Religions & Public Life Graduate Working Group Think Pieces on Religion and Immigration
These thinkpieces, companion pieces to the presentations at the May consortium conference, were composed by the graduate students of the Duke-UNC working group organized by the Kenan Religions and Public Life Initiative. This year’s theme was “Religion and Immigration.” Previous years’ themes included “Church and State,” “Pain and Joy,” and “Minorities and Diasporas.” Here, as they did in the working group and conference, students reflect on the potential of religions and religious knowledge to shape immigration policy, and, conversely, on the impact of borders on religious faith.
In these opinion pieces, students draw connections betweeen their research into historical and contemporary immigration struggles and the crises of the present. Students with contemporary research interests have distilled from their findings a concise expression of the potential implications for policymakers, activists, and other interested parties. In other cases, students show how knowledge of premodern and early modern history can shed light on present-day conflicts, quandaries, and struggles. In all cases, students present empirical evidence with a strong, insistent ethical voice, making their findings accessible to the largest possible audience. The authors hope that these thinkpieces can be the opening salvo of a larger interdisciplinary and extramural conversation about the religious dimensions of immigration policy and its repercussions.
Religion, Migration, and the Longing for Home
Alberto La Rosa Rojas
According to the UN, in 2017, there were more than 250 million international migrants in the world. This global reality has led migration scholars Stephen Castles and Mark Miller to describe this moment in history as “the Age of Migration.” The massive movements of peoples across borders raise new and important questions about the conditions, limits, and possibilities for human flourishing. Such questions pertain to the moral validity of national boundaries, the ethical limits and conditions of hospitality, and the role of national and cultural identity in the pursuit of a good life. Moreover, according to the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, 78% of all international migrants in 2010 self-identified as belonging to one of the three Abrahamic religion—Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Thus, religious traditions play an undeniable role in shaping migrants’ everyday decisions and shaping the moral responsibility of citizens in receiving nations to the migrants in their midst.
As an immigrant and a Christian, I have often reflected on the meaning and importance of home for a flourishing life. Where is home? Why has it been so hard for me to experience a true and abiding sense of home—of belonging, intimacy, and connection—not only here in the United States but also when I return to my native land of Peru? How can we cultivate a rich sense of home in our communities? Although a persistent question in my own life, I have seldom witnessed serious ethical reflections on the importance of home for developing a flourishing common life. Yet, it seems that questions about home increasingly lie at the heart of many of our contemporary social crises.
It is not only migrants who might struggle with cultivating a sense of home in the world. Many who identify as natives and/or citizens in wealthier nations are also struggling with maintaining a sense of home in this changing world. Sadly, it is often immigrants who are targeted as causing this instability about home. For example, on October 27, 2018, a shooter entered into Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, killing eleven of those present and injuring six others. Beforehand, Robert Bowers had written on a social media page, “HIAS [Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society] likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” Bowers’ statement reveals a vicious logic that unites three threads present in our society: racial/ethnic violence, xenophobia, and vicious forms of nationalism. Thus, a key tension that lies at the heart of our contemporary immigration crisis has to do with the migrant’s longing for home and the citizen/native’s fear-laden desire to protect and preserve their home from perceived outside threats.
This tension between migrants and citizens/natives is by no means recent. In 1630, while arriving on the shores of the Americas, Captain John Winthrop urged the other migrants with him to build “a city on a hill” in the New World. Winthrop’s vision drew life from the words of Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus urges his disciples to be a beacon of light and goodness to the nations. However, the colonizers who migrated to New World built their cities through the displacement of native peoples and the destruction of native cultures. Their longing for a new home precipitated the tragic collapse of native homes. It’s also important to recognize that Christianity played a central role in justifying this historic tragedy. While the migrants now arriving on American shores are much more vulnerable than their 17th-century predecessors (and they are often forced to leave their homes precisely because of the legacy of European colonization); nevertheless, one can see how a crisis of home lies at the very foundations of the Americas.
In light of this history, I am committed to understanding how Christian teachings were weaponized to justify the destruction of native homes at the same time that I am eager to show how Christianity can provide an alternative vision, one of many peoples sharing a common flourishing home. However, such a Christian vision of home must emerge from reflecting on the everyday struggles for home of the migrants, the displaced, and the homeless. The figure at the center of Christian devotion, Jesus Christ, was himself a displaced person. According to the Gospel of Mathew, when Jesus was an infant, his family had to leave their home to seek refuge in a foreign land (Mt. 2:13-23). However, Jesus is not the only displaced person in the Bible. Indeed, stories of migration and displacement fill the pages of the sacred text. The longing for home is a constant theme from the beginning pages of the Biblical narrative when the first humans are exiled from paradise (Gen. 3) to the ending pages where God is said to make an eternal home among mortals (Rev. 21:3). One might say that the longing for home is sacred and that the Bible presents a God who cares deeply for those who in this life and this world are most in need of a home.
So, what ought we do? First, we need to expand our sense of what home means beyond a highly individualistic and consumerist model which has dominated the imagination of many in the Modern West. The reality is that for good or for ill, how each of us thinks about and practices homemaking bears implications for our life together. Humans are stitched together in networks of interdependency not only with other members of our human community but with our broader ecological community. The flourishing of our local communities depends on the well-being of our near and distant neighbors with whom we share a common home on this planet. The closed-off, fenced-in, soundproof, private household mentality will simply not withstand the trying social times that lie ahead of us with the increasing global migration due to climate change and the rise in violent nationalist movements. As a Western society, we need to reflect more deeply on what practices can cultivate open households which recognize the interdependence we share with our neighboring cities, states, and nations. How might we embrace our interdependence not only at a biological level but also as a social and political condition in our efforts to cultivate flourishing lives?
The Religions and Migration workgroup of the Religions and Public Life Initiative at the Kenan Institute for Ethics has allowed me to see the value and gifts of inter-disciplinary dialogue. Through our time together, I discovered how despite the diversity of our projects, there are some questions and experiences which transcend each of us and at the same time draw us together. More opportunities for inter-disciplinary dialogue are needed to see how our intellectual pursuits can contribute to the flourishing of our diverse and interconnected home communities worldwide.
Home is a fragile and delicate fabric, easily disturbed and easily torn asunder. Yet, there is no vision of the good life that doesn’t include a flourishing home. In the future, I look forward to contributing to the work of cultivating a common flourishing home amid diversity and strife through ongoing dialogue with my colleagues at the Kenan Institute for Ethics and across the university.
By the Rivers of Babylon: Lament and Palestinian Liberation Theology
In 1970, the Jamaican band The Melodians recorded a song called “Rivers of Babylon.” The original recording gained popularity in Jamaica, the United States, and the United Kingdom throughout the 70’s, and was cemented in worldwide pop culture by a 1978 cover by the disco group Boney M. The song’s lyrics are drawn almost entirely from Psalm 137, a psalm traditionally believed to have been written during the Israelites’ exile in Babylon from 597-539 BCE. The text of the psalm describes the Israelite exiles sitting “by the rivers of Babylon”—that is, by the Euphrates, near today’s Baghdad—remembering their homeland of Jerusalem and lamenting, “how could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” The riverside lament has been read, sung, and treasured by displaced and suffering communities for thousands of years.
In 2010, Boney M. performed at the Palestine International Music Festival in Ramallah, the de facto capital of Palestine, but despite the crowd’s insistent chants of “Babylon, Babylon!,” they left the chart-topper off the set list. The Associated Press reported afterwards that the festival organizers had told the band not to play the song. Maizie Williams, the lead singer, told press that the song had been deemed “inappropriate” for the context. Most likely, the lyrics’ references to “Zion” and the psalm’s association with Jewish longing for the land of Israel were deemed too politically fraught, too close to Zionism.
The irony of the situation is that Psalm 137, and much of the Hebrew Bible, laments a community’s exile from the very same stretch of land from which the Palestinian diaspora is now exiled. The Old Testament of the Christian Bible is about loving, leaving, and returning to the historic land of Palestine. These texts lamenting exile and anticipating return to the “Holy Land” were enormously significant for the Jewish diaspora, especially for the two millennia between the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE and the creation of the State of Israel. Since the 1948 Nakba, which rendered some 80% of the Arab population of Palestine refugees, Palestinian Muslims and Christians have been in exile from the same land.
Over the past several decades, Palestinian Christian theologians have drawn on Latin American and Black liberation theology to develop a new stream of thought known as Palestinian Liberation Theology. Naim Ateek, Munther Isaac, Mitri Raheb, Salim Munayer, and others grapple with the Old Testament’s depiction of the people of Israel as a “Chosen People” to whom God gives a “Promised Land.” The movement explores how, despite a history of exclusivist readings, the Bible affirms the rights of Jews and Palestinians to coexist peacefully in the Holy Land.
Yet dealing with lament texts like Psalm 137 brings up a whole new set of issues for Palestinian Christians. After all—the text represents the experience of a group that ultimately spent some two thousand years as a diaspora community. In 2023, Palestinians will mourn the 75th anniversary of the Nakba. Nobody wants to imagine another 1900 years of dispossession. Would embracing these texts suggest resignation? Even if not, even if they were only to serve as a temporary source of inspiration, these texts are central to Jewish, even Israeli, tradition. They have never had the same poignancy for Palestinians Christians, a community which traces itself back to the house churches formed in Jerusalem and along the Sea of Galilee by Jesus’ first disciples. How could the church possibly embrace texts which have been so central to the theology and politics which cast them out of their homes.
Will Palestinians ever be able to sing “Rivers of Babylon” without raising a flurry of political and theological issues? Probably not, on a certain level—none of us can really sing any song without subliminally invoking questions about meaning, ownership, and interpretation. On another level, though, generations build up their own traditions and culture changes—the song could become a symbol of Palestinian liberation one day. Either way, the example of Psalm 137 demonstrates that reading the Bible, as with reading any text, is always about more than simple words on a page.
Revisiting Capital: How Religious Institutions Can Promote Social Equity
I have been a part of the Citizenship Lab for four years, working with about fifty young adult refugees living in Durham, North Carolina. Duke students who are part of the Lab are paired with one or two high school aged refugees and mentor them. As mentees graduate high school, the relationship develops into a friendship. Throughout my time in the Lab, I have been lucky to work closely with one refugee as he navigated through high school and now college. We now call each other ‘brothers,’ have met each other’s family, and have a commitment to visit one another even after we both graduate from our respective schools.
Reflecting on the past four years in the Lab, I have noticed that the differences between the Duke student and the refugees involved in the Lab is marginal at best. Both sets of students have profound passion, high intellectual capability, and significant amounts of resilience. However, despite these similarities, Duke students, on average, have access to far more job-related opportunities than the students they work with in the Lab. What accounts for the differences in post-secondary school opportunities outcomes between the two groups? Access to a different kind of capital.
By virtue of being a Duke student, I have access to countless opportunities (this Fellowship included) that will allow me to expand my social network. Additionally, upon graduation I will join a large network of alumni who are eager to give back to Duke and meet fellow Duke graduates. In short, by going to Duke, students gain access to immense social capital that has the unique ability to open proverbial doors after graduation.
On the other hand, the refugees we work with who may not go to college nor come from families or communities with deep rooted social connections are limited in their access to such social networks. Under such poverty of social capital, it becomes that much harder to realize the “American Dream.” The broader society suffers too, as individuals with significant potential are kept from fulfilling their dreams, because of the hoarding of this capital. Is there a way to better way of tapping into existing social networks to allow greater access to social mobility?
Religious institutions may act as a potential answer. With congregations bound by a similar set of values, and individual congregants that can span across age, profession, race, geography, and socioeconomic background, religious institutions seem to have a unique ability to gather a set of individuals with a large range of social capital. What would it take for religious institutions to act as conduits for the exchange of such social capital?
Religious Institutions as a Social Network
Religious communities have the potential to act as a social network that connects its constituents across social circles. For example, some of the refugees in the Citizenship Lab actively attend religious services, and those that do often express having a close mentor from these services. My ‘brother’ has told me that his motivation to apply to college was partially inspired by an older member of his religious community who was in college at the time and spoke highly of his experience. Even when I reflect on my own experience religious congregations, I am reminded how influential some of the older members of the congregation were to me expanding my horizons and worldview.
It seems that naturally, religious communities aid with the spread of social capital. However, there may be some ways that clergy can better facilitate this transfer of capital through, for example, creating mentorship programs or events tailored to facilitate the formation of these relationships. Pondering this possibility, I dedicated my time in the fellowship to understanding if religious institutions could act as a source of economic opportunity for young adult refugees through spreading social capital.
Religious Institutions as a Source of Economic Opportunity
Could it be possible to expand the role of religious institutions to involve opportunities for congregants to help other congregants gain access to the social capital necessary for economic mobility? For instance, could religious institutions plan events related to job searches, professional networking for their congregants? In the context of Durham, North Carolina, there are many economic empowerment nonprofit organizations with the resources and staff necessary to make such an event successful.
To explore this potential, I spoke with several nonprofit leaders in Durham who dedicate their lives to economic empowerment for lower-resourced communities. Some of these organizations have already actively engaged with religious communities through co-organizing events, while other organizations suggested they are seeking partnerships with religious institutions to better serve the Durham community. That said, despite these partnerships, it became clear through the interviews that more work needed to be done to fully realize the potential of religious communities aiding with the spread of social capital.
After conducting research throughout my time in the Fellowship, the answer to whether religious institutions should more actively help spread social capital remains unclear. There are some congregations where economic empowerment events (i.e., resume workshops, networking sessions, job training, etc.) were highly successful, and other congregations where these same events were poorly attended, or not attended at all.
As I begin to zoom out and analyze the results of my study, it has become clear that religious institutions have a unique ability to bridge different corners of a community. Congregational leaders therefore should take a more active role to bridging inequalities for their marginalized, newcomer congregants by creating opportunities for intra-congregational social networks to form, solidify, and spread social capital.
The impact of incarceration on immigrant families and the role the America Christian Church
Let’s be honest, a Christian church and an American prison doesn’t normatively fit neatly within the same sentence. On the one hand, American prisons are deemed as buildings in which wrongdoers are legally held accountable as a form of punishment; while a Christian church constitutes a community of freedom, safety, and refuge. While seemingly disparate, the historical, social, and cultural, context in which American prisons exist cannot be separated from American Christianity. From the very founding of US penitentiaries, dualistic Christian principles have contributed to the rise and sustentation of what we now know as mass incarceration. Of particular interest is the question, “What role does the American Christian church now play in attending to the consequences of incarceration on families — immigrant families?”
It can be approximated that in the 1970s, the United States effectively began experimenting with mass imprisonment as a response to social ills — an experiment that resulted in a fourfold increase in the incarceration rate of Black and Brown individuals. Such an unprecedented rise in incarceration did not merely happen coincidentally, nor was it a natural phenomenon. Rather. it can be argued that America’s grand social experiment with carceral confinement was driven almost entirely by punitive criminal justice policies. Take for examples: 1) Revisions in criminal sentencings — which implemented long and often mandatory periods of confinement for certain repeated offenses, 2) Harsher penalties of prosecution for drug crimes, and 3) Intensified parole supervision.
Not only did incarceration disproportionately impact Black and Brown individuals, but it also resulted in an inordinate increase in parental incarceration within Black and Brown families. For many minoritized families in America, mass incarceration came to represent a new form of instability; as nearly all inmates are eventually released from prison, many of whom attempt to reconnect with spouses, former partners, and children. One the most significant impacts of parental incarceration is the effect it has on a child’s well-being. Research suggest that children with incarcerated parents are statistically at a higher risk of facing a rupture in child parent bond, a decline in quality care, and enduring traumatic stress, all of which disrupts child development.
While the impact of incarceration on immigrant families does not differ drastically from that of non-immigrant families, migrants faced with familial incarceration tend to experience a double punishment. A reality driven by disintegration (a term that refers to “a process of categorizing and excluding noncitizens and others who are deemed illegal and security threats”), in conjunction with the symbiotic harms associated with having a loved one incarcerated. This entails financial difficulties, the burden of childcare, the breakdown of social networks, disrupted home and work environments, and compromised child development, amongst other harms.
Undocumented immigrants and overstayer are often framed as an assault against the rule of law, a perception that reinforces impressions that immigration and criminality are linked. Unsurprisingly the criminalization of undocumented immigrants is inextricably correlated to laws and sanctions (punitive ones) concerned with removing immigrants from existing social and governmental structures. Take for example the 1996 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which increased border patrol funding, and contributed to the militarization of the US Mexico border, and the proliferation of detention facilities. “Immigrants who experience such disintegration oftentimes seek to reconstruct themselves by developing multiple thick linkages — such a stable employment, civic engagement, education, families, relationships, language skills, volunteer activities and the procurement of assets — acts that are emblematic of pro-social behaviors and relationships.” However, for many immigrants the acquisition of such possibilities are often out of reach.
The impact of mass incarceration, alongside the precedented disintegration of immigrant families have produced a subset of individuals excluded from resources and opportunities available to the majority of American citizens. Herein, I turn to the Christian church to function not only as a religious institution, but also as a social institution engaged in the everyday lives of migrant families impacted carceral confinement. Drawing on the works of James Logan and Timothy Gorringe, I proffer two proactive models wherein the Christian church could provide solace and support to migrant families plagued by the ill of imprisonment. Logan’s framework of healing memories creates a space via the church for forgiveness and reconciliation whereby families impacted by incarceration could be joined to a community with an opportunity to unlearn old ways, restart their lives, and hold accountable those who have caused harm. In the event that a family has incarcerated loved one, rather than attempting to forget wrongdoings, healing memories enables transgression(s) to be remembered, and through community, offenders live in memory of their wrong doing, but in newness. Logan’s framework of healing memories offers an opportunity for those who have been outcast, convicted of criminogenic activities, and marginalized, to be integrated into community in order to be reconciled. Timothy Gorringe’s framework of conflict resolution and mediation initiatives provides a structural and practical response to handling community harms by situating accountability within wider social practices (that does not involve the use of incapacitation). It is a method that seeks to bring aggrieved parties together to sort out their difference. When appropriate, such mediation efforts situate the community, rather than the offender, at the center of the process of reconciliation and redemption. James Logan and Timothy Gorringe’s frameworks are essential for immigrant families who have experienced familial incarceration.
Each framework creates spaces for reconciliation, resolution, and restoration, without the added consequences of engagement with America’s criminal justice system. A reality that may further exacerbates inequalities resultant from disintegration and the symbiotic harms associated with carceral confinement. Moreover, these frameworks for engagement situates the Christian church as an institution that 1) identifies issues and challenges, 2) makes sense of issues and challenges, and 3) formulates strategies to address them. In closing I proffer that the role of the Christian church entails permeating public discourse and reaching into the neighborhoods and homes of persons who have been marginalized, downtrodden, and even incarcerated. It is a role that requires identification—being sensitive to injustices that affect those who are poor and powerless; encouragement—promoting informed, inclusive, and lovingly tenacious discussions of issues within the Christian church; and engagement—engaging in direct action ministry.
Architecture as Identity Politics
“Europe is anxious over its identity.” This is a blatant statement, fraught with grotesque generalizations. Yet, as Alain Badiou, Anne Norton, Joan W. Scott, Étienne Balibar, Charles Taylor, and many others have pointed out, European nation-states are struggling to articulate their identity in the face of disorienting social and economic changes. When the British were rooting for Brexit, they knew very well that leaving the EU was going to be an economic and legal debacle, but they wanted to “TAKE BACK CONTROL!” A similar militancy for national sovereignty and anti-immigration policies is evident in other forms of jingoism, including the slogans of the French National Front, “oui à la France,” and the Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folkeparti), “We stand our ground on Danish values,” to name just a couple.
Economic anxieties and class struggle are increasingly translated into a type of identity politics that is preoccupied with ethnicity. Through a confluence of economic insecurities and ethnic obsessions, the figure of the non-white immigrant becomes a boogieman who threatens national unity and economic stability. But why is it that religion is often presented as the primary threat to national identity, but not so much class or even race? Why is it that the nationalist preoccupation with “values” turns the religion of immigrants into the ultimate enemy?
There are two trajectories that facilitate this move from economic and social deadlocks to an obsession with religion. First, as fiscal policies and austerity measures dictate higher taxation—not to mention the gradual but inevitable demise of blue-collar jobs—the middle class fears falling into poverty. As nationalist, conservative discourse scapegoats immigrants, this anxious middle class is growing resentful of the immigrant population who receive welfare benefits. “Why should we pay for ‘these’ people?” As Badiou argues, the crises of global capitalism and the grotesque inequalities it generates steer the middle class toward racism. Since the figure of the underclass immigrant comes to signal economic loss, the associated racial category (non-whiteness) becomes undesirable. The figure of an unemployed immigrant is thus constructed as the figure of alterity.
Second, as the ethnic makeup of Europe is shifting, whether through postcolonial displacement, global trends of mobile labor, not to mention ecological catastrophes, there is a renewed obsession with the relationship between national identity and ethnic identity—a type that echoes the deadly nationalist movements of the past century. When non-whites are given citizenship, equal rights and privileges, the link between ethnicity and nationality becomes tenuous. Furthermore, as national sovereignty is challenged by the political structure of the European Union, different nations fear that their particular identity would be diffused in a larger European identity. Today, the following questions have become central in immigration politics: How to reconstruct an identity without presupposing an ethnicity? How to define a national identity separate from, but in a continuum with, European identity? Even France, the Republic, which once denounced the category of race in constructing the idea of the nation, is now reclaiming an imagined ethnicity: “La France aux Français.” To justify this move, they resort to religion. Despite the fact that the Republic set itself the task of fighting the hegemony of the Catholic Church for three centuries, right-wing politicians suddenly set themselves the task of defending Europe’s “Judeo-Christian roots.”
The two trajectories (economic and identarian) are intertwined. The politics of the neoliberal state blames its social malaise (disaffected youth, in particular) as well as its economic shortcomings (precarity and unemployment) on its immigrant population. To absolve itself from the responsibility of providing sustainable employment and public infrastructure, and to hide its racial biases, the state blames immigrants for not being able, or not having the desire to fill into the mold of entrepreneurial success. Since ethnic discrimination falls outside the limits of political-correctness, something else should be blamed as the obstacle to participation in public life. It is not, then, unemployment and racial discrimination that marginalize immigrants; it is their religion that does not allow integration. They can never become good citizens because their religion is incompatible with modernity and liberalism. Let me put it differently. Since it is rather difficult to admit that Europe’s anxieties are primarily internal, it is convenient to link such anxieties to an external menace that bears both symbolic and material substance. For instance, the Cartoon Controversy was intended as a symbolic expression of Islamic intolerance, it subsequently incited actual violence.
The pernicious construct “Islamicized Europe” and its various associations, “clandestine invasion” and “parallel society,” are structurally analogous to the discursive formulas that scapegoated the Jews in Nazi Germany. Where does it all take us?
There seems to be a simple conclusion—Islam does not afford assimilation, and those who are perceived as Muslims remain forever strangers. In this formula, the figure of the non-white immigrant is constructed not on the basis of class but of religion. An immigrant from the Middle East, for example, is ipso facto a Muslim—regardless of their actually practicing Islam, or any religion for that matter. All differences—whether linguistic, ethnic, cultural or epistemic—are perceived as different expressions of religion. In this modality of identity formation, religion is not one element among others—it becomes the sole mode of identification. Incidentally, the immigrants themselves internalize this logic. The more a culture is being attacked, the more religion becomes an obsession for the immigrants themselves. Not only do they position religion at the core of their identity, but they construct an essentialized, if not a fundamentalist, version of Islam out of the most reductive elements—elements that are targeted by the Western gaze.
The implicit expectation is for minorities to assimilate into a European, secularist identity, but that identity is nothing but a question mark. Immigrants are under constant pressure to become something else, perhaps to “convert” to liberal values. Yet that “something else” is an enigma, because European nations are ambivalent toward their own identity. One might use the psychoanalytic category of hysteria to capture this inconsistency of desire. Since European nationalist identity is an imagined idea—constructed upon an assumed ethnicity with an unwritten set of values—immigrants who do not match that very ethnicity are seen as outsiders. They are never the right type. Aliénor Ballangé puts this enigma cryptically when she writes: either one “is,” European or else, “what is not, cannot be or must not be.” It is because of this impossibility of inclusion that Etienne Balibar evokes the notion of “European Apartheid.” Secular liberalism trumpets its protection of all forms of freedom, including the freedom of conscience. One is free to choose and consume—religion is not an exception to the market economy. Here is the catch: all religions are accepted insofar as they have no conspicuous external manifestations. The right type of religion is the private one, something close to Protestant Christianity. The wrong type, to the contrary, is the one that demands embodied practices—especially when it pertains to women’s bodies. It is not the body as such that is the object of scrutiny, but its representations. Ethnographic work on Europe’s obsession with the hijab has demonstrated that non-white women who do not wear the hijab have a high chance to be received as a fellow citizen, whereas a brown (or black) man can never escape the scrutiny. The hostility towards racialized bodies is perceived not as an assault on Islam but as a protection of secular values.
Pressured to disavow their embodied practices, minorities feel that through assimilation they will lose “their collective cultural and religious identity.” This contributes to what Charles Taylor calls the politics of “cultural survival,” where minorities enter into an obsessional relationship with particular elements of their culture. Since a large part of the constitutive elements of culture cannot be sustained outside the “original” context—i.e., customs that are calendar- and place-specific and that only make sense within a particular landscape, accompanied by food, music, and public ceremonies—it is again religion that appears to be that which can and should be protected. To protect their identity, immigrants do not emphasize their culture, but the most stereotypical elements of religion. Culture is then reduced to (a fundamentalist) religion. Olivier Roy captures this phenomenon succinctly. For him, (neo)fundamentalism is the name for a religion that is deprived of its cultural markers.
More than having trouble with fundamentalist ideologies, Denmark, as well as much of Europe, is struggling with the phenomenon of “repli communautaire.” Often translated as “community withdrawal,” it refers to the social conditions in which certain communities, particularly non-white immigrants who live in public housing complexes, close themselves off from the rest of society. As politics creates more borders for and around precarious immigrants, the immigrants, too, cocoon themselves in fundamentalist closures. Communitarianism, in other words, contributes to the ghettoization of their living spaces. The danger is that these closed-off zones become a fertile ground for radicalization.
This is how this vicious cycle has often been explained. But can we turn this on its head and begin with space? What if the categories of race and religion are constructed through space? Can architecture, in other words, “construct” race and stir racism?
Architecture is not a passive or neutral vessel that contains social relations; it constructs its own subjects. A stigmatized public housing project, for example, is not simply inhabited by the urban underclass. Since the dilapidated place is associated with migrant workers who are experiencing unemployment or precarity, anyone who comes to inhabit that space is seen through a lens that colors their identity with particular racial, class, and cultural (if not religious) tones. Furthermore, representations are not merely expressions of identities, they also shape these identities. Architecture as a powerful and all-encompassing form of representation not only reflects the identity of its subject, but it also leaves its marks on individual identities. The identity of architecture and the identity of its “people” are intertwined. Architecture defines them as much as they define architecture.
Incidentally, an undesirable neighborhood with crumbling public housing complexes is the only housing option that unemployed immigrants can afford. The state also accommodates refugees and the displaced population in such complexes. By the “virtue” of living in these already segregated and highly stigmatized spaces, the subjects are automatically perceived as urban outcasts. To be politically correct, the official discourse of urban politics frames minority and immigrant neighborhoods as “sensitive neighborhoods” and not ghettos. This discursive shift diverts the blame away from the state: these communities, we are told, create boundaries between themselves and the rest of society—not because of unemployment and precarity—but because their religion does not permit assimilation. The state, in other words, represents immigrants for who they supposedly are, and not for what they do. Put differently, instead of addressing the political economy of marginalization, the state turns to identity politics, that is, the political economy of representation. Obsession with identities and representations is embraced not only by the state and the majority population, but also by minority immigrants themselves. When everyone is concerned with images, everything becomes an image. Urban renewal projects that once were concerned with enhancing the quality of life in public housing neighborhoods are now preoccupied with representations. Public participation, as the mantra of design strategy, aims at capturing a diversity of voices. It wants to represent everyone; it gives what is desired: recognition. Incidentally, ethnographic work on such public projects has shown that the community felt satisfied by being recognized and represented. But what does this inclusive representation do if minorities remain excluded from the (political) processes that determine their real condition of existence? What if “active participation” in design projects is nothing but a passive submission to the rules of a preconceived game? The claim is that the constituency has been given agency. But this agency is a scripted performance. Furthermore, are these public projects really public, or are they the property of the ruling class masquerading as public? Haussman’s “new boulevards,” David Harvey reminds us, “were construed as public spaces to facilitate the state’s protection of bourgeois private property.” The “right to the city,” Richard Sennett argues, is increasingly “a bourgeois prerogative.” Urban renewal projects often appear as a generous gesture of the dominant class toward the marginalized population. Yet, as David Harvey points out, “[t]he concealing of class relations does not erase them.” Would these projects provide “access to an emancipatory sphere of action”?
Mark Lilla would have framed urban projects that aim at community participation as “empty gestures of recognition and ‘celebration’.” What is represented in these curated, museum-like spaces, is not the lived experience of immigrants, but a representation of what Europe wants to see: a European Islam attuned to its putative values. I am suspicious of the metaphor of giving voice and this modality of agency. Let me quote Mark Lilla in full:
Identity liberalism is mesmerized by symbols: achieving superficial diversity in organizations, retelling history to focus on marginal and often minuscule groups, concocting inoffensive euphemisms to describe social reality,….. Identity liberalism has ceased being a political project and has morphed into an evangelical one. The difference is this: evangelism is about speaking truth to power. Politics is about seizing power to defend the truth.
We are dealing with the aestheticization of the politics of integration. Spatial identity politics does more than simply representing identities. Voices are heard and turned into images. But this process of translation is never neutral. Architecture conceals (social antagonisms and relations of domination) more that it reveals. It is not simply that something is lost in translation, but translation, that is, the turning of voices into pictorial and architectural representations, is a fundamentally political act. Who gets to decide what is worth translating and how this translation should be done? What power structures run in the background?
 Alain Badiou, “Notes sur l’Europe”, Anne Norton, On the Muslim Question, Joan W. Scott, La Politique du Voile, Étienne Balibar, Nous, citoyens d’Europe ?, Charles Taylor, “The Politics of Recognition”.
 Alain Badiou, Our Wound is Not so Recent: Thinking The Paris Killings of 13 November (Cambridge, UK Polity Press 2016)
 For instance, how being German is imbricated in being European, but distinct from being Austrian, if ethnicity and race are no longer the basis for constructing national identities?
 Aliénor Ballangé, “L’hétérologie de l’Europe : crise identitaire ou défi altéritaire ?” Le Philosophoire. 43 (1): 135.
 “Ce refus d’essentialiser et de fixer l’identité de l’Europe au travers d’une frontière à la fois physique et symbolique entre « ce qui est européen » et « ce qui ne l’est pas, ne peut pas l’être ou ne doit pas l’être », se retrouve de manière concrète dans les enjeux liés à l’élargissement. “ Aliénor Ballangé, “L’hétérologie de l’Europe : crise identitaire ou défi altéritaire ?” Le Philosophoire. 43 (1): 135.
 Étienne Balibar, Nous, citoyens d’Europe ? (Paris, La Découverte, 2001).
 Racialized male bodies with or without reference to religious signs are perceived as a threat to secular values, as the religion associated with them is deemed antithetical to those very values.
 Schmidt, G. Ibid.
 Charles K. Taylor, “The Politics of Recognition,” in Expanded Paperback Edition, ed. Amy Gutmann, (Princeton University Press, 1994), 58.
 David Harvey, “The Political Economy of Public Space” in Setha M. Low and Neil Smith. The Politics of Public Space (New York : Routledge, 2006) 20
 David Harvey, 29
 Alex Honnet, Disrespect: The Normative Foundations of Critical Theory (Oxford : Polity, 2008), 67.
 Mark Lilla, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics
When the Commandments of the State Are Impossible to Fulfill
On February 3 of this year, Gérald Darmanin, the French Minister of the Interior, published a book called Islamic Separatism: A Manifesto for Secularism. Darmanin, who has some North African and Middle Eastern ancestry, has come under criticism for the apparent anti-Semitism and Islamophobia of some of the book’s claims. In Islamic Separatism, Darmanin draws a line of historical affinity and causation between Napoleon’s efforts to create an anodyne, state-sponsored version of Judaism and the ongoing offensive against public displays of Islamic belief in France.
This is good history. Ensuring the submission of the Abrahamic religions to the State is as important to the French government now as it was in 1808, although the focus has shifted somewhat from Catholicism (the first object of the State offensive) and Judaism (targeted even more outrageously because of the racial element of anti-Semitism) to Islam (where the racial element may be even more determining). The problem is not that Darmanin is right that the French government is heir to Napoleon when it comes to Islam. It is that he insists on the progressive, correct, even messianic nature of the whole project.
Darmanin, like Napoleon before him (and Hébert before him), treats religious believers as obstacles to the purely benevolent and disinterested efforts of the French state to end discrimination (by assimilating all religious and cultural difference). Everyone could be equal and happy, Darmanin insinuates, if Muslims only adopted a moderate, Enlightened, rational version of Islam, one which would never bring it into conflict with the State or with the sumptuary and cultural norms of the French secular majority. Many in the French government agree with Darmanin. Measures to prohibit the hijab for minors and Islamic swimwear for all female Muslims passed Senate this month (although they are unlikely to become law).
These developments echo recent comments by French President Emmanuel Macron to the effect that Muslims need to accept an “Islam of the Enlightenment” if they are to merit a place in French society. There has been a flurry of criticism from Catholic and Jewish leaders, who are, historically speaking, no strangers to pressure from the French state to modify their religious beliefs according to its whims. Twitter has also reacted. Users @sarahbenichou82 and @noemmanuel1 posted some of the most egregious passages from Darmanin’s book for the public’s perusal. For example:
[Once Catholicism was dealt with] Napoleon involved himself in regulating the difficulties relating to the presence of tens of thousands of Jews in France. Some of them were practicing usury, leading to troubles and complaints [….] Napoleon chose to call an assembly of notable Israelites, all appointed by representatives of the State in the region, to respond to a series of questions supposed to summarize the problems of integrating Jews into the French Nation. Our aim is to reconcile the belief of the Jews with the duties of the French, and to make them useful citizens, being resolved to remedy the evil to which many of them indulge to the detriment of our subjects.” […] This was nothing less than a struggle for integration before its time.
Was this really a great moment in integration history? As historian Alyssa Sepinwall pointed out in response to the thread, Napoleon was much more anti-Semitic, both in the religious and in the racial sense, than the average Frenchman of his time. He referred to Jews as “a contemptible and degraded nation […] capable of the lowest deeds” and “a vile people, cowardly and cruel.” There is a good, if not unequivocal, argument for the degeneration of gentile-Jewish relations in France after Napoleon, from the outbreak of pogroms to the Dreyfus Affair to Drumont’s Antisemitic League.
Even if we set aside the racial element of anti-Semitism, Napoleon’s religious policies towards French Jews smack more of narcissism and paranoia than of the humane desire for integration. Darmanin does not mention the hyperbolic “Prayers for the Emperor” and “Prayers for the Republic” which synagogues were forced to use in services by Napoleon in 1808 and thereafter, in slightly modified form, by the government into the present day. These were a modification of prayers imposed on Catholic masses during the Concordat of 1801. On the one hand, in both the Catholic and the Jewish case, this was a simple case of modifying the traditional prayer for the king to reflect the times (and suppress lingering monarchist sentiments). On the other hand, the oath for Napoleon (and its subsequent re-republicanization) was far more hyperbolic, assigning a messianic place to Napoleon and France, than the simple prayers for the king used by Catholics and Jews in the pre-Revolutionary liturgy.
In one sense, the offensives against Jews and Muslims are part of a larger state offensive, since the Revolution, against any religious or cultural loyalties with the potential to supersede State loyalties. The Abbé Gregoire may have sought to rehabilitate Jews by making them “useful citizens” of the French state, but he felt the same way about ultramontane Catholics, and even, by extension, about French people who spoke dialects unintelligible in Paris. During the Revolution, Catholic clergy who refused to sign a loyalty oath to the State were deported and often killed. Even in the twentieth century monks were being marched out of expropriated monasteries at gunpoint.
Utility to the state was considered incompatible with contemplative withdrawal on the one hand and loyalty to an international religious community on the other. Religious people simply could not be useful citizens unless they acknowledged that in the event of conflict between their religion and the demands of the state, the latter would have to win. This is all leaving aside the inherent dangers of regarding citizens as worthy only insofar as they are “useful” to the state. What about disabled people? Are linguistic minorities really a threat to sovereignty?
In this sense the current campaign against Islam and the Napoleonic campaign against Judaism originate in a historical heuristic which was not primarily racial. But, in modern France, as progressive critics of laïcité often point out, Catholics are now largely off the hook. State secularism only targets Muslims and Jews because Catholic holidays and symbolism are, in a reversal of Revolutionary policy, back on the menu. For secularists, they have been redefined as harmlessly secular aspects of French national culture (who doesn’t love Christmas?). Bastille Day is still celebrated, but it is vastly outnumbered by Easter, Ascension, Assumption, Christmas, Whit Monday, and All Saints’ Day. Christians can easily fulfill their holy days of obligation without facing the charge of insufficient secularism. Muslims and Jews, of course, have no analogous opportunity
Likewise, when the public school which decorates the hallways with Renaissance prints of New Testament scenes asks the Muslim or Jewish student to remove a hijab or kippah, it is engaging in a double standard. Still, this is religious rather than racial or ethnic discrimination. But there are even more ambiguous cases. Are we really to believe that white, Gentile students wearing long skirts are likely to be questioned in connection with the long skirt ban imposed by many schools, unless, perhaps, their family is known to be Mormon?
This atmosphere of religious-racial ambiguity and hypocrisy is reminiscent of the tensions rife in southern Spain around 1600. In 1492, of course, the state had imposed religious uniformity by demanding that Muslims and Jews convert or leave the country. A large number of Arab-Berber “Moors” did convert to Catholicism and remained in southern Spain. They were allowed a number of cultural dispensations similar to those enjoyed by Catholics in the Holy Land then and now, for example the right to hear Mass in Arabic.
But the Spanish state still wasn’t happy. When Spanish government officials ventured into the albaicín to collect taxes, they saw women in hijabs, men in Moorish dress, and very few people speaking Spanish. Despite the protest of much of the Catholic hierarchy, they imposed taxes for failure to change clothing and language by the end of a specified grace period. They even objected to Morisco (“Moorish”) string music because it sounded ‘too foreign,’ despite the fact that string music is banned under most varieties of Islam. Moriscos grew tired of having to prove their Spanishness as well as their Christianness, and ethnic tensions rose. Finally the state transported the entire Morisco population to North Africa, where none of them were from. Although up to half returned to Spain within the decade, their culture was permanently eradicated.
Since the Moriscos were Christians, in theory and in most cases in fact, they could not understand the State offensive against them. They had done what they were supposed to do. They heard the same Arabic mass as Lebanese Christians. They dressed like Christians in the Holy Land. And most of Spain did not speak Spanish, so why should they? Heritage Christians in Galicia were entitled to speak Galician and dress like Galicians, but New Christians in Granada, where their ancestors had lived for centuries, were compelled to speak Castilian and dress like Castilians.
Religious conversion, for all that it had been a grotesque, forced choice, had had simple, predictable rules. In theory (although this was often untrue in practice), if you, a Morisco, were known to attend weekly Mass, go to confession at least once a year, know the words of the Lord’s Prayer, etc., you were free from suspicion, even from the Spanish Inquisition. This is how conversion had worked in the Middle Ages, for example the conversion of the Vikings. But how to prove that one was culturally Spanish? If one did as the government asked and recut one’s clothing to match Castilian norms, would the fabric still attract suspicion? If one spoke Castilian, would a foreign accent not still mark one as unassimilated? And what about the color of one’s skin? What are the sacraments of cultural assimilation?
French Muslims (and Jews, to a lesser extent, particularly Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and the Near East) face the same quandary. What are the sacraments of laïcité? How does one prove that one is sufficiently secular? One of the sacraments of French secularism, it might be argued, is to write a book like Gérald Darmanin’s. With his Algerian heritage and non-French surname, Darmanin may have felt extra pressure to prove his Frenchness. What better way to prove these credentials than by engaging in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia? What this points to is that French secularism is becoming a race to the bottom in which Jews and Muslims are implicitly urged not only to give up their religion but also to turn violently against it and against their former communities, and even engage in self-directed racism, in order to be perceived as “one of the good ones.” The alternative, as in early modern Spain, may become deportation.
This is similar to forced conversion to another religion, as happened in medieval and early modern Europe and Asia, but without an end point in sight. When the Vikings converted to Christianity, many forcibly, after a few generations the suspicion of lingering paganism disappeared, and they were accepted into European Christendom. Even bigotry against Spanish conversos from Judaism mostly evaporated a few decades after 1492. Several prime ministers of the seventeenth century, and at least two of the Counterreformation patron saints of Spain, were of Jewish descent. But St Teresa of Ávila and St Olaf of Norway existed in a world where racial and ethnic prejudice, though the modern version was incipient in Teresa’s time, could be mollified by commitment to the universal Christian church, with its recognizable and predictable rules.
In the context of modern France, how does the state decide when the Enlightened version of Catholicism, Islam, or Judaism which it demands from its citizens is Enlightened enough? Must all religious displays be abrogated? Is this a new version of the Cult of the Supreme Being? And will it stop there? Is total secularization the end point?
The “religion-lite” demanded by the French state is essentially arbitrary and dependent on the whims of the governing class, minus whatever concessions the faithful are able to negotiate back from the state. Would total secularity be more universal, more legible? Despite its apparent universalism, state atheism is even harder to parse. Which aspects of North African culture would be salvageable? Would women of visible North African ancestry be able to wear long skirts in public without being suspected of lingering Islamic commitments? It goes without saying that white, gentile Frenchwomen do not have to worry about the length of their skirts in this way.
The French campaign against Islam is neither entirely a cynical cover for racism nor entirely a simple continuation of the anti-Catholic policies of the Revolution. But it is both, and both aspects step from the attempt to freeze French culture and nationality in place, to ignore its divisions, its mixed religious and patriotic origins, and then to universalize it and impose it on newcomers as though it were a religion. Because its commandments are negatively defined against the enemies of the Revolution (thou shalt not place king, pope or God above the Republic), they can only be enforced against the uninitiate, the backwards religious who serve as a constant influx of scapegoats against whom to proclaim the light of conversion to secularity.
In a normal religion, like Christianity or Judaism, there is a sense that heritage believers, if they can be distinguished from recent converts at all, simply have more responsibility to fulfill the commandments. But, like early modern Spain, modern France has it reversed. New French citizens must worry all the time whether they are Enlightened enough, while whatever white French gentiles (the most serious, ultramontane Catholics perhaps excepted) do – regardless of its moral qualities or lack thereof – is regarded as default, not to be questioned. For the newcomers, the commandments of the state are beyond their ability to fulfill.
Distance and Diaspora in the Art of Contemporary Middle-Eastern Émigré Women
It has been 18 months since I visited my homeland and had the opportunity to see family and friends, but I was fortunate to travel home just before the COVID-19 pandemic erupted. Yet, I am no stranger to an understanding of missing one’s native land and loved ones, as the art of the contemporary Middle-Eastern émigré women artists that I research overflows with yearning. For many, their longing can never be saited, as several have had to wait years to return home, and some will never be able to step foot on their beloved landscapes again.
Whereas the majority of Middle-Eastern women artists chose to leave their birthplace to pursue academic and artistic training in the West, a few emigrated due to the socio-political turmoil in their native lands. A fifteen-year-long civil war devastated Lebanon after Lebanese-Palestinian Mona Hatoum moved to England to pursue an academic and artistic education. Despite her original intention to return to Lebanon, the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) forced Hatoum to remain in exile. Her artwork Globe (2007) is a large-scale metal sculpture of a globe divested of all cartographic information other than latitude and longitude lines crafted in iron. The visual result of her abstraction of the globe is a dysfunctional map incapable of indicating the location of any single place. Nevertheless, the installation offers an original cartographic representation of Hatoum’s own experience of dislocation, her diasporic existence in which no place on the entire globe is home.
Shirin Neshat left Iran during the era of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. On her first visit fifteen years later and eleven years after Ayatollah Humaini’s Islamic revolution had changed the face of the country, Neshat was interrogated at the Iranian airport. Reacting to that experience, her first visit to Iran in the aftermath of the revolution, she created the photograph series Unveiling (1993). In this work, she explores her relationship to her changed homeland, and its new regime. Unveiling is comprised primarily of Neshat’s self-portraits wearing various headdresses and coverings. After developing the photographs, Neshat inscribed the stills with Iranian feminist poetry written in Persian calligraphy.
If Elham Rokni had dared to return to Iran after immigrating to Israel in 1989, she could have met a harsher fate. But, at the same time, Israeli officials confiscated her Iranian passport and she now lives in perpetual exile, banned from returning to the country in which she was born. Rooted in memories of a land that she can no longer enter, Rokni seeks to return to her childhood neighborhood, tread the familiar path from her elementary school to her grandmother’s house, and watch a movie in the local cinema. Craving to visit her native land, Rokni produced Yousef Abad (2014), a video that enabled her to return virtually through a covert collaboration she created with an Iranian acquaintance, who video-taped the places in Iran that she hungered to see again.
Enduring separation and distance from one’s country, and transforming that desire into art is a skill that Middle-Eastern women artists like Hatoum, Neshat, and Rokni have long been forced to hone. The work created by these émigré women expresses the hardships they endure due to forced or self-imposed exile.
It’s Abortion, Stupid – How Evangelicals Can Justify Rallying Around Trump
In the months and years following the 2016 election, much was made of Trump’s robust support from white evangelicals. Even years after he was first elected, Trump’s approval remained at 70% among white evangelicals – higher than it was in any other religious (or non-religious) group. To some this may have been surprising. A serial fornicator who bungles quotes from “Two Corinthians” certainly seems like an unlikely hero for conservative religious people, but Trump taps into ideas white Christian nationalism and racialized xenophobia, and in so doing he advocated for a particular vision of what America is and who makes up America. His constant exclusionary rhetoric on immigration put forward a vision of America as a white, Christian nation with others being excluded.
Greater minds than mine have delved deeply into understanding the particular dynamics of white Christian nationalism, xenophobia, and exclusionary views on immigration which make up Trump’s rhetoric and the rhetoric of his supporters, but amidst this public reckoning with nationalism and xenophobia, where were evangelical leaders? Given the prominence and relevance of these issues to evangelical communities, they were no doubt aware of such issues and how important they were to their laity. Did Trump’s campaign and election spark a conversation among evangelical leaders over the role of the church in issues of race and immigration? Conversely, did Trump’s rise cause a shift in discussions around immigration towards more exclusivist and nationalistic rhetoric?
Over the last few months, I have been studying the rhetoric of evangelical leaders around immigration both before and after Trump. In my examination of evangelical leaders’ dialogue before, during, and after Trump’s campaign and administration, the answer to both of those questions is…not really. I analyzed all of the articles published on thegospelcoalition.org (a website run by a coalition of many prominent evangelical leaders that commonly posts articles with opinions on contemporary issues) up until a few weeks before President Biden was sworn in. To do this, I looked at all of the uses of words such as “immigration,” “immigrant,” “refugee,” and so on over time on The Gospel Coalition’s website. To see if the usage of these terms changed over the 2020 presidential campaign, I split the data into three eras: before the Trump campaign (any articles published prior to Trump’s announcement of his campaign on June 16th, 2015), during the Trump campaign (any articles published after Trump’s campaign announcement, but before he won the election on November 9th, 2016), and during the Trump administration (any articles published after Trump won the election up through when I finished the data scrape on December 20th 2020).
To my surprise, there was no noticeable increase in discussion of immigration during Trump campaign among evangelical leaders. While there was perhaps some increase in discussion around refugees during the Trump campaign, this quickly leveled off and was not matched by an increase in discussions using the word immigration. This comes despite immigration being the signature issue of Trump’s presidential campaign – the major news story in the US throughout 2016. However, there was one term that showed a clear spike during the campaign: abortion.
There was a substantial spike in discussions of abortion among evangelical leaders during the 2016 campaign, despite Trump not particularly highlighting it as a key issue. His official campaign website did not list a stance on abortion even in the days right before election day. Moreover, even within articles that contained reference to immigration, actual discussion of immigration was sidelines or mentioned offhandedly. There were comparatively few articles focused primarily on immigration while there were many with a sole and clear focus on abortion during this time – even when immigration was a much more pronounced issue in the public eye. And when abortion was the main focus of an article, the article was universally condemnatory to the practice, with abortion being described as a sin and murder. Discussions of immigration, by comparison, were not only much rarer, but they were also more ambivalent in tone. There certainly was no full-throated defense of mass deportations and border wall to be sure…but someone sympathetic such policies would find little to challenge their viewpoints either.
For an evangelical layperson consuming this media and other media like it, what is the effect? Abortion is dramatically elevated in salience and importance while immigration is relegated to the kids table of political issues. Discussions of xenophobia, Trump’s nativism, and the threat posed by Christian nationalism are hard to find – if such discussions exist at all. For a convicted and devout conservative evangelical, which position is easier to state in this environment: support for a pro-life candidate who is perhaps too exclusivist on immigration, or support for a candidate who supports the murder of infants but has a more balanced approach to immigration? This is not to say that many white evangelicals are unsympathetic to the white Christian nationalism advocated by Trump. In fact, there is evidence that white evangelical Protestants are more likely to have negative sentiments towards immigrants. In the evangelical ecosystem, however, these people do not need to explicitly affirm Christian nationalism or anti-immigrant beliefs in order to legitimately claim support for Trump. Instead, one can easily claim support for the candidate solely on the basis that he is on team pro-life.
Given these findings, we need to reevaluate the function the issue of abortion is performing within white evangelical contexts. In this context, it may be acting as a means of justifying support for – or at least silence towards – leaders like Trump. The prominence and clear negative moral valance of abortion among evangelicals means that a vote for the anti-abortion party is always justifiable, and a vote for the other party is not. The result is that support for Christian ethno-nationalism remains unchallenged even by those who may be against it. Of course, some discussions around immigration and the politics of Trump are happening within evangelical spaces, but these conversations are dwarfed by discussions of abortion.
There are many plausible explanations for why white evangelicals rallied around Trump, chief among them the fact that Trump tapped into white Christian nationalist ideas. However, as to the question of how evangelicals could justify their support for Trump without explicitly advocating for white Christian nationalism, the issue of abortion offers a clear path.
In early February, The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song debuted on PBS. The two part series chronicled the history of the Black Church in the United States and its various transformations from private gatherings of enslaved people in the woods to the megachurches with thousands of members. Executive producer Henry Louis Gates Jr. and countless scholars, pastors, and celebrities contributed to this fantastic rendering of black life. The documentary was well received by scholars and people more generally interested in the history of the black church. While spanning only four hours, the documentary covered hundreds of years of black church history in the United States. However, it was not without its problems. Some critiqued the documentary for rushing through crucial aspects of black church history and presenting outdated chronologies and framings of black church and African American history. Other reviewers noticed that the documentary hardly mentioned other African American religious practices like Islam, focusing primarily on black Christianity throughout the documentary. Despite these grievances, the documentary was enlightening and contributed to the complex history of African Americans in the United States.
As the son of a preacher and a scholar of religion, I was affirmed yet unsettled to see aspects of my childhood displayed in the mainstream. A seemingly “private” institution and its cultural significance were suddenly thrust into the spotlight for unknowing and unfamiliar eyes to cast judgment and opinions. While watching I found it difficult to separate my scholarly interests in black religion from the nostalgia of my adolescence; I was unable to divorce my enjoyment of the film from politics of reducing, segmenting, and periodizing black religion for television and its effect on past and present understandings of religious life in black communities. More concerning though, was the documentary’s centering of the brick and mortar black church in the historicization of black religious life in the United States.
While watching, I gradually saw the conflation of the black church and black christianity. The black church as an organizing space for black communities was incredibly influential during black freedom struggles, but we must move beyond the brick and mortar church to better understand the influence of black christianity in all aspects of African American life in the United States. Beyond denominational divides and civil rights organizing is a whole world of black religion that contributes to a broader black christian experience. Following the late Dr. Charles Long’s concept of orientation, I push for a far more capacious understanding of black religion that goes beyond Sunday morning and the protest and analyzes the everydayness of black religiosity, from working and rearing children to spirit filled turns of phrase like God willing. According to Long, “Orientation refers to the manner in which a culture, society, or person becomes aware of its place in the temporal spatial order of things. I hope to use this framework to ask interesting questions like how did black people practice religion between the crosshairs of white supremacy? What was the agency of everyday people in the making and shaping of their religious experiences? This would not detract from studies of black church history, but add a rich and more engaging analyses of how people engaged the black church on their own terms and forged realities out of their experiences. I hope future documentaries of black religious life acknowledge the multifaceted aspects of black religious life in the United States and the ways that people utilized the black church as a space of gathering and worship, but also went beyond its walls to engage their religious practice.
Chala-Qazaqs of Central Asia: What nineteenth-century Kazakh steppe can teach us about ethnic fluidity in imperial context?
When we think about ethnic identities, we tend to view them as historically fixed, exclusive, and unchanging. This is especially true for the post-Soviet space where one’s ethnic identity or nationality was first fixated at birth, after which it accompanied Soviet citizens throughout their lives unfailingly popping up in most bureaucratic documents, including passports. The USSR government assigned national identities a central role in establishing internal administrative borders, offering educational and employment opportunities, and, tragically, determining political loyalty. It is a mistake, however, to perceive Soviet ethnocentrism as appearing from a vacuum, as it drew heavily on Imperial Russia’s policy that viewed tsarist subjects through the combination of their religious identities and ethnic cultures. The tsarist drive to examine and fixate the empire’s ethnic composition is evinced by numerous nineteenth-century works produced by Russian anthropologists. In most cases, this was quite a straightforward process, in which tsarist scholars relied on both the information from their local consultants and “neutral” scientific knowledge. Once in a while, however, tsarist administrators and ethnographers (often represented by the same person) found themselves struggling to clearly establish one’s ethnic identity. One such case comes from nineteenth-century Kazakh steppe, where the community known as the Chala-Qazaqs or half-Kazakhs demonstrates both still present ethnic fluidity along with bureaucratic power and local agency in shaping ethnic development in the tsarist-era Central Asia.
When the Russian empire began extending its military and bureaucratic control over the Kazakh territories in the 1820s, its agents found mostly a mono-ethnic Kazakh population who, in addition to their common ethnic identity, defined themselves though their ancestral genealogies and tribal divisions. When tsarist administrators moved deeper into the Kazakh steppe, they encountered groups that called themselves “the children of Tatars” and sometimes “Chala-Qazaqs.” These groups were the second or third generation Tatar families who migrated to the Kazakh steppe from Russia proper, foremost, the Volga-Urals region. Initially, Russian bureaucrats counted in these groups as Tatars. This decision, however, soon led to a legal collision. Both Kazakhs and Tatars were Muslims who spoke related Turkic languages and shared similar cultures. Yet, there was an important political and historical difference between the two groups. Most of Tatars had been Russian subjects from the mid-sixteenth century, at the time when Russia was still widely known as the Muscovite Tsardom. As such, by the nineteenth century, Tatars were viewed by the tsarist state as typical subjects liable for full taxation and long-term military service. By contrast, Russia’s new Central Asian subjects, including Kazakhs, were exempted from paying additional taxes and, more importantly, from serving in the tsarist army. To avoid legal confusions over the duties of Tatars in Russia proper and Tatars in Central Asia, tsarist administrators decided to drop the term “children of Tatar” and bureaucratically replaced it with an alternative “Chala-Qazaq” that legally equated communities of mixed-Kazakh origin with the native inhabitants of the Kazakh steppe.
In Central Asian languages, “chala” literally means “half” or “incomplete.” Consequently, the term “Chala-Qazaq” would mean “half-way” or “partial Kazakh.” As a social phenomenon, Chala-Qazaqs existed long before tsarist take-over of Central Asia, although, its scope was very limited. The earliest known cases of Chala-Qazaqs are dated from the early seventeenth century when this hybrid category was used in relation to the progeny of Kazakh mothers and non-Kazakh fathers. Due to the traditions of patrilineal succession adopted in the region, Central Asian children could inherit only ethic identities of their fathers. This was especially true for nomadic steppe areas, where a person’s patrilineal tribal affiliation was not only a source of ethnic identification, but also an essential factor of one’s survival. As Kazakh nomads inherited their tribal identity from their fathers, those who were born from a Kazakh mother and a non-Kazakh father could not be regarded “fully” Kazakh. Instead, they were placed in the hybrid category of Chala-Qazaqs. Eventually, Chala-Qazaq lineages could undergo “Kazakhification” manifested by their inclusion into Kazakh tribal genealogies (shajaras). One of the most well-known pre-tsarist cases of Kazakhified Chala-Qazaqs is the case of Toqtar-Khoja, a Sart man who in the early 1600s moved to the Kazakh steppe and married a Kazakh woman from the Naiman tribe. Initially, Toqtar-Khoja’s immediate offspring was regarded Chala-Qazaq. However, within just a century, other Kazakhs began regarding his lineage as Naiman-Kazakh. This recognition led to their incorporation into Naiman tribal genealogical tree that finalized their full inclusion into Kazakh community
Despite the historicity of Chala-Qazaqs, pre-tsarist-era sources reveal only a few Chala cases, which points to the limited character of this phenomenon. Only with the advent of Russian expansion into Central Asia and later administrative recognition of the Chala-Qazaqs, this phenomenon underwent unprecedented growth at the expense of new communities migrating to the Kazakh steppe. Most of the new Chalas came from Tatar provinces and had no family ties to Kazakhs. For these groups forging Chala identity and requesting its official recognition from the tsarist state was the only way of obtaining a legal permission to remain in Central Asia and enjoy the rights of its native inhabitants. Tatars had various reasons to leave Russia proper for Central Asia. One factor was lucrative commercial opportunities presented by rapidly growing Kazakh-steppe trade centers. Many sources, however, concentrate on another factor that prompted Tatar migration: avoiding military service in the tsarist army. Here and there, Russian observers of Chala-Qazaqs emphasize their “run-away” nature or outright denounce them as army deserters. One such ethnographic work, describing a Chala-Qazaq dominated town in East Kazakh steppe, stresses that the town’s population was in fact “a half-Asiatic rabble that includes Russian defectors from among the Kazan and Crimean Tatars.” Another tsarist document reveals how three Chala-Qazaqs turned out to be “runaway peasants from the Penza province.” These three men were previously imprisoned for theft and later sent to serve in the army, but managed to escape to the Kazakh steppe and register as Chala-Qazaqs under made-up names. Despite occasional uncovering of falsified Chala statuses, in the mid-nineteenth century the number of people claiming and receiving the Chala statuses had been steadily increasing. By the 1860s, Chala communities populated several Kazakh towns and villages. In the city of Semipalatinsk, a major nineteenth-century cultural and commercial center in Central Asia, Chalas dominated the city’s “Chala-Qazaq quarter” where they had constructed a “Chala-Qazaq mosque.”
One of the most well-known stories of a forged Chala-Qazaq identity is the case of the late-nineteenth century religious scholar and historian Qurban-‘Ali Khalidi (1846-1913). Both of Khalidi’s parents moved to the steppe region from the Tatar province of Kazan. It was Khalidi’s father, who in 1830 managed to obtain official recognition of “Chala-Qazaq” from tsarist administration. His then passed on this status to his children. When Qurban-‘Ali was born, legally he became a second-generation Chala-Qazaq, notwithstanding that neither his father nor his mother had Kazakh family ties. Khalidi’s forged status was by no means an isolated case. The scholar himself reveals in his Tawarikh-i Khamsa-yi Sharqi (1910) that many people who managed to register as Chala-Qazaqs were in fact “pure Tatars” who had just recently relocated to the Kazakh steppe.
The appalling manipulation of the Chala-Qazaq status eventually caught the attention of the General-governor of Western Siberia, Gustav Gasford. Expressing his dissatisfaction with the illegal appropriation of the Chala identity, Gasford wrote to his subordinates in 1857 that “all kinds of vagabonds, especially from among the Kazan Tatars” move to the Kazakh steppe and take advantage of the Chala-Qazaq status. To fight such fraud activities, Gasford ordered to completely drop the term “Chala-Qazaq” from official use and re-register all Chalas as simply Kazakhs. In theory, this governmental decision had to bring to an end the exploitation of Chala status and contain the growth of Chala-Qazaq population. In reality, however, some Russian administrators continued to register individuals and occasionally whole families as Chala-Qazaqs even after 1857. Notwithstanding bureaucratic attempts to purge the Chala status, many people continued to identify themselves as Chala-Qazaqs, and their communities remained under the scrutiny of Russian ethnographers.
For students of imperial histories, Chala-Qazaqs may seem like a familiar story, in which an empire alters ethnic classifications by adopting or rejecting existing categories. Similarly to other colonial cases, Chala-Qazaqs were not passive objects of imperial practices, but were actively engaged in shaping and manipulating colonial policies. There is, however, an important distinction. Unlike Central and Eastern European nationalists who used the ideas of nation and nationality as a tool of gaining recognition and engaging with the imperial state, those who claimed the Chala-Qazaq status often sought to distance themselves from the state and limit their interaction with Russian imperial apparatus.
“Writing a Letter to the Wind”: Sanctuary and Double-edged Citizenship
Umstead Park United Church of Christ in Raleigh, where I have done ethnographic research during the last academic year, is nestled among tall pine trees belonging to the state park from which it takes its name. The parking lot is lined with cherry blossoms that impersonate a barren fence in the winter months, but which teem with bright white petals in spring that seem to dance mid-air at a strong wind’s invitation. A weathered basketball hoop watches the seasons pass, standing guard over black asphalt with neat white lines. The church’s single-story, faded red brick exterior looks unassuming compared to the modern, angular design of the adjoining architecture firm. Since 2007, this building has been home to a self-described “thoughtful and progressive community of faith” led by Reverend Doug Long.
I made my first visit to Umstead Park in August 2020, six months into the covid-19 pandemic, to visit Eliseo Jimenez, who had taken refuge from Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the church since October 2017. At the time, a church bulletin board announced events that had come and gone unremarked, and chairs in the worship space seemed ambivalent, unable to make up their minds between stacks destined for storage and rows anticipating a return to normal. Umstead Park, like many places of worship, had been forced to close its doors and operate virtually since the stay-at-home orders began in March 2020. I wrote in my fieldnotes that the church felt “frozen in time.” Now, I think that is only half of the story.
To be sure, life had been “frozen” in a way for Eliseo as well. When Trump came into office in 2017 and arbitrarily cancelled his work permit, Eliseo mulled an impossible decision: leave his family and the country he called home for the last 25 years or take “sanctuary” from deportation in a church, where he would be unable to leave the premises, while his lawyer worked on his case. Since the start of the pandemic, Eliseo’s youngest children, Alison and Christopher, have lived at the church as well. As a result, they, too, have seen their lives put on hold. Eliseo lamented their lost memories in particular: “The thing I’ve missed out on the most,” he told me in the church’s library under the spotlight of fluorescent lights, “is three years of good memories with my kids.” He added, “I wanted my kids to have memories of going to the beach, parks, mountains, swimming pools and not these kinds of memories.”
Yet, describing sanctuary as “frozen” doesn’t capture everything. Eliseo, Alison, and Christopher have created a life here with the congregation of Umstead Park: celebrating birthdays, Christmases, and even Halloween (last year, they went to the church’s socially-distant Trunk-or-Treat as a “devil girl” and “superman”). Daily, they log into virtual school classes and Eliseo shines as an attentive father, navigating lessons, exercise books, homework, and, of course, his fair share of technical difficulties. Signs of warmth and life, even under such difficult circumstances, are truly all around. For instance, one can’t help but marvel the array of things Eliseo has made while in sanctuary: stained glass displays, bird houses, planters, and even a cabinet for Christopher. I am also reminded of the full-sized tent that was conspicuously pitched in the worship space for months, which Eliseo arranged to give his kids a memorable night.
Over the past academic year, I have had the privilege of witnessing and even sharing in some of these highs and lows with Eliseo. Often, I’d spend my drive home wondering what to make of them. What demands does Eliseo’s experience in sanctuary make on me as a friend, researcher, and American citizen? I want to close by briefly reflecting on the last of these: What does sanctuary reveal about the nature of citizenship? The thesis that is emerging from my fieldsite and research is that citizenship, from the perspective of citizens and non-citizens alike, is ultimately double-edged
We can start to understand citizenship as double-edged, as both blessing and curse, by recognizing sanctuary as not only a space of physical protection, but also as a rhetorical refuge from the competing obligations of American citizenship. That is, if we pay attention to contemporary conversations about immigration, we find that Eliseo is caught between the demand to be either the celebrated immigrant of the American Dream on the one hand, or the reviled so-called “illegal alien” on the other. In other words, Eliseo is expected to be, to identify, to perform as either the hero or the villain of these two versions of our national story. While the xenophobic story, in which deportation is necessary in order to protect “us” from “them,” doesn’t require careful parsing to recognize the violence of citizenship, it is the former, I want to argue, that we must pay closer attention to. Consider a letter Eliseo was asked to write to accompany his most recent appeal for a stay of removal:
To whom this may concern regarding my case, I would like for you to take your time to review my case with the most conscience, respect, dignity and professionalism possible. The circumstances for me to write this letter is for you to give me the opportunity to stay in this country with my kids. I have been in this country for more than 25 years, working and trying to build a better future for me and my sons and daughters. It’s been so hard for the past 3 ½ years to not be able to provide for my family and not able to give them a better future than the one I have and like everybody in this country. It’s what I was trying to do. I know life isn’t fair sometimes but I hope that somebody will take their time and may give me the opportunity to do that like every American in this country.
Charged with explaining “why I want to stay in the United States,” Eliseo used the vocabulary of the American Dream: “opportunity,” “work,” “better future,” “family,” “every American,” and “fair.” And to be honest, his story fits this narrative quite well. As Eliseo explained to me, he is just doing what the politicians themselves say they want: he had a work permit, paid taxes, and took care of his family. However, three and a half years confined to the inside of church has made the contradictions between dream and reality painfully obvious. Tasked with the responsibilities of citizenship yet none of its benefits or protections, Eliseo feels caught in a political game.
But what isn’t said in the letter is just as important. What Eliseo didn’t write—because it would take “much more than a page” and, even then, “they wouldn’t understand”— is that the life he has built has always been under the threat of state violence via deportation. Rather than placing blame where it belongs, namely, on a country that profits off of people like Eliseo living a precarious and highly exploitable existence, the letter is constrained, in order to remain legible, to contesting his current situation using the highly individualized terms of the American Dream. These are the sanctioned terms through which Eliseo and his experience can be recognized. However, to not be able to name the violence he has experienced for what it is reveals a double-edged citizenship, the possibility of redress on the grounds that deportation and the precarious lives it engenders remains unchallenged. When I asked how he felt about writing such a letter, he said, with a whistle and wave of his hand, “It felt like writing a letter to the wind.”
While Eliseo had to make his appeal strategically, sanctuary does more than engage on these prescribed terms. If we think of sanctuary as moving in two directions simultaneously—as a practice of “engaged withdrawal” as Carla Hung puts it—then it is as a place of withdrawal that sanctuary reveals another side of double-edged citizenship. Rather than contend that Eliseo shouldn’t be deported as an upstanding individual, sanctuary argues that deportation itself is an illegitimate and unacceptable violence, or as one pastor involved in sanctuary put it to me, “people should not be deported, period.” It is by creating an (always tenuous) place of withdrawal from state violence, then, that sanctuary challenges us to come to terms with an important dimension of American citizenship: complicity or tacit consent with this very violence. If citizenship is double-edged for Eliseo because the individualized way we talk about immigration obscures the threat of deportation, it is double-edged for citizens because it hides our consent. By creating such set apart spaces, sanctuary forces us to think about a citizenship that withdraws consent and refuses this violence, period.
 Carla Hung, “Sanctuary Squats: The Political Contestations of Piazza Indipendenza Refugee Occupiers,” Radical History Review 135, October (2019).
Migration Network and Hong Kong Christianity
Hong Kong Christianity is closely linked with migration. Hong Kong is a migrant society. Most of the population in Hong Kong arrived Hong Kong in the 1940s and 1950s, during the Chinese Civil War and the after China turned Red. Among them were Christians who were afraid of the new atheist regime, and missionaries who were expelled as “Western influences.” The number of Christians, churches, denominations, missions, theologians, divinity schools, and seminaries largely increased, and all kinds of Christian resources originally located in Mainland China became concentrated in Hong Kong. Church historian Lau Siu-lun called it the “second laying of foundation stone” of Christianity in Hong Kong.
Christians in Hong Kong put a large number of resources into serving the new migrants and refugees. Many a time they pioneered programs, as government bureaucracy takes time to move. They built housing estates for the poor. They established kindergartens, primary and secondary schools, as well as universities. They started clinics and hospitals. They founded institutes for special communities, such as foundling homes, homes and schools for the blind and deaf, elderly homes, and many other organizations that provide welfare and relief. While the earlier waves of immigrants gradually became settled in Hong Kong, churches and Christian organizations continue to help new immigrants, migrant workers, and refugees in Hong Kong.
Being a connection with the Western world, Christian churches and missionaries helped people in Hong Kong to migrate to Western nations. For many who fled Mainland China, Hong Kong was a stepping-stone. When reading archival materials of an American missionary who served in Hong Kong back in the 1950s and 1960s, I found copies of reference letters sent to the American embassy for Christians who wanted to migrate to the US. Due to the lack of opportunities for further studies in Hong Kong as a large number of students came from the Mainland, missionaries also wrote many recommendation letters for students to study abroad and link them with local churches where they relocated to.
Christian emigrants from Hong Kong formed an important part of Chinese Christian communities around the world. These emigrants went in waves. An earlier wave left during the 1966-1967 Riots in Hong Kong when the Hong Kong society was impacted by Cultural Revolution in China, and that people were afraid that the Communists will take over Hong Kong soon. The next wave came in the 1980s, especially after the June Fourth Movement, when people became pessimistic about the future of Hong Kong after the 1997 return of the city’s sovereignty from the British to China. The latest wave of emigration from Hong Kong came in 2020 until now, after the 2019 Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill Protests, and since the direct enactment of the National Security Law by Beijing which bypassed the semi-democratically-elected Hong Kong Legislature. Some of the Christian from earlier waves established new churches, and others joined existing Chinese churches. Many started Cantonese services. While Mainland China and Hong Kong were centers of Chinese Christianity that developed Chinese theologies and theological resources, these migrant Christians from Mainland China and Hong Kong act as “reinforcements” and often brought with them the latest developments in Chinese Christianity. It is not to say that overseas Chinese churches do not develop their theologies and theological resources, but it takes time, human and monetary resources.
Hong Kong Christianity also developed resources in response to the issue of emigration, including Cantonese hymns. Some songs echo the migration experience of Hongkongers and Hong Kong Christians; they touch upon the themes of departure, farewell, the Emmanuel God, uncertainty, and hope for a better future. Some songs are about identity crisis, including the Chinese national identity and the Hongkonger identity. These songs continue to nurture Christians who migrated from Hong Kong
Apart from worship resources that address the issue of migration, with the help of technology, overseas Hongkongers nowadays can share almost the same Christian resources as anyone in Hong Kong, especially during the recent COVID-19 pandemic, when everyone is forced to stay home and move online. Overseas Hongkonger Christians can participate in the online services of their original church in Hong Kong, they can join online courses from seminaries in Hong Kong, they can even join fellowship meetings with friends in Hong Kong. The singing of Cantonese hymns together in a foreign land, and the online participation in the Christian community in Hong Kong, largely strengthen the participants’ links with Hong Kong and preserve their Hongkonger identity.
Within the past year, I had church friends moving to Taiwan, Canada, Scotland, England, and the US. Some are ready to go, some are applying, more are planning and struggling. This network of Christian Hongkongers around the world will continue to grow, and more needs to be done to serve this network and to connect this network with the wider Christian community.