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Secularism, Security and the Limits of the State: The Displacement Crisis and the Role of Religion Part One

Date:01 September 2014
Author:Religion Factor
Syrian Refugee Centre on the Turkish Border, protected by soldiers. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
Syrian Refugee Centre on the Turkish Border, protected by soldiers. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Rethinking “security”, the role of the state, the secularist biases that exist in policy and practice around displacement and religion’s potential to address these problems are crucial issues to consider in terms of religion’s intersection with the global crisis of displacement. These are the main insights that emerged from the second of two workshops on Religion and the Global Asylum Crisis hosted by the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Kent, the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain, University of Groningen and the Institute for the Study of International Migration, Georgetown University, and funded by the British Council USA “Bridging Voices” program. On World Refugee Day, we posted reflections from the first workshop held in DC in May, which engaged the perspectives of US-based scholars, policymakers and practitioners on the crisis of displacement and its intersection with religion. Today and in a follow-up post later this week, Erin Wilson discusses these four key points coming out of the second workshop held in Brussels in late June, which focused especially on European perspectives on this global problem.

What are the current challenges facing the global protection regime?[1] In what ways are religious ideas, narratives, institutions, actors, organisations and experiences currently present within global governance and grassroots service provision in relation to displacement and related issues of refuge and asylum? In what ways could so-called “religious” and “secular” actors cooperate more closely in order to more effectively meet the needs of displaced persons? And what need is there, if any, to move beyond the nation-state as the primary provider of protection in contemporary global politics?

These were the four questions we posed to the scholars, policymakers and practitioners who accepted our invitation to participate in the two workshops on the role of religion in the contemporary asylum and displacement crisis in DC and Brussels. There were a number of points of commonality across both US and European perspectives, yet the Brussels workshop also raised issues that are specific to the European dimension.

“Protection” and “security”

Concepts of “security” and “protection” both emerged as problematic in contemporary displacement. There is a crisis in the global governance of displacement at present over who should be offered protection and how and what kind of protection they are to be offered. What does “protection” even mean or look like in practice? While the initial intention of the international refugee law architecture was to offer protection to those whose rights were being abused (those suffering from persecution), today the vast majority of displaced persons are in need of protection because their rights are being deprived. What makes it more difficult is that there is not always an identifiable culprit or perpetrator who is depriving displaced persons of their rights. What this calls for, according to the experts assembled in Brussels, is not a redrafting of international conventions governing asylum, refuge and protection, but a broader interpretation of these legal mechanisms to recognize the deprivation of rights, not just the abuse of rights, as legitimate grounds for providing protection.[2] It was also here, as advocates for broader readings of the law, that our participants saw potential for faith-based actors to take on a greater role.

A second problem is that “protection” is often conceptualized with reference to physical needs – sufficient food, clothing, safety from violence and persecution and so on. This usually (though not always, as current detention practices in Australia attest to[3]) includes a consideration of the emotional and psychological well-being of refugees and asylum seekers. Yet their need for spiritual protection is often not consciously considered as a part of the protection that needs to be offered. This is to some extent a consequence of the secular worldview that pushes spirituality and faith to boundaries of common life, designating it a private, personal issue and thus something that each individual must be allowed/left to resolve for themselves. In Islamic human rights law, however, spirituality is recognized as one of five core areas of human life that requires active protection. Spirituality is a core part of who we are as human beings, whether you understand that as the desire to believe in a God or whether you understand it as a sense of awe and wonder that transcends the here and now. As such, in designing responses to the need for protection, scholars, policymakers and practitioners also need to think about what refugees and asylum seekers need to feel that their soul and spiritual wellbeing are protected, alongside their bodies and physical wellbeing.

Yet this problem of “protection” is related to the additional question of “security”. Despite protection being the primary stated goal of international law relating to refugees, asylum seekers and the plethora of other categories of displaced persons, in practice these laws are frequently interpreted, especially by industrialized Western states, through the lens of security. This is not the kind of security we feel when we are safe in our homes with our loved ones, that incorporates a sense of wellbeing, a relatively benign or even positive understanding of security. Rather it is an understanding of security that is premised primarily on fear – fear of invasion, fear of instability, fear of the other. A key issue, then, is how to shift away from, or at the very least destabilize, currently dominant discourses on displacement in developed states to a more positive, inclusive understanding of security, if not away from the idea of security entirely. In these discourses of “security”, or perhaps more accurately, insecurity, religion plays an important role. Underlying the introduction of harsh asylum and immigration regimes in the US, Europe and Australia are (not so) implicit ties to fears of a rising and largely hostile Islam and the threat of violent religious fundamentalism. In Europe, workshop participants speculated whether this fear is made more acute because Europe is still largely religiously homogenous, at least in terms of its predominantly Christian (Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox) heritage. Rising immigration, both forced and unforced, introduces greater religious heterogeneity, but along with this comes difference and potentially tension and disagreement over values. Rising national populism and increasing euroskepticism are only fuelling these tensions and suspicions related to migration. What may be at issue here, however, is a disjuncture between the host populations and the immigrant populations regarding expectations. Host countries expect immigrants to “integrate” into their new communities. Religion is often seen as an obstacle to such integration, especially conservative religious values that do not always sit harmoniously with the more progressive values of many European countries. The burden of change is assumed to be entirely on the new immigrants. Yet, as a number of the workshop participants highlighted, particularly in relation to asylum seekers and refugees who have experienced immense trauma, placing the burden of change entirely on them is unrealistic, not to mention unfair and unjust. Whether consciously or not, all communities who accept refugees and asylum seekers from different cultures undergo some form of transformation. Rather than place the burden of integration entirely on the asylum seekers and refugees themselves, host communities can assist the process by working to adapt themselves to their new members. Here as well, our participants argued, faith-based organizations can play a role, bridging between new arrivals and the established community. What is needed in such activities, though, is a spirit of mutual vulnerability, perhaps even humility towards one another, to encourage us to be less judging and suspicious, more accepting and open. Finally, though, what may be required is a shift from the idea of “tolerance”, which implies a power imbalance (the one who tolerates has greater power than the one who is tolerated) towards mutual respect. This shift will also require greater engagement with one another, to understand and come to terms with our different values and perspectives and together develop common goals and values for how to live together.

The Role of the State

A key actor in all of these processes – protection, security and community building – is the state. The state has for a long time been the primary actor and provider of protection in international politics. It has been the state that we have looked to in order to determine who is entitled to protection, what that protection should entail and how it can be realized in practice. Yet it is becoming increasingly obvious, particularly in light of the unprecedented numbers of displaced and unprotected persons globally, that simply looking to the state to make these decisions and fulfill this role is no longer sustainable. Part of the problem is related to the issue of security. States, and particularly wealthy Western industrialized states, are increasingly framing forced migration as a security issue, rather than a humanitarian issue; as a problem of protecting their own interests and their own populations, rather than offering protection to those who do not have a state. To some extent this is understandable. The primary goal of the state, after all, is to provide security for its citizens. In an era of increased global interconnectedness, however, the problems experienced by one state cannot clearly be linked solely to causes within that state. Rather, they are frequently the result of transnational and global processes that transcend the arbitrary and artificial divisions we call state borders.

The question then becomes how to encourage a shift away from the mode of security, or protection of the host population, to a concept of security and protection that can also more adequately and humanely meet the needs of the global displaced population. To do this, our participants in both the DC and the Brussels workshops emphasized that we must target the underlying values of citizens. Host populations should consider thata commitment to protection of displaced persons is not just an act of magnanimity, but a fundamental measure of their commitment to the values of freedom, dignity and human rights and, as such, a fundamental part of their national identity, of who they are. This change of perspective, of course, will also require a shift in how displaced persons are portrayed in the media and by government officials. In this regard, faith-based actors and civil society organisations were identified by our participants as a critical voice that, by championing universal values of solidarity and piety that do not stop at national borders, invite us to reconsider the notions of security and identity in a broader intersubjective dimension.

Further to this, participants at both workshops argued that there is potential and a need for faith-based and religious actors, alongside other civil society organisations, to become part of the process of determining who requires protection and how that protection should be offered in practice. Incorporating religious actors further into the patchwork of institutions offering assistance can substantially contribute to broadening the areas and spaces in which protection is offered and granted. The inclusion of FBOs in these networks is happening already in some cases, but our participants urged that they can be even further integrated. As one of our participants said, “the state and humanitarian systems do not create themselves but are created by human beings.” As such, we are all complicit to a greater or lesser extent in the global crisis of displacement. With globalization, actors aside from the state are gaining increased influence in global politics and society, including corporations, civil society actors, religious organisations and even individuals. With this increased influence comes increased responsibility. The problem of protection is not something we can defer to the state any longer. It is a problem that must be addressed collectively, across the different levels and actors in the global community.

The need for increased religious literacy

A third recommendation that emerged from our discussions was the need to increase “religious literacy” amongst donors and governments, particularly in Western contexts, and especially with a view to understanding how the exclusion of religion from discourses and governance structures around protection has a real and often detrimental impact on the rights and empowerment of displaced persons. This initially seems counter-intuitive. Part of the reason for keeping religion out of these discussions is to reduce the risk of proselytizing and of religious organizations taking advantage of vulnerable individuals. This fear ignores two important points, however – firstly, that many religious organizations do not seek to proselytize, but believe themselves called to offer assistance to those in need, regardless of their religious affiliation and without strings attached. Secondly, it ignores the agency of refugees and asylum seekers themselves. Displaced persons frequently engage with different types of donors – secular and religious (and different types of religious), government, non-government, faith-based, inter-governmental – in order to best meet their own needs. As such, refugees and asylum seekers are far more resourceful and resilient than donors, governments and scholars often acknowledge and consequently are far more able to make decisions for themselves regarding their religious affiliations. For many displaced persons, religion and spirituality are central to how they make sense of their experiences and their journeys. Frequently, they find it easier to connect with and receive assistance from religiously based organizations, because they recognize a commonality of values that they do not always find with secular organizations. In this situation, religion becomes a form of empowerment, rather than a form of oppression. It also relates to the point raised above regarding protection of spirituality – as well as having their physical needs met, displaced persons have spiritual needs that also need to be met and they are far more likely to be met by a religious organization than by a secular organization. This provides further support for the observation made by Mavelli and Petito that the secular does not necessarily provide the best framework for pursuing justice, equality, freedom and inclusion.[4]

It is this aspect of spirituality, transcendence and the metaphysical that is still frequently absent from discussions around displacement and protection. Few scholars, policymakers or practitioners would deny that faith-based organizations themselves are important and significant in global protection frameworks and mechanisms and in providing assistance to people on the ground. But, as one of our participants from a faith-based humanitarian aid organization observed, while space has been opened up within policy and practice for greater collaboration with and recognition of faith-based organizations, there has not been the same recognition that faith and spirituality themselves are important. There is not the same collaboration between religious and secular discourses and worldviews in making sense of and responding to displacement as there has been across religious and secular organizations. For example, in contemporary secular political language, we frequently speak of the right to seek asylum and protection, in accordance with international human rights law. This emphasis on rights can also be associated with assumptions about individual choice and agency – an individual may choose to seek asylum in accordance with their international rights. Yet in Islam, there is also a recognized duty to seek asylum if your life and wellbeing are threatened. As such, seeking asylum is not just a matter of personal choice, but is a responsibility that is expected of you by your faith and your community. This view gives completely different weight and meaning to the act of seeking asylum. Yet there is little awareness or recognition of this or other spiritual and religious imperatives that can affect an individual or family’s decision to seek asylum.

The spiritual, metaphysical and transcendent realities that shape experiences of displacement for many people are still excluded. The language and values of displacement policy and practice continue to be governed by the logic of secularism, and religion is permitted only in so far as it can demonstrate its “added value” to the mechanisms and approaches offered by secular agencies. As a result, there is still a tendency amongst policymakers and practitioners, including amongst faith-based actors themselves, to give primacy to secular expertise and perspectives. This approach has also contributed to a prevailing “good religion/bad religion” dichotomy, where religion is considered “good” if it is consistent with and promotes secular democratic (and frequently also neoliberal market-based) values and programs endorsed by the state, while religion is “bad” when it does not conform to secular agendas and expectations. Such a dichotomy overly simplifies a complex array of actors and motivations. Consequently, there is a need to encourage greater openness to, understanding and less fear of religion and religious perspectives amongst scholars, policy makers and practitioners working in the area of displacement (though arguably in other sectors as well) in order to create greater equality for religious and secular perspectives and responses to complex global problems.

In engaging in this process, it will however be important to ensure sensitivity to a wide variety of understandings of what “religion” and “faith” are. An additional observation coming out of the workshop was that secular actors have a tendency to essentialize “religion” and “religious actors” as defined by preexisting, predominantly Christian (and within that, mainly Protestant) characteristics of what faith and spirituality are. This results in a focus on institutionalized forms of religion, with recognized canons of scripture and leadership hierarchies, when local religious formations on the ground may look quite different from this. It also contributes to the exclusion of the spiritual, the transcendent and the metaphysical from policy discussions on issues such as displacement because these are considered primarily personal individual experiences of the religious, not something to be openly shared and discussed. These issues point to the need to develop in policy and practice circles a recognition of what scholars of religious studies have known for some time – that “religion” is never the same thing from one place and time to the next, from one actor or group of actors to the next. Rather than attempting to develop “one-size-fits-all” policy solutions to displacement or the role of religion in displacement, there is a need for greater contextual embedding and reflection in these processes.

[1] Throughout this post, the terms “displacement”, “protection” and “asylum” are used to refer to different dimensions of the current global crisis of displacement identified by the UNHCR. It is important to note, however, that these concepts are not interchangeable, though they are entangled and difficult to extricate from one another at times.

[2] For more on this idea, see Betts, Alexander. 2013. Survival Migration: Failed Governance and the Crisis of Displacement. Ithaca: Cornell University Press


[4] L. Mavelli and F. Petito. 2012. “The Postsecular in International Relations: An Overview” Review of International Studies 38(5): 931-942


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