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Blurring the boundaries of belief: The Transnational religious dynamics of the Syrian Christians of Kerala in Kuwait
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Blurring the boundaries of belief: The Transnational religious dynamics of the Syrian Christians of Kerala in Kuwait
Ginu Zacharia Oommen
This paper deals with the changing socio- cultural strategies of Kerala immigrants in Kuwait, including the change in religious practice and rise of radical religious groups among the immigrants after the First Gulf War in 1990-91.The involvement of religion, especially the Church has increased among the Syrian Christian immigrants from India in the post-liberation Kuwait. My paper also attempts to understand the impacts of religious revivalism by studying how religion becomes a site for various identity based community centered networks that are developing amongst the immigrants. Radical religious groups such as charismatic Pentecostal and Evangelical Christian denominations, Islamic groups with strong Wahabi traditions like, Jamaat e Islami, Hindu fanatic groups(RSS), and various cults like Matha Amrathandamayee are making deep inroads in the lives of Kerala immigrants in the GCC countries. In other words, this paper investigates the increasing affinity of Christian immigrants towards sects/practices like Pentecostalism. These religious groups are transnational in nature and they are actively linked to both home and destination countries. These radical groups reinforce and reshape communal identity of an exclusionary and very often fanatic nature.At the macro level, this paper also investigates the interconnection between the geo-political dynamics in the Gulf and the expansion of religious space in Kuwait.
This paper is an empirical study based on my Post-Doctoral (Hermes) field research in Kuwait from December, 2008 through January, 2009. According to the Government of India, nearly 5 million Indian immigrants are currently living in the Gulf region. At present Indians are the largest expatriate community in Kuwait with a population of nearly 5, 90,000. Kerala immigrants are the single largest community which constitutes nearly 45 % of the total Indian population.
The history of Syrian Christian migration dates back to the early 1900 and the period witnessed a massive flow of them to the South East Asian countries mainly Singapore and Malaysia The hostile situation in the East Asian countries and the discovery of oil in Persian Gulf has diverted the flow of Syrian Christian Migration to the West Asian Countries. The Kuwait was the first Arab Gulf country which opened the doors for this indigenous Christian community of Kerala and the worship in Kuwait started by a small group of members of the Marthoma Syrian late 1940s. The Oil boom of 1960s accelerated the immigration of Syrian Christian to GCC countries, which simultaneously led to establishment of Syrian churches across the Gulf Countries except Saudi Arabia. Since the late 1960s the remittances from the Gulf States have been a major source of income for the Syrian Churches in Kerala. It is to be noted that all the Syrian Churches have separate Gulf Diocese /Diocesan Bishops and serving in diaspora diocese is considered very prestigious assignment among the clergy.
Currently there must be nearly 60 Malayalam Churches in GCC countries comprising of both Syrian and catholic denominations besides various Pentecostal and Charismatic groups. Till 1990s Church going among immigrants was nothing more than a routine and low key affair. However in the last one decade or so the spirituality and the role of religion have increased exorbitantly among Indian immigrants especially with in the Syrian community. The major development among Syrian Christian immigrants in the beginning of 1990s is the rise of Charismatic / Pentecostal churches. The Pentecostal Churches are predominantly a Global Religion and emphasize the prosperity gospel. The Pentecostal spirituality is a unique blend of ‘faith and wealth’ and it is playing a major role in reshaping the religious identity of immigrants.
Major concern is to analyze the increasing popularity of Pentecostalism and also to examine the influence of the American Evangelical movement among the second generation immigrants. Digging deeper, one can see that there is a gamut of issues that led to the assertion of the Church in the life of expatriate workers. Region’s political instability and economic slump and hostile social environment invigorated the phenomenon. For instance in Kuwait, Iraq’s invasion of the country in 1990 and the subsequent expulsion of immigrants from Kuwait inflicted a sense of insecurity and deep-seated fear in the minds of Syrian Christian immigrants. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent trauma had altered the socio-economic and religious perception of Indian immigrants especially the Christian community to a great extent. One of the main features of the Post-liberation phase among immigrants is the proliferation of various religious and caste groups and the explicit display of religiosity in the day to day life in the host setting . Proliferation of Evangelical prayer groups with charismatic pastors, huge donations to missionary activities, popularisation of ‘tithe,’ increasing dependence on pastors/clergy, and also the emerging trends for pilgrimage to ‘Holy Land’ reflects the ostentatious exuberant presence of religion on immigrant’s life.
The socio-cultural environment of the host country has varying impacts of each migrant community—for an average Muslim immigrant from Kerala, Gulf represents a successful blend of Islam and economic prosperity, while the Christians and Hindu migrants often view ‘the Gulf’ with hostility as they envision it as a bastion of ‘Islamic hegemony. The socio-political isolation and exclusion of immigrants from the social structure of the host society has further consolidated the religious space.
The stress in the life of a construction worker to earn the requisite money in the limited contract period or the anxiety over the extension of the period of stay deepens this assertion. The accumulation of wealth remains another major concern for immigrants and struggle towards this process is met with anxiety, stress, competition and insecurity. In consequence in the GCC countries ‘popular religion’ like charismatic Pentecostal groups have attained an upper hand over the ‘official religion’ since the popular religion emphatically stresses on the prosperity gospel. The volatile situation is being exploited successfully by former with a large number of immigrants especially the youngsters moving away from the traditional Churches. To conclude this paper examines how existing religious structures undergo transformation to cope with evolving domestic and international geopolitical developments.