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

Date:03 September 2014
Author:Religion Factor
Source: WIkimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike Generic 2.0 License
Source: WIkimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike Generic 2.0 License

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. On Monday we posted Part One of our discussion of 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. Today, Erin Wilson continues the discussion, focusing on current and future roles for religion in displacement and ongoing challenges. 

As well as discussing each of these different problems, participants in the Brussels workshop explored ways in which religion could contribute to addressing them. In addition to those we have briefly mentioned above, our participants highlighted the more relational aspects of the displacement crisis that religion can contribute to resolving. One such area relates to the tensions that can arise between host populations and displaced persons. One of our participants shared a story of a welcome project in Paris, facilitated by a faith-based organization, where individuals and families hosted newly arrived refugees and asylum seekers in their homes for three months. While the experience involved significant adjustment, negotiation and stress for many of the participants, it was also an enriching and transforming experience for both the host communities and the refugees. In this example, religion assisted in creating space for meeting between different others – Parisians and refugees – and created spaces for people to engage in hospitality towards unknown others, as far as they felt comfortable to. While there are also multiple examples of religion fuelling division and hostility, this example highlights that the story is not so simple. It also highlights that religious actors, alongside other civil society actors, have the capacity to find alternative discourses, such as hospitality, welcome, common humanity, that contrast with dominant, security-centred discourses that often dominate asylum and displacement debates in the media and policy.

This example also speaks to another critical role that can and is being taken up by faith-based actors, that of advocates for refugees and asylum seekers, as well as advocates for citizens who desire to see a more humane policy approach towards protection. This is obviously not a role that can be exclusively played by religious actors, and many organizations, religious, secular and those in between, have already engaged in advocacy. One of the clearest and most radical examples of such advocacy is the current movement in Australia with the goal of having all children released from immigration detention centres – Love Makes A Way.[1] Pastors, Rabbis, lay church leaders and activists have staged pray-ins in the offices of Members of the Australian Parliament, including the Prime Minister, the Opposition Leader, the Immigration Minister and the Foreign Minister, to demand the immediate release of children from detention.[2]

Part of what enables religious, faith-based, spiritual institutions, actors and agents to engage in this advocacy role is the power and influence they possess in diverse cultural, social and political contexts. Despite widespread secularization in industrialized Western contexts, religious institutions, particularly Judeo-Christian establishments, retain substantial symbolic and moral power and influence, to the extent that politicians will still justify many of their policies in relation to their faith, and they will seek support and/or endorsement from these agents for their political campaigns and policy innovations. This power and influence is exponentially greater in contexts outside the West where the sense of the spiritual, metaphysical and transcendent retain a central place in collective life. This gives religious agents the potential to challenge prevailing discourses of exclusion and marginalization, as well as a responsibility to act on behalf of the voiceless, both in terms of the requirements of their own faith traditions, but also expectations from broader society, (though this is also true of other non-faith-based actors, organizations and institutions).

A further role that religion and religious agents can assist us with is to understand that asylum and displacement are not merely legal, political, security issues, but are real human problems with consequences for individuals and families that are felt and experienced on a daily basis. Religious agents, alongside other civil society actors, can assist us in appreciating the lived, human, emotional and spiritual dimensions of these traumatic experiences.

Ongoing challenges

Despite this significant potential identified by our workshop participants for greater roles to be taken on by religious actors, there remain a number of concerns, limitations and challenges in acknowledging the capacity of religion and in softening the boundaries between the religious and the secular in relation to development. There does remain, of course, the danger that opening space for religion will open up space for increased proselytizing, which must be guarded against. Yet one of the stories shared by a participant in the DC workshop suggests that it is not just religious organisations that are prone to try to “convert” people to their perspectives. One participant related the story of a UNICEF assignment they participated in regarding identifying and addressing risks for children. While the program sought to address vulnerabilities experienced by children, UNICEF encountered criticisms from the faith leaders in the community for ignoring the religious growth and identity they desired for their children, which for them should have been incorporated as part of the education and awareness raising on risks. They were concerned that their children were being introduced to secular worldviews and values at the possible expense of their religious values, culture and tradition. Secular actors, just like religious actors, must be sensitive to the partiality of their own views. The secular is not a neutral, universal perspective, but is one that is culturally specific. Nonetheless, there are possibilities for combining secular and religious approaches to displacement and other humanitarian problems. While religious actors and agencies have endeavoured to incorporate secular values and approaches into their own worldviews and practices for some time, the same accommodation has not, thus far, been made by secular actors. It is time to begin addressing this imbalance.

Part of what we are suggesting here and in previous posts on religion and displacement is that the strict division between religion and secularism must be broken down in order to create circumstances that enable more equal participation of actors with different perspectives and worldviews. There is a danger, however, that in collapsing this boundary and the identities of different actors, we become unable to identify the diverse perspectives and consequently unable to incorporate them into dialogue. An example of another situation where this has potentially happened is in relation to gender. One of the drawbacks of “gender mainstreaming” is that gender has arguably received less attention and emphasis, rather than the support and advocacy it received before it was mainstreamed.[3] The same may occur if we “mainstream religion”, so to speak. If we break down the barriers between the religious and the secular so much that we are no longer able to distinguish between them, there is a danger that spirituality and transcendence receive less space in dominant discourses than they otherwise would have, had we maintained the distinction between the religious and the secular. Perhaps what is required then is a recognition, in line with Riet Bons-Storm’s observation, that boundaries and barriers are important, because they help us to define who we are, but they cannot be so solid that we are unwilling to meet others, to adapt our ideas, to transform.[4] Boundaries and barriers must have gaps in them. The distinction between the religious and the secular must have spaces where the two merge and perhaps become indistinguishable for a time.

Such willingness to merge and overlap at times while retaining identities of secular and religious will require a greater sensitivity to, awareness of and reflection on values, identities and implicit embedded assumptions that form the background to policy and practice, on the part of actors who identify as secular and those that identify as religious. Both secular and religious organizations make assumptions about themselves, about each other and about the role that religion could, should or does play in displacement that need to be challenged. Further, both secular and religious actors must recognize that they are entangled in each other’s processes of identity and value formation, that faith-based actors are embedded within, not separate from, policy frameworks governing displacement and that they can at times contribute to the very problems they are also attempting to resolve.

These are but a few of the many suggestions and insights to arise from our discussions in Brussels in June. We are excited to announce that we will be developing these into a policy briefing paper that will be launched at the European Parliament on 19 November, at an event hosted by Dennis de Jong, MEP for the Dutch Socialist Party, and in collaboration with the Sustainable Society Institute, University of Groningen. But these recommendations are just the beginning. There is an urgent need for further research and reflection on each of these ideas and on how the distinctions between the religious and the secular are affecting policy, practice and the lives of individuals, families and communities of displaced persons in different settings around the world.

One of the participants in our Brussels workshop referred to the recent work of Joseph Carens on the Ethics of Immigration, where he highlights the need to keep the real world (what is pragmatically possible) in tension with the just/ideal world (what we would ideally like to see).[5] What is pragmatically possible must be kept in relation with what is ideal. In the same way, notions of what would constitute just or ideal policy and practice in displacement must be informed by and make space for, spirituality, the transcendent and the metaphysical, alongside currently dominant and more widely accepted “secular” immanent frameworks.

Erin Wilson is the Director of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain, Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen

[1] Sherlock, Peter. 2014. “Asylum Seekers: Praying for Change” The Conversation 20 May 2014. Available at Accessed 21 May 2014; Love Makes A Way. 2014. “About” Available at Accessed April 2014

[2] Bedding, Chris. 2014. “Cranky Christians against asylum seeker cruelty” The Drum. Australian Broadcasting Corporation 20 May 2014. Available at Accessed 20 May 2014; Farr, Malcolm. 2014. “Eight church leaders detained for refusing to leave Tony Abbott’s electoral office” 19 May 2014. Available at Accessed 20 May 2014; Hyde, Ben. 2014. “Nine Adelaide religious leaders arrested over protest at office of Federal MP Jamie Briggs” 24 June 2014. Available at

[3] Ramya Subrahmanian. 2004. “Making Sense of Gender in shifting institutional contexts: Some thoughts on gender mainstreaming” IDS Bulletin. 35(4): 89-94

[4] Bons-Storm, R. 2008. “A place to share: some thoughts about the meaning of territory and boundaries in our thinking about God and humanity” Hervormde Teologiese Studies 64(1), Available at Accessed 10 May 2013

[5] J. Carens. 2013. The Ethics of Immigration. New York: Oxford University Press


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