How religion forges global networks

Immigrants with religious ties are creating 'transnational' communities in the United States.

There are perhaps no more controversial topics in the United States today than religion and immigration. From books challenging religion's role in the world to the upheaval over immigration laws, Americans are wrestling with questions as to who they are, where they belong, and what they believe to be true and right.

Sociologist Peggy Levitt of Wellesley College in Massachusetts works at the intersection of these concerns – studying the religious commitments of immigrants and their implications for the US.

Much has already been written about the arrival of world faiths and how they are reshaping the American religious landscape. But in God Needs No Passport Levitt brings a fresh perspective, one that suggests the current debates are out of sync with reality. The true picture, it turns out, is both unsettling and encouraging.

Globalization is much more than an economic juggernaut or the spread of American culture around the world, Levitt says. It is a social force that not only brings more faiths into direct contact with one another, but also creates people with "transnational lives" for whom religion is often the glue that bonds them to more than one country.

In 10 years of studying the lives of migrants to the US from Brazil, Ireland, India, and Pakistan, Levitt found this to be true for Hindus, Muslims, Roman Catholics, and Protestants. Religion is a globalizing force that can serve to root people in their homelands even as it supports them in their new environments.

"Just as the local Gap clothing store is part of an extensive global corporate network, so more and more local mosques, temples, and Pentecostal churches are global operations," she writes.

Suburbanites Dipa and Pratik Patel, who work in the US telecommunications industry, are a case in point. Even as they pursue the American dream, they are still deeply connected to their community back in India's Gujarat State, with strong ties to their Hindu denomination (the International Swaminarayan Satsang Organization, ISSO).

Levitt describes time spent with them in their Indian village as well as in the US. "Belonging to the ISSO is very much about maintaining a home in India. Pratik constantly consults with religious leaders, not only about temple business, but about difficult decisions he faces in his personal life," she writes. They also host in the US a stream of visiting dignitaries from India and other ISSO chapters who are part of a global religious network.

Each religion is building global networks. Families from Valadares, Brazil, have set up home in Framingham, Mass., helping that city renew its depressed downtown area even as Brazilian pastors lead the spread of Pentecostalism in New England. Yet many also retain religious and business ties in Brazil.

The transnational lifestyles that Levitt explores are criticized by some Americans as disloyal – "like polygamy." Muslims especially have been looked upon with suspicion since 9/11 for maintaining such ties. But those of any faith who live transnationally are the face of the future, she contends.

"People who know how to function across borders, who are bicultural and bilingual, have the best résumé for today's world," Levitt says. And they could be the best diplomats for moderating religious conflict.

While such dual loyalties might distress some Americans, this book also offers very good news. Levitt's in-depth interviews with some 250 immigrants, and her studies over time reveal a remarkable coincidence of their values with those of native-born Americans.

Each immigrant group included views from across the religious spectrum, from strict conservative to very liberal. They expressed familiar ideas on what it means to be American and what constitutes a good society – including the opportunity to be oneself, to make choices, to live respectfully with those who are different.

"I always tell people from Muslim countries, none of you have ever really tested Islam as it was meant to be tested – as a pluralistic religion that ... accepts everyone for what they are," says Imram, an American Muslim. "America is probably the most Islamic country in the world even though it is not a Muslim country, because it has the principles an Islamic state is supposed to have."

"God Needs No Passport" is written for both a general and academic audience. It puts an intriguing human face on immigration and globalization. It may take a while, however, for Levitt's message to take hold: that it's time to abandon the assumption that social worlds fit neatly within national boxes.

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