Faith, Flight and Foreign Policy: Effects of War and Migration on Western Australian Bosnian Muslims

Article excerpt


The 'War on Terror' was launched in an effort to restrain and deter some of the more violent consequences of religious fundamentalism. Yet, for many, the war is regarded as having had the opposite effect. A report produced by the National Intelligence Council has 'found that the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq has helped spawn a new generation of Islamic radicalism' (Mazzetti 2006). Needless to say, the risks of radicalism are not confined to the actual war zone. In a world of fluid borders and mass migration, ideology is a readily" exportable commodity.

While numerous academics have explored the relationship between 'war and religion' and 'migration and religion', few have examined the way in which all three variables interact with one another. Given that we live in a world in which individuals are often forced to migrate as a result of war and religious persecution, such a deficit in scholarly analysis ought to be addressed. Clearly; policy makers need to be aware of the way in which conflicts have the potential to affect nations far removed from formal hostilities.

This Article uses a series of interviews conducted with Bosnian Muslim refugees living in Western Australia to explore the impact of war and forced migration on religious identities. There are, broadly speaking, three reasons why Bosnian Muslims living in Western Australia are an appropriate sample group within which to examine these trends. First, the predominately secular nature of Bosnian society before the Yugoslav civil war makes it easier to discern whether the conflict had an effect on religiosity. Secondly, the fact that there were only 1,622 Bosnian Muslims living in Australia prior to the war (ABS 2001: E05) means that it is possible to determine the way in which postwar entrants shaped the practices and institutions of this migrant community'. Finally, the low numbers of prewar Bosnian Muslim migrants also enables us to examine the extent to which the community was affected by, or sought support from, other ethnic Muslim groups.

The research reveals that a significant proportion of the sample placed a greater emphasis on Islam during the war. In most cases, religion remained important after migration and, in fact, different ways of negotiating the faith were often discovered in the new context. In particular, the types of ethnic and religious institutions available in the receiver-society played an important role in shaping the religious attitudes and practices of the interviewees.

1. Identity, conflict and migration

In recent years, and contrary to classical realist theories, identity, has come to assume an important place in the study of international politics. The proliferation of ethnic conflicts, the resurgence of secessionist sentiments, the rise in terrorism and the creation of supranational organisations have challenged the assumption that politics is a game that only diplomats and statesmen play. The most recent, and perhaps important, analytic shift in this regard has been the recognition of the key role that religion plays in shaping both domestic and global events. Religion provides followers with a vision of justice, a vocabulary for support and dissent and a vehicle for forging transnational relations (Williams 1996: 368).

That said, a proper inclusion of religious identity in the equation of political dynamics must recognise that religious identities are neither static nor totalising (Melucci 1997: 84; Pratt 1998: 26). We formulate our sense of self both in relation and in opposition to our surroundings; this includes political context and the identities of those around us. It is therefore logical to suggest that a change in environment might precipitate a reassessment of identity (Seul 1999: 555).

Political scholars of Islam commonly observe that religious revivalist movements have a tendency, to rise out of the ashes of a dire military, defeat. …