On Piety, Pietisation and Contemporary Arts

I have been thinking and subsequently blogging about iconoclasm a lot, primarily in an attempt to clarify my own approach and possible arguments regarding iconoclasm as one extreme in a spectrum of relationships between religion and the (visual) arts, or different regimes of visual piety if you like. You might have noticed one recurrent theme throughout the last blogs, probably most palpable in my ramblings on Arts, (Religious) Politics and my Research: how to address and conceptualise what I perceive of as a pervasive influence of religion/religious politics with regard to the art forms I’m concerned with (and beyond). I have been using terms such as religious politics, socio-religious context and alike but never been particularly happy with them. Now, yesterday I was searching for literature about other aspects of the relationship between the arts and Islam actually addressing contemporary, to use these terms again, socio-religious developments and the views of Muslim scholars speaking to contemporary Muslims about the legitimacy of different art forms. In this course, I came across a special issue of the journal Contemporary Islam particularly concerned the contested notions of art, leisure and entertainment in contemporary Muslim societies. The journal and the articles I will be referring to in due course are freely available here. While there were a number of (in comparative terms) useful ideas, concepts and observations in other articles as well, what I would like to briefly introduce you to here, is the concept of ‘pietization’ introduced by Bryan S. Turner and constructively employed by Karin van Nieuwkerk.

Following the (socio-) political developments in the Muslim world through the medium of mainstream Western press as well as popular political analysis one is left with the impression that almost everywhere religious fundamentalists/Islamists are gaining ideological as well as political influence. To which extent this reflects actual developments, increased concerns with (national) security and terrorism after 9/11 or a lack of appropriate terminology to account for nuances in the identified renewed interest in Islam not only as a framework for individual spirituality but the organisation of whole societies is, as far as my research is concerned, almost a mute point. More importantly, concepts such as religious fundamentalism and Islamism borrowed from political science not only draw me into Nigerian religious politics but, I believe, cannot appropriately account for the effects of recent socio- and religio-political developments on local popular culture. Instead, Turner suggests the concept of ‘piety’ and/or ‘pietization’:

Turner equally rejects fundamentalism a as suitable analytical tool as the term ‘carries too much ideological baggage to be useful in the sociology of religion’ (p. 6) and, instead, suggests that ‘the religious revival which we witness in Islam worldwide’ should primarily be understood as ‘movement[s] to rationalise the everyday world through adherence to pious norms.’ (p. 4) Drawing upon a critical reading of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism he argues that

Protestantism or more generally piety movements are culturally creative. They typically involve the destruction or overcoming of many traditional or taken-for-granted ways of practicing religion. They involve either a new emphasis on religious practices or the invention of practices that are then claimed to be orthodox, or more exactly orthprax. Piety tends to have a radical impact on the everyday world of believers by encouraging devotees to change their habits or in the language of modern sociology to transform their habitus or their dispositions and tastes towards the material world. Piety is about the construction of definite and distinctive life styles of a new religious tastes and preferences. In short, piety or the pietization of the everyday world has the … characteristics of combining new elements to create a religious habitus that stands in competition with other possible combinations in a competitive religious context. (p. 2)

He continues to suggest that ‘being virtuous or pious can be effectively measured by contrast to those who are impious or lacking in virtue,’ piety then conceptually requiring ‘impiety,’ ‘faithlessness’ or, indeed, ‘sin’ as its Other:

There is therefore a competition over virtue – who in a given community is the most virtuous and how can that be measured and known? The central paradox of piety is however that to display it openly – we might say to provocatively flaunt piety – is to demonstrate its very inauthenticity. To show piety publicly is to destroy it, and hence piety must be subtly insinuated and suggested by indirect comparisons with those lacking in religious virtue. … piety necessarily creates hierarchies of religious virtue in the form of pious status groups that are defined by their successful combinations of orthodox practices. Within this competitive struggle over virtue, there is a hierarchy of virtuous values and practices … (p. 3)

As such, an approach of contemporary politics of culture in northern Nigeria – to relate the concept to my own research – that considers recent socio-religious developments in terms of a (politicised) piety movement might provide useful insights. It certainly provides a means of avoiding the prejorative and problematic notion of fundamentalism/Islamism and to acknowledge ‘Islamic idea of the call to renewal or da’wa without adopting an alien terminology.’ (p. 6)

Taking Turner’s argument as a point of departure, Nieuwkerk considers the effects of ‘the growing influence of Islamist and pietistic movements in the Muslim world and in Muslim communities in the West’ in terms of ‘an increasing ‘Islamization or “pietization” … of the public sphere.’ (p. 169):

… with regard to the cultural sphere attempts are made to bring art, leisure and entertainment in accordance with religious commitments. Pious sensibilities seem to be a moving but not necessarily dominating force in the creation of new forms of artistic expressions and leisure activities. Secularism, in particular, and 'the grand project of nationalist progress' (Schielke, this issue) are still very influential in the field of art. In much of the Arab world, mass culture is still one of the few remaining bastions of secularism. (Salamandra, this issue) Secularist regimes perceive art and entertainment as important strongholds that are in need of defence. For that reason religious notions of art, leisure and entertainment are highly contested. (p. 169)

‘Popular culture, entertainment and performing arts,’ she continues,

… are specific targets for the cultural politics of competing groups because they are very influential in people’s daily lives and lifestyles. Art and popular culture are vital in identity construction of individuals and communities. Art is a boundary marker between different cultures, subcultures and ethnicities. It can therefore be expected that in art and expressive culture different imaginations of identities, ideals and belongings compete. (p. 170)

In the arena of cultural politics then - and I think a similar argument could be made for discourses about a number of recent developments concerning the cultural sector in northern Nigeria – secularists and representatives of piety movements (to simplify complex socio-cultural/socio-religious constellations for the sake of argument) quarrel about social norms and new regimes of (primarily public) piety:

Secularists have used art for their national pedagogical projects or to combat ‘extremism.’ Islamists alternatively, generally have a strained relationship with art and entertainment. (p. 170)

Here, however, Muslim piety movements do not generally condemn the arts nor do they agree with ‘the secularists’ call for absolute freedom.’ (p. 171) Here, in particular [t]he emotional affect of music and singing, the stirring effect of musical instruments, the “corrupting” influence of dancing and movies, and the “illegitimate” nature of human images are sensitive matters for religious scholars.’ (p. 170) Drawing upon her own research in Egypt Nieuwkerk notes that

At present, the views of several religious scholars seem to be on the move towards a more relaxed and accepting position of art and entertainment within the limits of religious sensibilities. The new Islamist trend in Egypt, or the wasatiyya movement, embraces art and argues that an Islamic community without art is unimaginable. The God-given talents should be used to express core religious values. They neither agree with the total condemnation of art nor with the secularists’ call for absolute freedom (Baker 2003). ‘Respectful’ art and entertainment can promote Muslim lifestyles. Amr Khaled, for instance, calls upon artists to return to art. They should help the Islamic revival and create an Islamic alternative and ambience. He tries to promote ‘art with a mission’, ‘al-fann al-hadif. Islamists and secularists thus compete for the art producers’ and consumers’ tastes and preferences. (p. 171, my emphasis)

(On this note also cf. an article by Nabeel Shabeeb on The Psychological Barrier Between Islamists and the Arts published on IslamOnline.net, a website associated with the Egyptian-born scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi)

In fact, she suggests, ‘the revivalist and nationalist projects regarding art and entertainment converge in their claim that artistic expression and diversion should have a purpose,’ (p. 172) whether it is to serve nationalise or pietistic purposes:

The Islamist ideas mainly differ in that their goal of art and entertainment is moral improvement and the pietization of the believers’ lifestyle (Schielke, this issue). (p. 172)

On the other hand, as artists individually and collectively position themselves in relation to diverse socio- and religio-cultural forces, Nieuwkerk cautions that ‘[p]ious sensibilities seem … not necessarily [a] dominating force in the creation of new forms of artistic expressions and leisure activities.’ (p. 169) Among others, privately-owned satellite channels and new media provide ‘new spaces for the creation of Islamic art and enterainment.’ (p. 173)

How might all this relate to or be applied to my own research? As I have suggested above, I consider the authors’ proposal to approach religious revivalist movements as well as the cultural discourses and practices they inspire in terms of piety movements and pietization of, in particular, public spheres: They provide an alternative to the politicised and hegemonising terminology borrowed from political science and thus, hopefully, a means of accounting for a greater variety of thought, opinion and, to play with the here discussed terminology, regimes of piety than the dichotomy between secularists and fundamentalists/Islamists might suggests. More significantly, I hope they will allow me to draw attention from the political to the cultural arena, in other words, away from politicised ideology (which in Nigeria as elsewhere appears to strongly draw upon dichotomous notions of ‘we’ vs. ‘they’) towards a more differentiated discussion of religious opinions about the status of different art forms in Islam - or rather in different local regimes of (visual) piety - and actual artistic practices. (for example cf. the variety of opinions about the legitimacy of photography expressed here) – As regards my discussion of religious art forms, such as the before mentioned religious posters, I was even thinking of applying the terminology creatively: how do you like ‘pietised visuality’?!

Having said this, some of the assumptions underlying Turner’s discussion of piety movements and the regimes of piety they promote might need reconsideration if the concept is to be applied to the Nigerian context. Here, I’m in particular thinking of the claim that they ‘typically involve the destruction or overcoming of many traditional or taken-for-granted ways of practicing religion.’ – I mean, if I was to extent the notion of pietisation to my discussion of visual culture would that not require me to broaden Turner’s concept of ‘traditional or taken-for-granted ways’ to include artistic and cultural traditions? However, at least where artistic practices are concerned I do not perceive of such a generalised dichotomy between tradition and contemporary (politicised) regimes of piety. On the contrary, notions of tradition do routinely surface in pietistic arguments about popular and visual culture – Consider the following statement by Alhaji Abubakar Rabo Abdulkarim, the director-general of the Kano State Censorship Board:

Our law shows that anyone in the entertainment profession whether praise singing or film or books or singing has a duty, before he releases it to bring it to be vetted, and to have removed anything that could spoil religion, culture, customs or the reputation of tradition. (Interview with Al-Amin Ciroma, translation and published by Carmen, my emphasis)

Note, that Rabo here mentions religion in one breath with ‘culture, custom [and] the reputation of tradition’ among the things that the censorship board, an institution that, according to its website has been set up to ‘to make sure that all creative arts such as films and literary works conform with our religion and the traditional way of life, as well as the standard rules of the profession both at local and national levels.’ (Mission Statement of The Kano State Censorship Board, my emphasis)

Otherwise, Nieuwkerk’s observation that ‘[p]opular culture, entertainment and performing arts are specific targets for the cultural politics of competing groups because they are very influential in people’s daily lives and lifestyles’ (p. 170) is reflected Rabo’s argument that

The level of development, security and stability of every society is measured by the balance it has achieved between its moral values and modernization. The moral values include the set of beliefs, heritage and social organization that bind people together. … Therefore, it becomes appropriate for the government to intervene in the sphere of popular culture in order to regulate the activities of the aforesaid emerging threat to our culture. It forms part of the ideals of good governance for the government to make such interventions in order to contain this chaotic setting and its effects on the society at large. (cf. here for the complete article)

Now contrast this with the following comment made in response to an article reporting the prohibition of a fashion show in Kano weeks ago published by Sahara Reporters (comments at the bottom of the page):

It is pathetic how ignorant some people can be. … I am a Kano indigene and lived there for over 17 years. The city is full of illiterates and people with radical ideology such as the governor and his allies including the writer of the above comment [defending the show’s prohibition on moral grounds]. Since when did governorship become dictatorship? The writer above claims he and the Kano people are not interested in fashion, but are they the only people in the state? What of the rights of other citizens as provided in the constitution of the federal republic and human [rights?], civil [code?] and other [legal] provisions [by] which the governor swore to abide and [which to] protect during his swearing in? Oh, perhaps the governor and his comrades are not literate enough to understand the importance of such provisions. … I will advise the governor to stop deceiving people with religion and focus on delivering better socio-economic [conditions] … from which the people of Kano can progress both socially and intellectually … Sharia is not oppression … (commentary by Salim, 19 June 2009, some spelling mistakes corrected.)

Here then, fashion and fashion shows have become one of the field on which the battle about public piety is being fought out. This becomes particularly clear if one considers another comment on the page:

Governor Shekarau is doing what Kano people would want him to [do] and that is protect the state from such kind of weird activities [like the shows of] fashion designers or striptease. My brothers neither Christianity nor Islam allow the indecent exposure of female bodies [but] that is [what] our fashion designers [are] portraying. (commentary by Ayuba, 23 June 2009, some spelling mistakes corrected.)

On the one extreme of the debate as it plays out in the article and comments then there are those favouring an increased pietisation of public (and, maybe, implicitly also private) spheres, consider the government responsible for its promotion and to that end also favour the censorship of particular cultural activities. On the other extreme, there are those who identify exactly these (state backed) efforts towards pietisation as expressions of ‘ignorance’ and reject censorship, prioritising socio-economic and intellectual progress over pietisation. – And they have chosen an aspect of popular culture (could one not consider fashion shows a particular form of performance?) as battle field for their different ideas of popular piety. While I have not yet come across equally heated debates considering the art forms I’m concerned with in my research in the light of various contemporary regimes of public piety, I believe that the very same concerns that are expressed in debates about ‘film, theatre, cinema, literary and other related creative works’ (the art forms that according to its mission statement Kano State Censorship Board is primarily concerned with) or, here, fashion shows also effect the visual art forms I am interested in.

On a final note: In assessing these debates, I believe, the concept of pietisation allows for the articulation of what commonly constitutes a dichotomic pair, religious fundamentalism vs. secularism, as opposing ends of one spectrum of, maybe, different regimes of public piety. Such a spectrum, not only allows for the consideration of various individual and collective positions within those debates but also the fact that oppositions to the imposition of particular regimes of public piety might not necessarily be informed by secularism – as far as one can deduce from the short comment Salim, e.g., might not reject Shari’a as a model of public piety as such but rather to object to aspects of its implementation in Kano State. As such, in particular the concept of pietisation of the public (and, of lesser significance to my research, the private sphere) might help to throw a light at the variety of regimes of visual piety or pietised visuality I encountered.

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