Interview with Charles Hirschkind, Author of The Ethical Soundscape

Charles HirschkindIn The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics (now available in paper), Charles Hirschkind explores how a popular Islamic media form—the cassette sermon—has profoundly transformed the political geography of the Middle East over the last three decades. The following is an interview with Hirschkind. For more on the book, you can also listen to a sermon or read an excerpt from the book.

Question: Islamic cassette media have been associated with Muslim fundamentalism and extremism ever since the 1979 revolution in Iran, when Ayatollah Khomeini’s recorded missives played a key role in the mobilizations leading up to the overthrow of the shah. Haven’t cassettes always served as a vehicle of militancy and subversion in the Middle East?

Charles Hirschkind: Although cassette-recorded sermons have been used as a recruitment tool by Islamic militants on some occasions, the vast majority of those who listen to this media are ordinary Muslims, men and women who hold regular jobs, who send their kids to public schools, who worry about the future of their communities. For these people, sermon tapes are not an instrument of radical mobilization but a way to acquire the religious knowledge and sensibilities that help one to live and act ethically in a rapidly changing social and political world. Most of the preachers who produce these tapes combine this emphasis on the ethical with a discussion of contemporary political issues that bear on the lives of Muslims, the two woven together in a format that is both entertaining and educational. While the political content of such tapes will often include criticisms of Middle Eastern regimes for failing to implement democratic political rights, and of the United States for imposing a political and economic straitjacket on the region, the context of these arguments is not militancy but a movement focused on an inquiry into the conditions (political, moral, economic) that enable an ethical form of collective life.

Q: Does the recent electoral successes of Islamist political parties in the Middle East—for example, the Muslim Brothers in Egypt or Hamas in occupied Palestine—owe in any way to the cassette-media phenomenon you describe in your book?

CH: Islamic sermons have long served as a key avenue of social and political critique in the Middle East, especially in contexts where the state rigorously controls or censors the press and electronic media—as it does in Egypt, where I conducted research for a year and a half. The reproduction and circulation of sermons on cassette and the development of the new practices of listening and public debate that I describe in my book only enhanced the role of the sermon as a medium for the articulation of a contestatory discourse on state and society. In other words, for many people in the Middle East, the sermon—both in the mosque and on cassette—has been a primary site for acquiring a political education. It should not come as a surprise, therefore, that some of the most vibrant political movements for the expansion of the democratic franchise in the Middle East today include a strong orientation to the traditions of Islam. For these movements, the sermon has provided the paradigmatic oratorical form for Islamic public discourse, and the cassette—with its portability, reproducibility, and the ease with which it evades government regulatory control—has often served as it primary means of circulation.

Q: If sermons play such an important role in shaping the politics of the Middle East today, doesn’t that leave a lot of power in the hands of preachers? Shouldn’t it make us worry when religious figures command such authority?

CH: While it is true that many of the people I worked with in Cairo looked to their favorite preachers for guidance in their private and public lives, they also criticized them at times. This is a key aspect of the public arena that cassette sermons have given shape to in some parts of the Middle East: instead of creating homogeneity of opinion, Islamic cassette media have tended to promote practices of public criticism, deliberation, and argument. On the one hand, cassette-based preachers frequently critique one another for political and doctrinal positions they deem incorrect. On the other hand, tapes frequently serve as a catalyst for arguments between listeners about everything from the desirability of legal reform to the requirements of pious dress. Moreover, these practices of debate and contestation are not viewed by those who participate in this arena of Islamic argumentation as a drawback, something to be overcome in time, but as a necessary condition for the task of collectively rethinking the contribution of the past to an unfolding future.

Q: Hasn’t the development of satellite television in the last few years, and especially al-Jazeera, rendered the cassette obsolete as a medium of political discourse in the Middle East?

CH: I don’t think so. While there is no doubt that satellite TV has reshaped the political terrain across the Middle East, as a visual media form, such programs supplement but do not replace the role of aural media like the cassette. As I describe in my book, cassette sermons are used by many Egyptians as a means not only to acquire religious knowledge but to cultivate the affects and sensibilities that facilitate ethical living. This modern technique of moral self-cultivation is deeply indebted to Islamic traditions of aural discipline that place great emphasis on the phonic and poetic qualities of spoken or recited language. The great popularity of recorded sermons today owes to no small extent to the ability of a number of contemporary preachers to fuse this tradition of aural sensibility and discipline with a political analysis of the problems confronting Muslim societies. Thus, although satellite television has undermined the state’s ability to control the political content of televisual media, as long as practices of sensitive listening remain central to the formation of pious Muslim subjects, cassettes, ipods, and other aural media will continue to play a salient role in Islamic societies.

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