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Praying for Shelter: Exploring Religion Within The Refugee Crisis

Alen Keric wrote “Praying for Shelter: Exploring Religion Within The Refugee Crisis” as part of the 2016 Humanity in Action Diplomacy and Diversity Fellowship.

When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. (Leviticus 19:33-34)

Our processing of the present-day refugee crisis has been flooded with sensationalist numerals, graphic images, heartbreaking stories, threats, and warnings. While people are arriving on European shores and attempting to cross borders on their search for a calmer sky to live under, European leaders have been displaying varying degrees of tolerance towards them – from integrationist policies, which accept refugees, to creating contemporary fences and shielding the contemporary ‘European Kingdom.’ Throughout the conversations that are emerging as an initiative to solve this problem, one can clearly identify religion as a key theme in the reasoning for why these people should or should not be accepted in Europe. However, despite these polarizing debates of the present-day refugee crisis, it is clear that the argument of religion is only shallowly considered, without any profound dialogue around the question of “what if a great number of Muslim refugees populate the European continent?”

In order to indulge in an exploration of the religious aspects of the refugee crisis, three salient perspectives must be addressed. Firstly, one needs to understand the relevance of religion as a sociological category and its role and implications for the refugee crisis. In order to grasp this relevance in the present-day context, we need examples of the use and misuse of religious discourse by state and religious figures, in order to recognize the power and potential of their rhetoric. Finally, beyond the theoretical and practical considerations of religious discourse in the public space, I put forward the argument that religion can serve as a tool for inclusion and integration of refugees. Namely, I see this perspective as having a potential to liberate refugees from being seen as the “other,” to being seen as equal and included within a contemporary European state.

It needs to be acknowledged that I am writing from the position of a white European Muslim from Bosnia and Herzegovina and as such, my unique positionality destabilizes many prejudices around who is considered European and who is considered Muslim. My motivation for writing this paper is to approach thinking about the refugee crisis in an inclusive manner, where I see diversity of peoples from different nationalities, races, sexes, genders, sexualities, etc. as an enrichment of society, rather than a threat to its integrity. From this integrationist position I am more concerned with ways in which refugees can be successfully integrated into European societies. Within these efforts, I have identified religion as a taboo topic in contemporary humanitarian discourse and hence will strive to demystify this situation and stir this term in a more constructive use.

Why Religion Still Matters for Humanitarianism

An integral argument that is used to build ideological walls of the contemporary ‘European Kingdom’ is that Islam is not compatible with Europe because it causes violence. While it is certain that Europe faces numerous terrorist threats and attacks from groups like the self-proclaimed Islamic-State/Daesh, to equate the violence done by this group with Islam is to ignore billions of Muslims and Muslim-affiliated organizations who condemn violence and who embrace peace as the true meaning of Islam. The linkage between religion and violence, as theologian William T. Cavanaugh explains, reinforces a binary system that is in place ever since the start of the Enlightenment age, where the established secular West that conceived itself as the most advanced society had to create a “primitive other” as its foil. Today this duality is visible between Europe and “the East,” which in this context becomes oversimplified as primitive, religious, Muslim refugees.

Oversimplified generalizations are present even in the very term “religion.” This term is also inherited from the Enlightenment, where, from the process of secularization, it has been limited to the private sphere and, even within it, to a very limited time frame of when it is practiced. Therefore, the way the concept emerged is only present in the contemporary Western European cultural background and nowhere else. Otherwise, religion, including all its spiritual and practical dimensions, is a part of everyday life, and as such, a part of the individual and collective well-being of ‘religious’ societies.

If we consider religion and spirituality as a part of daily life in many societies, one would wonder why this is not addressed within contemporary humanitarian efforts to alleviate refugee suffering and aid their integration into European societies in this case. The reason behind this is because Western/European humanitarianism has undergone a significant secularization process. Within this process, efforts for impartiality and neutrality (as advocated by the very Henri Dunant when forming the Red Cross/Crescent Movement), have translated into a departure from religious organizations in matters of humanitarianism with the premise of impartiality. However, one is entitled to ask how different a perceived partiality of a faith-based organization is from an international NGO with sponsorships by governments and private personas with clear political and economic interests. From this comparison, it is clear that an ultimate impartiality and neutrality does not exist, and hence that there is no rational reason for the omission of religious organizations in humanitarian efforts.

However, despite the lack of meaningful engagement of faith-based initiatives within humanitarianism, we can see right-wing politicians’ manipulation of religion in order to make a case for their exclusivist and separatist policies. In this sense, the arrival of refugees becomes an event for not only testing the strengths of Europe’s borders, but also for an assessment of the European identity and its values. Marie Le Pen, the French conservative leader and the most vocal opponent of refugee reception in Europe, has also employed the refugee religion argument when making parallels between the infiltration of Muslim refugees into French society and the Nazi occupation of France, for which she was even put on trial for anti-Muslim hate speech. In this sense, Le Pen is being paratheological, since she is using religion as a point of definition for herself and the French people who are, according to this perspective, non-Muslim and faced with Muslims. It is interesting that the paratheological use of association or dissociation with religion in order to gain power is also a characteristic of the group Daesh, which in its name claims to be the symbiosis between a religion and a state. Hence, one could claim that Le Pen and Daesh are operating in strikingly similar ways, while being on seemingly oppositional sides.

Both right-wing European and US politicians as well as Daesh are attempting to harm refugees, either by destroying their homes in the Middle East, or building fences and advocating against their shelter in other countries. It is clear that the humanitarian situation needs a new framing and new tactics that ought to have religion as a significant new aspect of its operations. If we focus only on the Enlightenment-based secularized humanitarianism, which exclusively recognizes material and physical needs of refugees, we run into an unfortunately well-known and easy counter-argument/offense from the right-wing European populists. They will be quick to blame refugees for using “European resources,” stealing jobs, women, etc., trying to take away their humanity and shaming them to support their conservative and Euro-centric goals. However it is my conviction that meaningfully including faith-based actors will significantly problematize this oppositional dualism and aid to include and integrate refugees into new communities they already belong to as humans.

Therefore, since religion is so obviously used as a tool of partition, one is entitled to ask whether it can become also a tool of unification. Namely, as sociologist Rhys H. Williams explains in his article “Religion as Political Resource: Culture or Ideology?” , religion is a powerful influence on social movements. Religious teaching has a strong impact on identity, solidarity, and morality – all concepts relevant to political leaders when justifying the decisions of admitting or not admitting refugees into European countries. Therefore the argument can be made that religious leaders in Europe need to respond to this crisis with inclusive teachings about refugees, since their preaching can mobilize a lot of support for helping them find a new home.

How are State and Religious Leaders Responding to the Crisis?

We have witnessed a wide palette of reactions to the refugee crisis. State leaders have sometimes rejected and sometimes embraced the idea of accepting refugees with varying degrees of conditionality. On the one hand, we have Angela Merkel’s generally firm pro-refugee stance with a pragmatic integration mechanism. In one of her briefings, while commenting on the many terror attacks that faced European countries, Angela Merkel firmly defended her open-door policy to the refugee crisis, saying:

I didn’t say it would be easy. I said back then, and I’ll say it again, that we can manage our historic task – and this is a historic test in times of globalization – just as we’ve managed so much already, we can manage it...Germany is a strong country.

However, now even in Germany we see the situation shifting towards a conservative side. After various pressures from within the party, Angela Merkel makes a bold statement that the full-face veil should be banned in Germany whenever legally possible and that German law is above tribal rules, codes of honor, and sharia law. It may have been a bid for next year’s election, or a slight shift of priorities, but this exclusivist rhetoric is certainly not going to aid refugee integration.

As previously mentioned, Marie Le Pen and unfortunately numerous other conservative politicians of other European Union (EU) countries are focusing on the perceived ‘threats’ or ‘dangers’ of refugee settlements on their territory and participating in this exclusivist rhetoric. In the United States (US), the situation is mostly conservatively oriented towards the situation as well. An obvious example is President-elect Donald Trump, who has called for a registration of Muslims entering the US during his election campaign. Former Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz has proposed to accept only Christian refugees to the US, while sending Muslims to Muslim-majority countries, thus discriminating on the basis of religion. The examples of conservative policies are numerous and they all use religious discourse for separatist goals.

On the other hand, the Vatican, as both state and religious actor, has been very vocal in its support for refugee admission policies. Pope Francis has been urging Europe’s Churches and leaders to follow suit after he himself welcomed 12 refugees from Lesbos to the Vatican. Despite being one rare example where public power is used alongside religious rhetoric as a means of integration, Pope Francis is certainly a significant and influential figure in these debates. With his policy, he demonstrates a relatively innovative humanitarian undertaking.

Can religion be a tool of inclusion for refugees in Europe?

Recognizing Pope Francis’ initiative to call on European Church leaders to follow suit and welcome refugees into their respective countries, one can see that this is a clear way to use the religious argument as a tool of inclusion for refugees. Pope Francis further expanded this narrative by drawing a parallel between biblical figures who were also refugees and the current situation. The Pope urged people not to forget that even “Jesus was a refugee,” and hence that there is even a moral duty to help these people. In the same speech, he says: “Let us be their neighbors, share their fears and uncertainty about the future, and take concrete steps to reduce their suffering.”

Taken further, Pope Francis’ proposal could also be turned into initiatives by religious community centers to be meeting places for refugees, regardless of their religious affiliation, while also providing space for faith services for those in need. By adding this initiative to the already existing civil society outreach initiatives for refugees, another significant aspect of their life is successfully included in the integration process. Namely, it can serve as a way for people to process their departure from a conflict area, their experience of living in between, trying to imagine a better tomorrow, and even discovering or imagining a new community where they can find a home. These are by no means singular or isolated activities - I claim that this should be at the very front of present-day integration mechanisms, in order to facilitate a more progressive and successful inclusion of refugee communities in their place of arrival.

Small yet sound examples of these initiatives are not missing from humanitarian practice. The current refugee crisis’ impact in Jordan has witnessed numerous faith groups and faith-affiliated organizations work beyond the international humanitarian organizations and mobilize social, human, physical and financial capital, beyond the fragmented humanitarian response. Recognizing the potential of this effort, a United Nations (UN) official said: „Sometimes their belief in God is more therapeutic than other interventions and they can better express their issues through their religion—through their spiritual beliefs we can help them find solutions.“

These are, however, only small manifestations of engaging religion into contemporary humanitarian response, beyond the fact that refugees have the right to practice religion like all humans, and the provision of this right is by itself an argument for religious engagement.

Including religion into humanitarian work would be going against the 20th century establishment of secularism, within humanitarian intervention, that confined religion to the private sphere. By doing this, we reverse exclusivist rhetoric around the religion of refugees and create opportunities for integration and inclusion. Within these initiatives, providing religious/spiritual resources bears a great potential in providing aid for mental health and psychosocial support to refugee communities. This seems to be what is lacking in the current secular humanitarian approach for comprehensive refugee recovery.


It is clear that new approaches to the present day refugee crisis are necessary. In the wake of right-wing populist and fascist uprisings in Europe and the United States, the threatening disintegration of the European Union, and an unpredictably and dangerously conservative US President-elect, world leaders and civil society need to come together on a diverse and constructive note while being reminded that the incoming refugees are fleeing horrors that the European continent and the US have gone through only recently. Recognizing the potential of engaging religious and faith-based actors in these conversations in a meaningful way is a critical step forward in the contemporary humanitarian work. This approach will destabilize the current oppositional, one-dimensional representation of refugees, the present day crisis, and be a crucial step to its end. Through small yet sound examples, we have heard Pope Francis argue for it, UN officials confirm it, and the Human Rights Declaration defend it. And while state and religious leaders continue moving forward, they must realize Europe’s diverse past, present and future, and in that endeavor strive to become a home for those in need.

•     •     • 

About the Author 

Alen Keric is a recent Humanity in Action Pat Cox Fellow at the European Parliament, originally from Konjic, Bosnia and Herzegovina. He received his MA in Human Rights and Democracy from University of Sarajevo and University of Bologna and his BA in Performance and Media Studies from Beloit College. As a passionate researcher, he works on mainstream political topics, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina's European Union integration, as well as undiscussed questions, such as politics of memory and culture in post-Dayton Bosnia and Herzegovina.



The author and editor thank Dr. Nor Hall for her dedicated efforts in reviewing earlier versions of this article.


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18. Ibid. p. 31.

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