Sound & Politics

Sound & Politics

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This is a clip of the ezan, which is the main subject I have been studying as it relates to language politics and the interplay between religion and secularism in Turkey. The fact that the call to prayer is in Arabic unites the “Muslim World” as the liturgical language is commonly understood, regardless of the native tongue of the worshipper. Performing the ezan in a different language would imply a sort of separation and ethnic division, where the practitioner is placing their own tradition above the language of the Qur’an (Arabic). The common liturgical language shows respect for the religion and worshippers everywhere, even if the Arabic required must be learned as a second language. Thus the use of Turkish language in the ezan for around 30 years represents a significant shift in political thought.

[click here] 

This is a sound clip of İstiklâl Marşı, which is the national anthem of Turkey and was adopted in 1921. The song is a reflection of the essence of nationalistic sentiment; the lyrics celebrate and affection for the Turkish homeland and was written to help raise the spirits of the military, as with most national anthems. This sound clip is important to the understanding of Turkish secularism, as a framed copy of this anthem resides in each classroom, along with a picture of Atatürk and an image of the Turkish flag. This display represents the devotion to the state and the support of a secular government–while God is mentioned in the lyrics of the anthem, the idea of God is used as a secondary support as a reason to fight for the State. Kemalist ideas of secularism by no means exclude religion, but rather place more value upon national identity than religious identity and separate the government from religious ideas, which may inform—but not dictate—the law of the land.

This last section is a recording of Atatürk’s speech to Turkish youth fighting in the War for Independence. The first thing he says is “Birinci vazifen, Türk istiklâlini, Türk Cumhuriyetini, ilelebet, muhafaza ve müdafaa etmektir.” This can be translated to mean, “Your first duty is to preserve and to defend Turkish Independence and the Turkish Republic forever.” This statement is critical to understand the essence of Kemalism, which resists typical American politicizations like “conservative” or “liberal”—in a sense, Kemalism is an extremely “right-wing” sort of ideology, where the state and the idea of “the people” are revered; however, Kemalism is also—particularly in the context of its time—an extremely “liberal” ideology in its radical break from the Caliphate model of government and the increase in modernizations that departed from the traditional customs of Turkey (such as dress, architecture, etc.). The purpose of the political speech is to rouse a feeling of “togetherness” for something bigger than the self; the rhetoric embodied the desire for a new and better order after the decline of the Ottoman Empire.


Ezan – Fair Use (through Wikipedia commons)

İstiklâl Marşı – Public Domain (through Wikipedia commons)

Manisa Turkish. John Guise, n.d. Web. 11 Apr. 2013.

Language & National Identity


The use of language in many countries is not merely a personal custom, but a political statement and a marker of national identity. In Turkey, the government purged the Turkish language of Arabic and Persian elements in the 1920s and 30s under the nationalistic and secular philosophy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. In 1950 with the election of a new government party, the adhan (Turkish: ezan) reverted back to being preformed in Arabic, which signaled an increasing political connection to the Arab world and conservative Islam. Though Turkey remains a secular nation, an anti-Kemalist faction has risen in recent years in tandem with economic downturns. This question of language and identity signals the order of self-alignment with a group—whether or not a person is a first a Muslim or first a Turk. The use of the Turkish language in any form is closely tied with nationalistic sentiment, and the language of the adhan is a political marker for the political atmosphere of the country.

This topic connects to the other members of my group in the sense that we are all focused on how sounds define identity, both on a personal and national level.

Here is a link where you can listen to the adhan in Istanbul:

This adhan is performed in Arabic. (The lyrics are: God is Great/I bear witness that there is no God but Allah/I bear witness that Muhammed is his messenger/Rush to prayer/Rush to success/God is Great.) This sound can be heard five times a day in nearly every city. However, it is important to know that the relationship between religion and government is complicated in Turkey; the country is still a secular nation, and the politics are “liberal” in comparison to other “Muslim nations” (like Iran, for example). My use of quotation marks here merely indicates that these terms are frequently used in the US media but are not entirely adequate to describe these concepts. Although most of the nation subscribes to the Muslim religion, some people identify first as Turks, and some people identify first as Muslims, and there is a continuum of devotion and attitudes towards religious practices and politics, just as there is a spectrum of attitudes in the United States towards Christianity, for example.


Language & Identity

The use of language in many countries is not merely a personal custom, but a political statement. In Turkey, the government purged the Turkish language of Arabic and Persian elements in the 1920s and 30s. This language program supported the nationalistic and secular philosophy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. In 1950 with the election of a new government party, the adhan (Turkish: ezan) reverted back to being preformed in Arabic, which signaled an increasing political connection to the Arab world and conservative Islam. Though Turkey remains a secular nation, an anti-Kemalist faction has risen in recent years in tandem with economic downturns. The use of the Turkish language in any form is closely tied with nationalistic sentiment, and the language of the adhan is a political marker for the political atmosphere.

Language has long been a source of national identity. In the Indian subcontinent, for example, the languages Hindi and Urdu are mutually intelligible but classified distinctly based on the religion of the speaker: whether or not someone claims to speak Hindi or Urdu shows a kind of political and religious affiliation. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, whose honorary title means ‘father of the Turks’, recognized this political component of language. The language of the Ottoman Empire was a mixture of Turkish, Arabic, and Persian words for the elite classes of society, while the lower classes used dialectal forms of Turkish. Atatürk saw the Arabic and Persian words as foreign: something that contaminated the more desirable Pure Turkish (öz Türkçe). In order to purify the language from these undesirable influences, Atatürk appointed a team of scholars to replace the foreign words with new Turkish words, some of which were artificially created. The use of these new words was mandated by the government, to the extreme that newspapers printed sections explaining the new words used in their articles. The teaching of Arabic in school was stopped, and the youth absorbed this new language. Atatürk instituted these reforms to unite the people under a common language, and build a nationalistic pride in the new, secular, and modernizing Turkish state.

A more controversial move was the decree that the call to prayer would be done in Turkish. Traditionally, the adhan had been done in Arabic, as that is the language of the Qur’an. This change signified the most dramatic language oriented reform, because it trespassed into the religious sphere. This idea lay at the heart of Atatürk’s secularism: while Islam was an integral part of national identity, it was subservient to the State. Atatürk also abolished the traditional Caliphate, and made clear that Sharia would not be the law of the land. While Islam was deeply intertwined with the government and the citizens, Atatürk’s vision of modernization placed it in a sphere beneath—crucially, not synonymous with—the national government. This idea is what Atatürk meant by secularism. The forced elevation of the Turkish language by the government in such a religious important context signified a break from the rest of the Arab world and a strengthening of ties with the West. Significantly, Atatürk eliminated the Arab script, proclaiming it insufficient for the sounds of the Turkish language, and replaced it with an expanded version of the Latin script. Atatürk associated the Arabic and the Persian cultures as part of a failed Ottoman past, and pushed for modern advancements, which he associated with the Global West.

The adhan would not remain in Turkish, however: the Kemalist ideal lost ground to traditional Islamic practices and the Arabic version reappeared nationwide in 1950. This shift of a more conservative government signified a shift in attitudes and realignment with the Arab world. In the modern day, there are still power struggles over language in Turkey, frequently involving the sizeable Kurdish minority. Some Kurdish Muslims have requested to preform the adhan in Kurdish, but this request has been denied. The idea of preforming the call to prayer in a language other than Arabic is criticized as being divisive, as all Muslims can understand the Arabic version while other languages would exclude non-speakers. The use of Arabic in this fashion is seen as a connection to the entire Arab world—a way to unite all Muslims uniformly, and thus the use of language is a political statement.

The linguistic state of the performance of the adhan is a marker for the political sentiment of the Turkish country. The politics of language are complex and often abstract, but illustrate very real conditions and philosophies in the countries affected. The interplay between government and religion in Turkey is complicated and multifaceted, as is that relationship in many other nominally secular nations; the back-and-forth between Islam and the State is perhaps most succinctly shown in language policies. This dynamic interplay is both extremely personal and has international ramifications politically as Turkey marches forward as an example of successful modernization in the Muslim world.

Annotated Bibliography

Language Policy and Official Ideology in Early Republican Turkey. Yilmaz Çolak. Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 40, No. 6 (Nov., 2004), pp. 67-91. Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.

The author shows how language worked as a political force in the 1920s and ‘30s in Turkey. The Kemalist approach to language purity (öz Türkçe) to define national identity embraced Western modernizations and shunned Arabic and Persian influences. The enforcement of pure Turkish illustrated the commitment to secularism and nationalism, which was promised to bring Turkey back to its rightful place of glory after years of struggle in the old Ottoman Empire. The new, pure language was meant to unite the Turkish people in an egalitarian way and foster a strong national identity. 

Muhammad Iqbāl and Atatürk’s Reforms. Fazlur Rahman. Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Apr., 1984), pp. 157-162. Published by: The University of Chicago Press.

With Turkey’s independence from the Arab world, a distinct kind of Islam arose. With Atatürk’s policies of nationalistic secularism, the Caliphate was abolished in Turkey, distinguishing it from the rest of the Muslim world. The Turkish language policies removed Arabic from being taught in schools and the students were forced to learn the new national language. The reforms sought to liberate Turkey from the past and distance the new nation from the Ottoman Empire.

Islam and Ideology: Towards a Typology. William E. Shepard. International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Aug., 1987), pp. 307-335. Published by: Cambridge University Press.

This paper shows Turkey’s elevation of the nation-state over religion. While Islam is an essential part of the national identity, it is subordinate to the entity of the Turkish nation itself, and this is what is meant by secularism. The removal of Islam as a national religion from its constitution in 1928 illustrates this secularism. The use of Turkish as an official language and the replacement of Arabic influences, even replacing the adhan, traditionally recited in Arabic, with a Turkish substitution, shows this superiority of state and binding national identity over religious tradition.

Nationalism and the Rise of Muslim Sentiment in Turkey. Jeremy Salt. Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Jan., 1995), pp. 13-27. Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.

Salt illustrates how the fluctuation of political Islam has affected government policies. The 1950 revocation of the Turkish ezan and replacement with the Arabic adhan shows an increase in conservative policies in the government. These policies seek to align Turkey with the rest of the Arab world, and are thus political in nature. The linguistic alteration came with a small series of other reforms that show Islam’s increasing relevance to governmental politics.

Turkey’s Religious Affairs Authority Criticizes Recitation of Adhan in Kurdish. Today’s Zaman. N.p., 7 June 2011. Web. 11 Mar. 2013. .

This newspaper article illustrates the contemporary conflict between Turkish and Kurdish factions in Turkey. The Kurdish factions wish to be able to recite the call to prayer in their own language, while the Turkish government insists that it be done in the traditional Arabic. This article shows that the battle over linguistic dominance is ongoing.

Thoughts From The Normal: Hidden Sounds In Quiet Places

I pushed a button on the bottom of the fan, and a steady purr filled the room. The pitch changed slightly but rhythmically as the head of the fan swiveled to and fro. I poured a cup of tea and began typing. The clickety-clack of the keys has become so ingrained in my daily existence that it seems to fade in and out of awareness; a steady procession often interrupted by a furious darker pitched backspace noise, and then quickly resumed. I get up, take off my jacket, walk around and think about what I want to say. I comb my hair and wash my hands and settle on an idea: perhaps it was not so much of a series of lies as it was a series of partial truths, I think to myself. I flip through a copy of Faust–where was the line I was thinking of?–art is long indeed, I think as I search. I read the paragraph I have written and consider how to continue weaving this story while playing a few simple notes on the ukulele. A door closes somewhere in the hallway; humanity is alive and abuzz.

The sounds I have chosen are very ordinary sounds; soft tones and hums that pass by nearly unheard. These are the sounds of my daily existence; the washing of hands, the pouring of tea, the soft hum of the fan–background noises, small and invisible. It is not the music or the voices that fill my existence, the things that I consciously listen to that I have recorded–I have recorded things that are steady, that are rarely focused upon, but life would feel eerie and empty in their absence. Michel Chion would classify this as causal listening–not the sort of listening that has to do with decoding language or analyzing the sound’s traits, but rather the sort of listening that occurs because objects and movement cause noise. These noises compliment the visual world, tell us what is happening in the moment. They are so intricately woven into our existence that we scarcely pay them any heed, yet they are central to the way we experience living. We hear “the sound produced by a particular unique object” (Chion 48) in the purest sense.

These sounds do not exist isolated in our imagination; they give us a profound sense of comfort. The noise of the fan in the background is “a restoration of rhythm [which] stands for situations being in control” (Bijsterveld 153). These sounds, though seemingly random at first glance, are incredibly ordered; the man walks at a steady pace, the fan moves mechanically, the comb moves consistently–there is a pattern, perhaps undetectable to an outsider, but easily detectable to someone familiar with this routine. Indeed, these sounds work to create a sense of familiarity, of non-randomness and control that puts the mind at ease and makes one feel at home. These are not the sounds of chaos; they are the sounds of an individual normality.

Creating this playlist illustrated the plethora of sound in the quiet. Since “the sense of hearing cannot be closed off at will” (Schafer 102), we hear regardless of source or personal relevance. I enjoy this aspect, personally; I feel this sensory experience as a source of comfort and control over the home environment. The sounds constitute an experience so close to existence itself that it is difficult to imagine their absence.

Perhaps that’s what this is all about, I thought as the fan droned on to my left: telling a story where the most important things are the things so natural that we never even notice them.

You can listen to my recordings here.  

Works Cited:

Chion, Michel. “The Three Listening Modes.” The Sound Studies Reader. Jonathan Sterne. New York: Routledge, 2012. 48-53. Print.

Bijsterveld, Karin. “Listening to Machines.” The Sound Studies Reader. Jonathan Sterne. New York: Routledge, 2012. 152-167. Print.

Schafer, R. Murray. “The Soundscape.” The Sound Studies Reader. Jonathan Sterne. New York: Routledge, 2012. 95-103. Print.

Selections from the Soundtrack Proposal for the film Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Part I – The Plantation


The first part of this soundtrack will be focused on Douglass’ early life on the plantation. As the film opens, the audience will hear a singular low voice moaning “I am going away to the Great House Farm! O yea! O yea! O!” (page 8) while the screen is pitch black. There will be a brief silence as the camera cuts to a harsh sunrise, quickly followed by the sound of (shoeless) feet trampling rhythmically in a field. The rhythm of the walking provides a beat for the continuation of the song, which becomes a chorus of voices repeating the lines slowly, with great effort. The occasional sound of a whip cracking in the distance [in surround sound, coming from the back right] and the sound of boots stomping add to the opening song, which utilizes only the human voice and these outdoor noises to form the composition. As the camera pans across the plantation, various farm noises are heard (birds, oxen, the sound of plowing). The chorus fades gently and gradually as an unseen narrator begins to say “I was born in Tuckahoe…” (1). This will instill in the audience a sense of the arduous rigor and continual suffering of plantation life.


Part II – Learning to Read

The initial act of Frederick Douglass learning the alphabet in the presence of Mrs. Auld will have no music; after Mr. Auld’s speech—beginning at the line “It would forever unfit him to be a slave” (20)—a violin quartet would start a dramatic crescendo; immediately following this crescendo the film cuts to a montage of the young Frederick Douglas “making friends of all the little white boys” (23) and learning various things from them, reading The Columbian Orator in secret, and copying the writing in Master Thomas’s book (26). The background music in this montage would give the audience a sense of inquisitive playfulness; Scott Joplin’s The Cascades would play delicately in the background, overlaid by the narrator’s voice giving a condensed version of a speech from pages 20-26, beginning at the line “From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom” (20). Various noises are overlaid where thematically necessary; at the scenes near a shipyard (26), the clanking of metal and hammering of wood would be lightly present; more in focus would be the sound of his chalk scraping against the pavement (lines 17-18, page 26: “my copybook was the board fence, the brick wall, and pavement; my pen and ink was a lump of chalk”). The music would end as the scene resolves with Douglass finishing some copy work out of Master Thomas’s book (26). This track will illustrate the intellectual character of Frederick Douglass and the pleasure of learning and exercising the mind—it will show his development into a free man, in mind if not yet body.


Part III – The Shipyard Fight


The scene where Frederick Douglass works at the shipyard would begin with Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag, but would quickly become sordid with the taunts of the workers and the clanking of the shipyard. Maple Leaf Rag would be played at a third of the tempo, and the shouts on page 56 would be lengthened and exaggerated in fashion. As a mob began attacking him, Maple Leaf Rag would become distorted, much in the fashion that Hans Zimmer distorted Schubert’s Die Forelle in Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows. The music would be warped, slowed, overtaken with sounds from the shipyard, sounds of striking flesh, shouting, clanking—an ugly cacophony. At the moment the screen blackens, there will be a sudden and utter silence. The silence will be an effective means of shocking the audience with the cruelty faced by slaves even in the cities and the displays of inhumanity that occurred.