The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics, by Hirschkind, Charles
- ISBN: 9780231138192 | 0231138199
- Cover: Paperback
- Copyright: 8/1/2009
|Note on Transcription||p. xiii|
|Islam, Nationalism, and Audition||p. 32|
|The Ethics of Listening||p. 67|
|Cassettes and Counterpublics||p. 105|
|Rhetorics of the Da'iya||p. 143|
|The Acoustics of Death||p. 173|
|Works Cited||p. 247|
|Table of Contents provided by Ingram. All Rights Reserved.|
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Listen to audio of a sermon discussed in this excerpt (in Arabic).
I climb into a taxi cab just outside of the Ramses Mosque in the city center. The driver steers onto the busy thoroughfare of Ramses Street, and listens. A sermon struggles out through the frayed speakers and dust-encrusted electronics of a tape player bolted under the taxi's dashboard, just beneath a velvet-covered box holding a small Quran. The voice careens and crescendos along its rhetorical pathways, accompanied by the accumulated vibration, static, hiss, and squeak inherited from the multiple copies that have preceded the one now in the machine. Street noise picked up by the microphone continually rises up to engulf the speaking voice, redoubling the sonic jumble of horns, shouts, the rattles and pops of rusted exhaust pipes now buffeting the car. In the back seat, two friends joke and laugh together, their bodies pushed and pulled as the car proceeds through the congested alleyways, jerking, braking, jumping forward. Billboards advertising computer parts, soft drinks, and the latest films loom above the storefronts and crowded sidewalks. The driver hits the horn at a car attempting to cut in front of him, as the voice on the tape intones a Quranic verse on the inescapability of death: "Every soul tastes death..." (kullu nafs dha'iqa al-mawt) . A wave of cries from the mosque assembly pierce through the background noise and the thick layer of reverb, the driver's lips lightly and inaudibly tracing the contours of the words "There is no God but the one God," as he accelerates ahead of the car seeking to pass him. One of the men in the back stops his conversation to comment: "That preacher must be Saudi. They're the ones who really know how to scare you." The recorded voice begins a series of supplications as the cab passengers go back to their previous conversation and the driver adjusts the volume knob: "May God lessen the death throes for us. May God light our graves. May God protect us on Judgment Day." The speakers rattle as the crowd roars "Amin" after each supplication. The taxi stops at the entrance to the 26th of July Bridge, named in celebration of Egypt's 1973 war with Israel, and the two passengers pay the driver and get out. Merging back into traffic, the driver heads for the onramp to the bridge that will take him to the upper-middle-class suburb of Muhandesin. As he approaches the ramp, the voice on the tape is asking, "How will you feel when the grave closes tightly around you from all of the evil deeds you have done?" The bass line to a Michael Jackson hit sweeps in from the open window of a passing car and quickly fades away. "C'mon shaykh, get to the three questions," the driver implores as he accelerates, anxious for the scene of divine interrogation that he knows from experience will soon arrive. Heading over the bridge, he is still listening.
This book is a study of a popular Islamic media form that has had a profound effect on the configuration of religion, politics, and community in the Middle East. As a key element in the technological scaffolding of what is called the Islamic Revival ( al-Sahwa al-Islamiyya ), the cassette sermon has become an omnipresent background of daily urban life in most Middle Eastern cities, accompanying and punctuating the mundane toils of men and women like the taxi driver whose journey through Cairo and the hereafter I began with above. As I will argue, the contribution of this aural media to shaping the contemporary moral and political landscape of the Middle East lies not simply in its capacity to disseminate ideas or instill religious ideologies but in its effect on the human sensorium, on the affects, sensibilities, and perceptual habits of its vast audience. The soundscape produced through the circulation of this medium animates and sustains the substrate of sensory knowledges and embodied aptitudes undergirding a broad revival movement within contemporary Islam. From its inception in the twentieth century, this movement has centered on a critique of the existing structures of religious and secular authority. For those who participate in the movement, the moral and political direction of contemporary Muslim societies cannot be left to politicians, religious scholars, or militant activists but must be decided upon and enacted collectively by ordinary Muslims in the course of their normal daily activities. The notions of individual and collective responsibility that this movement has given rise to have come to be embodied in a wide array of institutions, media forms, and practices of public sociability. In doing so, they have changed the political geography of the Middle East in ways that have vast implications for the future of the region. This book examines the contribution of the cassette-recorded sermon to the revival movement and to the transformations it has engendered. Although the listening practices I explore inhabit a counter-history -- counter to the modernist formations of politics and religion and the ideologies that sustain and legitimate them -- this history nonetheless exerts forcible claims on the contemporary, and thus on the futures imaginable from its shores.
Islamic cassette sermons are commonly associated with the underworld of militants and radical preachers, a world quite distinct from one centered in the popular quarters of Cairo that I will describe in this book. Turn to any recent news item about a violent attack undertaken by Muslim radicals and chances are that there among the artifacts left behind by the perpetrators lies a taped sermon, inciting, propagandizing, working its insidious causality. "Bin Laden's Low-Tech Weapon," as a recent New York Times article dubs this media form, "well suited to underground political communication... easy to use and virtually impossible for governments to control" (Nunberg 2004). This menacing image of the cassette sermon as a symbol of Islamic fanaticism goes back to the 1979 Iranian Revolution, when the circulation of Ayatollah Khomeini's recorded missives played a key role in the mobilizations leading up to the overthrow of the Shah (Mohammedi and Mohammedi 1994). The Islamic cassette resurfaced again in 1993 at the trial of Shaykh Omar Abdul Rahman, the Egyptian cleric convicted of inciting and conspiring with the Muslim radicals who undertook the first attack on the World Trade Center. The prosecution relied heavily on Abdul Rahman's recorded sermons in making its case. Since then, cassette sermons have appeared again and again among the personal effects of Muslim militants gathered up by investigators in the wake of an arrest or attack. "The cassette tapes tossed casually in a cardboard box would normally not arouse too much suspicion," an Australian journalist reports, "It was these recordings which the suicide bomber who detonated a massive car bomb outside the Australian Embassy last month and the members of his group listened to and learned from in the past year" (Wockner 2004). At once a tool of ideological indoctrination and a vehicle for the transmission of militant directives, cassettes, it would seem, are to fundamentalist Islam what the press was to the bourgeois public sphere of the European Enlightenment -- its media form par excellence.
Scholars of contemporary Islam have also alerted us to the central role of the cassette sermon within fundamentalist or radical Islam. The following comment by a well-known investigator of Islamic militancy echoes popular journalistic accounts:
"Since Ayatollah Khomeini's movement in Iran in the mid-1970s, the cassette has played a crucial role in the spread, survival, and success of fundamentalist Islamic movements. Tapes have such an important role because in the absence of a Comintern-style hierarchical structure, they constitute a resilient web that holds together a plethora of local movements and groups, operating mostly within national borders. The constant flow of tapes in the area from Afghanistan to Morocco knits like-minded Muslims into a larger whole. Indeed, tapes even flow into Europe and North America." (Sivan 1995:13)
In this view, it is the cassette's capillary motion, its ability to proliferate beneath the radar of law enforcement, that has rendered this media form so useful to the task of international Islamic insurgency. The ominous web that cassette technology weaves -- able to "flow," as this author warns, even across the borders of Europe and North America -- recalls the hydra-headed image of al-Qaeda described by Western security agencies, with its loose network of hate-filled conspirators.
In this book I take issue with many of the assumptions and judgments through which the image of the militant or, to use more recent vocabulary, "the terrorist," has come to be sutured with the phenomenon of Islamic media and especially with the cassette sermon. Apart from the fact that the vast majority of these tapes do not espouse a militant message, listening to cassette sermons is a common and valued activity for millions of ordinary Muslims around the world, men and women who hold regular jobs, study at the university, send their kids to public schools, and worry about the future of their communities. As I will describe in the chapters that follow, for almost all of those who listen to them, these tapes are not part of a program of radical mobilization but, instead, part of a complex ethical and political project whose scope and importance cannot be contained within the neat figure of the militant or terrorist. Islamic sermon tapes have helped craft and give expression to a religious sensibility moored in a set of ethical and social problems whose rationale deserves a serious engagement by anyone concerned with the future of Muslim societies or, for that matter, with the much-espoused goal of "promoting democracy" in the Middle East. To read the cassette sermon primarily as a technology of fundamentalism and militancy reduces the enormous complexity of the lifeworld enabled by this medium, forcing it to fit into the narrow confines of a language of threat, fear, rejection, and irrationality.
This should not be taken to mean, of course, that these popular cassette media are devoid of political content. On the contrary, cassette sermons frequently articulate a fierce critique of the nationalist project, with its attendant lack of democracy and accountability among the ruling elites of the Muslim world. The form of public discourse within which this critique takes place, however, is not oriented toward militant political action or the overthrow of the state. Rather, such political commentary gives direction to a normative ethical project centered upon questions of social responsibility, pious comportment, and devotional practice. In addition, the styles of use that characterize this media form also bear the imprint of popular entertainment media and some listeners intersperse sermon and music tapes in their listening habits. These diverse strands that are conjoined in Islamic cassette media -- the political, the ethical, and the aesthetic -- at times sit in some tension with one another, provoking intense debate and contestation among their consumers about issues ranging from the appropriate use of such media to broader questions about the ethical and political bases upon which the future of the community should be established.
Much of the scholarly literature on contemporary Islam centers on the question, "Is the Islamic Revival movement compatible with democracy?" While I do discuss forms of public reason and critique that show a clear debt to democratic thinking and its institutional norms, my interest in these forms extends beyond the question of their relationship to that particular tradition of political thought. The line of investigation I pursue, in this regard, reflects my conviction that the analytical standpoint afforded by the notion of democracy is inadequate for grasping the articulations of politics, ethics, and religion in postcolonial contexts like Egypt, and for assessing the possibilities of social and political justice they may enfold. As scholars of postcolonialism have increasingly brought to our attention, the abstract principle of popular sovereignty stands in a complex and often contradictory relation to the norms and regulatory institutions of the modern nation-state -- to the moral and political disciplines that Foucault refers to as technologies of governmentality. Practices of democratic political participation cannot be understood solely by reference to the formal rights enjoyed by legally defined citizens, nor by reference to the democratic culture that such rights are understood to engender. The conditions of citizenship that allow for the development and exercise of democratic prerogatives also depend upon the techniques of social disciplines -- the institutional networks of welfare, education, health, religion, and so on -- through which the actual capacities of citizens are fashioned. In this light, even to begin to think about what a democratic practice might look like in a context such as postcolonial Egypt requires careful attention to the complex and contingent linkages between discourses of collective agency and the specific forms of associational life, community, and authority within which those discourses are deployed.
The Politics of Sound
From the inception of the practice in the late 1960s and early 1970s, cassette-sermon audition has been an important and integral part of the Islamic Revival. While this movement encompasses a wide variety of phenomena, from political parties to underground militant organizations, in Egypt its broadest section has always remained grounded in grassroots efforts to revitalize Islamic forms of knowledge, pedagogy, comportment, and sociability. As a result of this movement, many in Egypt from across the class spectrum, and particularly younger people, have increasingly found it important to deepen their knowledge of the Quran and the multiple disciplines it mediates, to participate in mosque study groups, to acquire competence in preaching and recitation techniques, and, more generally, to abide by the dictates of what they consider to be virtuous Muslim conduct in both their religious and nonreligious activities.
The effects of this movement are evident throughout Egypt but most strikingly and pervasively in the popular quarters of Cairo's lower-middle and lower classes, where a renewed concern with Islam is visible in everything from dress styles to mosque attendance to the prevalence of Islamic welfare organizations. Indeed, networks of Islamic charitable, service, educational, and medical associations, many of them directly affiliated with local mosques, have increasingly proliferated in such popular quarters and have further enhanced the function of mosques as centers of neighborhood life (see chapter 2). These developments have been accompanied by the creation of what might be called Islamic soundscapes, ways of reconfiguring urban space acoustically through the use of Islamic media forms. Rooted in this amalgam of forms of association, practice, learning, and sensibility, the Islamic Revival has exerted a profound effect on Egypt as well as other Middle Eastern societies over the last few decades. Its paradigmatic media form is the cassette sermon.
In Cairo, where I spent a year and a half exploring this common media practice, cassette-recorded sermons of popular Muslim preachers, or khutaba' (sing. khatib ), have become a ubiquitous part of the contemporary social landscape. The sermons of well-known orators spill into the street from loudspeakers in cafes, the shops of tailors and butchers, the workshops of mechanics and TV repairmen; they accompany passengers in taxis, mini-buses, and most forms of public transportation; they resonate from behind the walls of apartment complexes, where men and women listen alone in the privacy of their homes after returning home from the factory, while doing housework, or together with acquaintances from school or office, invited to hear the latest sermon from a favorite preacher. Outside most of the larger mosques, following Friday prayer, thriving tape markets are crowded with people looking for the latest sermon from one of Egypt's well-known khutaba' or a hard-to-find tape from one of Jordan's prominent mosque leaders. The popularity of sermon tapes has given public prominence to these orators that the Egyptian state, despite its attempts to silence such figures through rigid censorship policies, has been able to do little about.
During my stay in Egypt, I spent much of my time meeting both with the khutaba' who produced sermon tapes and with young people who listened to them on a regular basis. Ibrahim was one of the men who would often take time to listen to sermon tapes with me and explain their significance. A recent graduate of Cairo University now working for a small publishing company, Ibrahim had first become an enthusiast of sermon tapes while he was a student. He would often listen to them when he came home from work, either alone in his room or together with his younger sister and his parents. His sister, Huda, a university student herself at the time, also greatly appreciated cassette sermons and would frequently bring home new tapes she had borrowed from friends at school. As her brother had when he was a student, Huda participated in a study group at the university in which she and other students would sit and discuss current issues and events they considered germane to their lives as Muslim men and women. Like many of the young Egyptians who make up the backbone of the Islamic Revival, the siblings both condemned the violent tactics of Egypt's militant Islamic groups while agreeing with many of their social and political critiques. For both brother and sister, and many others like them, cassette sermons were at once entertaining, politically informative, educational, and ethically nourishing, a media form consonant with the challenge of living as a Muslim in today's world.
This book explores the practice of listening to such taped sermons and the forms of public life this practice serves to uphold in contemporary Egypt. In the popular neighborhoods of Cairo, sermon tapes are part of the acoustic architecture of a distinct moral vision, animating and sustaining the ethical sensibilities that enable ordinary Muslims to live in accord with what they consider to be God's will. Recorded and rerecorded, passing through worn-out electronics, bustling crowds, and noisy streets, the vocal performances resonate both within the sensorium of sensitive listeners and outside, around them and between them. In doing so, they create the sensory conditions of an emergent ethical and political lifeworld, with its specific patterns of behavior, sensibility, and practical reasoning. To call this lifeworld "fundamentalist," to chalk it up to the contortions of the religious mind in a secular age, misses the point of this ethicopolitical project. The reduction enacted by such terms blinds us to a variety of ambitions, goals, and aspirations, foremost among them the desire on the part of ordinary Muslims to live in accord with the demands of Islamic piety within a context of rapidly changing social, political, and technological conditions. As I show in chapter 4, this attempt entails the creation of new discursive forms for collectively arguing about and acting upon the conditions of social and political life. The emergent public arena articulated by the circulation of cassette-recorded sermons connects Islamic traditions of ethical discipline to practices of deliberation about the common good, the duties of Muslims in their status as national citizens, and the future of the greater Islamic community (the umma). These deliberative practices are not oriented toward politics as it is conventionally understood: their purpose is not to influence the formation of state policy or to mobilize voting blocs behind party platforms. Rather, the activities that constitute the public arena I describe are political in a way close to the sense Hannah Arendt (1958) gives to the term: the activities of ordinary citizens who, through the exercise of their agency in contexts of public interaction, shape the conditions of their collective existence. As conceived by its participants, this arena constitutes that space of communal reflexivity and action understood as necessary for perfecting and sustaining the totality of practices upon which an Islamic society depends.
To explore this lifeworld requires that we confront the inadequacies of such binaries as moral/political, disciplinary/deliberative, and emotion/reason, that have shaped our normative understandings of both political life and the public sphere wherein aspects of that life are explicitly thematized and worked upon. Indeed, one of the central arguments of this book is that the affects and sensibilities honed through popular media practices such as listening to cassette sermons are as infrastructural to politics and public reason as are markets, associations, formal institutions, and information networks. My analysis, in this sense, follows upon a growing recognition by scholars that the forms of thinking and reasoning that constitute our political discourses are profoundly indebted to evaluative dispositions outside the purview of consciousness, to what political theorist William Connolly refers to as "visceral modes of appraisal" (Connolly 1999). This book is a study of the contribution of a popular media practice to the fashioning of such modes of appraisal, and of the religious and political constellations this practice sustains within Egypt today.
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