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Recorded Muslim sermons from East Africa

Final Report Summary - RMSEA (Recorded Muslim sermons from East Africa)

This project analysed the production, dissemination, use and social significance of recorded Muslim sermons in East Africa. These sermons are now widely traded across Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda; initially on tape but now mostly on DVDs, and increasingly on social media such as WhatsApp. They have become a social institution of sorts, providing talking points and a focus for sociability among listeners. But their social and political significance differs greatly between places and audiences. The project has identified several foci in this untidy discourse, which enable a clearer and more nuanced understanding of the radicalism and discontent they express.

The changing political context: The particular attention paid to political readings in the second phase reflects in part the salience of Islamism in political debates in the region during the period under discussion. Invocations of Zanzibar’s Islamic identity, supposedly threatened by mainland immigration, have become central to the platform of Zanzibari separatists. Their ability to mobilise street protest, in turn, contributed greatly to the demise of electoral and political compromises that had been celebrated earlier in the decade. Meanwhile sporadic violence between state forces and Islamists continued in Kenya, and received heightened interest due to the prominence of radical Islamism in the media during the period of ISIS’s reign. Tanzania, in turn, underwent an authoritarian turn under its new president from November 2015 that heightened the profile of every kind of dissent.

The tension between political and personal spheres: in the context just described, it is unsurprising that most informants saw sermonizing as implicitly political, and that the explicitly political sermons, especially in Zanzibar, were strongly oppositional. Nevertheless, close readings of interviews connected the political stances very closely to intensely personal concerns. For example, a producer who had moved from recording popular music to recording sermons described anguished personal deliberations about religious commitment and commercial survival, and focus group members expressed nostalgia for past days of religious harmony even as they endorsed the separatists’ confrontational stances. These observations add to those made in the previous report on the diversity of responses in sermon reception, and the strength of pragmatic, ‘real-life-just-isn’t-quite-like-that’ ways of reasoning in the face of many sermons’ absolutism. They sharpen questions concerning the ways listeners ‘live with’ the sermons, and their place in the contemporary politics of East Africa.

Absolutism and mortality: despite the pragmatism and non-confrontational stances adopted by the vast majority of Muslims in East Africa, they tend to agree in principle that the more restrictive readings of the religious texts are the more accurate ones, and more ascetic practitioners of their religion are ‘better’ Muslims than themselves. A close reading of sermons and debates around them suggests that assertions of the need for absolutism are closely tied to references to death, the transience of this world and the inevitability of judgment in the next. They are classically ‘activist world-rejecting’ as per Max Weber. In effect, the absolutism serves to impose order and direction on a world perceived as in decay. This world-rejecting radicalism is a variation on the long-standing theme of religious radicalism as a ‘cult of affliction’; a response to the lack of other options. But it cannot be reduced to this, especially as many of the speakers producing these statements do not share the experience of social marginality and lack of opportunity experienced by many in their audience. Rather, it expresses a coherent world view that happens to assert very different priorities from those typically dominant in the secular, developmental and parliamentary-democratic states in which the preachers operate.

Morality and the public sphere: the political discourses produced by and around the sermons emphasises both personal and collective morality. Speakers characterize mainstream secular politicians as venal and dominated by self-interest, and sometimes call upon them to search their consciences. Meanwhile, listeners question the moral probity not only of politicians, but also of much of the religious establishment. They closely bracket moral probity with religious knowledge (those who lack the former cannot hold on to the latter). Political crises thereby become crises of both public and personal morality. These lines of reasoning resonate with observations that anthropologists such as Ferguson have made about political thought in other, thoroughly Christian parts of Africa. Referring specifically to thought about inequality and poverty, they point out that Africans’ discourses on these topics are often focused on moral concerns. In part, this parallel points towards notions about the importance of communal solidarity and individual householders’ moral probity for collective well-being that have also been discussed in East African contexts.

Domesticity and politics: The moral ways of reasoning about politics in the sermons are part of a larger discourse about moral probity and personal growth that focuses on gendered behavioral ideals in the domestic and the political sphere. States and societies are spoken of as households writ large, while conversely households are treated as the model for larger social formations. Men are called upon to prove their moral fiber in their role as domestic patriarchs, and households are central as sites of biological (as well as social) reproduction. At the same time, the domestic sphere is devalued as the site where women’s moral shortcomings and petty concerns play out. Domesticity, it appears, is rife with tensions and frustrations, but also good to think with; a highly productive metaphor. Much of the thought expressed clearly threatens women’s autonomy and status. Evidently, for men who lack control over many aspects of their lives, controlling women is an at least potentially-achievable aim, that moreover chimes well with the absolutist stance of many Islamists.

Religious languages of discontent: Recent political agitation and some of Mr Warsame’s in-depth interviews highlight the role of sermon purveyors and listeners who take their content both literally and seriously. Their stance coexists uneasily with the use of sermons as entertainment or recreation, and the choice between these different uses is deeply personal. Overall, the sermons’ rhetoric sits at a confluence of societal needs and crises, religious entrepreneurialism, entertainment and meaning-making. It does very different kinds of work for different people, and it is practically impossible to determine by observation which among the listeners will focus on the sermons’ confrontational overtones and become violent. It is evident, though, that the sermons’ appeal is not merely a function of the social stressors in the lives of their listeners. Any attempt to counter them, concomitantly, has to engage with their content; with the preachers’ intellectual projects.

The above-mentioned insights have achieved impact beyond academia through my participation in the Gent Africa film festival and a public discussion at Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt. The practical message of the insights is that aggressive rhetoric should not automatically be taken as an indication of preparedness for violence, and that those radicals who are liable to engage in terrorism are hard to identify. Further impact was achieved through workshops, which transmitted fresh academic insight to interested members of the public, and through the use of insights from the project in teaching. The project has delivered important insights into the mindset and history of a politically alienated religious constituency that is crucial for religious peace in the East African region and, through migration and participation in activist and terrorist networks, beyond it. Work will continue on filtering these insights into the public sphere.