Migration—and particularly its religious aspects—has been at the forefront of both American and German public discourse recently, to say the least. Alexander-Kenneth Nagel, a Professor of Religious Studies at Georg-August-Universität Göttingen in Göttingen, Germany, whose academic training is in sociology, has been working on a research project to explore how people use religion to think about their experiences with migration. Through interviews with recent refugees to Germany from places like Syria and the Middle East, he aims to understand religion’s role in migration—if one exists.
What is your research for The Enhancing Life Project about?
My research started as a project which sought to explore narratives and imaginaries of migration—to learn about people's visions of emigration, and about what vision of the country of arrival people had in mind when emigrating. We quickly had to adjust our scope, however, because in our biographical interviews (which make up quite an important part of the study) we found out that people would not only lack explicitly religious imaginaries—of the "promised land" or the "land of milk and honey" or something like that—but they also would not have any elaborate imaginary of the country of arrival at all. Rather, the conditions that led them to leave their own countries, the push factors, were much more important. So we had to adjust the scope a little bit, and now the project has several dimensions. One dimension is the dimension of individual biographies: how people make sense of their own migration biographies, and how they make use of religious metaphors when doing that. The second part is about refugee camps as sites of religious restriction and enhancement; just as we started the project, the so-called "refugee crisis" really took off in Europe and camps became more common. The third part is an analysis of what we call "migration sermons"—sermons which are delivered from migrants to migrants, whether it’s in migration churches, or in mosque communities, or in Jewish migration communities in Germany. This last section is to really explore the explicitly religious ways of dealing with migration.
How would you describe the public relevance of your project? What impact could your research have on public discourses surrounding the so-called "refugee crisis"?
Let me give you a reverse example: not the relevance of my project for the public discourse, but the relevance of the public discourse for my project.
We did a pilot study, to ask the directors and social workers of refugee camps about inter-religious conflicts they observed. Even when we really formulated our questions in a very cautious way—not asking about "conflict", but only about “tensions”—they would still be very reluctant to answer, because they did not want to play into the public discourse too much. When we asked about inter-religious conflict, they would always tell us the same stereotypical narrative, saying that, you know, in this situation of existential need and of people living together, there will always be tensions, and in some occasions, these might be coded in religious terms, but these are not religious conflicts.
So it was really interesting that the staff had a strong apologetic tendency to downplay inter-religious tensions, whereas the media had a strong tendency to really scandalize them. In this context, it was a philosophical exercise for us to wonder: what is the truth here? (A question which is, in the age of “alternative facts,” very relevant to all of us.)
Have you been teaching an Enhancing Life Studies course recently?
I taught a class which dealt with diaspora studies, and particularly with one question—to what extent can we apply the concept of diaspora, as an emic concept from the Jewish history of religion, to non-Jewish religions, that is to ask: does this term apply to a comparative analysis of religion? We would also work with some of the material from the project. For instance, we had two interviews from the project that we tried to analyze according to measures and concepts that are used in diaspora studies. We collectively thought about to what extent the diaspora debate might be helpful to make sense of these biographical interviews.
Who were your students for the course?
There were roughly 18 students, and pretty much two thirds of them were from religious studies, and the others were from social sciences. I always have interdisciplinary groups, because my own position is in an interdisciplinary setting. I think half the students were experienced undergraduates, and the other half of them were not so experienced graduates. We have a little bit different system here in Germany: it was students from the fourth to the eighth semester of their study.
What is the main takeaway that you hoped students gained from the course?
There is one very important turning point in the debate on diaspora—what Cohen has called "Babylon as a site of creativity." So, let's stop talking about diaspora constellations only in terms of victimization, and let's start thinking of the creative potential—after all, the Talmud was invented in a diaspora situation, and other religious innovations might take place there, too. So this positive aspect to diaspora was a bit of the normative impetus I tried to confront people with.
Do you plan to teach this course again in the future?
Yes, I think so. It's part of my duties here to deliver a course on religion and migration in the broader sense, and I’ve found that starting out with these diaspora debates and connecting them to refugee migration has proved to be conceptually very useful. Next time I teach the course, I will also, as we did last year, combine it with a one day visit in a museum we have nearby—the Border Museum, I think would be the English translation. It's very interesting that our university is only 15 kilometers from the former German-German border, and there is a big camp that has been there for the last 60 years. After the second World War, we had a lot of inter-German migration, since people were being expelled from the former eastern territories of Germany, and this camp was originally established to host the Germans coming from the Eastern parts of Germany. So, there's a real, longstanding story of migration very close to our university. It has proved to be effective to have this museum as an off-campus site of teaching, because this is a place where you really can get in touch with different personal trajectories and biographies of migrants from different times—from 1950 to the present day. I will definitely make use of that museum again, for a one-day excursion. It will be nice to leave the campus a bit, because it's strange having a seminar on migration and staying in one room in your armchair the entire time.