Migration and Religion
Anyone who leaves his home village to seek work abroad has to cope with many changes and discontinuities: the transition from a peasant existence to life as an industrial worker, the passage from a highly socially integrated village existence to an urban situation with great freedoms accompanied by many insecurities, the divergence between the culture of the homeland and that of the new country, the leaving behind of a largely religiously-determined life and the establishment of oneself in a predominantly secularised universe. These discontinuities shape the dynamics of individual biographies and of migrants’ family histories. They are reflected in tensions between generations. A parental generation closely linked with its country of origin and its home in a specific region confronts a second generation which grew up in the new country. The considerable demands made of migrants in terms of individual and collective adaptation are intensified by the fact that the immediate environment is usually extremely difficult. The accommodation into which immigrants move is usually in cheapest districts – working-class areas and slums – largely abandoned by the middle class. Reports from immigrant areas – Brooklyn and Berlin’s Scheunenviertel in the 1920s; the suburbs of Marseille, Lyon, and Paris; Neukölln, Kreuzberg, and Wedding in Berlin – all present a similar picture of anomie, high unemployment, delinquency, youth gangs, overburdened schools, drug and alcohol problems, street violence, broken families, and prostitution.
Places of worship in migration
These districts are the places which shape the immigrant religions that develop there. Turning to religion is initially one way of finding answers to the problems resulting from migration. This is reflected in the character of the places of worship. Storefront churches, Jewish corner prayer rooms and backyard mosques are much more than places of worship where people meet to pray. They are community centres and self-help organisations, refuges for new arrivals, places that provide help in cases of emergency, social clubs, and information networks. Here flats and jobs are found and cars sold. Crucially, these are also places where the norms and values of religion are handed down to the next generation. Not infrequently the close relations established here are further strengthened and stabilised through marriage. For members of a community these places of worship are islands amid the chaos. That is most obvious when they are situated, as is often the case, between nightclubs, brothels and pubs. Anyone crossing the threshold of these churches, synagogues, or mosques leaves the surrounding environment and enters a space where the homeland is present in aromas, ways of behaviour, and furnishings. Suddenly they feel they have been transported to Turkey, Greece, or China. The gulf between this space and the surrounding world supplies an initial key to understanding the first generation’s attitude towards religion. This is a defensive religiosity, determined by the wish to counter anxieties about losing themselves in a foreign land and the crises of meaning which afflict every migrant (‘What am I actually doing here?’), and by the fear of alienation from one’s children who were the main reason for emigration. People turn their backs on the majority society and encounter it only with extreme distrust. This often leads to a process of circular reinforcement. Immigrants cut themselves off, and the more they are among like-minded people the less they get involved in the majority society, and the more grotesque the dangers appear, until they see sex-and-drugs-and-rock’n’roll in every corner, a threat from which children above all must be protected. But the majority society also observes with scepticism and distrust the foreigners who gather in backyards wearing outlandish clothing: black kaftans, white talars, green turbans. In such immigrant communities there arises a conservative and not infrequently severe religiosity which tends towards ritualism and the fetishisation of rules. (...)
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is Professor of Comparative Cultural and Social Anthropology at the European University Viadrina Frankfurt (Oder). He specialises in and has published books on, among other things, Turkey, migration, and Islam in Europe.
Translated by Tim Nevill
Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Fikrun wa Fann
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