What comes to mind when the history of Islam in Europe is evoked? One thinks of the mezquita in Cordoba and the Alhambra in Granada. Or Sicily under Arab and Norman rule. And the long Ottoman presence in the Balkans and of the beauty of Bosnia and Albania.
But Poland? Will Poland come to your mind? Probably not. Poland, a country that nowadays appears almost monoethnic and overwhelmingly Catholic, is usually not associated much with Islamic history. Apart, maybe, from the fact that in the seventeenth century the Polish King Jan III Sobieski defeated the Ottoman forces on the doorsteps of Vienna and thus rescued ‘Europe’ (Western Europe, that is) from an Islamic takeover. A fact that is often pompously remembered by right wing populists all over Europe nowadays and that has been celebrated by white supremacist terrorists such as Anders Breivik or the Christchurch mosque shooter. Contemporary Polish conservatives and nationalists, most of them decidedly racist and Islamophobic, also make much out of this piece of history and believe in an eternal holy mission of Poland as ‘Europe`s bulwark against Islam’.
A closer look at this piece of history, however, reveals shattering breaks in the convenient narrative sold both by international extreme right and Polish Catholic nationalists. Jan Sobieski was made an enemy of the Ottomans out of political necessity. He was certainly very Polish and very Catholic. But he was actually also a great admirer of Ottoman culture at the same time. He preferred Ottoman cuisine over any other cuisine and spoke Turkish fluently. As a young man he had once spent a few years in the Ottoman capital Istanbul, an experience that had influenced him deeply. Furthermore, he dressed exclusively in a style called ‘Sarmatian’, a type of fashion that was popular amongst the Polish aristocracy from the sixteenth to the early nineteenth centuries and that took inspiration from Ottoman, Tatar, Persian and even Mughal Indian fashion. As a Polish gentleman of the seventeenth century, Sobieski would have looked less out of place in Istanbul, Isfahan or Delhi than in Paris or Vienna.