University Post
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Religion - the good and the bad for refugees

German UCPH professor has just published a book on religion, refugees and migrants. Here he talks to the University Post about this and what it is like to teach in Copenhagen

He is on his third year at the Department of Cross-Cultural Studies, University of Copenhagen (UCPH). And his book – Building Noah’s Ark for Refugees, Migrants and Religious Communities – has come out at a time when the whole of Europe is convulsed by the debate over the recent influx of refugees from the Middle East.

So it’s time for associate professor Alexander Horstmann to talk to the University Post about his book, and what it is like to teach in Copenhagen.

Why have you chosen this title and why the reference to the Bible?
“I chose Noah’s Ark, because it’s a religious metaphor that powerfully expresses that religion can be a shelter, or a raft to cling to in stormy waters. Our idea is that religion is quite central for migrants-refugees and can shape their lives. But we do not want to celebrate religion as a saviour. We want to show that it can be both enabling and constraining. It can be enabling, by opening up agencies, but can also constrain people, as in aggressive missionarization.”

Contrast between Muslim and Christian refugees

“Sometimes, people may feel forced to convert to Christianity in order to be entitled to humanitarian assistance. A Christian humanitarian project might be life-saving, but may also take people hostage for political aims. Religion is always political, yet it is completely understudied in refugee studies.”

The majority of migrants-refugees that come to the EU nowadays are Muslims. Their arrival is regarded by some as a threat. What can you say about that?
“Well, that is precisely the reason why the Rohingyas, Myanmar’s Muslim minority, are not welcome in Europe. The Burmese state has decided not to consider them as citizens. They are now mostly boat people, but nobody wants them because they are Muslims. Some Rohingyas have been able to settle in Malaysia, but they are kept apart from the society and heavily exploited, even if there is a kind of solidarity since Islam is the state-religion in Malaysia.

“By contrast, the Karen, the Burmese Christian minority, have been very welcome in Europe. Nearly 100,000 people have been resettled and they have been given the flight, the accommodation and the passport.”

Improve quality through group projects

It is your third year here. What is it like to teach at UCPH?
“‘It can be very enjoyable, especially if the students participate, are cooperative and interested. The advantage here is that we have small classes, so students get a lot of attention. That’s very different from my experience in Germany where you have easily one hundred students in a room. Here, you have small classes, so you can actually commit to the students, but at the same time, some need a lot of support and help. All students are however motivated and good-willing.”

”I always tell my students that they need to be agents of their own learning process, that they need to take things into their own hands. But it is also mutual: I give them the knowledge, and they can reciprocate. When that happens, the learning process is much better and faster. In the more advanced courses, students have to do oral presentations, for which they just need to present their findings and projects. They can then get feedback from me and from their peers.

“Like any other universities, this university has strengths and weaknesses, but you can improve the quality of teaching enormously, when you introduce group projects and work.”

Make students feel Thailand in Scandinavia

Alexander Horstmann is specialised in South-east Asia.

”What is also great here is that I can plan things with the students, since we have small classes. In area studies, we see each other quite often, so we get to know each other very well, which was not the case in Germany. We are also very close to the Thai community. It is important for me that the students get to have a feeling of the Thai way and people. So I bring them outside the class and make them interconnect with Thai people and culture so that they get to know, to ear, to smell, to feel Thailand in Scandinavia, and not only read books about it. By going outside, students can directly experience in the field what we have prepared in class and connect to informants, which can also contribute to the good atmosphere in a class.”

”I bring them outside the class and make them interconnect with Thai people and culture so that they get to know, to ear, to smell, to feel Thailand in Scandinavia, and not only read books about it.”

Bachelors shy, Masters keen, talented

“‘Then, the students spend a whole semester in Thailand. I am ambitious on their behalf. I think it is important that they learn the language of course, but also that they see the value of theories, methodologies and ethnographic fieldwork. I prepare them and then, once in Thailand, we go together to do some field trips together. There, I want to make them experience what is to be stateless and understand what it means to be stateless ; eventually compare the case in Copenhagen and in Thailand, and study minority rights.”

What can you say about UCPH students?
“‘Bachelor students tend to be a little bit shy, especially here in the area studies. I am a cultural and political anthropologist, so I am very keen to communicate much of the theories, methodologies to the students. What makes the communication difficult is maybe that they are very young and that they cannot have a good overview of a discipline without a second major like, for example, anthropology, political science. I think it is crucial to relate area studies with disciplines like anthropology, sociology, international studies or even literature, because then, the disciplines could also benefit greatly from area studies. My best experiences of classes, are those that have a good mix of students.”

“As for the Master students I have, all I can say is that they are very strong : they are very mature, very keen readers, and certain with their choice. I actually follow the work of two master students, and they are very talented, they are writing very good masters theses, which are actually at a PhD level. It is a pleasure to work with them, I must say.”

More details on Alexander Horstmann and his book in fact box right.

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