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Workshop Report: Realising Understanding: Language in Cross-cultural Migration/Integration and Secular-Religious Contexts

By Housamedden Darwish

The workshop “Realising Understanding: Language in Cross-cultural Migration/Integration and Secular-Religious Contexts” took place online, on 18 February 2021. It was co-organised by Housamedden Darwish and Jan-Christoph Heilinger, and was generously funded and supported by Academics in Solidarity.

The workshop focused on the question of how to achieve mutual understanding between individuals and groups in cross-cultural communication, in the contexts of migration and integration, and across secular-religious divides. Its central question was: “How can language be both a medium of understanding and a source of misunderstanding, and what measures can be undertaken to facilitate communication and realise genuine understanding?” The workshop discussed the use of language in multi- and cross-cultural contexts, shaped by the different linguistic and cultural backgrounds of the communicating parties. It examined (mis-) understandings in the context of migration and integration, with the aim of identifying factors that can support genuine understanding. Special attention was paid to the role of diverging yet implicit (normative) assumptions, and to the often overly simplistic counterposition of the secular and/or religious backgrounds of ‘hosts’ and ‘migrants’, in the context of migration to Europe.

Jan-Christoph Heilinger offered a paper titled “Equality and understanding. Responsibility for refugee and migrant integration”. He discussed the question of individual responsibility in contexts of structural injustice, from the perspective of moral and political philosophy. After conceptual clarifications (of, for example, "integration" and "structural injustice") and an exploration of the notion of responsibility, he argued that individuals – including “ordinary citizens” – are direct bearers of moral responsibility in the realisation of an integrated host society that includes newcomers and refugees as moral equals. It is the countless everyday interactions between people that determine the success of integration. The practical realisation of equality and understanding thus requires contributions from everyone.

Housamedden Darwish presented a paper entitled “Integration as Thick Normative Concept: Obstacles to Refugees’ Integration in Germany”. The paper’s main question was “Why does the term ‘integration’ have (or, in the German context, why is it now developing) some negative connotations and a bad reputation?” To answer this question, Dr Darwish offered a conceptual analysis of “integration”, “inclusion”, and “assimilation”, and a critical analysis of the official and unofficial public discourse on integration in the mass media in Europe. The paper showed that in these analyses, three main points should be taken into consideration. Firstly, integration is an ambiguous and ambivalent concept which could be used and understood as being either synonymous with the concept of assimilation, or antonymous to it. Secondly, integration is a thick normative concept, comprising both descriptive and evaluative components. It is, therefore, important to take into account the normative assumptions behind discussion of integration/assimilation. Thirdly, it is necessary to reveal some of the main factors behind the increasingly negative connotations of both the process and the discourse of integration in the German context. Key examples of such factors are mutual prejudice and stereotyping, the Islamisation of refugees, and the Christianisation of the host society.

In the second session, Mehran Rezaei offered “Some Reflections upon the Peculiarity of Sexual Language in a Non-Confessionary Society: The Case of Non-Heteronormative Iranian People”. He raised the issue of misunderstanding of Eastern sexuality in general, and tried to figure out why the context of sexual language in Iran is peculiar. In his presentation, he posited two opposing pressures present in the Iranian context, that render Iranian sexual relations confusing to outside observers. On the one hand, due to its religious background, Iran is not a confessionary society of open dialogue around the secrets of desire. Therefore, the language has fewer distinctions between types and classifications, and sexuality is not a matter of discovery. On the other hand, society and the government are influenced by modernisation, which leads to a hybrid society. He argued that this hybridity makes for a confusing context in Iran, in which the dichotomy of religious vs secular is not precise. Rather, they are sometimes both combined – for which he provided real-world examples. The government in Iran and its attitude towards sexual issues is one such example, illustrating how religious concerns and secular requirements of modernisation are mixed and combined. In his presentation, he mentioned that the government had adapted modern language around homosexuality, and used the term in the penal code. This code is mainly based on religious discourse, but uses some modern and secular terminologies, for example “homosexuality”, though with different connotations.

The second session continued with a talk by Shahira Sharaf who spoke about “The Emotional Communication Across Cultures”. In answering the question: “What predicts the quality of emotional communication between refugees and people of host countries?” she examined, from the perspective of social psychology, the accuracy of emotion recognition as a function of group identification and prejudice towards Arab refugees among host country citizens. Contrary to expectation, two studies showed no significant relationship between the accuracy of emotion recognition and group identification and prejudice of those perceiving. The results were discussed in relation to inter-group emotional communication. In the discussion, special attention was given to the roles of religious (Muslim or Christian) and secular backgrounds in prejudice and emotional communication between groups in general.

The last session included two papers: (1) “The Role of Language in Establishing Social Cohesion & Inter-Cultural Harmony in Society: The Case of Pakistan” presented by Saifullah Bhutto; and (2) “Religious Minority Migration and Legacies of British Imperialism in Atlantic Canada” by Karly Kehoe.

Bhutto talked about language as an essential tool for the integration of two nations that have different socio-cultural backgrounds. Looking at the period following the end of British rule in India in 1947, he considered Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) and Sindh province in Pakistan. These were used as an example of chaos and disharmony resulting from a society having ignored the significant role of language in fostering cohesion. After British rule in India ended, India was divided into Pakistan and Hindustan, according to the two areas’ respective dominant religions. The Muslims who migrated to Pakistan in large numbers mainly spoke Urdu. Those who migrated to Sindh in Pakistan were socially permitted to maintain this distinct language. Muslims who migrated to other areas, on the other hand, were forced by locals to take up the local language. They therefore integrated completely into the society, and did not maintain a distinct identity as Muhajirs (migrants). This apparent difference in the treatment of migrants in different regions has yielded totally different results. The example of Bangladesh provides more insight. East Pakistan was predominantly a Bengali region, and when the Pakistani state tried to impose Urdu as the official national language, ethnic strife occurred and movements for saving their local language were started. This ultimately resulted in the region’s separation from Pakistan, and its establishment as the independent country of Bangladesh. Bhutto concluded that the case of Pakistan – where nations joined in the name of religion, but subsequently separated as a result of language barriers and the failure of integration, resulting in ongoing tensions – is a good example of the importance of language in achieving integration and intercultural harmony in society.

Kehoe considered the historical legacy of religious minority participation in the expansion of an imperial state. The paper used the immigration of Catholics to specific British colonies in the North Atlantic, to develop ideas on how a religious minority that was ostracised, and at various points outlawed, emerged as pivotal participants in the process of colonisation. She argued that if we are to understand the role that religion played in the process of imperialism, we need to cast a wider net, and consider minority sects. In the discussion, she stressed the important role of (understanding) history, in the formation of the current collective and individual identities.

In the concluding session, discussion revolved around the following questions: To what extent can linguistic, cultural and religious differences constitute an obstacle to mutual understanding and communication, as well as to migration/integration processes? How could (politicised) religious and cultural backgrounds play a positive or negative role in such contexts? To what extent could the secular framework of the state/society have a positive or negative impact on the achievement of mutual understanding between individuals and groups, in cross-cultural migration/integration? Further avenues for future research and potential collaborations were discussed.