Dr. Erin Wilson: "Religion is something that we often haven’t considered in the integration process"

25 Mar 2019

Dr. Erin Wilson is Associate Professor of Politics and Religion at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies of theUniversity of Groningen, The Netherlands


From your research, how do you think religion can affect integration processes?

There are different ways of looking at this question. One way is to look at it in terms of how people’s beliefs and their engagements with religious communities can affect their integration. Another way to look at it is by examining the assumptions that people make about what religion is and how that can affect integration processes, by looking at the kinds of biases or prejudices that it can generate.

For a lot of people, religion provides support in the integration process, in that it provides a community to immediately connect with, to ask about where to go for groceries… these kind of things.

There are many examples of organizations that offer these kinds of support services. Sometimes they are established as NGOs, such as the Hotham Mission in Melbourne, Australia, or Kinbrace in Canada. Other times they are the community that worships at a church, mosque, synagogue or temple. The risk that can arise from people seeking help from within their own religious community is that they then just stay within that community and don’t connect with broader society. It depends very much on the make-up of the religious community. Sometimes they can be very closed, not very heterogeneous, and quite ethnically and culturally uniform… so it can hinder integration in some aspects. Other times they are highly diverse in terms of age, income, and ethnic and cultural backgrounds…so it really depends; context is everything.

The other important issue is the assumptions that broader society makes about displaced people arriving in their country and their religious identity. For example, in the context of people coming from Syria, there is often an underlying assumption that everyone coming from Syria is Muslim. There is a lack of information or understanding about what it means to be a Muslim in broader society, so there is very little appreciation for the huge diversity that exists within Islam. Not everyone coming from Syria is Muslim, and even if they are, being Muslim is not necessarily the most defining part of their identity. So there can be a lot of misapprehension about people’s priorities and their identity that hinder the integration process. Locals might not want to talk to them because they don’t understand Islam or they fear it for various reasons, whereas if you think about them as people rather than as Muslims or a refugees, then it is easier to see commonalities.

Religion is something that we often haven’t considered in the integration process, and we are trying to catch up on that now, but there is the risk of putting too much emphasis on it. We have to be careful not to ignore it but also not to make too much of it.

There is another example from Canada, where in the initial stages of Syrian refugees arriving, the resettlement services were looking at whether towns and villages in Canada had mosques or not as to whether they were appropriate places to send newly arrived refugees from Syria. What would make more sense would be to first ask the people being resettled what their priorities are, look at their qualifications, see if they could work there or if they have family there. Whether a town or a village has a mosque is not necessarily the most important thing for someone to integrate successfully into a community. It can help, but only if it is important for that particular person. It shouldn’t be the assumed primary category for everyone. Again, context is everything.


From your research and experience, how can interreligious dialogue contribute to integration?

I think it is very important, but there is also a danger in emphasizing religion too much. In the context of communities divided along religious lines, in some research that we have been doing in Indonesia on the right to freedom of religion or belief, one of the things that research has showed us to be quite successful is that people from Christian and Muslim communities would learn a lot more when they come together to work on community issues or to socialize rather than explicitly for the purpose of interreligious dialogue. Through the process of working on community projects, trying to campaign together on issues that were important to their community, like education or employment, they would learn about each other’s religious beliefs and religious practices. That was a much more productive way of having an interreligious dialogue.

It is really important for people to be learning about each other’s belief systems, but that shouldn’t be the primary emphasis because it can backfire, it can mean that people dig in and reinforce their own identities rather than trying to connect with others to find common ground across their different beliefs.


What are the challenges of interreligious dialogue in the integration process?

I think the challenge is how to have a balance. In Europe, people are arriving into highly secularized environments and in some cases, environments that are suspicious of religion. So I think one of the challenges is for the host communities to become more open to religion and more open to religious beliefs. Instead of dismissing it as wrong or dangerous, to appreciate that people hold certain beliefs, and not to expect that they would give those up when they arrive in Europe.

At the same time, there needs to be an openness on the side of people arriving in Europe, to understand other people’s belief systems. Instead of thinking ‘well, they are wrong and I don’t want to engage with that’, just ‘this is not what I believe, but how can my beliefs relate to that?’

One of the challenges when we are looking at integration processes is that religion needs to be part of that mix. But it needs to be part of that mix for everybody. Most of the time the expectation is placed on the people arriving, saying ‘well, you have to adapt to our lifestyle’, but there is also a need for host communities to adapt as well.

The reality is that communities adapt all the time. They adapt to change whether it happens consciously or not, and in this particular case it is much more helpful to be conscious about it and to think about the ways that we want this to take place, rather than to put up barriers that further entrench differences and feelings of separation and otherness amongst people who are arriving.


Can you share a story of IRD & integration that motivates you to continue working in this field?

I’ve been working with people who have been displaced and doing research on the topic since the late 90s. In some ways, I am not really sure why it is an issue that I feel very strongly about, but I do and I always have. I am a Christian and that is something that is important to me, but I have seen responses from Christian communities that to me have not been Christian, have been very harsh, very exclusionary, and discriminatory. That has made me quite angry in many respects. But then I hear stories of other communities and faith-based organizations like Kinbrace providing assistance to newly arrived refugees. I also saw this when I did some interviews in 2010 with organizations in Melbourne. In Australia, most of the organizations are Christian, mainly because Christianity has been the longest established religion in Australia, they have more resources and people to help. One of the questions I asked my interlocutors was ‘Is it a problem that you are a Christian organization and most of the people you are assisting are Muslim? And they said ‘no, we find that it helps in many aspects. Often we have more in common with them than secular organizations working in this sector. Because even though our beliefs are different, we believe in something, we share values about the importance of family, we share ideas about God in our lives and so we are able to talk about these kinds of issues in a way that someone coming from a secular background or a non-believer wouldn’t be able to engage.’ So I think there is a lot to be disheartened about in this world, but there are good people and there are people who are committed to just seeing the humanity in everyone. That keeps me working on this.