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GAZETA WYBORCZA

Why Poland Is Not Charlie

The recent terror attacks in Paris didn't inspire much Polish empathy, in part because Poles have trouble identifying with the West's multicultural societies. That needs to change.

Not reading Charlie Hebdo on Warsaw's Zamkowy Square
Not reading Charlie Hebdo on Warsaw's Zamkowy Square
Paul Swieboda*

WARSAW — The terror attacks in Paris stirred little shock or empathy in Poland. "The context of the events is so distant from the Polish reality that the news seemed to have come from a strange, parallel world," one columnist wrote.

In Poland, which doesn't have the kind of multicultural population that Western European countries do, we're simply not sure how to react. Our confusion is mirrored by the very few candles burning in front of the French embassy in Warsaw. Many journalists here have expressed and felt solidarity with their French colleagues at Charlie Hebdo, but the news lingered only briefly here before it was quickly replaced by emphasis on more local issues.

We can do better than that. We've shown more empathic reactions to world events in the past.

The truth is, we don't really feel affected by what happened. The clash of cultures — secular versus radical Islamist — behind the event is an exotic, foreign issue to us. Meanwhile, some in Poland try to justify the lack of concern by pointing to other, much bloodier tragedies that never gained as much of attention as what happened in Paris: the 2,000 victims of Boko Haram in Nigeria, 145 children dead in the terrorist attack on the Peshawar school a month ago.

Emotions, though, are never distributed fairly or democratically. Hitting the very heart of Western civilization and its values must have a transformational impact.

While we aspire to the West, Polish people prefer some things to remain status quo. The pursuit of Western lifestyles may cause great identity challenges for our society because the new model can't be applied selectively. There is no way to embrace Western qualities without seeing some negative consequences.

We should, though, meditate more on what happened in Paris, with all of its myriad political and cultural impacts.

Our first question concerns the West's post-Paris reshuffle of priorities. While its focus will shift to fighting extremist Islamists globally, what will change in the Western attitude towards Russian aggression in the Ukraine, for example?

France has already increased its participation in anti-ISIS initiatives in Syria and Iraq, a decision that the recent attacks in the capital made much easier for French public opinion to accept. Last year, France sent its fighter planes to Poland to reassure us in the face of the Ukrainian conflict. It's our turn now. The last thing we should do is isolate ourselves with issues particular to Eastern Europe and let the West alone focus on the Middle East.

In the future, European countries won't be divided according to the percentage of Muslims in their populations but rather according to those who decide to act and those who decide to remain on the sidelines.

Western societies are multicultural, and the great majority of immigrants lead peaceful lives in the their host countries. Unless politicians such as Marine Le Pen gain more power, that won't change. Rather than catapulting the National Front to popularity, the Charlie Hebdo tragedies have awakened the values of the French Republic.

The evolution of modern societies and the place they occupy in the international landscape will depend on their identities and social integrity. Sympathizing with the French should also mean drawing conclusions for ourselves.

*Paul Swieboda is the president of the Center for European Strategy in Warsaw.

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