Being a Pious in the Age of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter

Call for Paper
“Being a Pious in the Age of Facebook, Youtube and Twitter”
Symposium, April 18-19th, 2013, KU Leuven

Kelly Askew (UMichigan)
Charles Hirschkind (UCBerkeley)
Dorothea Schulz (University of Cologne)

September 2012, YouTube postings of the film “Innocence of Muslims” sparked manifestations of indignation all over the world, many African cities included. While at times, the demonstrations were peaceful, Reuters mentioned that Shi’ite Muslims in the Nigerian town of Katsina burned U.S., French and Israeli flags, and a religious leader called for protests to continue until the makers of the film and cartoons are punished. The Islamic Movement in Nigeria organized a protest march in Kano, northern Nigeria, in which thousands marched peacefully. On 21 September 2012, thousands of Muslims rallied through the roads after Friday prayers in Dar es Salaam where different speeches, which condemned the film, were provided. Men, women children and even elders, together made a peaceful march. Elsewhere, like in Cairo, riots occurred and people were killed. The reactions did not only reflect a concern about respect for Islam communities. Rather, the protests themselves became moments in which local state actions gained meaning as well. Authorities in Cairo, for example, are said to have ordered the arrest of seven US-based Egyptian Coptic Christians for their alleged involvement in the anti-Islam video. In Bamako, on the other hand, protests were scheduled to take place in front of the American Embassy, but in the end were canceled. According to rumors, protesters feared that violent interventions by the national army would offer the government the occasion to mobilize respect for and support of “the US”.

These events trigger questions concerning the imagination of the West; the representation of Islam and religion in general; and the dialectics between politics and social media. We want to invite three prominent anthropologists who have done extensive fieldwork on media and popular forms of mobilization in three different African countries where Islam is important: Egypt, Mali and Tanzania.

During a roundtable session, the scholars will address the two following questions:
1. “What does it mean to be Muslim and pious in the global media age?” How do media representations, media practice and media use influence piety, faith and the public manifestation of one’s religious identity?
2. And, how do the public manifestations (sometimes violent, sometimes peaceful) by believers and triggered by media influence their daily interactions with other religious practitioners? How are these mobilizations inscribed within local conversations with other religious groups? And, how are these also transformed by inter-religious encounters?
3. What kinds of moral communities are being created throughout the media? To which extent do new media provide a platform for shaping pious self-understandings and can religious groups draw on these new technologies to establish and create new collectivities or counter-publics?

From Representation to Mobilization

Anthropologists are turning more and more to the significance of social media. In particular, compelling research deals with how new media platforms impact lifestyles, construct “imagined communities” or ethical communities, and shape agency, fantasies and expectations.

Influential scholars that have set the theoretical background for an anthropology of social media are Benedict Anderson and Arjun Appadurai. In Imagined Communities (1983), Anderson analysed how the formation of nations depend to a high degree on innovations in communication technologies, in particular the print press. By reading journal articles that discuss issues of “common interest”, “national publics” came into being. Newspapers were written in a language its readers shared, and enabled the emergence of a national consciousness.

Apart from the formation of national groups, media of all kinds are fundamental in the creation and consolidation of religious groups and the mobilization of transcendental powers as well (Meyer and Moors 2006). Challenging for students of contemporary society is that innovations in communication technologies such as radio, television and, especially social media, give rise to various kinds of new communities and publics, new forms of attachment and belonging, and novel ways of experimenting with collective and private identities. In particular, social media bring to the fore the participatory element of “the public”. Writing comments on e-platforms, sharing images and photo-shopping them, blogging or updating one’s online status are practices that bring out the agency of members of these new publics, and that can induce mass actions.

Appadurai’s elaboration (1990) on the mediascape draws our attention to the trajectories of print and electronic media. These travel along fluid and irregular “global cultural flows”, which cross local and global boundaries, and produce new realities. Probably best known about the contemporary Muslim mediascape, because of the widespread media coverage, are the Mohammed cartoons published in Danish newspapers and, recently, the anti-Islam film produced in the US. These images, originating in Western “Christian” societies but immediately dialoguing with Islam leaders and practices of faith mobilize feelings of anger, frustration, hatred and disgust; they inspire violent confrontations and peaceful dialogues; they force Muslims and non-Muslims to reflect about the worlds they inhabit, and to take position. These forms of mobilization may be new; yet, they also stand in local histories of community formation, public dialogue and registers of faith expression.

We are inviting three high-profile anthropologists who work on African urban spaces and who address the interaction between Islam and media or popular culture and political mobilization in societies where Islam reigns hegemonic. They will situate local engagements with global images and address political mobilization, connectivity in local, transnational and global networks, and social and religious subjectivities within local communicative spaces.

Invited speakers:

. Prof. Dr. Kelly Askew, associate Professor at the University of Michigan (USA)
Kelly Askew has pursued extensive fieldwork in East Africa along the Swahili Coast of Tanzania and Kenya on topics relating to music and politics, media, performance, nationalism, socialism, and postsocialism. In addition to academic work, she is actively involved in film and television production, having worked in various capacities on two feature films and a number of documentary films. Her publications include two edited volumes, African Postsocialisms (coedited with M. Anne Pitcher, Edinburgh University Press, 2006) and The Anthropology of Media: A Reader (co-edited with Richard R. Wilk, Blackwell Publishers, 2002), articles on topics ranging from nationalism to gender relations to Hollywood film production, and a book on music and politics in Tanzania entitled Performing the Nation: Swahili Music and Cultural Production in Tanzania (University of Chicago Press, 2002).

. Prof. Dr. Charles Hirschkind, associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley (USA)
Charles Hirschkind’s research interests concern religious practice, media technologies, and emergent forms of political community in the Middle East, North America, and Europe. Taking contemporary developments within the traditions of Islam as his primary focus, he has explored how various religious practices and institutions have been revised and renewed both by modern norms of social and political life, and by the styles of consumption and culture linked to global mass media practices. His first book, The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics (Columbia 2006), 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. Also see his article”New Media and Political Dissent in Egypt,” Revista de Dialectologia y Tradiciones Populares 65, 1 (2010): 137-153, in which he situates the Tahrir manifestations within a longer history of political mobilization and transformations in the Cairene public sphere.

. Prof. Dr. Dorothea Schulz, professor at the University of Cologne(Germany)
Dorothea Schulz’ research, publications, and teaching are centered on the anthropology of religion, political anthropology, Islam in Africa, gender studies, media studies, and public culture. She has extensive field research experience in West Africa, particularly in urban and rural Mali and has recently embarked on a new research project in Eastern Uganda that deals with Muslim politics of education as well as with intra-Muslim debate over burial rituals and proper religious practice. Her new book Muslims and New Media in West Africa: Pathways to God (Indiana University Press, 2011) analyzes Muslim revivalist groups in Mali that draw inspiration from transnational trends of Muslim moral reform and promote a relatively new conception of publicly enacted religiosity (significantly displayed in feminized signs of piety).

Call for Papers
We are inviting doctoral and postdoctoral researchers who work on the topics of Islam, religion and/or social media. Interested participants are invited to submit a short abstract of their work (maximum 250 words) and write a short resume about themselves and the reason why they want to participate to this workshop. They should also indicate how their work connects with any of the invited speakers. Nine applicants will be selected to present their ongoing work in PhD seminars, while other applicants will be invited to participate to the discussions and the conference at Leuven.

Applications should not exceed 1000 words and should be sent to by February 10th, 2012. Acceptances will be notified by the end of February.
Organising commitee:
Katrien Pype (IARA – KU Leuven)
Nadia Fadil (IMMRC – KU Leuven)
Jori De Coster (IMMRC – KU Leuven)
Sponsored by IARA (, IMMRC ( & Gülen Chair for Intercultural Studies (KU Leuven) _________________________________________