CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne

CESNUR 2006 International Conference
July 13-16, 2006
San Diego State University, San Diego, California
Religion, Globalization, and Conflict: International Perspectives

Immigrants' religions as new religions

by Pino Lucà TROMBETTA (University of Bologna, Italy)

A paper presented at the CESNUR 2006 International Conference. Please do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author

Adherents to non-Catholic religions in Italy are few: less than 2% of the population. Nevertheless they are more than double (4,4%) if we consider the three million migrants who have come to our Country in recent years.

We might conclude that the drive to religious pluralism in Italy stems from the presence of immigrants. Yet, this statement contains a paradox: if it is true that immigrants' religions are part of the pluralist landscape, it is also true that their position is different from that of other religions. While the latter - for instance: Jehovah Witnesses, Pentecostals, Buddhist groups - speak to the general population, immigrants' religions have an important role in maintaining ethnic identities and in addressing their offer almost exclusively to specific immigrant communities. They do not directly compete with the Catholic Church or other religious agencies, and they seem to have a mostly symbolic role in the religious market. They have the greatest visibility because of their heterogeneity, but do not represent a treat for other religions, since they will not attract believers outside the immigrant communities.  

In this paper I will deal with whether such a rigid partition of the religious market will last and immigrants' religions will remain ethic reserves, or whether some changes, already at work, will improve their capacity to attract believers among non immigrants. This possibility might be made easier by some characteristics of the Italian religious market.

We should consider that the largest part of believers is made up by people who do not belong to a particular church: even if most Italians say they are Catholic, only one third attends the church regularly; while nearly 50% might be considered as "believers not belonging": people who express interest in the supernatural but who build up their own religion selecting what they need among the available religious offers. If we consider the beliefs and practices of this wide group - reincarnation, cosmic divinity, unbelief in hell and in the immortal soul, etc. - we come to the conclusion that the interest for non-Catholic religions is wider than the small percentage of adherents to the abovementioned new religions. I will consider the hypothesis that this interest might also turn to hexogen religions - like immigrants' religions appear today - if they will not appear, in the future, only "for immigrants".

I shall analyze two processes of change in two immigrants' religions in Italy that have been the object of a field research in recent years - Islam and Sinhalese Buddhism. The first is the tendency of immigrants' religions to enlarge their ethnic borders and include peoples of different cultures but belonging to the same religion. The second is the tendency of immigrants' religions to assume a transnational dimension by projecting themselves in social contexts beyond the national borders.


In the new context immigrants' religions face a dilemma: immigrants may possibly use their religion to recreate in the new Country the warmth of the abandoned home, reproducing ancestral habitudes, dialects, family relations, etc., or they may use it to open up their community to immigrants of different origin who share the same religion. The advantages of the last alternative are clear: a religion that can aggregate and organize different communities will have a greater visibility and a better ability to deal with society, while its adaptation to the new situation will facilitate the inclusion of future generations.

Both religions considered here adopt this strategy that I call "inclusivism".


Islam is the second religion in Italy with about 900,000 believers.

The main religious organisations openly follow a policy of inclusion of the different Islamic cultures. The UCOII (Union of Communities and Islamic Organizations in Italy), The Muslim League in Italy and Cultural Islamic Centre in Rome intend to make their offer acceptable to all Muslims. So they promote Italian as the official language in predication, reform the rituals by getting rid of ethnic cults and go to what they think are the grounds of the Islamic doctrine.

The same tendency may be observed in the mosques and Islamic centres throughout the Country; they are compelled to use similar strategies to cope with the differentiated Italian immigration.

Both in national organization and in the many Islamic centres, the tendency to include different ethnic groups produces important changes.

First of all, religious beliefs and practices are simplified and homogenised, for instance, by eradicating cults of local saints, ethnic invocation, rituals or dresses, in order to create a universal form of religion. In some cases this process may lead - like in UCOII - to integrism or fundamentalism. Nevertheless, this is not intended as a form of violence to be used against dissidents, but as the need to be fully faithful to the words of the holy texts avoiding divisions in their interpretation and in the multiethnic community.

A second consequence of ethnic inclusivism derives from the need to find a common communication language among the different immigrant cultures. Classic Arab is the sacred language used in prayers and it was also the exchange idiom when immigration came mainly from Maghreb and from the Middle East; but now, with the arrival of many Pakistanis, Indians, Senegalese, Turks, Albanians, etc. Italian imposes itself in social and religious activities.  

Italian has been chosen, from the beginning, by the main Islamic organizations (UCOII ant the Islamic Cultural Centre) which aim to build an "Italian Islam", integrated into society.

The introduction of Italian in the Islamic religion is not only instrumental: the language carries with itself a net of implicit meanings and feelings that transform religion making it less different from the Italian sensitivity.

Thirdly, the survival of Islamic religion in Italy implies the respect of rules that may interfere with traditional practices. This is evident in the case of the feast of the Sacrifice that implies the killing by bleeding of the mutton, a rite that cannot be performed as in the Muslim countries. Also in the case of circumcision or the washing of the corpses: all these practices must now respect strict hygienic and bureaucratic procedures that modify their emotional impact and the original celebratory connotation.

Finally, the whole religious calendar must be rewritten. Prayer times, the Friday holy day, the Ramadan, do not coincide with Italian celebration times and all activities must be organized in week-ends and mostly on Sundays or other Christian holidays.

We may draw a first answer to the questions above.

In its transformation towards an interethnic religion and in its adaptation to local routine, Islam loses many features that link it to Arab-Muslim contexts, fades the forms that would hurt the prevailing common sense, assumes a more familiar cadence and speaks in the national language. Moreover, questioning itself about the ultimate meaning of the religious message it finds some analogies with Catholicism.

In consequence of these changes the "Italian-Islam" will appear less and less a religion that opposes by itself to the inherited feelings of Italians and more and more as a legitimate religious alternative, not in contrast with them.

Sinhalese Buddhism.

The strategies of inclusivism are less evident in Sinhalese Buddhism, of Theravada tradition, imported from Sri Lanka, which involves about 20,000 immigrants. This religion is organized in a net of temples in seven Italian cities and in informal communities.

Observation of meetings and interviews with monks and laypeople has shown the prevalence of national and ethnic feelings. Participants to rituals come almost exclusively from Sri Lanka; Sinhalese is the only language in predication and in sociality, the way of redefining the sacred space in the great festivities - usually  rented public halls - reproduces exactly the Sri Lankan style.

It is to be said that there are not, in Italy, other important immigrant communities sharing the same kind of Buddhism; in contrast there are millions of Italians interested in Buddhism and, potentially, in the competences of Sinhalese monks and in other religious offers. Inclusivism, we might expect, should concern mainly Italians.

So, it is surprising the absence of any wide strategy in this direction coming from the religious leaders. Monks come to Italy "by chance" on the basis of personal relationships, not of their capacity to understand and communicate with the Italian culture. They do not speak the language and live shielded inside the immigrant community, also because of the ritual habit of making themselves provided of all they need by compatriots.

In spite of that, in our research we noticed significant efforts to overcome the ethnic barrier, for instance through the organization of meditation sessions for Italians in some temples or the activity of some non-Sinhalese monks who try to organize interethnic activities, or again the initiatives of a Theravada monastery near Rome which is usually attended by immigrants from Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Thailand, and mainly from Italy.

Inclusivism is favoured by the ritual habit to invite, in celebrations, the largest number of monks even of different Buddhist traditions. Paying the travel expenses, maintaining and worshipping the monks has, in fact, a religious meaning and helps Buddhists to reach Nirvana. Especially in the most important holy days - like Vesak or Kathina - it happens that each monk, leading the prayer and the celebrations, introduces the specific Buddhist style in which he was educated. If we read the programs of the feasts of May - the sacred month in which the main events of Buddha's life are concentrated - we will notice the intertwine of different Buddhist rituals: Theravada and Mahayana. And different traditions from Chorea, Tibet, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, etc. We can observe in these major events a new, original ambience in which different sensibilities and lifestyles come together: an ambience that could not be created out of the migration context. 

Inclusivism puts together the affinities in Sinhalese Buddhism: first, with other Theravada Buddhists - from Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia - and with Italians interested in this tradition and open to interethnic encounters; secondly, and with caution, with other traditions like Mahayana: especially during national celebrations organized by the Union of the Italian Buddhists (UBI) that associates the many expressions of this religion.

To the extent in which such tendencies will grow up, we may forecast that Sinhalese Buddhism will be included more deeply in the net of national Buddhism and become more available to Italians.  


Researches on immigrants' religions carried out mainly in the Nineties studied their transformations in the new reality - and the tendency to inclusivism mentioned above. More recently, a new approach focuses on other important changes: the transnational dimension that religion assumes in the migratory diaspora.

Since recent times, scholars only set apart, in migrations, two distinct flows: the transfer of people, with their cultural capital - which was supposed to weaken in time - in one way and, in the opposite direction, monetary remittance destined to the survival of families and helpful to the underdeveloped economies.

Researches on transnationalism oppose to this approach that what is transferred in both directions, through the flow of peoples, money and objects is a set of values, lifestyles and beliefs that circulate and produce durable effects both in the homeland and in the emigration countries. Peggy Levitt defines "social remittance" this kind of transfers.

Thanks to the development of communication technology, the contemporary migrant lives important aspects of his life - economic, cultural, political - in two or more contexts and is involved in a transnational "social field" that includes migrants in the host country, migrants in other countries and non-migrants in the homeland.

These analyses help us to understand the long survival of immigrants' ethnic cultures even through the following generations: immigrants are not attached, as one might assume, to their ancestral culture but to a dynamic social field, nourished by intense intertwined exchanges.

Religion offers a powerful support to transnational social fields: even if strictly interlaced with ethnic culture, in the original experience of the migrant, it is not necessarily linked to it and can be "transferred" in the different migration contexts. In these transfers, religions acquire new formulations which, in turn, travel among other migrant communities and eventually go back and modify the religion in the homeland itself.

The image of immigrants' religions provided by these studies is one of a plastic reality expressing itself in new homogenised, transversal contents that, together with people and lifestyles, circulate beyond national borders, in the whole transnational field.  

Hence, the immigrant's religious identity is not inscribed in the tradition and in the past but in the most advanced shapes of the post-modern and global culture.


In contemporary Islam, Al-Quaida fully expresses the possibilities offered by new media in organizing transnational nets, transforming what might appear, at first glance, an archaic religion into a post-modern one.

The main Islamic organizations in Italy follow a different path in their efforts to build up an "Italian Islam" that may well maintain the religious authenticity, in a pacific confrontation with Italian society and with Catholicism.

The Muslim League and the Islamic Cultural Centre support immigrant Muslim communities in many ways: they organize the pilgrimages to Mecca, support the activities of the great mosque in Rome, represent Islam before the Italian government, and promote the dialogue with Christianity. At the same time they maintain the international links with the Muslim countries that they represent.

The strategy of the other great organization we spoke above is more ideological and radical: the UCOII promotes a religion inspired by the Muslim Brothers, a kind of "pacific fundamentalism" that comprises an inflexible respect of Koran rules, to be promoted "from below" with good example and missionary action, through a pacific Islamization of the whole society. At the same time UCOII maintains transnational links favouring the exchange of peoples and ideas with European organizations and political parties in Muslim countries, sharing the same religious perspective.

Tarek Ramadan is a well known Swiss of Egyptian origins, an intellectual who symbolises this religious approach. He is engaged, inside the Muslim European community, in the adaptation of the severe sharia to contemporary lifestyle, and, outside the community, in a deep confrontation with Western culture on themes such as pluralism, laity, tolerance, religious dialogue, etc.

This transnationalism "from above" - coming from the official institutions - is balanced by the nets of religious exchanges built up by migrants with their home countries. Our research in Morocco has shown how deep emigration changes the Country. Flows of money and objects, house-building and the activation of businesses modify family hierarchies, expectations and lifestyles; while the amount of monetary remittance has become vital for the very survival of Moroccan economy. From here come government interventions aimed at increasing the flow of emigrants and maintaining their link with Morocco, for instance by improving professional competences of emigrants and granting political rights, even if they live abroad.

These policies strengthen the transnational social field, making it easier for Moroccan migrants to maintain for a long time the feeling of belonging to their homeland and halting their assimilation to the Italian culture.

In conclusion, Italian Islam is the result of two tendencies. On one side, the conscious strategies of the main organizations which mean to build up a religion that is well rooted in the Italian society, interethnic, untied to specific cultures or Nations but, at the same time, connected to the main currents of transnational Islam. On the other side, the spontaneous contacts of migrants with their homeland, based on personal and family interests, building up a "national-transnational" social field.

Wavering from one to the other tendency depends from the nationality of migrants and from their style of religiosity, more or less near to interethnic mosques and organizations. In fact, we must consider that only a minority of immigrants attend mosques with regularity and that the majority prefers an "atomised" or "personal" religion.

The case of the Senegalese is typical. This community of about 3,000 meets almost exclusively on an ethnic base, reproducing in Italy the system of Senegalese Brotherhood - mainly the Muridiyya.    

Sinhalese Buddhism.

In the case of Sinhalese Buddhists, our interviews have detected a resistance to assimilation and a strong feeling of ethnic-religious belonging that expresses itself in wide family nets scattered inside and outside the immigrant community.

There is an empiric and symbolic map of Srilankan emigration that includes the Gulf Emirates, continental Europe and, above all, Anglophone countries like Australia, Great Britain, USA and Canada, where integration appears easier for the linguistic homogeneity.

Many Sinhalese live their stay in Italy as transitory and nourish the myth of return: hence they send conspicuous remittances to relatives, to religious and humanitarian groups, build houses and do business with the homeland.

Buddhism is part of this network. Italian Sinhalese temples are places where symbolic resources (beliefs, practices) are elaborated and adapted to the new situation of immigration. The monks in Italy are connected among themselves, with other monks in Europe, with their homeland monasteries and meet in the great feasts and celebrations. In this circulation of people and religious contents, Italy is only one knot in a much wider network.

Using the definition by Kennedy and Roudometof, we may define the social reality of Sinhalese Buddhism as a "national-transnational" religion: a community based on the culture of a specific Nation (Sri Lanka) that articulates itself outside national borders, in the multiple relations of Sinhalese diaspora. The geographical reference is, in this kind of communities, mostly symbolic because there is no coincidence between the spatial dimension represented by political borders and the sense of communitarian belonging.

The following table compares the characteristics of the religions considered above.

Even if they have in common the transnational dimension, they diverge by their reference to a specific Nation.

We saw how Islam is developing, thanks to the strategies of interethnic organizations, a feeling of specific religious belonging overcoming the affection for a particular Nation: a process that does not involve all Muslims who, in their majority, prefer a "privatised" religion and keep far from mosques and Islamic centres. Inside the Islamic immigration, Senegalese follow their own path, promoting an intense communitarian religion strongly connected with homeland organizations. Last, in spite of the expansion of Buddhism outside the traditional borders, Sinhalese immigrants prefer to remain related to their national culture and do not avail themselves of the opportunities of interethnic relations, mostly with Italians.

National-transnational religions.

(religion is linked to a Nation).

Transnational religions.

(no link to a particular Nation).



Sinhalese Buddhism

Senegalese Islam

"Privatized" Islam


Muslin League

Islamic Centre

Islam Mosques


We can try now to answer the question we formulated in the beginning: Will the evolutions we spoke about, put immigrants' religions in condition to compete in the religious market outside the immigrant communities?

I argue that both the inclusivism process and the transnational dimension above described have the effect to make immigrants' religions less alien to the prevailing Italian religious sensibility.

First of all, the need to include different traditions forces immigrants to look for the primordial universal sense of their creed. However, rethinking religion and releasing it from a specific cultural tradition is the condition to open it to possible conversions of autochthons. In fact, I cannot convert myself to another culture, but I can convert myself to another religion.

The effect of transnationalism is more controversial. On one side, it seems to favour the preservation of ethnicity and hamper the opening of the religion to the new reality. On the other hand, we saw that what really circulates in transnational networks is not the archaic form of the traditional creed but new homogenized contents, which are the result of the confrontation with the different migration contexts. More important, the drive towards the construction of a "transnational social field" transforms immigrants' religions from pre-modern into post-modern social realities, able to face the most advanced forms of contemporary culture.

Hence, we may conclude that both processes, moving immigrants' religions closer to the prevailing sensitivity, will make them, in the middle term, more competitive in the Italian religious market and able to attract believers more than it happens today.