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Islam, broadcast media, and the remaking of religious experience in Mali

May 22, 2016

The Malian preacher Cherif Haidara. Photo credit: haraniani dembele

See below a seventh (7th) set of notes under the theme of media and change in preparation for the volume Postill, J., E. Ardevol and S. Tenhunen (eds.) forthcoming, Digital Media and Cultural Change. The notes are taken from a wealth of media anthropological research into this question that has remained to this date well hidden from mainstream media and communication studies. This research deserves, in my view, to be read more widely across this interdisciplinary area of scholarship.

Notes prepared by Fran Barone  (my emphases)
Used with permission.

SCHULZ, DOROTHEA E. 2006. “Promises of (im)mediate salvation: Islam, broadcast media, and the remaking of religious experience in Mali” American Ethnologist, 33(2): 210–229.

Fieldwork: in the southern towns of San, Segu, and Bamako (Mali) between July 1998 and March 2004 (altogether 19 months) (p. 223).

Over the past 20 years, new religious leaders/charismatic preachers gaining prominence and a “pervasive presence of Islam in broadcast media” has seen “the mushrooming of local radio stations since the establishment of multiparty democracy in 1991” (p 210).

Using example of Malian preacher Cherif Haidara, “attention is devoted to the expanding culture of mass-mediated entertainment and to the ways consumer objects and new technologies for mediating religion define and reconfigure the terms on which Islam “goes public”, that is, comes to (pre)occupy public debate and imagination” (p. 212)

French colonialism and post-colonial period gave rise to religious specialists popularizing “the articulation of an Islamic normativity, formulated in response to the institutions and rationale of the colonial state (p. 213).

Political changes: “Underneath the apparent continuity of Traoré’s 23 years of military and (after 1979) single-party rule, changes occurred in the normative and institutional foundations of politics” with Islam emerging as a powerful moral idiom of “common good” (p. 213). “Other developments, in particular, the loss in credibility of Traoré’s regime under the effects of neoliberal economic reform after the mid-1980s, contributed importantly to the normative vacuum that heightened the appeal of Islam as a credible, alternative normative reference point for public order” (p. 213)

“At present, a range of Muslim actors enter into open competition with representatives of “traditional” Islam and draw on new means and media to do so. These Muslim “activists” lack traditional credentials of religious authority yet capitalize on their European or U.S. school background or their education in the Arab-speaking world to mobilize a large following” (p. 213-214). They seek to “carve out a separate normative space by defining their own role as that of moral watchdog removed from the interested stratagems of politicians” (p. 214).

Changing media landscape: “Whether the sermon audiotapes are broadcast on local radio or circulate among supporters of Islamic moral reform, they have the potential to challenge or subvert official representations of Islam because they circulate along channels that largely evade governmental control”, thereby creating a counter-public (p. 215).

Small media is not always enough, so preachers seek “access to, and the selective co-optation of, state institutions remains a crucial battleground of intra-Muslim controversy” (p. 215).

The “success of these media preachers seems to revolve around the intricate and very particular connection between their styles of reasoning and the technology of mediation they employ” (p. 216)

The partial privatization of the organization of the hajj, formerly controlled by the state, has led to many hajj travel agencies competing by marketing on radio, TV and cars. Preachers can be seen as similar entrepreneurs via cassette and audio recordings. The tapes are both religiously significant for their listeners and as established commodities exchanged for money (p. 217-218).

Particular technologies of mediation, once embedded in structures of commercialization, do not simply serve to disseminate or broadcast a moral message to a wider constituency. Rather, they transform conventional forms of religious sociality, and […] allow for new kinds of religious engagement and spiritual experience” (p. 220)

Different types of media adjust level of publicness and type of audience. E.g. audio cassettes are “small media” whose circulation is not centrally controlled, so they reach a wider audience and are prized for their intimate nature and voice of the preacher (p. 220). Style and format of the radio programs and recordings is also shaped by popular commercial entertainment culture (p. 221).

That Haidara’s teachings are so popular among people of various backgrounds suggests “that, along with the popularization of religious debate, Islam has become an element of commercial, mass-mediated culture” (p. 221) as a consequence of economic and political liberalization over the past 30 years. Islam no longer plays the same role as a group or ethnic identity, but designates a personal, individual conviction to be professed publicly (p. 221).

Changing notions of religiosity need to be “understood by reference to recent changes in the relationship between state, media, and market” (p. 222): “these movements share some features that identify them as different versions of the same regime of religious practice. They all emerge in response to a combination of historical conditions, such as the challenges to established religious authorities since the colonial period, the weakening of alliances between state and religious establishment, and, very recently, political opening, combined with the liberalization of the media landscape and of the economy. These changes allow for a greater intermingling of religious experience, economic enterprise, and everyday consumption practices” (p. 223).

Throughout the Muslim world, “the increasing engagement with emblems and products of a commercial, mass-mediated Islam does not dilute believers’ religious conviction. […] These new forms coexist with and draw on established notions of religious practice, rather than replace them in any simple, unidirectional teleological development toward “more modern” attitudes” (p. 223).

See other media and change posts…


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