Ethnic-religious group

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The term ethno-religious group (or ethno-religious group and other variants), which is not precisely defined , is used to denote groups for whose delimitation both ethnic and religious aspects are decisive. In the plural form, ethnic-religious groups , they can denote such groups in a context that is both ethnically and religiously fragmented, for example in terms such as “ethnic-religious groups in Iraq”. In a narrower sense, they designate groups (mostly minority groups) with ethnic attributes, but which are delimited according to the social (not necessarily spiritual) affiliation of their members to a certain religious community .

In sociology , this definition is made more precise: It is crucial that the individual - regardless of his or her personal beliefs - feels obliged , in particular, to symbols , objects and common actions of the traditional religious community , in order to express his ethnic affiliation. This behavior serves to preserve the ethnic identity and to distinguish it from other communities .

Formation and preservation of identity

Amish in the US wear clothing that
sets them apart from the majority population (2007)

Ethnic-religious communities define their ethnic identity through a common religion that is regularly mediated by ancestry, also usually through a common history, their own cultural tradition with a common language and literature, a common geographical origin and / or an ( invented ) descent from one or a variety of common prominent ancestors. Often, ethno-religious groups represent both religious minorities and ethnic minorities within a larger community, or they form in response to oppression by a dominant religious group or by a state religion . Ethnic-religious groups emerge again and again in the diaspora , in particular through migration and flight like the Huguenots , but they also often dissolve again.

Jonathan Fox, a researcher into religious conflicts, suggests as an operational delimitation criterion that 80% of the members of an ethnic minority group should follow a belief different from the religion prevailing in their state, so that they can be described as an ethno-religious minority group. Often, however, the individual self-classification is viewed as a criterion of belonging, since objective data on origin are difficult to determine (as in Canada).

Symbolic identity building strategies

It is characteristic of ethnic-religious groups that they operate the symbolic demarcation (through rituals, clothing, their own holidays, etc.) from the environment in order to preserve their identity with high energy. These activities go beyond the practice of religious cults (“symbolic ethnicity / religiosity”), but are of course rarely shown in situations of persecution. Herbert J. Gans differentiates more precisely between symbolic identity formation strategies of religious-ethnic (e.g. the Jews or Parsees, so-called sacralization of the ethnic group ) and ethnic-religious groups (e.g. the Russian Orthodox Christians in the USA, so-called . Ethnicization of religion ). The activities of preserving identity are occasionally accompanied by strategies of strict avoidance of contact, a high level of mistrust of the environment and fundamentalism .

In an ethno-religious group, special value is placed on religious marriage (internal marriage, so-called religious endogamy ) as a means of maintaining the stability and historical longevity of the community and culture. This adherence to religious endogamy can be linked to ethnic nationalism. In a study of Syrian Orthodox Christians, Donabed and Mako point out that elites can also “dream” of an identity as an ethnic-religious group and try to implement this social construction with political means. In situations of persecution, it also happened again and again that ethnic-religious groups mix with other groups for reasons of protection. This is especially true for women. Some ethnic-religious groups evidently emerged from the merger of very heterogeneous ethnic groups. B. for the Druze , which show a relationship with Middle Eastern, Turkish and Indo-European population groups, which indicates a common region of origin in south-eastern Turkey rather than ethnic homogeneity.

While Tanja Wettach-Zeitz emphasizes the dogmatism of nationalist-clerical elites as a condition for the stability of many such groups, Dorothea Lüddeckens and Rafael Walthert see the particular stability and conservatism of many ethnic-religious groups as being based on the fact that belonging to them is independent of individual decisions and that there is a lack of collective actors who could change the community through decisions. Coupled with ethnicity, the religious community can maintain its traditional practice regardless of such decisions.

Ethnicization of religion

World Mennonite Conference, Paraguay 1987

The French anthropologist Emmanuel Todd pointed out in 2017 that the endogamous space in many ancient cultures was primarily determined by religious affiliation (so-called religious endogamy ). Extreme endogamy could lead to the ethnicization of the religion.

In American society, religion is still regarded as an identity marker of culture or ethnicity. One speaks of an ethnicization of religion when communities of migrants increasingly appropriate and cultivate religious traditions in order to reproduce their ethnic identity, especially in the transition from the first to the second and the following generations. One can also speak of an ethnicization of religion when ethnic communities of migrants in the destination country adopt a new religion in order to distinguish themselves from the environment and assimilation e.g. B. to avoid a liberal value system . This applies, for example, to extremely conservative evangelical groups of Korean immigrants in the USA or to free-church Russian Germans in Germany, who, however, do not adopt a new religion, but want to preserve their mostly Mennonite roots by forming their own communities. In Paraguay , Mennonites of various origins have merged into a German-speaking (“Plautdietsch”) ethnic-religious group, which is also an ethnic group from the point of view of the majority population.

Ethnicization of religious affiliation can also serve to avoid religious discrimination if the country in question does not legally prohibit discrimination on religious grounds, as is sometimes the case in Anglo-Saxon law. It can also serve to defuse religious conflicts, which then of course have the tendency to develop into nationality conflicts. The attempts by the Yugoslav state , which have been increasing since the 1970s, to grant Bosnian Muslims (the Bosniaks ) an independent ethnic status and thus promote a secular Bosniak identity, were in the long term unsuitable for eliminating the latent religious conflict and curbing pan-Islamism .

The political scientist Olivier Roy uses the term neo-ethnicity for the striving of (mostly young) members of a religion (such as Muslims or Mormons) for a "renewed, common basis". The content of the religion is interpreted in its own way in order to constitute a new ethnic identity. The ideology of the radical-archaic interpretation of Islam in the so-called Islamic State is also in this context .

Sacralization of the ethnic group

One speaks of a sacralization of an ethnic group when a religious experience is exclusively claimed by a biological or socially constructed community of descent, which claims a special status for itself and for its belief system compared to other groups and tries to exclude them from their territory or from society ( so-called "tribal exclusivism"). Such a sacralization of the ethnic group is often caused by existence-threatening situations and experiences of oppression and leads to the radicalization of theology and its mixing with secular political goals. Ethnic or religiously motivated cleansing can result. Jonathan Fox assumes that the majority of today's ethnic conflicts are also religious conflicts or take on religious forms, even if the primary causes of the conflict are of a secular nature.

Examples of ethno-religious groups

Yazidi women in traditional clothing (2016)

Classic examples of ethno-religious communities:

  • Yazidis : in Iraq, Syria and Turkey as well as in the Caucasus in Georgia and in Armenia (recognized there as an independent ethnic group since 2002)
  • Druze : in the Middle East (Levant states)
  • Shabak : in northern Iraq, members of the Shabak ethnic group as well as members of Shabakism
  • Mandaeans : in southern Iraq and in the Iranian province of Khuzestan
  • Copts : in Egypt
  • Parsing : in Pakistan and India, followers of Zoroastrianism (in Iran, followers of Zoroastrianism call themselves "Zoroastrians")
  • Sikhs : their ethnicity is based on the culture of the Punjab , so they differentiate between the Punjabi Sikhs (in India and the Diaspora ) and the Gora Sikhs ( Hindi gora "fair-skinned, Europeans"), who have converted to Sikhism
  • Hui Chinese , one of the 56 nationalities of China
  • Amish : in the United States
  • Hutterite : in the United States and Canada
  • Old order Mennonites : in North America
  • Old Colonial Mennonites : on the American double continent

Ethnic-religious identity formation of nations and national minorities after 1918

The historian Emanuel Turczynski (1919–2002) assumed that the nationalism of the 19th and 20th centuries could not replace religious ties. On the contrary, he speaks of the identity-creating and integration function of religion in the attempt to form the most homogeneous nation-states possible after 1918. He coined and used the term “denominational nations” for the increasing mixing of ethnic and religious aspects in the development of the successor nations of the old Austria-Hungary also for the autonomy efforts of their ethnic minorities like the Ruthenians and Transylvanian Saxons .

The latest in 17./18. Century Islamized South Slavic Gorans in today's Kosovo and the Torbeschen in North Macedonia received their ascribed status as ethnic-religious minority groups only in the context of their integration into changing state structures with Muslim or Orthodox majority of the population. In the Ottoman Empire they were one group among many on a linguistic continuum. In Yugoslavia they were regarded as non-Slavs, but they saw themselves as “Muslims” in the ethnic sense, like many Bosniaks. The Albanians now consider them to be Slavic speaking Albanians, while in North Macedonia they are considered Muslim Macedonians. In the absence of their own written culture and historical tradition, their self-definition as an ethnic-religious group is poorly developed; Their complex multiple identity is preserved on the one hand through tradition and the demarcation of Serbs, Albanians and Macedonians, on the other hand politics and intellectual elites try to construct them as ethnically unambiguous, which leads to the search for evidence of lineages up to the Illyrians .

“Ethnoreligious group” as a legal term

Male members of the religious ethnic group of the Sikhs in India can be recognized by their Dastar turban (in the background their highest shrine, Harmandir Sahib , around 2009)

Great Britain

Protection against discrimination on the basis of religion was not developed in England on a legal basis, but only partly through case law. Until 2000, there was only selective protection against discrimination with regard to gender, race and disability. The British Anti-Discrimination Act was amended in 1994 after a lawsuit in 1983 over whether a Sikh student was allowed to wear a Dastar . The law created the conditions for the extension of the feature "race" (race) through the inclusion of ethnic groups with close ties to a religion and therefore offered a discrimination protection at least for Jews and Sikhs. Ethno-religious groups are defined by the following features:

  • a long shared history that distinguishes the group from others, and of which the group is aware and the memory of which it receives;
  • a special cultural tradition that is often, but not necessarily, associated with observance of religious customs.

A common regional origin, a common literature, a religion that distinguishes them from the groups in the vicinity and a minority status or the characteristic of oppression by the environment are also relevant. Even if the common ethnic origin of such a group can rarely be proven, a low number of people leaving and converting to the respective religion and the lack of proselytizing are indicators of a high degree of ethnic unity.


The legislation in New South Wales (New South Wales) also includes ethno-religious groups in the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of the characteristic “race” in a 1994 amendment to the Anti-Discrimination Act of 1977. Discrimination on purely religious grounds, however, is not explicitly taken into account in the law, which in turn is the case in the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act of 1998.

United States

In the US census , people are not allowed to assign themselves to six predefined categories according to their religion, but only according to the criterion “race” (in addition to which Hawaiians are also informally accepted). Here, the Sikhs, who primarily define themselves religiously, are fighting for the introduction of a new “racial” category, “Sikh”, which would enable them to gain greater visibility and recognition in the ethnic and religious mix of the USA. This makes recognition as a “race” a makeshift instrument for an identity politics originally motivated by religion.


  • Victoria Arakelova: Ethno-Religious Communities: To the Problems of Identity markers. In: Iran and the Caucasus. No. 14, 2010, pp. 1–18 (English; Yerevan State University; online at
  • Benjamin T. Phillips, Shaul Kelner: Reconceptualizing Religious Change: Ethno-Apostasy and Change in Religion among American Jews. In: Sociology of Religion. Volume 67, No. 4: The National Jewish Population Survey 2000–1. Winter 2006, pp. 507-552.

Individual evidence

  1. Overview: Map: Ethnic-religious groups in Iraq. In: SWR 2016, accessed on July 19, 2018.
  2. Dorothea Lüddeckens, Rafael Walthert, Christoph Uehlinger (eds.): The visibility of religious identity. Representation - difference - conflict (= CULTuREL. Volume 4). Plane, Zurich 2013, ISBN 978-3-290-22022-8 , p. ??.
  3. Christine Müller: On the importance of religion for Jewish young people in Germany (= contributions to a dialogical religious education. Volume 11). Waxmann, Münster 2007, ISBN 978-3-8309-1763-2 , pp. 144/145 and 151–157.
  4. Marta Wozniak: From religious to ethno-religious: Identity change among Assyrians / Syriacs in Sweden. [1] , 2013.
  5. Jonathan Fox: The Influence of Religious Legitimacy on Grievance Formation by Ethno-Religious Minorities. In: Journal of Peace Research. Volume 36, No. 3, May 1999, pp. 289–307.
  6. Herbert J. Gans: Ethnic and Racial Studies Vol. 2 No. 1 (1979), pp. 1-19.
  7. ^ Herbert J. Gans: Symbolic ethnicity and symbolic religiosity: Towards a comparison of ethnic and religious acculturation. In: Ethnic and Racial Studies , Vol. 17, No. 4 (1994), pp. 577-592.
  8. Menandro Sarion Abanes: ethno-religious Identification and Intergroup Contact Avoidance: An Empirical Study on Christian-Muslim Relations in the Philippines. Münster 2014, p. 7.
  9. ^ Stuart Hall: Introduction: Who needs identity? , in: Stuart Hall, Paul du Gay (Ed.): Questions of Cultural Identity . London 1996.
  10. Sargon Donabed, Shamiran Mako: Ethno-Cultural and Religious Identity of Syrian Orthodox Christians. In: Chronos , University of Balamand, Vol. 19, 2009.
  11. ^ S. Marshall, R. Das, M. Pirooznia et al. a .: Reconstructing Druze population history. In: SciRep 6, 35837 (2016). DOI 10.1038 / srep35837.
  12. Tanja Wettach-Zeitz: Ethnopolitical Conflicts and Interreligious Dialogue: Analyzing the Effectiveness of Interreligious Conflict Mediation Projects Using the Example of the World Conference on Religion and Peace Initiative in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Munich 2008, p. 46 f.
  13. Dorothea Lüddeckens, Rafael Walthert: Religion as a religious-ethnic community: The example of the Parsi Zoroastrians in India. In: Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie, Volume 65 (2013), Additional Volume 1, pp. 333–357.
  14. Emmanuel Todd : Sad Modern Age. A history of mankind from the Stone Age to Homo americanus. Beck, Munich 2018, ISBN 978-3-406-72475-6 , p. 101 ff. (French: Triste modernité. 2017).
  15. HR Ebaugh, JS Chafetz: Religion and the new immigrants: Continuities and adaptations in immigrant congregations. Walnut Creek 2000.
  16. F. Yang, HR Ebaugh: Transformations in new immigrant religions and Their global implications. In: American Sociological Review 66 (2001) 2, pp. 269-288.
  17. Frederik Elwert: Religion as Resource and Restriction in the Integration Process: A Case Study on Biographies of Free Church Germans from Russia. Berlin / Heidelberg 2015.
  18. ^ Tirza Mühlan-Meyer: The 'Mennonite German' in the Fernheim colony in Paraguay. In: Christoph Purschke, Brigitte Ganswindt (Hrsg.): Variation and change in focus: Contributions from the forum language variation. Hildesheim 2018, p. 226.
  19. Olivier Roy: Holy Ignorance: When Religion and Culture Part Ways. Oxford University Press, 2014. ISBN 978-0-19-932802-4 . Pp. 70, 73, 78-87, 165, 177, 180.
  20. Tanja Wettach-Zeitz: Ethnopolitical Conflicts and Interreligious Dialogue: Analyzing the Effectiveness of Interreligious Conflict Mediation Projects Using the Example of the World Conference on Religion and Peace Initiative in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Munich 2008, p. 47.
  21. Mathias Hildebrandt: Introduction . In Mathias Hildebrandt, Manfred Brocker: Unfriedliche Religionen ?: The political violence and conflict potential of religions. Berlin / Heidelberg 2015, p. 29.
  22. Jonathan Fox: The ethnic-religious nexus: The impact of religion on ethnic conflict. In: Civil Wars, Vol. 3 (2000) no.3,
  23. Emmanuel Todd: Sad Modern Age. A history of mankind from the Stone Age to Homo americanus. Beck, Munich 2018, ISBN 978-3-406-72475-6 , p. 132.
  24. Mikhail Kizilov: The Karaites of Galicia: An Ethnoreligious Minority Among the Ashkenazim, the Turks, and the Slavs, 1772-1945. In: Studia Judaeoslavica. 2009, p. 340 (English).
  25. Garnik S. Asatrian, Victoria Arakelova: The Religion of the Peacock Angel: The Yezidis and Their Spirit World . Routledge, London / New York 2014, ISBN 978-1-317-54429-6 , pp. vii (English, side view in Google Book Search).
  26. ^ Verne A. Dusenbery: Punjabi Sikhs and Gora Sikhs. In: Pashaura Singh, Louis E. Fenech (Eds.): The Oxford Handbook of Sikh Studies . Oxford University Press, Oxford 2014, pp. 560-568 (English).
  27. ^ Dru C. Gladney: Qingzhen: a study of ethnoreligious identity among Hui Muslim communities in China. 2019 Link , accessed on February 4, 2019.
  28. ^ Wolf Wilhelm Brednich: Tradition stories: Paradigmata of folkloric cultural research. Berlin 2015, p. 375 ff.
  29. ^ Emanuel Turczynski: Denomination and Nation. Düsseldorf 1976.
  30. ^ Muza Dankaz: The Gorani People During the Kosovo War: Ethnic Identity in the Conflict. On: La Salle University Digital Commons, 1 (2018).
  31. Document on the Mandla vs. Dowell-Lee 1983: Mandla (Sewa Singh) and another v Dowell Lee and others [1983] 2 AC 548. March 24, 1983 (English; PDF; 76 kB, 3 pages on
  32. ^ Text of the law: Anti-Discrimination (Amendment) Bill: Second Reading. Parliament of New South Wales. May 12, 2007.
  33. ^ Interpretation of the law: Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 - Sect 3: Interpretation. In: Tasmanian Consolidated Acts. Tasmania, undated, accessed January 29, 2019.
  34. Memorandum of the United Sikhs on the occasion of the US census 2010 ( Memento from February 24, 2014 in the Internet Archive )