Disciplines of Presence in Modern Turkey: Discourse, Companionship, and the Mass Mediation of Islamic Practice

Abstract

This article examines a contemporary Turkish Sufi order's devotional practice of sohbet—translated here as “companionship in conversation”—to show how characteristically modern practices and techniques have come to take a role in the constitution of dispositions that are central to the viability of Islamic virtues. In the act of oral transmission sohbet cultivates the kinds of relationships considered liable to constitute a morally structured disposition in the practitioner. These relationships are subject to reformulation in the context of the mass mediation of the social environment and use of radio by the order, as practices of discipline based on face-to-face interaction articulate with models of liberal citizenship.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a range of articles on the politics of media. See, for example, Anne Meneley’s “Fashions and Fundamentalism in Fin de Siecle Yemen: Chador Barbie and Islamic Socks” (2007), Oyku Potuoglu-Cook’s “Beyond the Glitter: Belly Dance and Neoliberal Gentrification in Istanbul” (2006), and Katherine Pratt Ewing’s “Between Cinema and Social Work: Diasporic Turkish Women and the (Dis)Pleasures of Hybridity” (2006).

Cultural Anthropology has also published a number of articles that examine how Islamic virtues are reinforced through citizenship practices. See, for example, Arzoo Osanloo’s “The Measure of Mercy: Islamic Justice, Sovereign Power, and Human Rights in Iran” (2006), Saba Mahmood’s “Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival” (2001), and Charles Hirschkind’s “Civic Virtue and Religious Reason: An Islamic Counterpublic” (2001a).

About the Author

Brian Silverstein is an assistant professor of anthropology and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Arizona, Tucson. 

Editorial Overview

How do new communications technologies transform the nature of religious practices? What becomes of Islamic traditions in environments of rapid political and economic liberalization and mass access to broadcast media? In the February 2008 issue of Cultural Anthropology, Brian Silverstein examines a contemporary Sufi order’s increasing use of the radio in its devotional practice of sohbet, translated as ‘companionship-in-conversation’, showing how characteristically modern techniques constitute virtuous Islamic dispositions in Turkey. Based on participant observation at Turkish mosques, and on conversations with Sufi practitioners, this important essay expands scholarship in the anthropology of religion by describing how complex articulations of the archaic with the modern, mediated by information technology, are rendering the public sphere plural and heterogeneous, even as the specificity of disciplinary practices like sohbet is being lost to their reception by audiences as generalized Islamic discourse. 

Drawing on subtle transformations in discourse and practice, and more specifically in the status of discourse as practice, Silverstein insightfully observes that relationships traditionally sealed by the act of oral transmission through sohbet are being reformulated by this Sufi order’s use of mass media such as radio to transmit social messages. The shift of medium requires that practices of inculcating religious morality through face-to-face communication articulate with liberal models of public deliberative citizenship that treat morality as a personal issue. Thus the author powerfully illustrates what is at stake in the secularization of religious disciplinary practices in Turkey. Through a theoretically sensitive handling of the ethical self, the status of the event, the pragmatics of utterance, and the relationship between meaning and action, this essay offers a politically potent demonstration of “how one might arrive at a plural public from grounds internal to Islamic traditions.”   

Silverstein’s analysis is contextualized within the unique history of Turkey’s modernization, where political modernity is the result of religiously guided Ottoman reform movements that sought to strengthen the Empire’s military position by building rational state institutions and relegating Islam to the private sphere. This richly descriptive essay, situated at the intersection of religion, language, politics, technology and social institutions, will be of as much interest to Islamic scholars, theologians and linguists as it will be to anthropologists, political scientists, sociologists, and interdisciplinary scholars such as area specialists and STS experts.   

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