Religious Nationalism, Rights, and Citizenship: A Refugee Challenge

By: Katherine Marshall

December 11, 2019

Responding to: Religion and Refugee Resettlement: The American Context

Religious Nationalism, Rights, and Citizenship: A Refugee Challenge

Buddhist heritage and practice are part of Bhutan’s idyllic Shangri-La tinged image. The mountain kingdom is rare in its recognition that spiritual identities are a vital part of many peoples’ lives and fundamental to the idea of gross national happiness that originated in Bhutan. Yet Bhutan also has an odd world “first”: the largest per capita creator of refugees. Since a non-Buddhist ethnic group whose origins are in Nepal was expelled in the 1990s, many of these refugees have languished in Nepal (and some have resettled in the United States). Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, almost all Muslims, have fled Myanmar, driven away by deep-seated attitudes that deny them citizenship rights. Millions who have lived in India for generations are asked to prove their ancestry to retain citizenship rights. And even in the United States, where history books celebrate its foundation in welcoming the religiously persecuted, the question of who “belongs” and the significance of their religious affiliation is a central focus of debates.

The issue of who belongs, who is entitled to the basic citizenship right that is at the core of democracies, is linked to identity, sometimes directly (in law) and more often indirectly, via public perceptions and ways of enforcing the law. Citizenship rights take on increasing importance in contemporary societies where formal documentation of identity is rapidly becoming essential for life including schooling, jobs, property rights, basic government services, and overall the right to remain in a place. The link between religious identity and citizenship is rarely explicit but, witness the “Muslim ban” in the United States, it can be directly linked to legal rights to belong. Many who are stateless (such as the Rohingya, considered as the world’s largest stateless community) are in limbo because of their religious identities. 

The rise of forms of religious nationalism, where nationalism is associated with a religious identity, accentuates age-old uneasiness about issues of belonging. In some countries religious identity is formally part of national identity, written into the constitution: Examples include Cambodia, Thailand, Mauritania, Morocco, and England (though Prince Charles pledges he would defend all faiths, rather than a single faith, the Church of England). In other countries the religious link is either implicit or contested. The United States falls in the latter category, gnarled in debates around whether and how far Christianity is part of national identity.

Recognizing religious roots as part of narrating a country’s history is, of course, important. This can include celebration of core positive values that are rooted in religious traditions, even as it can encourage a sober look at less positive ways in which religious beliefs have done harm. Religious traditions that support understandings of universal human rights and dignity exemplify the former, while religious support for slavery and denigration of women are clear examples of the latter. Recognizing the importance of religious faith to citizens is also important, even as ignoring it or treating it as of lesser importance puts blinders on complex understandings of identity. 

Problems arise when the majority has pride in its religious identity but then translates that into discrimination and prejudice against those of different religious traditions or practices. The ancient and recurring plague of anti-Semitism, rearing its ugly head in different forms today, is an example. And instances of ethnic cleansing and genocide are too often fueled by dehumanizing forms of identifying “others” that can focus on their religious identity. Some argue that the hatred and anger centered on the Rohingya is not religious at its core; however, fears centered on understandings and misunderstandings of Islam largely fueled the horrific crisis resulting in over a million people, most of them children, languishing for years in camps in Bangladesh. 

Religious intolerance is by no means the only obstacle to addressing contemporary forced migration issues. But religious identities are often a significant factor, fueled by nationalism that links religious identities to basic citizenship rights, including the right to live and thrive in a country. It is a factor also in managing refugee and forced migration flows, which include resolving the status of internally displaced populations, through their welcome and support in neighboring countries, and in third-country resettlement.

Both international and national leaders and religious actors need to pay explicit attention to the dangers of religious nationalism. The goal, at the broadest level, is to encourage understandings of citizenship that include positive appreciation of different religious identities, including the right to none. More specifically, it is to promote action that challenges pernicious narratives like Islamophobia, false understandings of Christian groups, and oversimplified views of various approaches to secularism. Especially in the cases where masked or unmasked fears of religious identities fuel conflict and forced migration, there is a vital need for strong, urgent leadership as well as people-to-people, grass roots engagement—as Pope Francis succinctly put it: to build bridges, not walls.

In mid-November in Thailand, Pope Francis spoke at Chulalongkorn University on a stage with representatives of distinctly different religious traditions, to an audience where saffron clothed monks sat alongside hijab-covered Muslims, Sikhs, and children in ethnic garb. He reiterated his plea to build bridges among traditions, to respect universal shared understandings of human worth and dignity, and then to cross the bridges towards peaceful and thriving societies.

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