What’s religion got do with it?

January 7, 2022

Kareem P.A. McDonald, research fellow for RFI’s Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team, authored an article recently published in The International Journal for Religious Freedom. In the article titled, “What’s religion got to do with it?” McDonald explores the religious aspects of harassment cases in Danish asylum centers, as well as frustrations of local religious leaders with center managers and their faulty understanding of religious freedom.

While many surveys conducted in Denmark reveal the religious beliefs and understandings of those filing for asylum, very little research has been done on the asylum centers and the nature of the harassment cases implicating center managers. McDonald examines a series of 2018 interviews with these center managers the Danish Red Cross conducted to ascertain their knowledge, attitudes, and policies toward religion. 

McDonald finds that, overall, asylum center managers tend to be illiterate in matters of religious freedom. Most could not define religious freedom beyond “the right to choose and have a religion.” This illiteracy may not be the fault of the managers, however. They are not trained to understand and respect religious freedom, and thus mishandle religious requests and practices, leading to conflict and misunderstanding. McDonald writes:

Asylum center managers receive very little substantive information on guidelines on how to manage religious diversity and other issues related to religious practice. The operating contract between Danish Immigration Service and the Red Cross explains that ‘meals should be adapted to the cultural, religious and age composition of the residents as far as possible.’ But beyond this single fleeting reference, religion is not mentioned anywhere else in the contract.

McDonald also asserts that the diversity of religious beliefs in asylum centers, when coupled with poor management and the heightened tension already present there, leads to more discord among asylum seekers. The religious freedom illiteracy of asylum managers means they lack the language to explain and resolve these conflicts. McDonald argues:

Most asylum center managers, however, saw religion as largely irrelevant in explaining conflict between asylum seekers. For example, one manager said that ‘religion doesn’t matter’ in explaining conflict… Although religion obviously played some explanatory role in these cases, the managers described the cause of these conflicts as ‘about something practical’ and as the result of ‘issues of living together’ rather than as conflicts over religion.

These factors, along with varying policies among managers toward religious practices and futile attempts to establish religious neutrality, reveal issues among asylum center leaders that contribute to religion-based conflict in Danish asylum centers. 

McDonald ends his article with recommendations for these centers on ways to prevent harassment and tension based on religion.

Read the full article: What’s religion got to do with it?