Empires, migration, faith and cookies
Migration is a primary driving force for religious change and growth, and I have posted on this topic many times on this site. The basic point about migration is totally indisputable, but I want to emphasize the role of empires in driving and directing this migration.
How Imperial Subjects Returned Home
For Americans, the role of migration in the making of religion is obvious. All the Christian churches on the continent owe their origins to migration, starting in the 15th century, and the great waves of migration between 1840 and 1924 each had their impact. Migration has resulted in the United States having the largest Jewish population in the world, Lutherans abounding in the Midwest, and about a quarter of the total population claiming Catholic loyalties. Surely we can think that empires have nothing to do with this process, except that they give people a dark reality to seek escape from? Irish migrants clearly fell into this category, as did Jews fleeing repressive Russia. Despite all the efforts made by the British to direct their emigrants to favored destinations in Canada and Australia, many of them enthusiastically chose to seek their fortunes on American shores.
But the fact of empire had a powerful influence on migration and religion. After World War II, many people in Africa and the Caribbean decided to migrate to Europe. Initially, making this process easy at the time was the imperial connection. Afro-Caribbeans who lived in British-ruled territories like Jamaica were familiar with Britain through the education system, and many had served in the British Imperial forces during the war. As imperial subjects, entry visas or documents were not an issue. Critically too, these migrants spoke English. Britain has developed a large Afro-Caribbean population, as has this other former British imperial territory of Canada.
It was equally natural for citizens of the former Indian Empire to make the same move to Britain from the 1950s. Britain remained an equally attractive destination even after passport requirements and citizenship were considerably strengthened in the 1970s.
Similar imperial relations directed residents of former possessions and colonies to their particular “homelands”, and again the question of language was vital. French-speaking Moroccans and Algerians found their way to France just as naturally as Jamaicans and Trinidadians – and later Nigerians and Ghanaians – went to Britain. Other French-speaking Africans went to Belgium. Still other former imperial subjects went to the Netherlands or Portugal. As I said, the country that became their destination was not a random choice: it was largely determined by questions of language and ease of entry, which were consequences of the empire.
Of course, I’m oversimplifying. Immigrant peoples often moved beyond these first settlement countries, so that Moroccans, for example, found their way to the Netherlands or Sweden. In the absence of imperial ties, at least in recent times, Germany and Scandinavia found workers in Turkey and thus acquired the foundations of what would later become important immigrant colonies.
Transforming religion in the homeland
These multiple migrations had a long term impact in terms of race and ethnicity, and totally transformed the food scene of their new countries, but my concern here is with religion. Most visible was the acquisition of significant communities from non-Judeo-Christian traditions, and while this was true in most of Western Europe, particular types of religious innovation were based on these imperial foundations. It was Britain, rather than any other nation, that acquired the major Hindu and Sikh colonies. And while most nations ended up with Islamic populations, the particular type of Islam that was now emerging differed enormously depending on the national origins of these immigrant communities.
Islam in Britain still leans mainly towards the foundations of the Indian subcontinent, towards Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. In fact, it’s even more localized than that. An impressive 70% of British Pakistanis (who are predominantly Muslim) come from just one tiny and remote region, namely Mirpur, and we are even talking about the Mirpuri diaspora. This fact goes a long way towards explaining the (very conservative) religious, political and social perspectives of this very large component of British Islam. The customs and outlook of British Muslims differ greatly from those of, say, French Algerian communities, and even more so from the Sufi-dominated faith of French West Africa. Contrary to Western stereotypes, these different national and regional forms of Islam differ greatly from each other.
The high concentration of migrants from a few – usually very poor – areas is actually quite common in the history of immigration. Among the first generations of Chinese migrants to the United States, for example, the vast majority came from a few counties in Guangdong province. We find many parallels to such hyper-localism in modern migration from Africa and Asia to the global North.
These differences caused by migration patterns are particularly evident within Christianity. The importance of immigrant Christians in Europe increased enormously from the 1960s as levels of belief and practice dropped among the old stock populations. In Britain, the most successful and visible new churches belong to African or Afro-Caribbean traditions, usually of the Pentecostal or Charismatic type. Francophone variants of these traditions are strong in France or Belgium, where mega-churches based on immigration flourish. UK mega-churches tend to lean towards Nigerians or Ghanaians; French-speaking counterparts turn to Congolese or Malagasy. In each case, these immigrant communities have strong ties to the countries of origin, so that London, for example, plays a central role in the organization of many transnational churches, not to mention global industry. gospel music. Paris and Brussels retain their role as capitals of religious empires.
This immigrant role is not only true of Protestant or Pentecostal worlds. As vocations to the Catholic priesthood dried up so sharply at the end of the 20th century, the Church had to turn to foreign-born priests from the appropriate ethnic and linguistic backgrounds. In Britain this usually meant Nigerians or South Indians. In France, this meant French-speaking Africans – notably Congolese – as well as Vietnamese. Language really matters.
food and faith
I offer a helpful ethnographic tip. If you map the foods on offer in local markets and grocery stores in European cities, you get a great idea of which religious denominations and services are active in the area, and (usually) which particular corners of the Global South the congregations derive from. This tells you a lot about the religious geography of this region. Yams, plantains and cassava are a great indication of African regions. If the locals eat jollof rice, you won’t have to look too far to find West African Pentecostal churches and AICs. Expect very long and energetic services with a strong focus on healing. A scholar should make an actual map of London, Paris or Amsterdam, correlating such opportunities in food and faith. It is now a book waiting to be written. Goat meat would be a separate chapter.
Here is a strange aspect of this relationship between food, faith and empire. During the time of the British Empire, British companies exported distinctive foods widely across Africa and Asia, where the locals acquired a strong taste for them. Even today, when you’re in an American city with a strong African presence, like Houston, these nostalgic foods are very popular in ethnic African stores. Often (not always) you’ll find McVitie’s Digestive Biscuits, Cadbury’s Chocolate, even (oh Lord) Marmite and many more examples. If the food looks like it’s from the world of Harry Potter, then it was probably a big hit in Africa or South Asia: those cookies are relics from the empire too. For me, walking into such an African store today is like stepping back into my childhood in the UK. And as I say, wherever you find such African stores, you know African churches are not far away.
Two generations after the collapse of these colonial empires, we still see their legacy in the religious patterns of Europe. As older Christianity continues to shrink, these new communities will become increasingly prominent in the continent’s Christian spectrum.
Some very relevant books include Elizabeth Buettner, Europe after the Empire: decolonization, society and culture (Cambridge University Press, 2016); and Martin Thomas and Andrew Thompson, eds., The Oxford Handbook on the Ends of Empire (Oxford University Press, 2019).
In Migration and the Making of Global Christianity (Eerdmans 2021), Jehu Hanciles focuses on the role of migration in earlier eras of church life. I was honored to write the foreword!