Creating Local Spaces for Global Faiths

Editor's note: This event report is based on an article published by the Max Planck Institute in March 2009, by Walter Willems (PDF: 2 pages).

Religion has long played an important part in the life of immigrant communities. Yet we know very little about how this works. What is the interaction between migration and religion? And what happens to religion when migrants develop spaces for practicing it in their adopted countries—do we find new hybrids of global faiths emerging?

A group of international researchers has been collaborating in a project of the SSRC's Migration Program that is focusing on the religious lives of migrant minorities in Britain, South Africa and Malaysia. Recently, the group convened at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen, Germany, to assess their latest findings.

According to Josh DeWind, project organizer and director of the Migration Program, the project looks at both the role of religion in the everyday lives of immigrants and the effect of migration on their religious beliefs, practices, and institutions. It is specifically concerned with comparing Muslim, Hindu, Pentecostal Christian, and Buddhist migrants in Johannesburg and Durban, Kuala Lumpur, and London.

As José Casanova, a leading scholar in the sociology of religion at Georgetown University and one of the project coordinators, explained: "These cities share a long history of migration and of interethnic and inter-religious encounters. They maintain contrasting governmental views toward secularism and toward religious and ethnic diversity."

In each of the three settings, researchers have been interviewing migrants about their religious engagements at family, community, national, and transnational levels. DeWind said that the project's cross-cultural and comparative approach should help to clarify "to what extent similarities in religious backgrounds and differences in societal contexts influence the ways in which migrants adapt religiously. The comparisons are a way to identify the similarities and to highlight differences." He added that, to get as comprehensive a picture as possible, the project is being coordinated by scholars from various disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, religion, and migration.

At a public conference at the Max Planck Institute, John Eade of Roehampton University, Caroline Jeannerat of the University of the Witwatersrand, and Diana Wong of the National University of Malaysia presented preliminary findings on Pentecostal Christian minorities in London, Johannesburg and Kuala Lumpur, respectively, showing how Christian migrants have carved out "sacred spaces" in three very different host societies.

How migrants' needs for their own religious spaces can end up colliding with local structures and values has become obvious in London, said Eade, pointing to controversies over ambitious construction projects planned by religious minorities. One famous example is the 8,000-seat pentacostal mega-church that the Kingsway International Christian Centre (KICC) hopes to develop on a large site in Rainham, Essex. Another is the giant mosque that Tablighi Jamaat wants to build as the "Muslim quarter" for the 2012 London Olympics (it will also serve as the group's headquarters).

Jeannerat studied three Johannesburg-based Christian churches whose congregations include many immigrants from central Africa. She discovered stark contrasts between how Nigerian Pentecostal churches and the Congolese Kimbanguist Church have treated new migrants in relation to migrants who have lived in the city for a while, as well as to native South Africans. Whether the churches choose to encourage integration or separation, Jeannerat said, has to do with how they interpret the simmering tensions over newcomers taking jobs away from natives. (Editor's note: See related SSRC.org contents: "'Too Little Too Late' Threatens South Africa's Fragile Democracy," by Loren Landau.)

Focusing on Easter rituals for two Chinese Pentecostal churches in Kuala Lumpur, Wong showed how one congregation embraces traditional Christian rituals while the other continues to foster ancient Chinese traditions—differences that reflect various generational compositions and cultural affinities within the shifting multicultural but still largely Muslim preferences of Malaysian society. One of Wong's key conclusions is that minorities have maintained their identities by distancing themselves not only from the Malaysian host society but also from one another.

"Migrants are producing new religious landscapes through their activities," commented Manuel Vázquez, a religion studies expert based at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "These activities are most visible in global cities, which tend to become contested spaces." Vazquez added that he interprets the mega projects in London as a sign of the growing tendency among migrants to renegotiate public-private boundaries in their adopted countries.

Peter van der Veer, noted anthropologist and a director at the Max Planck Institute, observed in his closing remarks that religion can be an important lens to understand the flow of social life. "The world is urbanizing, and religion goes to town," he said.

In his concluding remarks, DeWind said he greatly appreciated the involvement of the Max Planck Institute in this phase of the project. "Members of our project have found important intellectual partners in Steven Vertovec and Peter van der Veer, who have similar interests in the field," he said. "I hope this will lead to further cooperation with the institute."

Dewind's Migration Program is preparing a a as series of volumes about the religious lives of migrant minorities in each of the three countries under study, as well as a fourth volume that will highlight cross-cutting themes.


SSRC researchers who are comparing the religious lives of migrant minorities in major world cities discuss findings at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in March 2009.

Published on: Thursday, May 07, 2009