lithuanian Tatars, now also called as Polish Tatars, played a significant role in Poland. They became Polonized and adopted many Christian and Slavic naming, although Islam remains in a minority of Tatars.

History of Lipka Tatars in Poland

After the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was formed, the Tatars played many significant role of Polish politics. Of course they also began with series of unrests, notably the 1672 Lipka Rebellion, but due to the religious tolerance among Poles, the Tatars had finally gone into Polish society and became part of Poland. It was them who fought together with the Poles in many significant wars, such as the Muscovite invasion of Poland, which the Tatars helped Poland to defeat the Russians. But moreover, during the Ottoman invasion of Vienna at 1683, the Polish Tatars joined hand-to-hand against the Turks. Thanked for their skills, the Turks were defeated and it marked to the decline of Ottoman Empire.

After Russia, Austria and Prussia partitioned Poland at late 18th century, the Polish Tatars also joined hand with the Poles against Russia in order to regain independence for Poland. Many Polish Tatars, notably Aleksander Jeljaszewicz – last commander of Tatar Islamic unit of Polish Armed Forces, or Aleksander Sulkiewicz – a Polish activist who sought for Polish independence, had helped Poland to regain their homeland; or Henryk Sienkiewicz, although not a Muslim despite of his Tatar background, contributed much for world’s literature and a Nobel Prize-winner. They became symbol of successful Polish Tatars who, worked in harmony and peace. From a brief short independence (1922-39), Polish Tatars helped to rebuild, until Russia and Germany invaded Poland together.

The Tatars faced many regulations and strong repression under the newly-formed People’s Republic of Poland – a communist satellite state under Russian control. Nonetheless, they didn’t become radicalized and they remained their brotherhood and bond with Poland. It was blessed by so many Polish activists who sought for freedom and rights of Polish people, no matter Muslims or not. After 1989, the Tatars emerged again while they maintain their Islamic traditions, also keep building Poland into a better country.

Why are Lipka Tatars so successful?

The Lipka Tatars have been very different than most of other Islamic communities. While they are Tatars and Muslims, traditionally, they don’t consider themselves Muslim identity, but they rather see themselves part of the nation they belong to. In that case, it’s true for Poland.

A Tatar mosque in Bohoniki, Poland
When British Prince Charles of Wales visited the site in 2010, he had asked why didn’t Tatars join the Turks during the Siege of Vienna. In response, they claimed: “we’re fighting the invaders for our homeland”. The Polish Tatars, instead of viewing themselves as part of Islamic world, just see themselves Polish by identity, and Islam is just another side. This contributes for the successes.

On the other side, the Tatars reject any ideas of radical Islamism which is adopted by so many radical groups, claiming that “unclean” for real Muslims. I must say they are not just very good by natural, but they also know what should belong to them.

Currently, some Lipka Tatars have become, again, symbol of Polish-Islamic world relations, such as Mufti Tomasz Miskiewicz, or Ambassador of Poland in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, Selim Chazbijewicz, help deepens the tie. In social life, the Tatars are granted to maintain their faith, having specific education, going to Mecca while, again, remaining Polish.

…and to the Vietnamese Chams…

A Cham Muslim wedding in a small village near Chau Doc, Vietnam.

While I agree that not many Vietnamese really like Islam and there need a rightful and direct way, the Cham Muslims should have to be treated better than that. The current Government has not done enough to provide basic education for the Cham Muslims, while there has some unrealistic restrictions.

The main goal is Vietnam needs to prevent any attempt of Islamic radicalization, and the Lipka Tatars are good example. What do I want to know, is, how able can Vietnam do to help them. But within a communist nation, it’s uncertain what would have to happen, in the future.

The Lipka Tatars maybe, a brief nice lesson if you want to do something for.


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