“If you had a team of scholars at your disposal, what would you ask them to do?”

March 30, 2022
By Aude Sathoud

On Friday, January 28th, I was lucky to sit down with Ulrich Schmiedel, Head of Research at A World of Neighbours (AWoN), for almost two hours we did not see pass. Each of us sat behind our screen, in Edinburgh and Paris, to discuss his work as a researcher, his accidental encounter with AWoN, the growing Network of Researchers, and the promising perspectives opened by the original methodology of a co-production of knowledge between practitioners and researchers.

Photo: Sinéad Firman

Lecturer in Theology, Politics and Ethics at the University of Edinburgh, where he also works as Deputy Director of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues, Ulrich has always been interested in the role of religion in the public sphere, which he has studied in regards to politics, populist discourse, and migrations. Published in 2018, Religion in the European Refugee Crisis, which he co-edited with Graeme Smith, was one of the first books to take a look at the so-called migration crisis from a religious perspective. A “crisis” he quickly wanted to reframe. To him, indeed, “refugee crisis” is a misleading notion. Together with his co-editor, Ulrich decided to keep it on the cover in order to criticize the concept from the first page of the introduction onwards.

“There is no migration crisis in Europe.”

It should be borne in mind, as Ulrich emphasized, that of all the people forcibly displaced worldwide, less than 20% concern the global North, including the United States of America. The vast majority is accepted and accommodated in the Global South.

For Ulrich, there is no doubt: “There is no migration crisis in Europe.” If a crisis is happening, it is not happening here. The concept of crisis, however, operates as a subtle distraction, taking away the attention from the people living in an actual crisis – that is, the millions of people forced into exile by our current world order and the dying conditions it imposes on them.

From “Welcome” to “Go home!” in the name of God

Ulrich’s interest in the role of religion in such a context sprung both from his attraction to the topic and his specific situation at the time migration started making the headlines in Europe.

In 2015, when Angela Merkel decided to open – or, rather, not to close – the borders of Germany to the thousands of people walking the Balkan route to seek refuge in the European Union, Ulrich was a lecturer at the University of Munich. That city where most newcomers arrived before they were distributed across the country.

Sacred spaces transformed into shelters

Warmly welcomed by a significant part of the population, hundreds of people were getting out of the train every day, under claps and cheers of Munich citizens. In the first days, Germans’ generosity was such that the police had to ask for donations to be suspended because it was too much to handle for the authorities. Faith communities were involved as well, transforming their sacred spaces into shelters.

Only a few months later, however, the discourse had shifted. “We do not want them here!” “The boat is full”, “They come from a culture that does not fit ours” were many of the slogans voiced not only in Germany. As a theologian, Ulrich was fascinated to find religious arguments on both sides at the same time: hospitality and hostility towards people on the move – in the name of Christianity. The observation of this discrepancy triggered his research.

“We want research which is immediately helpful to what AWoN is doing.”

From the beginning, Ulrich co-operated with colleagues from non-faith and faith backgrounds, including scholars of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. That approach caught the attention of AWoN’s team. After a fruitful meeting with late Dirk Ficca and Ryszard Bobrowicz, Ulrich happily accepted the position of Head of Research for the network. “This is exciting. There is so much to learn!”

Ask the practitioners

At that time, the initial consultations across Europe had been concluded and the first cohort of practitioners had just been recruited. Right from the beginning, the idea was to use the researchers’ tools to learn from the everyday work of the practitioners in order to support and strengthen that work. “If we want research”, Ulrich explained, “we want research which is immediately helpful to what AWoN is doing.” And what a better way to do so than by asking the practitioners?

Interviewing practitioners of the first cohort, the team of researchers concluded each meeting with the following question: “If you had a team of researchers at your disposal, what would you ask them to do?” Having collected all the answers, the researchers sketched a project on AWoN’s work. The practitioners then gave feedback on this first sketch, which the research team took into account when setting a final project plan.

Photo: Sinéad Firman
Photo: Kristina Strand Larsson

One year later, AWoN’s Research Network has started two main missions: the constitution of a pool of scholars affiliated to AWoN, on the one hand, serving as resources to practitioners looking for expertise; the running of specific research projects on AWoN, on the other hand, starting with a project that has just been launched: “Public Theology in the Post-Migrant Society: The Role of Religion in Multi-Faith Refugee Relief”.

In that project, researchers look at the impact of the multifaith approach of AWoN. Rather than imposing a definition of religion on AWoN’s practice, the researchers will explore the ways in which religion is being defined by the practitioners. One of the goals is to identify how the multi-faith approach can help in the practice of integrating people on the move.

A pilot that will generate more questions

Questioning the motivations of practitioners for their engagement, understanding the meaning behind the “one humanity” they refer to when declaring to act in its name, can be a resource for ethical and political guidelines for working with people on the move. But there is no doubt that this pilot project will generate more questions. It has already received the financial support of the Lund Mission Society for a first year of research. In the long run, the researchers hope to turn the results of this project into best-practice and best-policy guides for both governmental and non-governmental organizations throughout Europe, thus giving back to the practitioners who make their research possible. An innovative win-win methodology of co-production of knowledge at the service of a more welcoming Europe.

On football and meditation – towards new religions?

As I was listening to Ulrich, complex questions which have been fiercely debated for the past years regarding religions, their place in the 21st century in Europe, kept crossing my mind, so I could not but ask him in the end. Hoping he still had a good time ahead of him, I finally jumped in: “Are European societies becoming more secular?”

After a laugh – and a deep breath – Ulrich took on the challenge, which was very insightful.

Secularization, Ulrich reminded me, has traditionally been understood as a process by which a society becomes less religious when it becomes more modern. Today, most scholars agree that this is too easy.

Across Europe, it is true, church membership has been declining for the past decades. As of next year, and for the first time in the country’s history, Ulrich explained, less than 50 percent of the German population will be members of one of the two main churches, Protestant or Catholic.

New manifestations of humans desire to elevate our minds

While the obvious conclusion of those observations could be that of the secularization of the German and European society, that conclusion would be a little reductive, Ulrich nuanced. What about football matches and meditation, for example? Those two phenomena, which you would not think of as linked in any way, may actually be new manifestations of the human desire to elevate our minds. Is religion indeed going away, therefore, or is it changing its form? That, Ulrich explains, is the crucial point raised by sociologist Thomas Luckmann in The Invisible Religion: The Problem of Religion in Modern Society. One must be careful not to see religion everywhere, Ulrich cautioned, but there is something to be said for religion coming in very different shapes and sizes, and perhaps in places where you do not expect it.

Religion everywhere, religion nowhere?

In parallel, Ulrich continued, many scholars point out that since the 1980s, religion seems to have regained more and more of a public role. From the Iranian Revolution to the controversy surrounding Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, from the 9/11 attacks to the Danish cartoon affair and the Charlie Hebdo murders, religion has been used as a justification for a number of political events, often involving violence. All those examples, one may notice, revolve around one religion – Islam.

Fear-based narratives lead to erosion of democracy

In such a perspective, Islam, and, consequently, migrations from Muslim countries to Europe, have become more and more framed as security risks. Such a fear-based narrative has justified restrictions on political rights, not only of Muslims, who just happen to be the first in line, but of many citizens, leading to an erosion of democratic foundations.

However, some will insist that all those events, especially the terrorist attacks, have nothing to do with religion. They are about politics and economics. None of those positions offer a once-and-for-all answer though, Ulrich suggested. The reality is much more muddled and messier, so we have to understand the significance of religion case by case.

“The world is way ahead, the world is already mixed, from the very beginning!”

Another problematic way of reading those events, according to Ulrich, has been the one offered by Samuel Huntington’s theory of the clash of civilizations. While many scholars have now established its inaccuracy, the theory has taken on a life of its own, being appropriated in the public sphere by actors convinced of the irreconcilability of religions and cultures.

“What is interesting here is how AWoN contradicts the idea of an irreconcilability of religions every day in practice!”, Ulrich pointed out. Following this intuition, the research team is interested in what can be learnt from AWoN, not least for theology, which tends to lose sight of practice when thinking about multi-faith encounters.

“The world is way ahead, the world is already mixed, from the very beginning!”, Ulrich underlined. That is why the work with the practitioners of AWoN may provoke scholars to rethink the way they conceive of theology. Ulrich strongly believes in the bridging of those two ways, which he defines as “coalitional”, on the one hand, by which he means multi-faith solidarity, created in practice, and “comparative”, on the other hand, by which he means multi-faith studies, conducted in theory.

The call for higher justice

One mystery still remained to me: “Does interreligious dialogue between Judaism, Christianity and Islam thus imply their mutual recognition as equal discourses and thus acknowledgement of their own relativity, of the uncertainty of their own faith?”

In answering, Ulrich pointed to two no less mysterious words – “negative theology”.

All three religions are convinced that God, or however you want to call it, is always greater than anything you could say about God. Hence, in addition to positive statements, they make negative statements about God. “God is love, but God is also not love – or at least not like any love that we have experienced”, Ulrich points out.

What follows from such negative theology is that self-criticism is one of the oldest drives in all three religions. Historically, religions are not a list of statements that people agree or disagree with. “For early Christians, for example, there was no such thing as believing in a set of principles. They believed, that is trusted, followed, Jesus”, Ulrich suggested. The principles came later.

In that understanding of God as always greater than anything you can say about God, Ulrich ended, is the call for a higher justice in the name of religion, a call for radical openness. This call for justice has been crucial in politics too, in the US Civil Rights Movement around Martin Luther King Jr., for example. Understood this way, religion becomes that energy which has to make the world a better place.

“The question thus is not what are the traditions, what do the texts say, but what do we make of them?”

If religions are to make the world a better place, then, how can a religious statement be used to both welcome and reject newcomers, people on the move? Ulrich gave me two very clear examples of the use of religious narratives to advocate for both the reception and rejection of asylum-seekers, refugees, and migrants in Europe.

When considering the idea that human beings are “made in the image of God”, as it says in the Bible, two interpretations have been put forward in a context of migrations. One interpretation assumes that all human beings should be welcomed with dignity because they are images of God. Another, by contrast, suggests that the idea of the image of God is not shared by Muslims. As a consequence, we should not welcome too many Muslims in Europe because otherwise we risk that our conception of dignity is jeopardized. Some Christian leaders have made this argument, often ignoring the statements of Muslim leaders who affirm the compatibility between Muslim principles and the concept of human dignity.

Finding answers in co-laboration with the practitioners

Another illustration of such opposite understandings of religious texts and topics is that of the Parable of the Good Samaritan in the Bible. On the one hand, one could read it as “Whoever is in need should be helped”. On the other hand, an interpretation of the same story used in public and political discourse has been that, while the Samaritan helped the people in need in their own place, he did not bring them into his home. Hence, we should not welcome refugees into our homes. A fascinating analysis of this was developed in The Claim to Christianity: Responding to the Far Right, a book that Ulrich co-wrote with Hannah Strømmen.

“The question thus is not what are the traditions, what do the texts say but: What do we make of those? What do we do with that?” ended Ulrich in a smile.

That is what the Researchers’ Network aims at finding out in collaboration with practitioners, involved from the design through the delivery to the dissemination of the results of the research in an exciting journey of co-production of knowledge we are looking forward to what comes next.

Aude Sathoud

In a constant movement between theory and praxis, Aude Sathoud has been studying political humanities and working in NGO’s supporting asylum-seekers and migrants in Athens and Paris for the past few years. Dedicated to the imagining and building of those other worlds we crave for, that is in creative resistance to the current neo-liberal capitalist hegemony, which they consider to be nothing but deadly to humans as both ideas and bodies, Aude Sathoud is a practitioner within the A World of Neighbours Network and the founder of Tremble, an experimental space-time to attempt to live.