17 November, 2014: Nina ter Laan

Title: Dissonant Voices: Islam, Music, and Cultural Politics in Morocco.
15:30-17:00h, Room 1.A09, Pieter de la Court building.

The role of music in the political discourse on Islam

Within mainstream media, international politics, as well as in academia, Muslims and Islam are increasingly comprehended in discourses about religious ‘moderation’ and ‘extremism’ (Mamdani, 2011). While many studies have focused on the production and reification of such discourses concerning Islam and Muslims in Western countries, little attention has been given to the construction of such views in Muslim majority countries. Especially in the aftermath of  the US launched “War on Terror” many Muslim majority countries promoted an image of an Islamic heritage that is peaceful and encourages interfaith dialogue.  One of the tools through which such discourses on religious identities are represented and (re)formulated is music.

Morocco is one of the countries which uses music as a means to portray its nation as the birthplace of a ‘moderate’ Islamic heritage. Simultaneously other actors equally use music to formulate visions about the role Islam should have in public and personal life.  My PhD-project specifically explores the performance and disseminations of contemporary forms of Muslim devotional music in Morocco. It asks how such pious musical practices are used and perceived by a variety of differently positioned actors and how they connect to political discourses about Islam.

Two key domains for Islam-inspired music are commonly distinguished in Morocco. On the one hand structures close to the Moroccan state encourage certain artists and cultural-religious musical activities for ‘sacred’ and Sufi music, which are presented in a discourse of ‘moderation.’  On the other hand, there is a domain for Islamic songs known as anashid, which enjoys less publicity than music featuring in official cultural representations of Islam. This domain of devotional music is generally associated with Islamic movements and labelled as a product of ‘Muslim fundamentalism.’ 

In this talk I will focus on performers of anashid. These artists perform in vocal groups, and operate in a small cultural niche, providing pious entertainment for Islamists and conservatives. During their concerts the vocalists deploy specific performance techniques in order to mobilize, channel and control powerful religious emotions within the listener, and ultimately seek to realize an ethical transformation in society at large. This presentation specifically addresses artists' ideas of what their musical performances can and should do. Through examples from my ethnographic fieldwork, I will concentrate on artists’ narratives of performance, ethics, and emotions, and how these converge with their ideas about the place of Islam in society.

The PhD-project is part of the NWO-funded research program Islam and the performing arts in the Middle East and Europe: from cultural heritage to cultural citizenship, under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Karin van Nieuwkerk (Radboud University Nijmegen).

About Nina ter Laan

Nina ter Laan is a cultural anthropologist, with a special interest and expertise in Morocco, art, music and popular culture. She is a lecturer at the Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at Leiden University and is currently finalizing her PhD thesis on the formation and expression of religious sentiments through Islam-inspired music in Morocco and its political employment within the contexts of state supported musical activities and Islamist movements. Her thesis focuses on male and female vocalists and how they combine piety, commercial motives and political discourses in their musical practices.

Her work has appeared or will appear in Performing Islam, De Internationale Spectator, ZemZem, and the edited volume Islam and Popular Culture (Karin van Nieuwkerk, Martin Stokes, and Mark LeVine, eds., forthcoming). Nina is also active as a member of the editorial board of the Dutch journal ZemZem, Journal about the Middle East, North Africa and Islam.

Profile page: Nina ter Laan

Research Seminars Fall 2014