In recent years, religion has come back to the research agenda of the European social sciences with full strength. Important authors such as José Casanova, Timothy A. Byrnes, and Peter J. Katzenstein have identified this renewed interest in the topic, both in politics and in academia, as a “return of religion” to European public spheres. One of the chief reasons for the return of religion in the view of these sociologists is the large influx of non-secularized populations to Europe through immigration. In particular, conflicts surrounding Islam and the practices of Muslim immigrants have attracted enormous attention both in the media and in academia.

The “Return of Religion” or the “Arrival of Islam”?

It is striking (although not surprising) that the increased interest in religion within European migration studies has focused almost exclusively on Islam. Whereas American migration literature always took religion into account, this was not the case in Europe, where ethnicity remained the most prominent category—a fact well reflected in the names of the most important journals in the field (e.g. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, Ethnic and Racial Studies, and Ethnicities. This changed with the stronger politicization of religion and in particular of Islam. Scientific research that strives to be socially relevant naturally reacts to changes in the larger socio-political context that characterizes a particular field. In many European countries, the rhetoric of conflicts over migration has experienced a shift from an economic to an ethnic and finally to a cultural frame. Concerns over social dumping through the influx of “Gastarbeiter” have given way to worries about the persistently lower levels of education and income of Turkish, Pakistani or Moroccan immigrants, which in turn were replaced by disputes over the integration capacity of Muslims. Clearly, this is not a mere rhetorical shift, but rather a reflection of broader changes in the political salience of different categories of belonging.

Islam makes religion once again a site of cultural and political struggle, perfect for analysis by migration scholars interested in the relationship between identity, politics and social structure. But the new focus on Islam comes at the expense of conceptual clarity. In recent years, religion qua Islam turned into a favorite category used to qualify any phenomenon associated with migration. Recent studies have focused on the Muslim vote, the integration of Muslims, Muslim women, Muslim members of parliament, and even on the peculiar group of “secular Muslims.” As this last paradoxical category reveals, the focus on Islam seems less driven by an interest in religion per se and the religiosity of immigrants than by the necessity to “operationalize culture,” to use a phrase by Levent TezcanRoger Brubaker sees the source of the confusion as lying in the double function of the category “Muslim” as both a category of analysis and a category of practice, with scholars too often taking pre-constructed categories of journalistic, political or religious common sense as categories of analysis. Be that as it may, immigration, culture, ethnicity, and religion have become so strongly intertwined that the question imposes itself: are we really talking about religion when we talk about Islam?

Conceptual Blurring and its Consequences

Religion is usually handled within migration studies in one of three ways: as an individual characteristic that affects preferences and attitudes that may lead to discrimination; as a compound of social practices that need regulation; and as a topic of politicization. All three may be subject to conceptual blurring. In order to demonstrate how this confusion works and how it can be avoided, let me take an example from the first category of studies, where religion is dealt with as an individual characteristic or social marker akin to gender, race or age. In the inaugural issue of a new migration journal published by Amsterdam University Press, entitled “Comparative Migration Studies,” there were (tellingly) two articles dealing with Muslims. In one of them, the author, Christopher Cochrane, uses quantitative data from large opinion polls such as the World Value Survey in order to assess whether Muslims are more or less prone than non-Muslims to reject the liberalization of same-sex marriage. In doing so, the author wants to test the hypothesis that Islam is incompatible with liberal values. Cochrane’s study shows that, as a group, Muslims do in fact hold less liberal views than their counterparts with regards to same-sex marriage. Most studies would probably stop there. But Cochrane is attentive to the importance of category blurring, and therefore applies different models to the data in order to control for region of origin, religiosity, education, place of education, and length of stay in the host country. In doing so, the author disentangles some of the manifold lines of social stratification that are generally conflated into the catch-all category “Muslims.” This refined analysis shows that the overall differences in opinion between Muslims and non-Muslims are mainly explained by the fact that Muslims tend to be more strongly religious, have lower educational levels and come from non-liberal regions of the world. When controlled for religiosity, educational achievement and exposure to the host country’s context, the differences between Muslims and non-Muslims practically disappear. This is an excellent example of how disentangling categories can contribute to increasing our knowledge about religion. Sometimes the best research about religion is the one that shows what religion is not.

And yet, do we really need the nth study about Muslims in a migration journal in order to show what Muslims are not? Are the research questions we pursue really theory-driven and aimed at increasing our knowledge about the role of religion in society? Or are we just indiscriminately importing our research questions, categories, and hypotheses from the field, and by doing so, unwittingly overemphasizing the religious dimension of migrants’ identities and reifying widespread stereotypes about Islam? In the absence of cross-denominational comparisons and careful self-reflective analysis, the conceptual blurring associated with the “return of religion” to European migration scholarship can have very negative side effects. Specifically, by focusing almost exclusively on Islam and by confusing culture, ethnicity, and religion, we risk overemphasizing the religious aspect of immigrants’ identities. “Muslims” may not see themselves primarily as Muslims but rather as women or men, as social democrats or conservatives, and as citizens of this or that country. The boundary-making approach in ethnicity research, as defended by Andreas Wimmer and others, has gone a long way toward avoiding research designs that essentialize people’s identities and take socially constructed categories for granted as fixed, immutable realities. It is about time that migration scholars become more careful about the use of religiously-defined categories in their research designs as well. Otherwise, academics end up contributing to the discourse of exception surrounding Islam, a key element of the negative politicization they want to criticize.

Having said that, there is also a positive side to the boom in literature on Islam within European migration scholarship. In contrast to the early days in the sociology of religion, much of the current academic interest focuses on religion within the context of (super-)diverse societies. In this context, a new angle of inquiry emerges. If, for Durkheim, religion was a unifying factor for society and an expression of collective consciousness, then in recent social science works religion appears more and more as a source of societal conflicts. This in turn generates increased awareness of the ways in which religion can function as a mechanism of exclusioneven in Western, liberal, democratic societiesand of the ways in which these very same societies are still very much influenced by Christianity. In other words, the new scholarship on religion in a migratory context pays particular attention to the relationship between religion and power, to the ways in which religion marks the contours of inequality, and to the ways in which attributions of belonging and non-belonging are still coded through religion even within post-secular societies.

The Way Forward

Recognizing this, it is possible to devise a strategy for the future that, as proposed by Cécile Laborde, “disaggregates” religion, in order make the most of its potential for migration research while avoiding some of its pitfalls. Unlike Cécile Laborde’s proposal, however, in the case of migration studies, the disaggregating strategy should focus less on analogizing and more on disentangling amalgamated categories of analysis and re-directing our gaze away from homogenizing research questions. In the following, I will make three suggestions for how we could bring this research agenda forward.

First, avoid subsuming culture, ethnicity, and migration status under religion. Whereas it is not possible or even desirable to dissociate religion from culture, ethnicity and other related aspects of identity in our analyses, it is our duty as researchers to (a) take the interlacing of these categories into account in our work, (b) critically reflect on whether the categories we use reinforce existing stereotypes, and (c) make ethical decisions accordingly. In the context of such strong politicization of religion in connection with immigration, acting ethically is likely to mean using religiously defined categories more sparsely when researching immigrant groups. We must be careful about the words we use and what we do when we use them. It might be tempting to throw in Muslims as a keyword on every second paper, but can we really justify it in ethical and scientific terms? Moreover, we should also strive to include other groups in our analyses. If we are interested in the impact of religion on preferences of immigrants, why not also look at the Serbian Orthodox in Austria, the Romanian Orthodox in Spain, Hindus in England, or the Brazilian Evangelicals that are present in so many European countries, as are Catholics from so many different parts of the world? Including cross-denominational comparisons in our research designs would do a lot to avoid essentializing religious identities.

Second, seek to understand what religion actually means for people instead of taking it for granted. In this context, approaches based on boundary-making and belonging can make a very important contribution. Belonging as a theoretical framework attempts to avoid some of the pitfalls of existing research by concentrating on the processes of interaction that lie behind the social construction of groups, and stresses the imagined, constructed, and emotional aspects attached to these processes. It is important to understand both individual constructions of belonging to a religious group and classificatory practices by others. Investigating the mechanisms by which societal conflicts are increasingly perceived through the lens of religious differences and how that impacts individual conceptions of belonging is a crucial task for social research.

Finally, continue to center our attention on the politicization of religion and on the mechanisms of exclusion and inclusion associated with religion, but re-center our focus so as to capture the ways in which the majority’s religion is invisibly present or visibly absent. This means trying to capture the influence of religion in, say, national legislations, political platforms or interpretative schemes, even when these do not make direct references to religion. As Nilüfer Göle points out, overcoming the dichotomy between the religious and the secular means taking into account the ways in which religion becomes contemporaneous of the secular through interpenetrations and reconfigurations. By that, Göle means that secularization does not occur in a cultural and religious vacuum. Rather, we are faced with plural secularisms that are marked by the religious traditions out of which they emerged. Understanding how religion and secularism interact in this way is a difficult task that poses a number of challenges, but it is an important one that should be pursued further.