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CASSETTES. Since the 1970s, the “little medium” of the audio cassette has become an important means of communication with a sociopolitical impact reaching far beyond the boundaries of the nation states. This medium differs in significant ways from the “big media,” particularly television and radio, which in much of the Islamic world have been a state monopoly pressed into serving national development projects of often repressive governments. Moreover, until recently the big media (which includes cinema) were characterized by centralization of production, distribution, exhibition, and control; one-way transmission of materials; and capital intensiveness, necessitating the existence of highly trained technical and professional infrastructures and equipment. Because of their contribution to monopolization of power, manipulation and homogenization of public opinion, and subversion of traditional and folk ways, these media have been considered negatively and distrusted by large segments of the so-called third and Islamic worlds.

The audio cassette, on the other hand, is potentially a two-way, grassroots medium which is reusable, durable, portable, and inexpensive. The production and distribution of cassettes need not be centralized, and their reception does not depend on a preexisting schedule (as do radio and television broadcasts) or on a special exhibition hall (as do films) or on an expensive playback unit (as do videocassettes). In terms of contents, cassettes can contain polished, studio-recorded productions or impromptu interviews, lectures, sermons, recitations, music and songs, and documentary materials. Tapes can be listened to individually or collectively and in diverse times and locations. Women and ethnic and religious minorities, traditionally shut off from the public sphere, can enter it through listening, re taping, and exchanging of cassettes. Through such activities the receivers of tapes can themselves become transmitters. As such, audio cassettes are not as prone as the big media are to centralized control, and they can be employed as an effective diversifying, participatory medium in support of alternative causes, minority aspirations, or revolutionary ideologies.

For cassettes to act as agents of social change and alternative religious discourse, certain enabling conditions must be present. These include the presence of a repressive and secular government, central hegemonic control of mass media, social and political inequality and turmoil, charismatic religious leaders and speakers, social institutions, such as churches and mosques and underground political groups, which can provide alternatives to the state ideology, traditional economic and social institutions and formations, such as bazaars and labor unions, which can provide financial assistance and networking infrastructure, linkage with expatriate groups, and a population that is orally oriented. The availability in recent years of efficient national and international telephone, low-cost publishing and duplicating, clandestine radio stations, and exile periodicals and radio and television programs abroad has proven to be instrumental in the further relay and propagation of cassettes’ messages to and from the nation states.

Two cautionary points must be remembered, however. First, each of these enabling conditions is not sufficient by itself to transform the little medium of audio cassette into one with a mighty social impact. Similar to all social changes, linkage, crossfertilization, and intertextuality among the aforementioned sociopolitical, economic, and technological forces is essential. Second, as illustrated by the cases of Iran and India (below)-in which resurgent Islam and Hindu chauvinism respectively resorted to cassettes-the use of such a potentially democratic, grassroot, “people’s” medium does not necessarily guarantee a progressive, democratic, or humane outcome.

Iran. Although audiotapes have been used to record and to listen to religious sermons in such Islamic countries as Afghanistan since the 1950s (Oliver Roy, “The Mujahidin and the Future of Afghanistan,” in The Iranian Revolution: Its Global Impact, edited by John L. Esposito, Miami, 1990, p. 187), it was the Iranian Revolution of 1979 that catapulted the small medium of audio cassettes into the pantheons of big media in terms of its sociopolitical impact within and beyond national borders. Because in Iran the cassette was so fully and effectively used in support of an Islamist social change, this case deserves elaboration.

In the decade leading up to the revolution, tapes of anti shah clandestine radio broadcasts, such as those by the Mujahidin-i Khalq organization, provided a link between guerrilla organizations and their sympathizers. But it was the use of audio cassettes by two charismatic leaders that demonstrated that when a number of the enabling conditions are met, audio cassettes can help produce significant social effect and political impact in fact, an alternative epistemic community sufficiently powerful to topple the powerful Pahlavi regime. The enabling institutions and formations included a network of between 60,000 and 200,000 mullahs with organic ties to the people and to some 90,000 mosques located throughout the country (Tehranian, 1980, pp. 17-18).

There were also numerous seminaries (hawzah -yi ilmiyah), religious councils (hay’at-i mazhabi) often sponsored by bazaar merchants and guilds, shrines (imdmzddah) and pilgrimage to them organized by the hay’ats, performance arenas (takkiyah), religious and secular salons (dawrah), religious community centers (husayniyah), and colleges and universities. Whether in cities or villages, in these locations religious leaders, scholars, and preachers would lecture, give sermons, pray, recite verses from the Qur’an, and recount tales of lamentations for the martyrdom of Shl’! imams (rawzah). Mourning ceremonies and religious processions and passion plays (ta’ziyah) would also take place at appropriate sites. The established networks of bazaars and guilds throughout the country and the emerging network of antishah leftist and guerrilla organizations provided financial, humanpower, and ideological support that further interlinked and imbricated these disparate institutions and practices. [See Bazaar; Guilds; Imamzadah; Husayniyah; Ta’ziyah.]

During the 1970s, many of the speeches of the Western-educated religious scholar, ‘Ali Sharl’ati, who combined a revisionist Islamist rereading of Shi’i ideology with Fanonist liberation ideology, were recorded at Mashhad University and the famous Husayniyah Irshad in Tehran. Many of the cassettes were subsequently transcribed and published in book form. Both the tapes and the books were clandestinely but widely distributed in Iran and abroad through the aforementioned nexus of institutions and formations. By mid 1970s, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini began sending from his exile in Iraq increasingly radical anti government messages by way of leaflets and cassettes. The tapes were transcribed and distributed by way of similar channels. When in 1978 he was forced into a double exile to France, his access to Western mass media increased greatly as did his taped messages, which were now more resolute and were transmitted by way of telephone lines to banks of cassette recorders in Tehran for duplication and distribution (Sreberny-Mohammadi, 1985, pp. 122-124). In Yazd, Ayatollah Saduqi’s house was apparently turned into a major cassette manufacturing center: four or five hours a day, half a dozen phone lines received Khomeini’s taped messages from Paris and duplicated them on cassettes at high speed for distribution (Mehdy Naficy, Klerus, Basar and die iranische Revolution [Hamburg, 1993] pp. 231-232).

The audio cassette medium proved to be highly suitable for the task of toppling the shah because it met many of the enabling conditions and because of two additional reasons: First, revolutionary speakers, such as Shari`ati and Khomeini, turned their lectures and pronouncements into powerfully crafted messages by taking advantage of the intimacy, immediacy, and interactivity of the “live” lecture situation; the narrative structure of Iranian oral and folk traditions; and the rhetorical, symbolic, and performative patterns of religious recitation, mourning and lamentation-so familiar to Iranians, literate or not. Second, the taped messages suited the oral orientation of the transnational electronic news media eager for sensational sound-bites. The political impact of the messages increased vastly when they became the source of news, quoted by Western news organizations, the Persian language programs of Western broadcasting agencies (particularly the BBC), and the anti government clandestine radios operating from outside Iran. Each important taped pronouncement from Khomeini or quotation based on it would cause widespread reaction in Iran that would in turn lead to another message, escalating the effect of the previous one. This complex interconnection of forces, media, technologies, and narrative forms turned the traditional local pulpit (minbar) into a powerful, interactive, transnational, long-distance, electronic pulpit.

In Iran, both the distribution and the reception of these cassettes defied the pervasive censorship system of the shah’s government, turning the exchange of tapes or the mere listening to them into acts of commitment and opposition. Immediately after the revolution, a wide array of religious and revolutionary tapes were distributed by the aforementioned networks and by the newly formed agencies, such as the Reconstruction Crusade, which claimed that in 1983 alone it had distributed 74,789 audio cassettes nationwide along with a profusion of other audiovisual materials (Naficy, 1992, p. 198). In the post revolution era, for a variety of sociopolitical reasons, the enabling mechanisms were disabled, causing the audio casstte genie in Iran to be put back in the bottle. However, the exile-produced Iranian pop music from Los Angeles and its wide availability in Iran-despite the official ban-proclaimed yet again a new tact in the long-distance, transnational cassette wars of cultures-this time against the reigning Islamist ideology (Naficy, 1993, pp. 54-58).

India. Audio cassettes containing nationalistic music and political speeches have been instrumental in fomenting or capitalizing on the vast existing religious, linguistic, and nationalistic divisions in India. One recent incident illustrates the manner in which this potentially liberating medium can become a tool of suppression and violence.

Since the 1980s Hindu chauvinists and Muslim militants have engaged in a series of escalating clashes and riots, which culminated in 1992 in the death of over one thousand people and the destruction of the Babri Masjid near Lucknow, a mosque that is said to have been built by the Mughal emperor Babur on the site of a Rama temple that he had destroyed. Before the incident, some Muslim leaders (such as Sayyid Shahabuddin and Imam al-Bukharii) had raised the stakes by promoting militancy and confrontation. But it was the inflammatory songs and speeches of firebrand Hindu chauvinists (like Uma Bharati and Sadhvi Ritambhara), distributed by way of videocassettes and audio cassettes that fanned the fires of intolerance and destruction against Muslims. There are deep-rooted mythological and real reasons for the Babri Masjid events, but according to Peter Manuel, who studied the audiocassettes produced during the events leading up to the destruction, they contained a basic recurring message that scapegoated and blamed the Muslims in India for much of the ills of India since its partition in 1948 and for a desire to capture Kashmir and the rest of the country.

On these cassettes, songs and incendiary speeches by male and female speakers repeatedly urged violent action to recapture the mosque, destroy it, and rebuild the temple on its ruins. Some of these cassettes, banned by the government, were the hottest-selling tapes of 1990. Other cassettes were apparently used by Hindus as sparks for Hindu-Muslim sectarian violence in Agra. These recordings, captured by the Agra police, contained Muslim or Hindu slogans (Allahu Akbar; Jai Shri Ram), blood-curdling screams (“help, help”; “kill, kill”), gunfire, and other sound effects. Street demonstrators or passing cars in the dead of the night played these cassettes at high volume to seed distrust and foment violence in both communities (Manuel, 1993, pp.250-256).

Afghanistan. Farghanachi Uzbek women and children who were refugees from Afghanistan and living in Karachi, Pakistan, during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan used audio cassettes in an innovative way that corroborates the capability of this medium to transcend national boundaries and transform the discourse on gender relations 11 in the service of Islamic politics and ideologies. During the 1980s these women refugees led a rather traditional life in exile: ensconced within a closed circle of kinship and friendship, frequently visiting each other, wearing either the Afghani veil called chadara or the Saudi Arabian veil called hijab. Their communal activities centered around various rites of passage celebrations, religious study, and prayer. During these gatherings they would listen to and discuss one of the numerous cassettes purchased from stores in Pakistan.

Although some cassettes carried folk music and anti Afghani regime chants, the majority contained stories based on the Qur’an and the hadith that explained the importance of martyrdom and sacrifice in time of jihad (war against nonbelievers), particularly the ongoing one against the Soviet invaders and their Afghani collaborators. The stories, taped in Afghanistan during public sermons about the jihad were delivered by religious scholars and preachers in Dari that tended to unify the varied linguistic communities of refugees from Afghanistan. Since these cassettes had been taped during public sermons, many of them were dialogic, preserving the live audience-speaker interactions. In them male preachers consistently urged women to participate in this modern jihad by following the examples set by women in the early Islamic period. Audrey Shalinsky, who studied these tapes, reports that the stories of the courageous behavior of Muhammad’s womenfolk during the famous battle of Uhud and the vanquishing of the vengeful Hind the liver eater provided ideal role models of mother, wife, and daughter for these displaced women and children (1993 p. 661). Thrust into the extraordinary time of jihad, these model women had been able to transcend the boundaries of their traditional roles in order to fight the enemy.

These emotionally charged cassettes were popular with women and children, and to some degree they were successful in their political mission, since they energized some of the listeners to want to return to their homeland-not so much to be reunited with their families (thus fulfilling traditional patterns) as to participate in the on-going jihad. Both jihad and exile are liminal periods that raise questions about and tend to subvert established identities and traditional social structures.

Uzbekistan. In the former Soviet Union, during the Gorbachev era of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness), a shadow information network developed in Uzbekistan that appears to have been a challenge to the official mass media. Audio cassettes were part of this shadow network, which provided songs and speeches asserting Uzbek nationalism and Islamic ideology and culture. There are a few reports of the use of audio cassettes before the Gorbachev era. These indicate that the Sfifis in Uzbekistan, through their network of schools, mosques, and khanqah (Sufi teaching center) extensively used illegally produced “recorded samizdats” and recordings of stories glorifying per-Communist Turkistan (Alexander Bennigsen and Enders S. Wimbush, Mystics and Commissars: Sufism in the Soviet Union, Berkeley, 1985; H. B. Pakovsky, “The Deceivers,” Central Asian Survey 3.1 [1984]: 124-131; and H. B. Pakovsky, “Chora Batir: A Tartar Admonition to Future Generations,” Studies in Comparative Communism 19.3-4 [1986]: 253-265). That such an activity, then considered to be criminal and punishable, could be undertaken is an indication of the power of linkage between the small medium of cassette and a religious institution offering itself as an ideological alternative to the state.

During transition to independence, when mass media were still centrally controlled, cassettes containing music, comedy skits, and political and religious discussions became widely available in Uzbekistan cities and villages. They could be heard at home, in the bazaars, or at informal gatherings called gaps, causing a lengthy public discussion of the issues the tapes raised. Using the informal networks of distribution, Dadakhan Hasan, a politically active Uzbek singer, became one of the three most respected public figures in Uzbekistan in 199o (David Tyson, unpublished manuscript, 1992, pp. 16-19). In these cassettes containing nationalist songs interspersed with Islamist commentary, he blamed the social and moral malaise befalling Uzbekistan on Soviet colonialism and urged his listeners to work for political independence through Islamic unity and struggle. In addition to such analysis of a general nature, Hasan’s commentaries on specific events (such as the slaughter in June 199o of hundreds of Uzbeks, apparently at the hands of the Kyrgyz in Osh and Uzgen, Kyrgyzstan) provided an alternative, popular reading to that transmitted by the official mass media. In this case, the relative freedom of expression brought on by political openness allowed a charismatic figure to wed popular music with religiously informed political commentary, producing widely appealing oppositional products.

Indonesia. The case of Indonesia illustrates the intensity of cultural struggle over Islamic legitimacy by means of cassettes and the high cost that individuals can incur in that process. Islam forms the faith of 9o percent of the Indonesian population, yet it is not the official religion of this heterogeneous country. The multifaceted Islamic revival movement can be broken down into four groups here: traditionalists, radicals, fundamentalists, and revivalists. Each poses a different threat to the state, causing varied governmental responses including coercion, cooptation, establishment of an official Islamic support group, scapegoating of foreign governments, and creation of symbols of legitimacy (Fred von der Mehden, “The Political and Social Challenge of the Islamic Revival in Malaysia and Indonesia,” Muslim World 76 [July-October 1986]: 219-233). Of these measures, coercion is related to the subject of audio cassettes. In the late 1980s a number of sedition show trials were held in which Muslim preachers, spokespersons, and leaders were charged with fomenting specific violent acts through their writing and speeches which questioned the official ideology of pancasila (five principles) and supported an Islamic revolution. Individuals were also charged with publishing and distributing banned and seditious literature and “inflammatory” sermons and religious speeches. Stiff sentences were requested and handed down in these elaborate trials. For example, in 1985 the prosecution demanded that the accused, Ali Masrun Al Mudafar, a primary school teacher in Surabaya, be given a prison term of twenty years for teaching courses that aimed to undermine and overthrow the state and replace it with an Islamic state. He was further charged with copying the cassettes of speeches by religious figures Amir Biki and Sayrifin Maloko, distributing them free of charge, and broadcasting them over the radio station of the Surabaya Islamic Dakwan College (Indonesia Report, April log [25 May 1985]: 47; August log, no. 11 [September 1985]: 34). The reason for the stiff penalty demanded by the prosecutor was partly that the speech that Biki had delivered to a large crowd in Tanjung Priok in September 1984 had caused a street demonstration in which a hundred people had been shot and killed in cold blood by the police. Attempting to prevent further popularization of this inflammatory speech, the court sessions in which the tape was played were held in camera. Maloko himself was charged with subversion and sentenced to ten years in jail (Indonesia Mirror 5 [March 1987]: 1).

Even though many tapes of sermons and religious lectures had been in circulation in Indonesia and exported to Malaysia, the Tanjung Priok event forced the governments in both countries to become more sensitive to the power of cassettes. As a result, religious cassettes, even those recorded before the incident, were banned, such as those containing the sermons of the Indonesian Muslim preacher and scholar Abdul Qadir Djaelani. The following excerpt from one of his sermons, entitled “Die As Martyrs,” gives an indication of its powerful dialogic form:

My Muslim brothers, my call to you to die as martyrs is not mere talk. My call comes from the depth of my heart directed to your heart! (Loud shouts of approval) Are you ready to die as martyrs? (Loud shouts of “Yes!”) Are you really ready? (Louder shouts) You are not being hypocritical? (Loud shouts of “No!”) Are you sincere? (Loud shouts of “Yes!”) Then, God willing, we will face this situation gloriously! Let them know, I am ready to die as a martyr now, right now! (Loud shouts) If you want to join me, get ready now, brothers! (Loud shouts of “Ready! Ready!”) (Indonesia Report, Politics supplement, no. 13 [November 1985]: 2-3.)

In 1985 Djaelani was arrested and tried for subversion, with the prosecutor demanding the death sentence. He was declared guilty and sentenced to eighteen years imprisonment.

Iranian revolutionary and Shi’! thoughts, particularly those of `All Shari’ati, have penetrated into Indonesia (Fred von der Mehden, Two Worlds of Islam: Interaction Between Southeast Asia and the Middle East, Gainesville, 1993, pp. 87-91). Although cassette tapes of his lectures in Persian are not useful because of language differences, his translated books are available. And since many of these are revised transcripts of his speeches, they retain features of the spoken word and of oral narratives.

The use of audio cassettes for transnational propagation of Islamist ideologies and politics has gone beyond the Islamic countries. In North America, some of the cassettes are focused on the politics and societies of that region, such as those containing sermons, speeches, and Qur’anic recitations delivered by African-American Muslim preachers. These are available in Islamic bookstores. Other cassettes, although produced in the United States, aim to influence the politics of Middle Eastern societies. For example, for a number of years the tapes of sermons and speeches of Shaykh Omar Abdel Rahman (`Umar `Abd al-Rahman), a charismatic Egyptian cleric preaching in New Jersey mosques, were distributed in Egypt. Highly influential from a position in exile, he has been regarded by Egyptian authorities to be the spiritual leader of the Islamic Jihad Organization, which advocates a violent overthrow of the Egyptian government and its replacement with an Islamic state (New York Times, 5 March 1993, p. I). [See the biography of Abdel Rahman] The broadcast of his taped speeches by the Party of God radio station in Lebanon and by other stations has expanded his influence beyond U.S. mosques and Egyptian borders. However, the shaykh’s public utterances came to a halt in 1993 with his arrest on the charge of involvement in the bombing of the World Trade Center building in New York City. [See also Communications Media.]


Antoun, Richard. Muslim Preacher in the Modern World: A Jordanian Case Study in Comparative Perspective. Princeton; 1989. Analysis of the social organization of preachers, their rhetoric, and narratives. Boyd, Douglas A., et al. Videocassette Recorders in the Third World. New York, 1989. Useful analysis of the development and use of videocassettes (which has a bearing on audiocassettes) in the Arab world, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean.

Manuel, Peter. Popular Musics of the Non-Western World: An Introductory Survey. New York, 1988. Valuable survey of popular musics (including the impact of cassettes) in various non-Western areas, including the Arab and non-Arab Middle East.

Manuel, Peter. Cassette Culture: Popular Music and Technology in North India. Chicago, 1993. Detailed discussion of the impact of audiocassettes in forming a popular culture that links music, cinema, and television with capitalist commodification practices. Mowlana, Hamid. “Technology versus Tradition: Communication in the Iranian Revolution.” Journal of Communication 29 (Summer 1979) 107-112. Early analysis of the Iranian Revolution from a communication theory standpoint.

Naficy, Hamid. “Islamizing Film Culture in Iran.” In Iran: Political Culture in the Islamic Republic, edited by Samih K. Farsoun and Mehrdad Mashayekhi, pp. 178-213. London and New York, 1992. Comprehensive analysis of the formation of a new cinema culture in postrevolutionary Iran.

Naficy, Hamid. The Making of Exile Cultures: Iranian Television in Los Angeles. Minneapolis, 1993. Theoretical and ethnographic analysis of the place of culture and cultural productions (including audiocassettes) in the formation of exilic identities.

Nelson, Kristina. The Art of Reciting the Qur’an. Austin, 1985. A thorough examination of the various arts of recitation of the Qur’an and their relationship to music.

Shalinsky, Audrey C. “Women’s Role in the Afghanistan Jihad.” InternationalJournal of Middle East Studies 25 (1993): 661-675. Detailed ethnographic study of Afghani women’s uses of audiocassettes about the anti-Soviet jihad.

Soley, Lawrence C., and John S. Nichols. Clandestine Radio Broadcasting: A Study of Revolutionary and Counterrevolutionary Electronic Communication. New York, 1987. Well-documented history of clandestine radio in the world, with sections on Islamic countries. Sreberny-Mohammadi, Annabelle. “The Power of Tradition: Communication and the Iranian Revolution.” Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1985. Comprehensive study of the revolution through an examination of the various formal and informal communication systems involved.

Tehranian, Majid. “Communication and Revolution in Iran: The Passing of a Paradigm.” Iranian Studies 13.1-4 (198o): 5-30. Charts the shift in political and communication discourses from the Pahlavi to the Islamic era.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/cassettes/

  • writerPosted On: November 4, 2012
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