I met Amer *, a young Syrian Druze refugee, at a smoke-filled cafe in the Berlin borough of Neukölln. “Before the war,” he told me, “no one would care if you were a Muslim, Christian, Druze, or anything else. I am Syrian. We are all Syrian. But now, people want to know what your religion is and then they will act differently towards you. This is the problem.”
I’ve heard many statements like these over the course of my research on the experiences of Syrian refugees from religious minority backgrounds. Whether in Turkey, Jordan, or now in Germany, where I am currently doing research, I’m finding a growing divide among Syrian refugees on the basis of religion – or of sectarianism.
There has been much attention across Europe on the religious intolerance and prejudices held by far-right political parties and other groups towards refugees. But religious prejudice is also a feature and challenge of relations between refugees – and this must be better understood if it is to be overcome.
Attacks in refugee centres
In 2016, at a Düsseldorf refugee centre, lunch was served during the Ramadan month of fasting. A dispute ensued and two refugees burned down the hall in protest, later standing trial for the religiously motivated crime. Later in 2016, a report revealed other accounts of attacks on religious minority refugees, particularly against converts to Christianity, in refugee centres across Germany.
People I interviewed told me of harassment they had experienced from other refugees, sometimes for religious reasons. Often the accounts may seem subtle – from a young Christian woman questioned by a Muslim woman as to why she was not wearing a veil. Or a Muslim man telling another Muslim that he is “kafir” (an infidel) for eating pork. Those refugees who have faced such harassment, however, experience significant discomfort and insecurity from these incidents.
In other cases, refugees in Jordan, Turkey, and Germany told me they had experienced overt acts of intolerance, including physical attacks for wearing a religious symbol, such as a cross, or for not attending prayer services.
Muslim refugees have also been subjected to harassment and discrimination by both members of host societies and other refugees. Ambar*, a young Syrian Christian refugee woman living in Kreuzberg, Berlin, recounted an incident that happened when she first arrived in Germany and lived in a refugee centre.
This one time, I wanted to come inside a building and the guard just let me in. Behind me was a girl wearing a hijab though. She tried to walk through too, just like me, but she was yelled at and told to come back. Then they checked her bag and everything. So, in this moment, I thought, wow, she could hate me. Because we get treated differently. I will never forget this moment and how she looked at me. She was crying. I had no choice but to just walk away.
Some of the hosts and refugees I interviewed also expressed intolerance towards and about Syrian Muslim refugees. These included false assumptions about their levels of education and social class, and their likelihood to commit violence or terrorism. Others simply presumed Syrian Muslim refugees would be politically aligned to the conservative Salafi branch of Islam.
There has also been a tendency among Muslim refugees to presume that others have certain ideological and religious identities. A former Ismaili Muslim refugee, who has turned atheist, spoke to me in Berlin about the harassment he experienced in a refugee centre for not attending prayers and for choosing not to fast during Ramadan. “Yes, I am from Raqqa, but people think that must mean I am Muslim and, even more, they think I must be with Daesh (Islamic State)”, he said. “But people forget, my city has been destroyed. I am not with any group, and I no longer believe (in God).”
Intolerance is not inevitable
In both Jordan and Germany, I’ve heard suggestions, especially from a few Christian organisations working with refugees, that it would be better, safer, and easier if refugees were separated on the basis of religion. This is a dangerous suggestion and thankfully, rarely implemented. Other than in cases of immediate safety and protection needs, separating refugees solely on the basis of religion – whether in refugee camps, centres or elsewhere – is an assured way of exacerbating differences and entrenching sectarian tensions.
Some refugees themselves now believe that there is no choice but to live separately from other refugees of different religious backgrounds. But this is based on a perpetuated falsehood that different religious identities are inevitably intolerant of each other. This is a divisive narrative that is being misused and manipulated. Such a misconception lays the groundwork for incitement of hatred and the dire consequences that come with it.
There is a breadth of diversity in Syria and among Syrian refugees – from the moderate Sunni who chooses not to observe the fast to the Ismaili who is an atheist. Religion may be an important factor for some and entirely irrelevant to another.
To counteract prejudice, hosts and refugees from different backgrounds must mix together more. They should share their experiences and be given opportunities to create and practice solidarity. This is not a naive ideal but a sorely needed practice – and there are some examples of it working positively for refugees.
Intolerance among different groups of people should be treated as an abnormality, not an inevitability. There is nothing inevitable about Syrian refugee tensions – let alone other relations between refugees from different countries and backgrounds. There is no predisposition to violence or hatred by any group of people – and any such assumption must be overturned.
* Names have been changed to protect identities.