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Stories of Migration: A Q&A with Dr. Alexander-Kenneth Nagel

January 05, 2016 • By Alexander-Kenneth Nagel Stories of Migration: A Q&A with Dr. Alexander-Kenneth Nagel

When migrants travel to a new land, they are often propelled by visions of a better world. Dr. Alexander-Kenneth Nagel, a Professor of Religious Studies at Georg-August-Universität Göttingen in Göttingen, Germany, is exploring the role of religious imaginaries in framing and constructing migration processes. Through interviews with recent refugees to Germany from places like Syria and the Middle East, as well as immigrants who arrived decades ago, Dr. Nagel will offer an empirical analysis of how religious images and narratives structure the experience of migration.

Read a blog post by Alexander-Kenneth Nagel about imaginaries of refuge and migration here.

What was the spark for the research you’re pursuing for the Enhancing Life Project? Are these new questions, or an extension of past research, or both?

I’ve been working for a while on a big research project on religious migration organizations in metropolitan areas, exploring the civic potential they can offer. But the focus of this research was what these organizations can do, and we couldn’t understand as clearly how individual people make sense of their migration experience. We were encountering all of these interesting social services that communities were offering and exploring the ways they took part in interreligious dialogue, but it was hard for us to make out the religious reasoning of the individuals who were migrating. So that was the question I wanted to tackle through the Enhancing Life Project.

What does “enhancing life” mean for you? In what way will your project contribute to the enhancement of life?

There is a very straightforward, surface-level meaning: enhancing life means enhancing one’s physical context through action. Leaving a situation of violence for one that is nonviolent, for example. But there’s a second, more subtle meaning. It’s the vision of your destination and the vision of your country of origin. We can move beyond the physical conditions, which often trigger processes of emigration, and think about the question, where do I go when I leave these conditions of deprivation? It’s sort of like a tabula rasa. Having emigrated, you get to think about the priorities of a good life again. You have a utopian opportunity.

So right now we are doing a lot of interview work, talking both with refugees that have recently arrived and people who have been here for decades. What I’m trying to figure out is the religious imaginaries that help frame the migration process. And it may not be totally explicit--people don’t necessarily talk about their experiences in religious terms--but that’s all right. Right now, early in the process, I want to be surprised by the stories we encounter.

What’s the most surprising or interesting challenge you’ve encountered so far in your Enhancing Life Project research?

The most interesting challenge is that we have been overtaken by the situation we wanted to analyze. I discuss this in more depth in my blog post, but there was recently a very clear-cut, ideal example of refugees envisioning their migration in religious terms. Then again, the fact that this narrative--where the German chancellor is compared to a Christian king who offered shelter to Muslim refugees in a Quranic story--is being criticized so heavily is not something we would have imagined. I think Europe right now is having to rethink what its collective identity might be, and the so-called refugee crisis has reactivated that debate. And you see a lot of religious narratives deployed, largely secular countries invoking their Christian heritage to argue against allowing Muslim immigrants to come in. I think that’s pretty clearly a political strategy. It’s more about a lack of other or better ideas than an actual re-Christianization of Europe. What we need now is to think about what another collective European identity might be. 

How do public debates -- whether it’s political, cultural, etc -- shape your work? What are you hoping to offer those debates?

Since the topic is so much embedded in public debates, they were a primary point of departure. I think we need fruitful new images and narratives that have an empirical grounding. In the academic and public debate, people often talk about migrant communities as ethnic colonies, which points to a narrow functional understanding of these communities: their purpose is to integrate migrants into the broader culture and once assimilation is complete, they disappear. Few people see the potential migrant communities might have beyond this accommodation function. But really, they’re hubs, or places of bridging, as one colleague of mine put it. That’s still a bit functionalistic, but we’re hoping as we conduct the interviews to offer new ways of thinking about these communities, beyond their important role as service providers.

You don’t spend all of your time doing research and teaching! What’s your favorite place to travel, or the next place you’d like to go?

I always have this quarrel with my wife. She wants to do all this far-distance travel, but my visions of enhancement are more of a mystical sort. If I have a chance not to travel, I don’t travel. What I love to do is just be at home or close to home, so I can go fishing or listen to music.