Jocelyne Cesari holds the Chair of Religion and Politics and is director of research at the Edward Cadbury Centre for the Public Understanding of Religion at the University of Birmingham, United Kingdom; at Georgetown University she is a senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and an associate professor of the practice of religion, peace, and conflict resolution in the Department of Government. She is the T. J. Dermot Dunphy Visiting Professor of Religion, Violence, and Peacebuilding at Harvard Divinity School. Former president of the European Academy of Religion, her work on religion, political violence, and conflict resolution has garnered recognition and awards from numerous international organizations such as the Carnegie Council for Ethics and International Affairs and the Royal Society for Arts in the United Kingdom. She is a Professorial Fellow at Australian Catholic University's Institute for Religion, Politics and Society. She teaches on contemporary Islam and politics at Harvard Divinity School and directs the Islam in the West program.
Since the pandemic, religious communities have gained visibility and credibility in the management of global crises and when it comes to forced migration, international organizations are undoubtedly paying greater attention.
However, this awareness does not automatically translate into deliberate and efficient action that takes religion seriously. Besides the secular myopia that permeates most political actions (from national to international), three features of the dominant perceptions of religion specifically affect the integration of religion into the political management of the refugee crisis.
First, religion is usually understood through the beliefs of the actors or the creeds of the faith they endorse. As a result, there is the tendency to prioritize clerics or religious organizations to get a sense of the situations on the ground. What is often neglected are the religious interventions, connections, or motivations of seemingly “secular” states or groups. For this reason, the role of religion in humanitarian crises would be better captured if we paid attention to the situations where narratives, actions, or interactions between stakeholders are seen and presented as “religious” or contested as such by ”secular” and “religious” protagonists (for the theoretical background of this approach and its implementation in the study of religion and politics, see We God’s People: Christianity, Islam and Hinduism in the World of Nations).
Second, it is their capacity to articulate moral claims for global issues beyond national and partisan agendas that make religious organizations or communities politically relevant. In this respect, our focus should be on governance rather than government. It means closely examining the relationships between several components of civil society and the political institutions that finalize policies. By observing only the outcome of a policy, we are not able to grasp the “backstage” influences of religious groups on secular political agendas. In the same vein, there is the tendency to look only at the good (or bad) will or explicit moral and text-based arguments that religious communities use to justify their actions. This limited view prevents us from taking into account these particular communications (or lack thereof) that shape the situation at hand.
Third, it is undeniably a challenge to take into account several religious dimensions of the refugee crises that are simultaneously at play in any given situation:
- The complex religious dynamics in major conflict zones that lead to displacement;
- The shifting religious identification and practices of forced migrants through settlement, resettlement, or return;
- The humanitarian role of religious organizations;
- The influence (positive or negative) of dominant religious cultures in resettlement countries;
- The modes of engagement of religious actors or organizations at the international level.
As a result of these complexities, the refugee crisis sits at the nexus of state policies and transnational and international religious and political organizations. From this perspective, religion is not only the faith of refugees or of some humanitarian organizations. It also permeates three major components of the larger crisis and its management: a) the political crises that lead to displacement; b) the policies of the countries of settlement; and c) the international mobilization of secular and religious humanitarian organizations.