The New York Times called it "Bin Laden's Low-Tech Weapon": Islamic cassette sermons are often associated with terrorism. They are rather a medium for democratic activism and ethical selv-improvement, anthropologist Charles Hirschkind argues in his new book "The Ethical Soundscape. Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics".
There is an book excerpt on the website of Columbia University Press. Hirschkind writes:
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.
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.
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.
These sermons are a key element in the technological scaffolding of what is called the Islamic Revival (al-Sahwa al-Islamiyya), he writes. The cassette sermon has become an omnipresent background of daily urban life in most Middle Eastern cities:
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.
During his stay in Egypt, he spent much of his time meeting both with the khutaba' who produced sermon tapes and with young people who listened to them on a regular basis.
One of the central arguments of his book is, he writes, "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."
Charles Hirschkind: What is Political Islam? (Middle East Report)
Charles Hirschkind: The Betrayal of Lebanon (tabsir, 1.8.06)