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The Religious/Secular Divide and the Global Displacement Crisis

Date:20 June 2014
Author:Religion Factor
“Refugees 1987” – original work by Zvi Malnovitzer. Obtained from Wikimedia Commons. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
“Refugees 1987” – original work by Zvi Malnovitzer. Obtained from Wikimedia Commons. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Today is World Refugee Day and if the numbers released by the UNHCR today tell us anything, more action and new approaches are urgently needed to address the needs of the rapidly growing globally displaced population. While religion is often consider marginal in discussions about the displacement crisis, in today’s post Erin Wilson argues that the ways in which we think about the religious and the secular, the public and the private, neutrality and partiality are entangled in and, in part, productive of elements of contemporary approaches to protection.

It’s official. The world is experiencing a crisis of displacement and protection on a scale not seen since World War Two. On World Refugee Day, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees released its annual report, outlining that by the end of 2013, 51.2million people had been forcibly displaced, 6 million more than at the end of 2012. For the first time since the end of World War Two and the establishment of the UNHCR and international refugee law, global displacement exceeded 50 million.

As the report outlines, multiple conflicts and violent unrest are contributing to this displacement crisis. The civil war in Syria is the primary culprit, creating 2.5 million refugees and a further 6.5 million internally displaced persons. Yet in the last year, the conflicts in the Central African Republic and South Sudan have also contributed to this huge increase in the numbers of people needing protection.[1] With recent developments in Iraq, it looks like this number is set to increase again by the end of 2014.

Last month, the University of Groningen’s CRCPD[2], the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent and the ISIM[3] and the Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University coordinated the first of two workshops in Washington DC, funded by the British Council USA, on the role of faith in this global displacement crisis. Participants in the workshop came from academic, government, practitioner and advocate backgrounds and organizations. Religion is not a topic that often features in discussions of the global displacement crisis and when it does, it is usually in one of two forms – either as one of the driving factors of conflict and violence that forces people to flee and become displaced, or as one of the key sources of assistance for refugees through faith-based organizations that provide relief and support for refugees and asylum seekers in camps and in resettlement countries.

What emerged in our discussions in Washington, however, is that religion’s role in displacement is far more complex. Understanding the relationship between the religious, the secular and global displacement requires deep reflection, conceptual innovation and ongoing collaboration across academia, policy and practice. While it is undoubtedly the case that religious beliefs, worldviews, institutions and organizations do contribute to global displacement dynamics as both a cause of flight and a source of comfort and support, these are not the only ways. Casting religion’s role in displacement in only these two avenues buys into the “good religion, bad religion” narrative that has become a common place of contemporary politics in the aftermath of the Cold War and especially September 11.[4] “Good religion” contributes to global (secular) human rights standards, justice, compassion and upholding human dignity; “bad religion” creates intolerance, exclusion, violence and chaos. Yet such simplistic black and white categorizations obscure complex dynamics of power and exclusion that are embedded within the discourses and frameworks that we use to talk about contemporary, state-centric global politics. In fact, I would argue that the religious/secular divide that we have become so familiar with, that is so embedded and ingrained in the national and global political structures through which we live our lives, is also centrally significant and normatively productive in the realm of asylum and refugee issues. If we are to effectively address problems and gaps in our current approaches to asylum, protection, refugees and asylum seekers, scholars, policy makers, practitioners and advocates, particularly in the West, must move beyond this tendency to divide the world into secular, public spheres and religious, private spheres. Indeed, we must become more conscious, careful and deliberate, sensitive to contextual specificities of culture, politics, economics, time and space in the ways in which we define, speak of and about the religious and the secular, including in relation to the global problem of displacement.

This may seem a strange argument to make at first. After all, the terms “religious” and “secular” are not the first that immediately come to mind when thinking about issues related to asylum, refugees and displacement. We think of this as a primarily political or humanitarian problem, one that is only, if at all, marginally related to the more conceptual problems of defining exactly what “religion” and “secularism” are. It does not take much, however, to see that many of the categories and terms through which we think about and govern processes of providing protection in contemporary politics, the voices, knowledges and experiences that are included and excluded, are in many ways produced by normative discourses of religion and secularism, articulated and reinforced by actors of all and no traditional faith-based affiliations. These discourses privilege the secular as neutral, universal and inclusive, positioning the religious as subjective, particular and exclusive, thereby subordinating religious worldviews and frameworks to secular ones.[5]

The secular/religious divide is entangled with the public/private divide. In the largely Euro/Western-centric political imaginations that continue to dominate global politics, the secular belongs to the public, the religious belongs to the private. Participants in the first Faith and Asylum workshop discussed how religious belief is privatized in humanitarian discourses. There is a willingness to acknowledge diversity of beliefs, worldviews, cultures and lifestyles, but only on the surface. “It’s fine for you to believe that and live your life by those beliefs, just keep it to yourself.” This privatization of belief has contributed to a marginalization of faith, spirituality and faith-based perspectives in humanitarianism and to what participants described as “an instrumentalization of the religious assets of FBOs” – utilizing volunteer and fundraising networks that FBOs often have through their faith communities, for example, or the influence the religious leaders can frequently have in local communities, without engaging deeply, seriously and respectfully with their core beliefs. Indeed, many FBOs themselves talk down or exclude their faith commitments when working in humanitarianism and refugee and asylum seeker support. Some scholars and practitioners will argue that this is a good thing, because it reduces the possibilities for proselytizing and the exploitation of vulnerable people by religious groups eager for converts. While this is indeed a danger to be wary of, this view fails to recognize that secularism and secular worldviews can be just as normative, biased and exclusionary as religious ones.[6] As one of our participants pointed out, faith doesn’t have to be religious, it can be “making the world a better place”, whatever you understand a “better place” to mean. Secular humanitarianism is its own kind of faith.[7]

There is a real fear amongst practitioners, policymakers and scholars of partiality in humanitarianism, especially emanating from religious actors working in this sector, and an almost ideological insistence on neutrality and objectivity, which they believe is achieved through secularism. Yet as the workshop participants and scholars such as Michael Barnet and Janice Gross Stein,[8] Benjamin Berger,[9] Elizabeth Shakman Hurd,[10] Luca Mavelli and Fabio Petito[11] and many others[12] are highlighting, the supposed neutrality and objectivity of secularism is in fact a highly particular set of worldviews and assumptions emanating from a very specific cultural, historical, political and economic context. It may in fact be more problematic to insist on the veneer of neutrality and objectivity, since this to some extent encourages the suppression or ignoring of particular normative views and assumptions, rather than openly acknowledging and then critically self-reflecting on how our own deeply held beliefs and assumptions, regardless of whether they emanate from religious, philosophical, political or ideological traditions, affect our ideas and actions.

This privatization and exclusion of religious belief is entangled with an additional problem noted by the participants in our workshop – the exclusion or marginalization of refugee and asylum seeker voices themselves. What do asylum seekers and refugees themselves want to see occurring in responses to displacement and protection? How do they themselves see the role of faith and faith-based organisations in these processes? What role would they like faith and faith-based organisations to have in the provision of protection? It is not an insignificant point that the vast majority of the world’s refugee population come from regions of the world where there are no clear distinctions between secular and religious and public and private, where these categories and divisions do not really make sense at all. To assume that secular models of politics and analysis are somehow superior to or “more developed than” worldviews that do not make this distinction is not only incredibly arrogant but also runs the risk of replicating the errors of imperial colonial thinking and the assumptions of modernization theory, now decried by many development scholars and practitioners.

Yet, in the dominant Western/Euro-centric political imagination, the secular is frequently associated with development and modernity, while religion is in general considered backward and pre-modern, if it is even considered at all. In global institutions that have largely emerged from Western political powers and structures, such assumptions are implicit, entangled with ongoing inequalities and power imbalances left over from the colonial era. The secular/religious divide is part of this production of power imbalances that contribute to silencing alternative (non-Western) perspectives on global problems, including the global displacement crisis, and may in part contribute to the exclusion of the voices of displaced and marginalized people themselves. As such, we must be very careful about excluding worldviews that take seriously the spiritual, metaphysical, supernatural and transcendent, in which these dimensions of the human experience are not partitioned off from the rest of life but are deeply embedded and entangled with daily realities. Such exclusions devalue the ways of thinking and being of vast sections of the global population, silencing their voices in what must be global conversations.

The need to recognize the diversity of thinking in relation to the place of religion, faith, spirituality, the metaphysical and transcendental – however you wish to describe it – in the daily lived experiences of different individuals and communities around the world is perhaps most acute in the realm of displacement and protection. This is because it is in displacement and protection that the multiple perspectives intersect on the ground in daily lived realities. Multiple local and culturally specific worldviews meet and intersect with one another, alongside grand overarching narratives and structures related to state power, globalization and cosmopolitan global civil society. Different “locals” intersect at the same time as different “nationals” and “globals”. The personal local perspective of a Somali refugee who has been resettled in the United States, Australia or the Netherlands, for example, intersects with the personal local perspectives of the white American/Australian/Dutch volunteer or advocate (or security guard or politician) that they encounter through their application and resettlement process. These worldviews will differ from time to time with regard to what a legitimate cause for flight is, what place religious narratives, worldviews and actors should have in these application and resettlement processes, whilst being overlaid with global discussions, norms, laws and institutions. Making space for diversity of worldviews, beliefs and experiences, on an array of issues, not just in relation to the religious and the secular, is critical in generating greater political and social openness and willingness to work together to respond to the challenge of displacement.

One practical way for creating this space for diversity that our workshop participants suggested is to train security guards, politicians, policy makers and practitioners to be sensitive and open to spirituality. Contributors to the workshop noted that the faith-based experiences of refugees and asylum seekers often go ignored or unaddressed by practitioners, and yet spirituality can be a central component of how refugees and asylum seekers make sense of their own journey and in facilitating the resettlement process. As such, this greater sensitivity would significantly alter the current experiences of displaced persons. Other more practical suggestions that workshop participants had included involving FBOs directly in the adjudication process for asylum seekers and encouraging greater power and responsibility sharing across government and organisations in the humanitarian sector, from multiple and no faith backgrounds.

A last critical observation for all who are engaged in and affected by the plight of displaced people – Language matters. Most of us are already aware of this. We know that labeling someone an “illegal immigrant” or “boat person” dehumanizes them, whereas highlighting their dignity and their humanity through acknowledging their situation, referring to their family relationships or even by using their name has the power to create connection and empathy. How the media, politicians, activists, scholars and practitioners frame these issues matter.

Several scholars have argued that emphasizing the moral responsibility aspects of the asylum and displacement crisis have little to no effect in altering attitudes amongst the broader population towards refugees and asylum seekers.[13] One of the workshop participants from the Public Religion Research Institute shared the results of a recent poll they took, which showed that, while religious organisations have been emphasising their traditions of “welcoming the stranger” in relation to asylum seekers and refugees, this approach has far less impact than approaches that emphasize shared human experiences – keeping families together, protecting and defending human dignity,[14] and showing that rather than being a threat to security or a drain on the economy, refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants of all kinds enrich our societies, through sharing their experiences, their cultures, their skills, through hard work and innovation, through engagement and participation. This is an important insight for faith-based organisations who may also have a tendency to reinforce and emphasise the religious/secular divide in their campaigning and advocacy.

Displacement is a huge challenge, one that has real, immediate, life and death consequences for individuals, families and communities. It is not something we are going to solve in an instant or perhaps even ever. But the current record high numbers of people requiring protection suggests that perhaps we need to start thinking about and responding to displacement differently. One place to start is in through addressing more explicitly embedded implicit assumptions in our global political structures, such as the religious/secular distinction. Perhaps rather than worrying about religious vs secular, partiality vs neutrality, public vs private, we must encourage diversity, deep openness, respect and engagement with different worldviews, space for previously marginalized voices and perspectives and acknowledge of our own biases and assumptions. Perhaps most importantly, we need to create the space to identify our shared experiences as human beings, not regardless of where we come from and how different we are, but with an abiding interest in and awareness of the immense diversity that characterises our global community.

Erin Wilson is the Director of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain, Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen. Together with Luca Mavelli from the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Kent, and Elzbieta Gozdziak from ISIM, Georgetown University, she has been involved in organizing two workshops on faith and asylum, funded by the British Council USA. The first workshop took place in Washington DC, 1-2 May, with support from Katherine Marshall at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs. The second workshop will take place in Brussels at the end of next week, 26-27 June.



[2] Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain, Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies

[3] Institute for the Study of International Migration

[4] E.S. Hurd. 2012. “International Politics after Secularism” Review of International Studies. 38(5): 943-961

[5] Some religious organisations and traditions will privilege their particular tradition as right and true over and above the secular and all other religious traditions, but nonetheless they still enforce the boundaries between the religious and the secular.

[6] Luca Mavelli and Fabio Petito. 2012. “The Postsecular in International Politics: An Overview” Review of International Studies, vol. 38, no. 5, p931

[7] Michael Barnett and Janice Gross Stein, 2012. “Introduction: the Secularization and Sanctification of Humanitarianism” in Barnett, Michael and Janice Gross Stein (eds). Sacred Aid: Faith and Humanitarianism. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press

[8] Barnett and Stein, Sacred Aid

[9] B. L. Berger. “Law’s Religion: Rendering Culture” Osgoode Hall Law Journal vol. 45, no. 2 (2007), 277-314

[10] Hurd, “International Politics”

[11] Mavelli and Petito, “The Postsecular in International Politics”

[12] See, for example, Talal Asad, 2003. Formations of the Secular. Stanford: Stanford University Press;Jose Casanova. Casanova, José. 2009. ‘The Secular and Secularisms’ Social Research 76(4): 1049–66. Casanova, José. 2006a. ‘Rethinking Secularization: A Global Comparative” The Hedgehog Review 8(1-2): 7-22; C.J. Eberle. 2003. Religious Conviction in Liberal Politics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Cecelia Lynch, 2003. “Dogma, Praxis and Religious Perspectives onMulticulturalism” in Petito, F and P. Hatzopolous (eds). Religion in International Relations: The Return from Exile. Basingstoke: Palgrave; E.K. Wilson, 2012. After Secularism: Rethinking Religion in Global Politics. Basingstoke: Palgrave


[14] pp18-19


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