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Essays on Society: On Religion and Transnationalism

Joining a multitude of strangers in adoration of an Other, she withdraws into her soul.

A neighbour resigns to a sugarless tea. In prayer deaf to the knocking on the door.

She prostrates herself before a far-distant City. Where lies her allegiance?

But blessed is the Spot where God’s Name is glorified.

Her forehead sanctifies the ground we call home.


This essay addresses the question as to whether religious transnationalism aids or threatens integration. In my understanding, the question itself marks a tension which 1) arises from a discrepancy between the premises and claims upon which religious transnationalism and the imperative of integration are based; and 2) acquires a particular saliency in a secular liberal democratic context in which religion features as an object of containment. The first section of this essay examines this theoretical discrepancy and the position religion occupies in relation to secularism by delving into the conceptual dimensions of the question. In the second section, drawing on empirical studies, I expose the variety of ways in which religious transnationalism impinges upon processes of integration in a liberal democratic context. In order to allow for sufficient depth, I focus on two subjects in particular, namely, political participation and the provision of social services. In closing, I suggest ways to think along more productive lines about the question at hand. My main argument is that religious transnational identities and practices are too diverse and complex to mark them as either in support of or obstructive to integration and that, in order for us to move beyond this indeterminacy, we have to rethink the premises and claims upon which we base our visions for society.


Transnationalism refers to the phenomenon of non-state actors forging ties, interacting, exchanging and functioning across national borders. Examples include social movements who mobilise around particular issues; economies organised around transcontinental investment, manufacturing and consumption chains; artistic and culinary enterprises; and religious communities, the members of which may value their religious identities over national and ethnic allegiances (Khagram & Levitt 2008:1).

At a deeper level, Vertovec (2009) characterises the transnational as a social morphological process, referring to the development of cross-border networks; a type of consciousness, indicating the multiplication of identifications and the cultivation of a broader imagination; a mode of cultural production, associated with such concepts as hybridity; an avenue of capital, which encapsulates entrepreneurial activities, as well as certain social, cultural and political endeavours; a site of political engagement, suggesting the emergence of cross-border deliberative spaces and forms of civic engagement; and as a (re)construction of ‘place’ or locality, denoting the alteration of people’s sense of locality (p.4-12). Although such processes and linkages across vast geographical spaces certainly preceded the nation-state, the novelty of transnationalism lies in its intensity (p.3).

In like manner, religious cross-civilisational bonds and practical formations proliferated prior to the emergence of the nation-state. Pointing to Islamic brotherhoods and Catholic missions which transported doxa and praxis across borders, Rudolph (1997) posits that religious communities are among the ‘oldest of the transnationals’ (p.1). Although I concur with Vertovec (2009:3) that the complex nature of transnationalism does not allow for clear-cut distinctions between ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom up’, it is nonetheless useful to note that since the end of the colonial era, up until which religious expansion traced along the lines of domination, conquest and trade, new religious flows have emerged in which grass-roots mobilities play a pivotal role (Rudolph 1997:3).

As Tölölyan (2008) argues, it was in the context of this same transition to the ‘postcolonial’, during which the nation-state model was rendered triumphant, that transnationalism became imbued with new meaning. Grounding its sovereignty in a delineated territory and (arguably) encompassing a homogeneous people, subject to the rule of one law and until recently operative within a single market, the nation-state in its insistent presence seems to have rendered transnationalism its ‘paradigmatic Other’ (p.232). Contemporary integration schemes, upon which immigration, residency and naturalisation have increasingly become conditioned (Joppke 2007; Kostakopoulou 2010), operate in service of these organising principles.

Although precise definitions may vary across different national contexts and, as argued by Dwyer et al (2013:36), may even be contested and differently constructed locally, at the basic level and from a policy perspective integration denotes a process of the newcomer’s subjectivication and adaptation. It entails a re-orientation of the newcomer’s allegiance to the host polity and its core values, her acquisition of certain skills and knowledge which are deemed necessary for social and civic engagement, her embeddedness in a web of communal and institutional ties and her eventual achievement of a set of ‘public goals’ (Ager & Strang 2004; Fortier 2013). The imperative of integration, then, seems to rest on particular empirical premises and normative claims, subscribed to by the nation-state and in relation to the ‘immigrant’, that differ significantly from those underlying transnationalism.

With regard to the ‘immigrant’, the logic of integration follows a conceptualisation that evokes images of rupture, uprootedness, the abandonment of old patterns and the immigrant’s desire for permanent accommodation. The transnational perspective, however, assumes immigrants to develop networks, cultural patterns and ideologies that cut across their home and host society (Bash et al 2008:262). This is especially pertinent in the case of religious communities. In contrast to the nation-state, which grounds its commonality in sovereignty and constantly rehearses its own boundedness, religious communities occupy a certain ‘liminal space’ and achieve commonality through the articulation and embodiment of a shared episteme (Rudolph 1997:1-2; Vasquez & Marquardt 2008:315-316).

Furthermore, in its commitment to social cohesion, the integrationist perspective does not conceive of the immigrant as an agent of change. Rather, transformation is regarded as being properly accomplished within the political structures already in place (Giordano 2010:14; Lima 2010:4). In fact, I would argue that integration schemes function as a filter to mitigate the disruptive force of immigration and channel immigrants as potential citizens into the machinery of power within which their influence can be disciplined, contained and moderated. In contrast, transnationalism starts from the premise that social worlds and lives are inherently transnational. It does not deny the importance of boundedness, but it posits that bounded entities are always embedded within a dynamic transnational scheme. From this perspective, social transformation is taken to occur betwixt and between and under the influence of cross-border alternations (Khagram & Levitt 2008:2-9).

Apart from these theoretical discrepancies, I would argue that we also have to seriously take into account how ‘religion’ is conceptualised in relation to secularism in a liberal democratic polity. This provides the context in which the tension between religious transnationalism and integration acquires a particular saliency. Whether we subscribe to the common narrative that the ‘secularisation thesis’ (Weber 1963) has been debunked as a result of processes of ‘desecularisation’ (Berger 1999) or ‘deprivitisation’ (Casanova 1994), or maintain that religion has never ceased to exert a public presence in the first place (e.g. Mufti 2013), modernisation has certainly led to religion’s separation from other ‘secular’ spheres of social life (Turner 2011:9-10). In fact, as argued by Asad (1993), the very construction of ‘religion’ as a category, which supposedly harbours a distinct essence, has enabled this process of differentiation.

As a result, and under the influence of Enlightenment thought, the Reformation and colonial endeavours to make sense of the existential Other, religion has been severed from politics, reduced to a mere ‘set of propositions and doctrines’ fit for intellectual scrutiny, placed in a Darwinian-inspired hierarchical framework in relation to other religions, rendered optional, and has been downgraded as a marker of difference to be contained –if not restrained– by universal secular rationality (Scott 1999:58-67; Asad 1993; Masuzawa 2005). In this light, the so-called ‘post-secular’, the emergence of which is largely attributed to migratory flows, marks not so much a resurgence or re-centering of religion in the public sphere, but denotes a socio-political and geographical situation in which secularity and religiosity exist side by side and blur conventional boundaries, calling for religious organisations to operate in ever more creative and strategic manners (Sheringham 2010:1681; Beaumont & Baker 2011:33). Taking into account these contextual political dynamics not only illuminates why ‘religious transnationalism’ is different from other forms of transnationalism but, as will become clear, it also influences how we evaluate it in relation to integration.

By way of this conceptual examination I have sought to expose the theoretical discrepancies that lie at the heart of the relationship between religious transnationalism and integration and sketched the politico-ideological context within which this relationship unfolds. In the next section, I discuss a number of ways in which religious transnational identities and practices impinge upon processes of integration. It will become clear that in practice religious transnationalism is too diversified to be marked wholly in favour of or pitted against integration and I will argue that we need to address this relationship at a deeper level of thought in order to move beyond this state of indeterminacy.


The first subject that I want to discuss pertains to political participation. As is observed in a number of empirical studies, religious institutions can facilitate processes of members’ socialisation, function as representatives for religious communities and contribute to the development of civil society in the host polity. Levitt (2008), for example, argues that in an American context religious gatherings may serve as a forum where members become schooled in national politics and acquire skills such as articulating theologically-grounded ideas for social change, fundraising, organising and leadership. Besides shaping members’ opinions and preferences as voters, this enables them to better lay claim on recognition and assistance from the government (p.768-778). Following the observations of Dwyer et al (2013:30-31) and McLoughlin (2005:1048), as religious communities undergo such socialising processes and expand in membership, their collective identities may serve as a basis for the acquisition of a certain representational power and through processes of institutionalisation allow them to connect to and collaborate with other actors in civil society. The integrative aspect here lies not so much in the intermingling of religion and politics, but rather in the suggestion that these religious institutions enable immigrants to further their own interests and aspirations in the host polity and negotiate the terms of their accommodation.

Yet, from the logical perspective of the nation-state, this ‘positive’ evaluation is unsettled by the transnational nature of these religious institutions. While they may facilitate integration into the structures and discourses of the host polity, they may simultaneously serve as a platform for sustained political participation in ‘homeland affairs’ (Levitt 2008:769). The extent to which such cross-border engagements take place, however, differs considerably among religious communities. For example, while Iranian Sufis seem markedly concerned with the situation in Iran and the internationally dispersed exile community, Pakistani Muslims in Britain seem to focus their energies more on negotiating their position in their country of residence through active engagement with British political parties and local affairs (Grillo & Soares 2005:11). Further reason for concern comes out in McLoughlin’s (2005) study. He notes that these institutions can also succumb to internal struggles in which certain individuals, who enjoy prestige in their home country but are marginalised in their host society, may be tempted to usurp power (p.1061). This could allow them to push their own agendas which may not reflect the aspirations of the community at large. Such transnational disturbances are indeed a reason for concern as they may diminish the quality of political engagement in terms representational power and credibility.

Another subject that is interesting to consider relates to religious institutions’ provision of social services. Embedding such functionalities in larger processes of neoliberal policy-formations and the subsequent withdrawal of the state, Sheringham (2010) posits that religious institutions can play an important role in providing a safe space for newcomers to cultivate their capacities, secure a sense of coherence, benefit from communal support in the face of ‘legal liminality’ and acquire a degree of public presence (p.1685-1686). Similarly, McLoughlin (2005) notes that mosques may provide a sense of continuity for members who struggle with the unsettling experience of migration, social marginalisation and unemployment (p.1048). Likewise, Dwyer et al (2013) mark service provisions for the elderly and children as indicative of these institutions’ integrative function, especially when such services are open to members of the wider public (p.37).

It seems thus that their position at the cross-roads between the transnational and the local allows these institutions to simultaneously follow the logic of the transnational, with its emphasis on flows, continuity and coherence, and respond to local realities and needs. However, although such practices could be read as aiding integration, these provisions are not necessarily conducive to greater connectivity to the host society (Levitt 2008:785). In fact, following McLoughlin (2005), these spaces of safety may also be read as alternative structures that exist parallel to the structures of the state, enabling migrants to ‘resist assimilation’ (p.1061). In my view, such inward-oriented formations cannot be fully explained by the ‘familiarity’ that these religious spaces seem to offer, as McLoughlin (2005:1049) argues, but may also be attributed to the perception that some migrants have of integration as succumbing to secularism, at detriment to their spiritual values (Dwyer et al 2013:47). This is a clear example of how religious identities may obstruct integrative processes, not so much because of their transnational character, but rather because of the manner in which ‘religion’ is positioned in relation to an overarching secular scheme.

As becomes apparent from these examples, it is rather difficult to mark religious transnationalism as wholly favourable or inimical to integration. This is not merely because of the variety of ways in which religious transnationalism impinges upon how religious immigrants relate to their host and home societies, but also because such variations are in themselves variable. As Levitt (2008) argues, the exact ways in which these processes play out depends on the particular circumstances of the religious communities in question, such as whether they used to be part of a majority or a minority in their countries of origin; how their religious affiliation relates to the religious history of the host polity; or their personal political experiences (p.769-772). What can be deduced from these examples, however, is that despite the discrepant premises and claims in which religious transnationalism and integration schemes are grounded, in practice they are not irreconcilably incommensurable. Rather, it is possible for the maintenance of transnational ties and identities and local attachments and engagements to co-exist (Sheringham 2010:1684).

While such an evaluation does to some extent strip transnationalism of its ‘negative’ connotations and refashions religious institutions as potential collaborators and vehicles for integration, in my view, settling for such an indeterminate conclusion is not sufficient. It (conveniently) absolves nation-states from genuinely engaging with religious transnational actors and their ontologies, scrutinising their own secular foundations and addressing the obstructions imposed by their assertions of boundedness. Instead of ascertaining the instrumental merits of religious transnational practices and identities on the basis of integrationist teleologies, we may pose the critical question as to whether contemporary integration schemes sufficiently allow for society to tap into the spiritual reservoirs of religion and benefit from the particular experiences that migrants may have in this regard. While it is true that religious affiliations may impose closure, exacerbate parochial mindsets and hinder trans-communal sociability (Glick Schiller et al 2011:399), religions may also assist in fostering a consciousness of the world as a single homeland and through transcendental claims allow for the ‘imagination’ of wider communities (Robertson 1992:283). This is confirmed by Levitt (2008) who notes that there are numerous cases where religious communities inspire or even demand their members to engage in productive dialogue and ‘look beyond their own walls’ (p.786).

Clinging to the logic of the nation-state, which conflates geographic space and identity (Bash et al 2008:263), designing integration schemes accordingly and disallowing religious communities to be redeemed from their position as mere objects of secular accommodation, in my view, constitutes a self-defeating line of action in that it deepens societal inequalities and reproduces patterns of exclusion which are uncalled for in light of the particular needs of this age. Instead, as Asad (2003) rightly argues, rather than settling for mere public recognition of identities, we need to foster the conditions that enable individuals to live a collective life that extends beyond national borders and thus allow for everyone to ‘live as a minority among minorities’ (p.180). I believe that if we can commit to the premises that spirituality is a vital ingredient from which society can benefit and that the imposition of national boundedness obstructs human flourishing, and devise integration programmes accordingly, that we may be able to think about the interplay between religious transnationalism and integration along far more productive lines.


Thinking through the question as to whether integration is aided or threatened by religious transnationalism, I have argued that at the core both are inimical to one another due the discrepant premises and claims upon which they are built and that the tension between them acquires a particular saliency in liberal democracies due to the way in which religion is situated in relation to secularism. Focusing on political participation and the provision of social services, I highlighted some of the complex ways in which religious transnational practices and identities impinge upon integration and moreover argued that the exact manner in which such dynamics play out varies significantly among religious communities and the particular host polity in which these processes take place. From this discussion, I gleaned that although religious transnationalism and integration are not irreconcilably incommensurable, it is not possible to draw any clear-cut conclusions. In the final part, I argued that integration schemes themselves ought to be opened up to allow for deeper engagements with religion and transnational socialities and to become more attuned to the needs of this age, in which secular privilege and rigid notions of national boundedness are simply uncalled for.


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