Isaac Weiner on “Religion Out Loud” (Book Q & A)

[ 0 ] April 28, 2014

Column » By the Book

by JOSEPH RICHARD PREVILLE for ISLAMiCommentary on APRIL 28, 2014: 

bookcover.religionoutloudThe free exercise of religion is enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But, what happens when religion becomes noisy or offensive to the ear? What happens when religion sounds “out of place”? Isaac Weiner explores these issues in his splendid new book, Religion Out Loud: Religious Sound, Public Space, and American Pluralism (NYU Press, 2014). Weiner’s objective is to analyze “the politics of religious pluralism in the United States by attending to disputes about religious sound in the public realm.” He states that his book “listens to Americans complain about religion as noise.”

Isaac Weiner is Assistant Professor of Religion and Culture in the Department of Comparative Studies at the Ohio State University. He was educated at Yale University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Religion Out Loud is Weiner’s first book. His scholarly work has appeared in Anthropological Quarterly, Religion Compass and Material Religion.

In Religion Out Loud, Weiner takes a detailed look at three major disputes regarding religious sound and noise: 1) Harrison v. St. Mark’s Church, Philadelphia (1877), involving the ringing of church bells at a Protestant Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; 2) Saia v. New York (1948) on the use of loudspeakers by Jehovah’s Witnesses to broadcast religious lectures in Lockport, New York, and 3) the petition of al-Islah Islamic Center to the city council of Hamtramck, Michigan (2004) for permission to broadcast the Muslim call to prayer. Weiner states that these three case studies “make evident how central sound has been to the ongoing project of demarcating religion’s proper place in American society.”

Isaac Weiner discusses his new book in this exclusive interview.

How did you become interested in religious sound in the public square?

Isaac Weiner

Isaac Weiner

I went to graduate school to study religious diversity in American public life. But as I surveyed the scholarly literature, I grew frustrated by how often it defined religion solely in terms of moral claims and theological arguments. Again and again, I found religious pluralism interpreted as essentially a matter of how to reconcile or mediate among competing truth claims and metaphysical commitments. I sought an approach that took seriously how people practice their religions with their bodies and senses. I wanted to explore how bodily practices mediate religious contact and give rise to conflict. I started stumbling across a number of disputes about religious sounds in public places, and I realized that these cases offered an important but neglected area for exploring how Americans have managed their religious differences.

How common were disputes about religious noise in American history?

Disputes about religious noise have been surprisingly common. The first case that I came across was the 2004 call to prayer dispute in Hamtramck, Michigan. But as I began researching that controversy, I kept finding more and more cases just like it. It turns out that at various moments in U.S. history, the Salvation Army, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals, ISKCON (Hare Krishna), Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and even mainline Protestants have all faced accusations that they were too loud. Again and again, I found American audiences enthusiastically celebrating their neighbors’ right to worship as they pleased even while simultaneously insisting that they should not have to hear about it. Noise repeatedly marked the limit of what they were willing to tolerate.

Why do you believe that “complaints about religious noise have rarely been ‘just’ about noise”?

Noise is a slippery category. How we respond to certain sounds has as much to do with our norms and values, with our assumptions about who and what belongs where, as with matters of volume or decibel level. In the book, I argue that complaints about religious noise have proven useful both for restraining religious dissent and for circumscribing religion’s boundaries, more generally. Noise complaints have tended to be informed by particular liberal Protestant notions of “good” religion. Religion out loud has stood in contrast to more acceptable forms of piety, those conceived as appropriately individualized, internalized, and intellectualized. Through disputes about religious noise, then, Americans have contested where religion properly belongs, how it should be practiced, and who has a right to make themselves heard.

What were the core issues in the 2004 controversy involving al-Islah Islamic Center in Hamtramck, Michigan?

In January 2004, the al-Islah Islamic Center petitioned Hamtramck’s City Council for permission to broadcast the adhan, or call to prayer, from loudspeakers affixed to the mosque’s roof. The ensuing controversy was extraordinarily complex. At the national level, critics expressed indignation that councilmembers might accommodate Muslim practice only a few years after 9/11. Locally, the dispute was much more about the changing demographics of Hamtramck itself, a long-time Polish Catholic enclave that is today probably majority Muslim. The controversy invited Hamtramck residents to begin to come to terms with these shifts. And as they did so, they articulated different notions of how religious differences were best managed in a heterogeneous social context. The adhan’s proponents argued that public places should overflow with the harmonies of American pluralism while its critics suggested that religious differences were best kept quiet.

Was the resolution of the Hamtramck mosque controversy a victory for American pluralism?

This is a really difficult question for me. On the one hand, the answer seems obviously to be yes. In the name of pluralism, Hamtramck’s councilmembers went out of their way to exempt the adhan from the city’s noise ordinance. And in a special election, with critical support from a group of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish leaders, Hamtramck residents voted to affirm the council’s decision, thereby guaranteeing al-Islah’s right to broadcast. At the same time, I demonstrate in the book how the pluralists accommodated the adhan only by reinterpreting its message, by transforming it into a potent symbol of interfaith harmony. In a way, I suggest, their arguments made space for religious differences only by diminishing their significance. My conclusion is a bit ambivalent, therefore, as I use this case to consider both the potential and costs of American-style pluralism.

Has the Hamtramck adhan controversy faded away after a decade?

This is a really interesting question, and again my answer has to be both yes and no. On the one hand, by the time I started visiting Hamtramck in 2007, the controversy already had faded away. Several residents wondered why I was even bringing it up seeing as how everyone had long since moved on. Indeed, I argue in the book that Muslim acceptance in Hamtramck became most evident not when their neighbors voted to allow the prayer call but rather when they stopped paying it much attention at all. And yet, much to my surprise, the adhan continues at times to be a matter of concern today. The controversy has resurfaced during election seasons and also as new mosques have joined al-Islah in broadcasting, using the adhan as part of their own efforts to secure recognition and legitimation. So perhaps the conclusion to my Hamtramck chapter may prove premature. [Editor’s Note: For additional information on controversies involving America mosques, see this 2012 Pew Forum Report]

 

Joseph Richard Preville is an American writer living in Nizwa, Oman. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, San Francisco Chronicle, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Tikkun, The Jerusalem Post, Muscat Daily, and Saudi Gazette. He is also a regular contributor to ISLAMiCommentary. 

This article was made possible (in part) by the Transcultural Islam Project, an initiative launched in 2011 by the Duke Islamic Studies Center — in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations and the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies — aimed at deepening understanding of Islam and Muslim communities. See www.islamicommentary.org/about and www.tirnscholars.org/about for more information. The Transcultural Islam Project is funded by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author(s). 

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