This week Mona’s final guest is Dr Ulrich Schmiedel, Senior Lecturer in Theology, Politics and Ethics in the School of Divinity.
Mona Siddiqui: Tell us first about your research and work at the University.
Ulrich Schmiedel: I’m a public and political theologian is always the answer I give when people ask me what I do and then I need to explain what public and political theology is. To students I normally say it’s whatever you want it to be because there really isn’t an exact definition of it, but generally speaking it’s about the role of religion in the public sphere, how it interferes with civil society and questions political and public issues. The issue I’m most interested in is migration into Europe and what role different religions play in that.
MS: There are many people working in the area of migration and refugees here at the University. Do you think there is enough collaboration across the institution?
US: I would say there definitely is a community – there are lots of colleagues who are working on aspects of this topic. I think so there is a tendency, in Edinburgh to silo off, and everybody works with their own focus, with their own methods, with their own particular questions on an issue, and then you don’t even hear from each other, because the University is just very big. It’s one of the downsides of very big institutions.
In my experience, however, we are getting more and more connected and I think that’s a good development. It’s very interesting to see what other colleagues are doing – sometimes when you see the methodologies they’re using you think, wow I never thought about looking at it from this angle or asking this particular question.
MS: What is the connection between religion and migration?
US: There are lots of connections! One aspect that is brought up again and again is the role that religion plays for people on the move, refugees or migrants, as that’s the identify that they take with them. It’s something that can provide a lot of security and stability in an otherwise insecure and unstable situation.
On the other hand, you also have the question of religion in the host society where people on the move go to – that’s the aspect I focus on more. When we have people on the move coming from majority Muslim countries and then you have this idea that Europe has this sort of Christian inheritance, possibly a Christian identity, you get these perceived clashes. Huntington’s famous phrase of the clash of civilisations sums it up. Suddenly you have religion in questions about who should be welcomed here, who should not be welcomed here and often in between the lines, in an unspoken way. That’s something that research can try to bring out more and show how religion is involved in all sorts of negotiations we have about welcoming others.
MS: Have our conversations about religion been brought more into the limelight because of the issue of migration?
US: I think you’ve seen it now, particularly with the crisis in Ukraine. That was quite interesting to see – the difference that has been made between Ukrainian and non-Ukrainian refugees, you can make that broader to European and non-European refugees. The differential treatment has led to a lot of accusations about racism in the migration policies that we have in place.
If you look at the Ukrainian and Syrian refugee crises – it’s the same Russian air force that is destroying their homes. When people come here we treat them differently and I think religion is one of the factors – it’s never named as religion it’s more described in terms of how they fit in the civilisation. For Ukrainian refugees it’s easier for them to adapt to what is life in the UK so integration processes can be faster and so on, but behind this is a question of religion, a question of race.
In a way I’d probably say it’s less about how religion is talked about in the UK and more how religion is not talked about in the UK. I think if you would actually name some of these issues it would be easier to then tackle them but it’s often not named at all.
MS: What kind of reaction do you normally get from your undergraduate students when you explain migration and refugees in this way?
US: I think the students are really interested in this topic. The refugee crisis has been a theme of some of my lectures and there’s often a lot of interest, but there’s also a lot of surprise. One of my favourite statistics that I show is the data on global displacement from the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Currently about 90 per cent of the displaced population is housed in where the UNHCR calls developing countries and 10 per cent in developed countries.
Students are shocked by this because with the media attention on migration, especially since 2015, we all think we live in an incredible refugee crisis but the statistics show that, there might be a refugee crisis but that crisis is not in Europe or the UK, and there might be a crisis in Europe and the UK, but that’s not the refugee crisis. That’s what shocks students and it’s a very good conversation starter to think about questions on how we portray migration, what we understand by forced migration or survival migration, then you can get into all these terms from a different kind of starting point.
MS: Ulrich is there one regret, personal or professional that you can share with us?
US: One regret I have, especially when working with faith-based and non-faith-based organisations active in refugee relief, is that as an academic, I can’t do more. Working with people who are on the ground, grassroots, hands on, and can actually make a difference, I’m in awe when I see the work they do. I sometimes feel like a failure as an academic to not be able to support that more.
MS: And what is the one hope you carry forward?
US: My one hope would be, also connected to this, that the work that’s being done by so many different groups, and we hear very little about it, that that becomes more amplified. Some of these organisations are disproving some of our assumptions about whether people from different religions can live together, and they’re disproving all the horror scenarios day by day and my hope would be that gets more into the public sphere so that people lose their fear about religious diversity.
As the last in the One regret, one hope series, the Bulletin team would like to thank Mona for all her work.
Photography: Sinead Firman