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Conference explores Islam in new media

Experts on a range of topics from Egyptian YouTube sermons to Nigerian urban culture gathered in Rubenstein Hall Friday.

The conference, titled “Islamic Media: Technology and the Sacred,” was the final installment of a two-part workshop focusing on Islamic media. Scholars from across the country as well as graduate and undergraduate students discussed topics relating to media cultures in the Muslim world. Approximately 50 people attended, filling all the chairs and taking to the floor when necessary.

“This is the dream team for this conference,” said Ellen McLarney, assistant professor of Arabic literature and culture and one of the organizers of the conference.

The academic gathering was intended to focus on self-invention inspired by Islamic media, both new and old.

“The Quran itself combined new technologies of the book with technologies of recitation,” McLarney explained, noting how the text was translated from an oral tradition and how it is related to the current transition of Islamic ideas to mass media.

Charles Hirschkind, undergraduate faculty advisor for social anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, spoke about his research on Arab-Muslim sermon culture both on the ground in Egypt and on the Internet. He argued that the Muslims perusing these sources preferred a simple aesthetic to allow viewers to more easily connect with the spiritual audio content.

“That is why noise is so useful—it helps us to learn and hear, bypass intelligence and speak to something inborn,” said Anna Kipervaser, a first-year master’s of fine arts candidate in experimental and documentary arts, in her introduction of Hirshckind and his work. “Sound is the medium of suggestion, sound cannot make statements while sounds lends itself to suggestion.”

Hirschkind added that new media has taken interpretation of religion out of the hands of the small group of elite who have historically made decisions and taught Islam.

Jonathan VanAntwerpen, director of the Digital Culture program and Religion and Public Sphere program at the Social Science Research Council in Brooklyn, spoke about the impact of the rise of interdisciplinarity as an active component of academia.

“These spaces afford new possibilities and potentiality there with the rise of wider study of religion and secular studies in the sedimented disciplines,” he said. “We have to do analysis for the effects of the spaces with porous boundaries and wide variety of actors.”

The event was intended to encourage engagement from the audience, academics and students alike, said Negar Mottahedeh, associate professor of literature who helped organize the event.

Brent Curdy, a second-year Ph.D. candidate in sociology with research interests in religion, attended the conference in a Jane’s Addiction T-shirt from the '90s—appropriately, the first thing he ever bought on the Internet. He said hearing experts in the field speak and having the opportunity to question them was helpful in clarifying his own approaches to research and interdisciplinarity.

“To me, religion isn’t real—emotion and feeling is real and ‘God’ is real but only because people believe and others believe without the quotations,” he said. “There are different shorthands that I’m not used to, and it helps me clarify my own terms.”

Mottahedeh noted that the conference was intended to further thought about Islam in a digital age where the lines between traditional and new are becoming increasingly blurred.

“We tend to think of ways in which information flows, and it’s usually secular, profane, worldly,” she said. “When we think of religion, we think of it as auratic, ritualistic, traditional, community, values.”

Senior Kristen Brown, a student in Mottahedeh’s class on social media and social movements, said seeing the readings from class illustrated with videos and screenshots helped make the subject material feel less distant.

“The humanities are well-suited for addressing these type of questions because we are concerned with theorizing and thinking about the world and the human relation to it,” Mottahedeh said.

Other speakers included Brian Larkin, an associate professor of anthropology from Barnard College, who spoke about different types of media in urban Nigeria; Wazmah Osman, assistant professor at the School of Media and Communication at Temple University, who talked about Afghanistan’s culture wars; Jeanette Jouili, a visiting assistant professor at the College of Charleston, who has researched Muslim rap in France; and Narges Bajoghli, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at New York University who has done work on the evolution of religious culture in Iran.

The event was sponsored by the Duke Islamic Studies Center, Kenan Institute for Ethics, A Humanities Writ Large “Emerging Humanities Network,” Duke University Middle East Studies Center as well as the departments of Asian and Middle Eastern studies, cultural anthropology, literature and religion.