Religion and Ethnicity

I pulled out these pages from my MSc thesis, some of you may find the discussion useful.

Comments appreciated.

 Religion and Ethnicity

As we argue above it is important to understand the subjective understanding of these concepts for the immigrants, and not assume fixed meanings of these terms for immigrants. Below we will discuss alternate views on questions of religion and ethnicity to elaborate on the context specific understanding of these concepts we prefer.


2.3.1 Religion as a supporter for Ethnic Identity


To illustrate the understanding that would result from a conventional approach to the question of British Muslim identity we present a discussion of an article that studies the role of ethnic churches for Koreans with the approach we consider the conventional approach.


In her study of the role of ethnic churches in the United States, Min chooses to focus on the role the ethnic churches plays in contributing to the social needs of the immigrant community. The discussion is focused on four kinds of social needs: Fellowship:  The attachment to religious institutions for a sense of belonging; Maintenance of Native Tradition: The maintenance of ethnic ties and preservation of traditional culture; Social Services: To meet important services for the immigrant community; and Social Status and Position: Deprived by position of status in the larger community, the immigrant community seeks status in the ethnic churches. The article goes on to discuss the contributions of ethnic churches in the specific case of the Korean minority. In the case of Korean immigrants it is noted that the most important social need it fulfils is the Fellowship needs; the effectiveness is attributed to the regular gatherings in the ethnic church. It is also posited that this need is important for the immigrants because of their separation from friends and relatives in Korea. Furthermore, the preference for small groups because they facilitate a sense of community for these immigrants determines the size of the ethnic church. The second major social function the ethnic churches fulfill is the maintenance of traditional culture. This is achieved through Korean language programs for children, celebration of traditional holidays, and sermons about traditional values. The ethnic church also provides specific services; the two most important ones are handling the language barrier and helping in finding jobs. Finally, the ethnic churches also provide immigrants with social status; coming from professional jobs in Korea immigrants find it hard to cope with low status jobs that they end up with in the US. The ethnic church -by providing positions as elders, exhorters and deacons – helps mitigate the effects of this downward mobility. In the conclusion the writer discusses how to maintain their ethnic identity how Koreans have Koreanized Christianity. (Min, 1992)


If we applied a similar approach to the study of British Muslims, we would get side tracked by focusing on the social needs Islam fulfils from ethnic Muslims. We would look at the displacement of South Asian Muslims for example from there home towns in the Indian Subcontinent; we would explicate the role Islam plays in bringing these minorities together, through the mosques (ethnic churches of Muslims), how the culture and language of the country of origin is preserved through the mosque, how traditional customs are upheld, and how the mosques gives the members of the mosque committee social position.


This is an example of a positivist, reductionist study, where the focus is on a listing of “functions” religion fulfils and the ways in which it supports ethnic identity.  It abstracts away the key socio-cultural particulars.  These results could hold for any immigrant in any time.  We are interested in pushing toward a more contextual theory (see Ustuner and Holt, 2007) that requires us to pay attention to the particular characteristics of the “Koreanness” that the immigrants bring with them, their interaction with American ideology, their class and gender etc.


Although, the conventional approach has enjoyed good currency with scholars and theorizations of religion as an ethnic marker or understanding of religion based on the functions it performs have been used often (Winter, 1996; Demerath, 2000;Zhou & Bankston, 1998;Brewer, 1999; and Nagel, 1994), we believe these theorizations have a tendency of underplaying the importance of religion. Notwithstanding, variations in these theorizations, what is important to note are the common elements of these works. These studies tend to focus on studying religion as a contributor to ethnic identity; a source that is used to bolster ethnic identities when traditional minority identities are challenged.


It is because of the limitations of this hierarchical structuring of the interaction between religious and ethnic identity – where religion is understood as a source which becomes salient in reference to its’ positive or negative effects on the primary ethnic identity – that we choose an alternate approach of structuring these two sources of identity.


2.3.2 Immigrants’ Construction of

Religious-Ethnic Identity


What we are after is a more nuanced understanding of these concepts, not a positivist but a constructivist understanding. To illustrate this approach we will begin with a detailed discussion of an article Jessica Jacobson (Jacobson, 1997) Her study considers the interrelationship between ethnic and religious identities sustained by British Pakistanis.


The study attempts to bring into question the conventional assumption that religious identity is necessarily subsumed by ethnic identity. By highlighting contradictions in the two modes of self-definition, religious identity and ethnic identity, as perceived and understood by the respondents, she underscores the possibility of religion being an alternate source of identity for minorities.


She argues that the two dimensions of distinction between religion and ethnicity for British Muslims are related to the understanding of ethnicity. First, the concept that ethnicity is perceived as an attachment to certain cultural and traditional traits that do not have any religious justifications. Second, that ethnicity tends to evoke attachment to a geographic place of origin, which does not square with the concept of the Ummah (a global religious community) in Islam.


The study provides numerous quotes from respondents that confirm the tension between religious and ethnic identity for British Pakistanis, along both the dimensions. The study provides evidence of rejection of the ethnic identity as a means to resist cultural restrictions; this was specially the case with many women who appeal to Islamic understandings that allow them more freedom compared to the cultural values. A second form of rejection focused on the elements of contemporary Pakistani culture that are perceived to be in opposition to Islamic morality, some respondents stating that Pakistani’s are too westernized and their lifestyles have negligible elements of Islam in them.


In addition, interview data provides evidence for a mix of identity position constructed from choosing from elements of religious and ethnic sources. The responses range from an outright rejection of the Pakistani culture, and appropriation of a primarily religious identity; to a creative use of the ethnic identity and religious identity that provides scope for intermingling with diverse social and cultural influences; and finally to a position where religion is of negligible importance and ethnic identity is the primary identity. Respondents also went on to give some reasons for their adoption; for instance, some respondents rejected the ethnic heritage, positing that most of the cultural elements of the ethnic heritage made it difficult to thrive in the British society, whereas Islam provided more room to interact in the society, especially for women. For other respondents a strong permeable ethnic identity allowed more freedom to interact with other ethnic groups – through a creative adoption of cultural elements from these alternate cultures, without the strict restrictions that a strong religious identity entails.


This study addresses some of the limitations in the conventional approach, by focusing on the specific social factors of the Pakistani community that shape their interaction with religion and ethnicity. It also argues for the possibility of religion becoming the primary source of identity, as opposed to the conventional assumption of the primacy of ethnicity.


The weakness of the study is that it too takes a positivistic stance on the conceptualizations of religion and ethnicity. It presents a fixed understanding of what Islam stands for and what being Pakistani means. We argue that a multiplicity of understanding is possible.


The position we take is more in line with the understanding that posits that religion and ethnicity are two independent dimensions of social identity and share a two-way relationship, where each can cause changes in the other, a position that is gaining currency in recent academic writings (Mitchell 2007, Raj, 2000).  In his study on Hindu activists in Britain, he argues against the prevalent model that understands Hindu identity as a natural product of ethnic identity development. He posits that this should instead be understood as the attempt of the Hindus to “include their own understanding and experiences in a decidedly religious idiom.” (Raj, 2000, p.552) Mitchell, in her paper argues for a contextual understanding of the relationship between ethnicity and religion, positing that in many contexts a two-way relationship exists between these two constructs. Each in her opinion can “stimulate the other rather then religion playing a supporting role to the ethnic centerpiece.”(Mitchell, 2007)


We agree with the conceptualization of these two constructs as independent dimensions of identity and we adapt Jacobson’s approach, with the qualification that we admit that possibly a variety of understanding of religion and ethnicity may exists and posit that religion and ethnicity—and various combinations thereof—are identity resources that get variously interpreted, combined and made use of depending upon the particular immigrant context. This is the conceptualization that we take and with which we will attempt to study the links between religio-ethnic understandings and consumer acculturation in the case of British Muslims.

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