Religious minorities finding their own identity
‘Whiteness’ symbolises secularity. ‘Non-whiteness’ symbolises religiosity, often Islam.
Text: Eivind Senneset
Christians, Muslims and non-religious people all frame their individual outlooks in an individualistic language and find their personal experiences more authentic than inherited culture. This is one of the findings of an international research project that looks at the role of religions in a secularised age.
Through the eyes of the young
‘When I see someone going around with this symbol here... Fuck man, I've even seen porn stars wearing it! When totally mad people go around with this symbol... [then I think] that that symbol has lost its religious significance. [...]. Because before, when I came from Pakistan and I saw people with crucifixes, then I thought “Oh, they’re so religious,” but gradually, as I grew up in this society, I understood [that it was just a type of] identity. That guy is just Christian, but it does not necessarily mean that he is a practising one. I know lots of people who go around wearing this symbol, and, believe me, a lot of them have ... I don't think they even have any idea about what the Holy Trinity is.’
Tariq, in response to a picture of a crucifix in a car window.
Although the churches are still there, fewer and fewer people are going to them. Religion’s cultural expression endures, but fewer and fewer Europeans use religious faith as a personal and moral guideline. Modernisation, secularisation and pluralisation are keywords that are often mentioned when trying to explain the secularisation that is taking place in Europe. At the same time, the new wave of immigration during recent decades has changed Western Europe's political, cultural and religious landscape. Even the previously homogeneous and Protestant northern region of the continent now has its mosques, Sikh gurdwaras and Hindu and Buddhist temples.
‘It is conceivable that Europe’s new religious demography could challenge the secularisation theory. Perhaps the migrant groups’ religions will also influence those segments of the population that do not have an immigrant background,’ says Anders Vassenden, a sociologist at the University of Bergen’s research company Unifob Global, currently with the International Research Institute of Stavanger.
Together with Mette Andersson, Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Bergen, he makes up the Norwegian contingent in an international team that is researching religion among young people in Europe. ‘Social changes can be detected first among young people. We are therefore researching the status of religions as seen through the eyes of people between the ages of 18 and 25 in European urban areas that have been strongly affected by the new wave of immigration,’ Professor Andersson explains.
The project entitled The Architecture of Contemporary Religious Transmission is studying the architecture for transmitting and carrying on religious manifestations and ideas in modern West-European cities. By ‘architecture' is meant both visible, physical architecture, such as churches and mosques, and metaphorical architecture – the structures and relationships whereby religious practices are manifested in social realities.
The project has focused on the urban districts of St. Georg in Hamburg, Finsbury Park in London and Grønland in Oslo. ‘These are urban districts with a large immigrant population where religion is visibly present, both in the form of religious architecture and in street life. These districts are therefore very suitable for studying how religious changes in European cities are perceived and experienced by young people and for gaining an understanding of the dynamic between migration, secularisation and desecularisation,' says Anders Vassenden.
The Grønland and Tøyen districts of Oslo are unique by Norwegian standards. This area has become the symbol of Norway's more recent history of immigration. ‘Little Pakistan’ and 'Little Karachi’ are names that have been used to refer to this area of the capital city. And even though a growing number of people with immigrant backgrounds are leaving Oslo’s inner east side in favour of the suburbs, Grønland continues to be the institutional centre for many of the minority religions, not least for Muslims, since all the main mosques are located there. Here in Grønland, Anders Vassenden has interviewed 50 young Christians, Muslims and ‘secular’ people, ten religious leaders and three focus groups. The findings are both surprising and not surprising.
Visible Muslims, hidden Christians
Religion is very visible in Grønland. Religious people dressed in religiously inspired attire visit religious institutions. But, even though the district also has three Protestant churches, one Catholic church and several Christian non-conformist congregations, Islam is the most visible religion.
‘When you look at a white majority Norwegian, you do not see a religious person. Our material shows that “whiteness” conceals a person’s religious position at the same time as the skin colour tends to indicate non-religiosity. “Non-whiteness”, on the other hand, is a clear indication of general religiosity – and often Islam in particular. In one respect this finding is no big surprise – but all the same, it did surprise us how clearly this aspect emerged during interviews,’ says Mr Vassenden. While religion among ‘non-white’ people is a visible and almost natural attribute, this is information that must be obtained through a process of negotiation in the case of majority Norwegians. These symbolic associations influence social interaction in everyday life.
‘On the one hand, we have elements in our material that can indicate that young religious people identify across religious faiths in opposition to what is perceived as a dominant secularity in Norwegian society. On the other hand, we see tendencies for different groups to adopt different stances on secularisation. A religious way of life is often recognised as the most valid position among Pakistani-Norwegian or Tamil-Norwegian informants, for example. The majority of Norwegian Christians, on the other hand, talk more often about how they consider their religious standpoint to be more sensitive information that could make them stand out in a negative way,' says Mr Vassenden.
Individual and thoughtful
In the preliminary results that have emerged from the studies in Hamburg, London and Oslo, the connection between religious visibility and ethnicity is a finding that appears to be particularly strong in Norway. One thing that is more widespread in and characteristic of all three cities is young Muslims' identity work.
‘When the first generation of immigrants began to arrive in Norway at the end of the 1960s, their religion was never an issue. They were not “Muslims”, but “guest workers”, “immigrants”, “Pakistanis” or the more negatively loaded slang variant of the latter. It was only when a fatwa was issued against Salman Rushdie that we began talking about “their religion”. Today, religion is more important than ever before – a picture is emerging in which religion is a more important form of common identity than national background,’ says Professor Andersson.
While their parents arrived in Norway and other countries in the West as adults, the young people in the study were more often both born and raised in Europe. Since childhood, they have been forced to take a stand on their religion and to defend it in relation to a majority that does not share their background.
‘When you ask young Muslims about the difference between their perception of Islam and that of their parents, they reply that throughout their childhoods they have discussed their religion with others, that they have had to elaborate on a European form of Islam that could be based on a form of “outsideness”. This has been instrumental in driving them towards a stronger awareness of what it means to be a Muslim,' says Mr Vassenden. ‘This tendency has been further reinforced in the wake of the episodes of so-called Islamic terrorism in recent years – 11 September 2001 has forced all Muslims to take a stand on their religion, and the same answer was given by all the young people who were interviewed: “We want to be good role models of Islam in a Western society. Terrorism has nothing to do with Islam.”’ The researchers also found that the distinction between ‘culture' and 'religion' is a widespread differentiation among the Muslims interviewed. Aspects of the religion that warrant criticism, such as forced marriages and the oppression of women, are ‘culture’ from their native countries disguised as religion. While parents are still important bearers of knowledge and traditions, the most authentic knowledge is the knowledge you have arrived at by yourself through studying the Koran and discussing with others.
‘In all the groups – Muslim, Christian and non-religious – it is usual to frame one’s own religious outlook in an individualistic language. There seems to be a shift away from a position whereby authorities are used to justify religion, to a position where meaning at the personal level is what confers legitimacy. But this is a complex picture, and it is far from the case that religious authority figures such as priests and imams are without influence. The significance of the Koran as an authority is also extremely important,’ says Mr Vassenden.
(Anders:) But you're saying that this picture shows the positive side. Can you put that into words?
(Abiya:) Yes, well, it's like ...
(Nuura:) They’re holding hands!
(Abiya:) They’re holding hands, that’s like the number one thing! It's sort of like this: You see love here.
And the son ... if it’s, like, wife, father and son ... You don't see anyone being oppressed here. You can just clearly see that it is a Muslim family here ... that are out walking. They’re showing love.
Response to a picture of a Muslim family.
New religiosity not a dominant trend
Young religious people in Western Europe today are thoughtful individualists who are minorities in otherwise secular populations. Different religions – Islam in particular – have a strong position in Grønland in Oslo, yet Norway is still considered to be the most secularised country in Europe, despite the fact that 85% of its population are members of the state church.
Nevertheless, visible religiosity has made its mark on most of the large cities in Europe following the immigration history of recent decades. The Muhammed cartoons controversy, secularism and various hijab debates here at home – there are countless examples, but the question still remains of whether these are signs of a religious revitalisation of secular Europe. The Architecture of Contemporary Religious Transmission project is part of a larger programme under the European research partnership, NORFACE, which seeks to examine the possible re-emergence of religion as a social force. Its conclusions have yet to be published, however.
‘Religion has a more prominent place in the public domain than it has had for many years. But this does not necessarily mean that a large-scale revitalisation is going on in the rest of the population,' says Anders Vassenden.
VISUAL AID: This picture of the Koran and prayer beads is one of several photographs that Anders Vassenden used to elicit memories and obtain more emotional responses from the informants. This method is known as photo elicitation. Foto: Benjamin Hintze
Last updated 11.12.2009