Violent conflicts and social unrest in the Middle East, in Central Asia, and in Africa have led to growing numbers of persons seeking refuge in Europe since 2011. The phenomenon culminated in 2015. In that year, with 88,300 new asylum applications, Austria was the fourth largest receiver of asylum seekers in the EU. While religion has been one of the aspects underlying the sectarian conflict since its very beginning1
, the religion of refugees became a prominent theme when they entered Europe, as it was a source of fears in both the public and political discourse (Schmiedel and Smith 2018
Empirical evidence on recent inflows of refuge-seeking persons in Europe is becoming more and more available, including topics like human capital, integration, economic consequences, and—more generally—effects on the welfare state of the host society (e.g., Buber-Ennser et al. 2016
; Hainmüller et al. 2016
; Ichou 2016
; Weber and Weigand 2016
; Worbs and Bund 2016
). However, there is little evidence on the role played by religion in the life of the displaced persons who came to Austria and other European countries. Nevertheless, it has been shown in other settings that religion can play an important role in sustaining a displaced population through their journey, such as in the case of the Vietnamese refugees (Dorais 2007
), and also in fostering personnel reconstruction and social economic adaptation and integration in the host-society where refugees have resettled—see for instance with several case studies of Ethnic Albanians resettled in Kosovo or Somalis displaced in Australia or in the US (Gozdziak and Shandy 2002
In this paper, we will present the case of Austria through the lens of two studies on refugees that were completed in 2015 and in 2017. Further available quantitative and qualitative data sources capturing aspects of religion and religiosity of refuge-seeking persons, as well on the population residing in Austria, were included to portray the faith of refugees and discussion thereon in the host society.
2. Religion and Displaced Persons Arriving in Austria in Recent Years
Austria, a country in Central Europe, with a population of 8.8 million inhabitants at the beginning of 2018, is characterized by a significant level of secularization. At the same time and like many European countries, Austria has become ethnically and religiously diverse in the past decades due to international migration flows (Castles et al. 2013
). The religious composition of the population has changed substantially since the 1960s, when nine out of ten Austrians were Roman Catholic. That proportion had dropped to only 64 percent by 2016 (Goujon et al. 2017
). Leaving the church to become nonaffiliated was the main driver behind the change in the Catholic share in Austria, with declining religious socialization within the family leading to the process of religious disaffiliation, apart from migration (Berghammer et al. 2017
; Zulehner 2011
). According to the 2001 census, the religious composition of Austria was as follows: 74% were Roman Catholic, 5% Protestants, 4% Muslims, 4% belonged to other religions, 12% were without religion, and for 2% religious affiliation was unknown (Goujon et al. 2007
). More recent census data on the religious composition of the population are not available, as the 2011 census was based on register data that did not include information on religious affiliation.
Goujon et al.
) reconstructed the Austrian population in 2016 by religious affiliation based on estimates of the demographic determinants, especially fertility and migration of the different religious groups and secularization patterns of Catholics and Protestants. Their estimates point at an increase in religious diversity (8% of the Austrian population is Muslim and 5% are Orthodox) and the share of the non-affiliated population (17%). Both trends of diversification and secularization are accentuated in Vienna, the capital city where Goujon et al. estimated that there were almost as many Catholics as non-affiliated (35% vs. 30%) in 2016, and the population affiliated to Christian Orthodoxy (10%) and Islam (14%) constituted a substantial share of the population. As mentioned, the changes in the religious composition of the population are mostly the result of long-term trends that started in the 1970s (for disaffiliation) and in the 1980s for migration. The considerable inflow of refugees in 2015 that was preceded by increased migration since 2011 has intensified this latter trend.
The majority of the refugees who arrived in recent years in Europe originate from predominantly Muslim countries in the Middle East and Asia (i.e., Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria) and from Africa (i.e., Nigeria and Somalia)2
. In the period 2015–2017, about 156,000 asylum applications were filed in Austria. Syrians (26%) and Afghans (26%) comprised the largest shares, and the proportion of persons with Iraqi (11%) or Iranian nationality (4%) was substantially lower (BMI 206, 217, 2018). In the period 2015–2017, roughly 77,000 individuals were officially granted asylum3
. Given the time needed for processing the applications—the time limit for completing the asylum procedure in Austria is 6 months (Aida 2016
)—a substantial number of asylum applications are still pending and lead to a certain time lag in peaks of asylum applications and granted asylum status.
In late 2015, when large numbers of asylum seekers arrived in Austria, and even more crossed the country on the way to Germany and the Nordic countries, voluntary organizations and initiatives were crucial. They provided shelter and support to increasing inflows of asylum seekers “in a context where limited resources and unclear policies kept governmental actors and established NGOs from providing adequate administration and services” (De Jong and Ataç 2017, p. 28
). A “welcome culture” dominated the country until the turn of the year 2015/16, characterized by the large involvement of civil society. In line with this, in-depth interviews with refugees in late 2015 and at the beginning of 2016 revealed that only few respondents reported experiences of xenophobic attitudes of local people towards them. This observation is related to the general mood of the political and media-fostered “welcome culture” at that time (Kohlbacher 2017
The inflow of large numbers of displaced persons in Europe in the last decade was characterized by recurring discussions about the religious identity of refuge-seeking persons, for example Culik
). Particularly since the Al-Qaida attack on 9/11, Muslims, whether recent immigrants or not, are often perceived as a menace for different and confused reasons, which may be economic, physical, political, or value-related (Croucher 2013
). In fact, negative attitudes towards Muslims have been observed in most of the receiving countries (see for example Croucher and Cronn-Mills
) in France). Contrary to the US, where religion is regarded as facilitating the adaptation process, immigrant religion—especially Islam—is viewed as a problem both for the integration and adaptation process in Europe (Foner and Alba 2008
; Schmiedel and Smith 2018
When contempt against refugees was expressed—far and foremost by populist politicians—it was mostly expressed as the threat that Islam was posing to the social and religious cohesion of the receiving societies. Across Europe, the nationalists warned against Islam and the threat it represents to Christian European culture4
, and made political gains, partially because of this stance, as evidenced by election results and polls5
. Austria, which received 88,300 refugees in 2015 (corresponding to 1% of its population), was no exception. The presence of religion of migrants and refugees in the public debate increased even more as the country had both presidential elections in 2016 and parliamentary elections in 2017, in which religion became one of the recurrent themes. The coalition of the socialist party (SPÖ) and the conservative party (ÖVP) which was in power since 2007 lost the legislative elections, with a coalition of the conservative party (ÖVP) and the far right-wing party (FPÖ) being in power since fall 2017. In this context of mistrust within the Austrian host society, it is particularly interesting to inquire about the religion and religiosity of migrants, which was a component of a survey implemented among refugees in Austria, and to link it to other surveys on the theme in Austria.
The current study is based on a quantitative survey among displaced persons arriving in Austria in 2015 (called DiPAS: Displaced Persons in Austria Survey). This survey—the first of its kind among refuge-seeking persons arriving in Europe in this specific year—focused on human capital, attitudes and values and comprised—in a first wave (DiPAS#1)—514 adults6
(Buber-Ennser et al. 2016
; Kohlenberger et al. 2016
). In general, DiPAS is a two-stage purposely selected random sample; interviews were carried out in Arabic, Dari/Farsi, and English, using computer assisted personal interviews (for details on the filed phase and methodological aspects we refer to Kohlenberger et al.
)). Personal interviews in the participant’s native language permitted the avoidance of possible bias due to illiteracy or knowledge of English language. Moreover, a follow up survey (DiPAS#2) was carried out in 2017, which focused on first steps in social networks and cultural immersion two years after arrival in Austria. In total, 353 persons participated in this second round (either as panel respondents or as a refresher). Unfortunately, panel attrition was high due to the lack of contact information, but not to non-cooperation7
. Therefore, results based on the second wave are only explorative, but might nevertheless allow valuable insights. Overall, DiPAS includes 799 interviewed displaced adults.
Approval for the DiPAS survey was obtained from the Ethical Committee of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Participants provided their verbal informed consent to participate in the study; the interviewer read out the introductory text to the questionnaire and the participant verbally agreed to participate. Written consent was not obtained to ensure anonymity of the participants. We did not document participant consent, as only the participants giving their consent were interviewed. The ethical committee approved the procedure.
Among the 514 respondents participating in DiPAS#1, 38% were Iraqi, 36% Syrian, 16% Afghan, and 10% had another citizenship. Figure 1
visualizes the origin of Iraqi and Syrian respondents. Iraqi respondents came mainly from Bagdad, Nineveh, and Basra (Figure 1
a); Syrians came mainly from the governorate of Aleppo (Figure 1
b), but also from Damascus and Homs. Given the geo-political situation in summer 2015 in Europe, almost all respondents travelled to Europe through Turkey, that is, via the so-called “Balkan route”. This transit route through Southwest Europe was closed in 2016, with Austria being one of the countries initiating and supporting the closure of this route, which resulted in a remarkable decrease in asylum seekers in Europe (Fendrich 2017
). One in two were married, 43% were single, and a minority was widowed or divorced (6%). Eight out of ten of the respondents were male, with an average age of 30 years among male and 33 years among female respondents. The low number of female respondents constitutes a limitation to gender-specific analyses within DiPAS#1 for the analysis of the questions on religion, which were only asked to the main respondents, whereas we have other information from household members in other areas (e.g., age, education, former employment, etc.).
The DiPAS#1 questionnaire captured religious affiliation as well as religiosity. For religious denomination, respondents had to choose between broad categories, namely Islam, Christianity, other religions, and atheism8
. We do not know the specific denomination of Muslim respondents, such as Sunni, Muslim, Alawite, etc. This question was dropped after the pre-test phase as it proved to be a sensitive question. Measuring religious intensity is never an easy task (Hill and Hood 1999
). Questions on religious service attendance are not appropriate for all religions and can even become irrelevant for a displaced population who may not have had access to a place of worship for some time. Therefore, self-assessed religiosity was evaluated by asking the respondents to rate their religiosity on a scale from 1 (not religious at all) to 10 (very religious)9
. Many respondents found it problematic to quantify their religiosity and some even explicitly said that it is difficult to answer to this question, regardless of their religious affiliation.
For a comparison between the interviewed refugee population and the Austrian host society, we use the “Quality of Life in Vienna survey 2012/13”, a recent survey conducted in the city of Vienna as well the first wave of the “Generations and Gender Survey (GGS)”, carried out in 2008/9 among men and women living in Austria and aged 18–45 years10
. Finally, a survey among evangelical pastors on baptism of asylum seekers and refugees in Austria on the one hand as well as data on baptized adults in the various Austrian (Roman catholic) dioceses is used for addressing conversions of refuge-seeking persons to Christianity.
To supplement and contrast findings from DiPAS
, we include qualitative data from the following studies and surveys in Austria: First, we refer to an ethnographic fieldwork conducted in February and March 2016 among Syrian refugees in Austria (Jolliffe 2017
). This dataset supplements findings on the role of religion on the national and collective level with a more individualized perspective. In addition to participant observation in German language classes and visual ethnography based on participants’ photographs from their home countries, Jolliffe conducted three in-depth interviews and twelve semi-structured interviews with asylum seekers in an Orthodox Church in Vienna and with aid workers and volunteers catering to refugee populations. In these contexts, religion can act as both a source of division and union.
Second, we refer—at the political and societal level—to an empirical study on parliamentary immigrant integration debates in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, which was conducted between 1993 and 2013, with a focus on the use of the category ‘Muslim’ (Mattes 2018, forthcoming
). While the timeframe of this study slightly precedes the height of the European ‘refugee crisis’, it is noteworthy for the purposes of this paper insofar as it allows us to address the question of when, by whom, and in which contexts religion is activated as a key conceptual category to discuss immigration, asylum, integration, and security. Indeed, contexts vary from the exceedingly negative, such as jihadist terrorism, to the productive and pragmatic, such as the accommodation of Islam into the receiving societies with a predominantly Christian and secular population.
Third, our study will be complemented by a qualitative content analysis of Austrian and German governmental policy programs between 2005 and 2013 (Mattes 2017b
). In this period, each government issued eight programs. In addition, results eclectically also refer to selected information from campaign material and press releases. Together, the qualitative material gives an insight how different religions are construed in immigration debates and how a rhetorical boundary is drawn between a Christian majority narrative and Muslim immigrant identity. Such a discourse profoundly shapes integration possibilities and outcomes by defining national unity in predominately Christian terms. In addition, we include findings from a 2017 study on the involvement of Islamic associations (so-called faith-based organizations, FBO) in integration policy in Germany, Austria and Switzerland (Mattes 2017a
The religious identity of refugees and asylum seekers had been a key element in the political and media discourse from the very onset of the ‘European refugee crisis’ (Carrera et al. 2015
; Culik 2015
). In the majority of the affected host countries, negative, mostly pejorative and hostile attitudes towards Muslim immigrants had prevailed even before the fall of 2015 (e.g., Croucher and Cronn-Mills
) in France). Individual, highly mediatized events, like the events on New Year’s Eve 2015/16 in Cologne, Germany, added fuel to an already heated debate. An often-voiced concern was that refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan would, on the basis of their conservative religious views, reject Western values, in particular concerning democracy, secularization, and women’s rights, and would thus threaten social peace and inclusion (Bawer 2007
; Fetzer and Soper 2005
Our findings do not corroborate these assumptions. While religion may be an important influence on refugees’ attitudes and values, results show that even among the more religious respondents, predominantly gender-egalitarian views prevail (Buber-Ennser et al. 2016
). When asked to rate how religious they consider themselves, the share of respondents reporting not being religious (20%) far exceeded the very religious (11%). Levels for religious tolerance were rather high, with Iraqi respondents showing highest approval of children learning about other religions at school (78%), compared to Syrian respondents (69%), and respondents from other countries (53%). The significance of religion and religious practice for everyday life is low compared to other factors of inclusion: pilot studies find that participation in confessional activities is of minor importance for forming social contacts in the receiving country (Kohlbacher 2017
). Consistent with these findings, analyses revealed that participating in sports or social clubs (including football teams, gym membership, and other recreational facilities) is far more frequent among Syrian, Iraqi, and Afghan refugees who arrived in the fall of 2015.
The current study contains several limitations. First of all, we combined available data on religion and recent arrivals of refugee seekers in Austria. DiPAS was a quantitative survey, unfortunately without further qualitative interviews, which is certainly a caveat in the realm of research on religion. Overall, we refer in our study to mainly quantitative data, as—to the best of our knowledge—no qualitative investigation capturing the manifold aspects of religion among refugees has been carried out so far in Austria. In reporting results from our quantitative sources, it has to be noted that several biases may blur the picture. First of all, the question is highly subjective and it is difficult to say what “very religious” or “not religious” means in different socialization contexts. Moreover, respondents’ answers were strongly correlated with the language and the gender of the interviewer: Male respondents who were interviewed by English-speaking women tended to be less religious than when the interviewer was Arabic-speaking. It is therefore likely that some of the respondents were trying to please their interviewer in order to maintain a positive self-image, possibly with an aim not to be mistaken for Islamic fundamentalists or supporters of ISIS (Kohlenberger et al. 2016
We understand the present study as another contribution to gaining a more comprehensive picture of the demographic and religious profiles of new refugee arrivals to Europe. At the height of the ‘European refugee crisis’, popular discourse suggested that persons seeking refuge in EU member states were largely uneducated, illiterate, and conservative in terms of attitudes, values, and religious faith. By now, several major studies (e.g., BAMF/SOEP 2016 for Germany, DiPAS for Austria) have shown that, in particular, Syrian and Iraqi refugees who made it to Europe stem from the well-educated middle classes of their home countries and hold less traditional values on gender equity than their peers. Concerning religiosity, the current study cannot corroborate popular assumptions about refugees’ allegedly highly traditional Muslim understanding. Results from the presented quantitative data sources and exemplary qualitative field research indicate that refugees from the fall of 2015 hold mediocrely to low levels of religiosity, tend to be secular rather than conservative in the execution of their faith, and emphasize social over religious networks and intuitions. These findings are consistent with overall solid levels of education, as self-assessed religiosity and religious practice tend to decrease with increasing formal education levels. While the Islamic or Christian faith of Syrian refuges can be an important factor for fostering inter-ethnic community ties in the host country, other indicators of integration, such as education, human capital, and social networks, seem to be more relevant for recent refugee cohorts. The empirical basis established in this paper is intended to assist international efforts in appraising refugees’ and asylum seekers’ religious profiles and contribute to an evidence-based social debate on their social and religious inclusion in European host countries.
Religiosity is not a fixed characteristic and many aspects related to the growth of minority religions will be relevant for the future and will not solely be driven by immigration but also by the relatively strong demographic momentum of particular migrant groups with youthful age structures and high fertility rates (see also Kulu and González-Ferrer 2014
). On one hand, immigrants and people belonging to minority religions tend to have a higher level of religious intensity in order to strengthen their self-identity, but also they often come from countries where religion remains important in shaping the social life and levels of religiosity in terms of beliefs and practice. However, it has been shown that religious pluralism and freedom, and societal attitudes towards religion in the host country, play a much more important role in determining the religiosity of the migrants after arrival than the level of religiosity in the country of origin (Aleksynska and Chiswick 2011
). These findings are in line with the fact that descendants of immigrants show a general convergence towards the religious intensity and demographic behaviour of the host society (Norris and Inglehart 2012
), but they also are coherent with the fact that a revival of religiosity has been documented within certain second or third-generation Muslim communities (e.g., Maliepaard et al. 2012
; Simon and Tiberj 2013
) in some societies where Islam is mostly seen as a threat.