Amplifying Islam in the European Soundscape

Religious Pluralism and Secularism in the Netherlands

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Pooyan Tamimi Arab
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , February
     216 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Amplifying Islam in the European Soundscape, anthropologist of religion Pooyan Tamimi Arab researches a rather novel area of public religious expression, namely that of sound. Seeking to move beyond conceptions of religion as a private, mentalist faith that is limited by reason, Tamimi Arab explores the need for the expression of religion in public through the form of sound and soundscapes. The public manifestation of sound that is investigated is the amplification of the Islamic call to prayer—or azan—in the Netherlands. By focusing on sonic expression, Tamimi Arab opens up a new perspective on the research into contested secular and religious public spaces. Sound is both similar to and different from visual signs and evokes new reactions on the sacredness and secularity of space. Concepts of intrusion, nuisance, and inescapability surrounding secular and religious symbols acquire new forms and expressions when applied to religious sound and the amplified azan.

In his innovative research, Tamimi Arab combines primary and secondary historical research, musicology, and anthropological theory with a wide array of empirical data: from carefully documented interviews and official community meetings to various informal exchanges with strangers, friends, or other researchers. The openness with which Tamimi Arab presents his research, methodology and data is refreshing. This book presents extensive historical backgrounds, such as an account of Catholic processions in the nineteenth century and a vivid account of Dutch migration history. It also extensively documents the constitutional evolvement of sonic religious expression and reflects on an alternative, visual azan that uses light instead of sound. As such, Amplifying Islam in the European Soundscape is not merely the empirical study of a phenomenon that is relatively new to the Netherlands, but it is also a rich document that contributes to the study of secularism and religious pluralism in the Netherlands.

In terms of scholarly debate, the main argument put forward by Tamimi Arab is one that goes against critiques of secularism by authors such as Talal Asad. Such critique which regards to secularism as a Western political ideology that is considered de facto discriminatory towards Muslim minorities is, according to Tamimi Arab, both normative and unsupported by empirical data. Backed by his own case study of the Islamic azan, Tamimi Arab convincingly argues that one should differentiate between constitutional secularism—legally protected rights to public religious expression—and cultural expressions of secularism, that which is discursively considered to belong or not belong to secular space. As such, secularism is like a double-edged sword that has both the capacity to discriminate against Muslim minorities as well as to protect them against nativist, nationalist demands.

In his research, the sudden realization that Dutch Muslims are legally permitted to amplify the azan almost as often, and as loud, as they want is a common thread to all of the encounters that the author has. What makes this case study so interesting is that even though they could, both Muslims and non-Muslims often do not feel that these rights should be practiced extensively. As such, the case study defies the vision of secular space as a space of constant struggle for power and influence, but presents a reality in which dialogue and discussion are employed to find solutions in which everyone is heard. The reader can interpret this both optimistically as well as pessimistically. Optimistically, Muslim minorities are constitutionally protected when they enter into a dialogue with non-Muslims where they can seek to create understanding about their right to publicly express their religion. Pessimistically, Muslim minorities are constitutionally granted public expression of the azan, yet cultural secularism, infused with nativist sentiments, is still practically preventing them from exercising this right.

What is important to note, however, is that the language in the case study is not necessarily one of rights, nor is secularism a prominent topic of debate. The contestation of the amplification of the azan is rather a struggle for the recognition of nostalgia and the accommodation of sounds that are associative or disassociative with feelings of belonging. The difficulty in reaching any form of agreement that is based on such visceral emotions rather than rational argument makes Tamimi Arab conclude that tolerance is probably best enshrined in secular constitutional law. Rather than promoting a discourse of tolerance from which such rights would naturally evolve, Tamimi Arab believes that secular law, which grants equal rights in pluralist societies, has the potential to discipline people in practicing tolerance.

Although the argument for constitutional secularism is convincing, I do feel that Amplifying Islam in the European Soundscape falls somewhat short in truly responding to what makes this contestation of public soundscape so unique: namely the nostalgic longing for home. For instance, one group—the young Muslims—that is prominently featured in the introductory case study of the light azan is almost entirely absent in the main case study. They would not recognize themselves in the nativist imaginations of the Netherlands with an invisible Islam, nor would they recognize themselves in the nostalgic longing for the Turkish or Moroccan homeland in which they were never born. How do they look upon discussions of sound and the sense of belonging? Do they rationalize the discussion and argue for equal treatment according to rights? Do they speak up for the nostalgia of their parents or grandparents? Do they themselves feel belonging when hearing the azan, or alienation when church bells sound?

Islam in the European Soundscape is a well-crafted and rich study of religious pluralism in the Netherlands that argues in favor of a secular constitutional democracy in which rights to religious public expression can be effectively accommodated. Yet, the use of pioneering interdisciplinary methodology to cover a wide array of topics obscures the possibility to effectively follow theoretical concepts such as tolerance, the right to religious expression, or the sense of belonging and nostalgia throughout the entire book, impairing its main argument in the process. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michiel van der Padt is a graduate student in theology and religious studies at the University of Amsterdam.

Date of Review: 
August 9, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Pooyan Tamimi Arab is assistant professor at the department of philosophy and religious studies at Utrecht University, the Netherlands.


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