Islamic extremism, song and dance, and sonic territoriality

Islamic extremism, song and dance, and sonic territoriality

Rachel Harris (SOAS, University of London)

In her 2013 book, ‘Taming Tibet’, Emily Yeh uses the term ‘territorialisation’ to describe the process of naturalising the Tibetans’ association with the Chinese state, and the borders of the Peoples Republic of China as a spatial container for Tibetans. She draws on notions of development as a form of territorialisation, which is both a material and embodied process that involves the transformation of both subjectivities and landscapes.

This view of development in Tibet is useful for understanding Xinjiang, another ‘minority region’ of China currently undergoing massive immigration and development, and beset by violence. The key difference between the two regions is the problematic question of Islam, and in Xinjiang much of the media representation of the violence is framed in terms of ‘Islamic extremism’. This representation serves to obfuscate what is better described as an ongoing struggle over the landscape, where government projects of development – which do not equally benefit the indigenous Muslim Uyghurs – attempt to remodel the landscape and to shape the desires and actions of its subjects; that is, to shape the ways in which they inhabit that landscape.

I argue that sound is a crucial aspect of this relationship, and that the soundscape is also a site of struggle. I draw on the notion of ‘sonic territorialisation’ to explain the ways in which cultural development, state power, and the shaping of habitus are played out through sound. In this I am developing a line of thought from Stephen Feld’s (1996) ‘acoustemology of place’: auditory practices as ways of understanding and enacting the material environment as a place-in-the-world, through Andrew Eisenberg’s (2013) work on the Muslim community in Mombasa, and his notion of taking an ‘ethnographic ear’ to the affective, embodied spatial practices through which people negotiate place within the city. Here I want to scale up the ethnography and listen to the spatial negotiation of place not within the city but at regional level, and consider a government campaign to encourage – or rather to compel – Uyghurs across Xinjiang to take part in weekly singing and dancing sessions in the name of tackling Islamic extremism.

In a speech at China’s National People’s Congress in March 2014, the deputy chair of the China Dancer’s Association, Dilnar Abdulla, complained that ‘religious extremists’ in the Muslim region of Xinjiang were ‘campaigning for the commoners not to sing and dance’. Delegates at the Congress bowed their heads to remember the victims of a knife attack in Kunming train station in which 33 were killed and 144 injured. This was the spark for the current anti-extremism campaign in Xinjiang, a campaign which has imposed tight controls on religious practice, curtailed freedom of movement and freedom of speech, led to a wave of arrests, executions and local outbreaks of violence, which is continuing with increasing ferocity today.

Far from targeting radicalisation, the campaign has sought to eliminate all visible and audible expressions of Islamic faith: veiling, beards, public prayer, and Islamic media from the landscape and soundscape. There has been a strong emphasis on the dangers of listening: to unofficial sermons or to Islamic media.

The campaign has a clear interest in the control of public space, as can be seen through the ever-present array of public signage, and the bans on prayer and Islamic dress in the streets, town squares and parks.

In addition to criminalising Islamic behaviours, the campaign also attempts to inculcate an alternative set of behaviours. Organised song and dance events have become a cornerstone of the anti-extremism campaign. Cultural bureaux across Xinjiang have organised villagers to participate in mass dancing displays, and weekly singing of revolutionary songs.

We have seen the professional song-and-dance troupes touring the countryside, staging concerts for peasants and nomads, in order to “promote modern lifestyles and tackle religious extremism”. This is a revival of a deep-rooted Chinese Communist Party practice, going back to the anti-Japan war period, when propaganda troupes were sent ‘down to the countryside’ to promote support for the revolution amongst the peasants.

We have traced reports of local government campaigns which aim “to establish a weekly meshrep to counter extremism”, using peasant performance groups to “promote unity, love of the Communist party, patriotism, attack extremism and splittism”. Uyghur meshrep gatherings have been enshrined as Intangible Cultural Heritage under the UNESCO scheme of safeguarding the heritage of humanity.

Thus we can see that the UNESCO safeguarding programme currently being implemented in Xinjiang is effectively being folded into the anti-extremism campaign.

Another remarkable phenomenon is the singing and dancing Imams. Omerjan Hakim, a county governor in Aksu, posted on his personal blog about a public gathering for religious personnel to sing revolutionary songs. He wrote, “This activity was implemented across all the county’s villages and towns to promote patriotism and teach imam how to dress properly. They sang their love for their country and the Communist party and showed their happiness”. This emphasis on the public demonstration of happiness is a recurring theme in reports of the campaign.

It was reports of Imans publically dancing to the Chinese Internet hit song Little Apple that really aroused the ire of the Turkish media in 2015.

Little Apple was quite an extraordinary phenomenon: a synth heavy pop song that became a massive Internet hit, and was harnessed to serve Party propaganda, with huge energy and funds expended on its roll-out. Several media reports from around Xinjiang mentioned that county governments were organizing villagers to dance to Little Apple every morning, in order to “promote development and modernity, prevent separatism and religious extremism and promote harmonious and civilized lifestyles”.



Finally we have seen many videos of Uyghur local residents singing Red Songs, or revolutionary songs composed in the 1950 and 1960s.



Why all this singing and dancing? Song and dance (naxsha usul) has a particular history in this region. Commentators have often noted the prominence of song and dance in Party policy – the rhetoric of the singing and dancing minorities. The 2009, 60th anniversary gala performance on Tian’anmen, at the heart of the Chinese polity, with its hugely disproportionate showcasing of minority song and dance, is a good example of the way that ethnic minority song and dance is deployed to symbolize the big family of nations that comprises the Peoples Republic of China, and uphold the rule of the Chinese Communist Party over this huge territory. Commentators are less likely to note the considerable popular investment in song and dance among Uyghurs as a central part of national culture. Arguably it was the early 20th century Jadidists (Muslim reformists) who first developed the notion of Uyghur national culture, and used musical performance to convey social reformist messages, long before the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army marched into Xinjiang.

So rather than a state-imposed project, we can see this promotion of song-and-dance as a form of cultural engagement, with the state now seeking to recast these aspects of shared cultural identity in pursuit of its own current goals. Hence the odd juxtaposition of a kitsch hit pop song with classic revolutionary songs. What is important about them is not so much their ideological message but that they are familiar, pleasurable, and they are part of a wider experience of being part of, and belonging to, the PRC.

In many ways the campaign is reminiscent of the mobilisation techniques developed during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The emphasis on participation, on performing, taking part, is especially significant. This is not so much about changing minds as changing norms of bodily behaviour: disciplining Muslim bodies and rectifying Muslim habitus. Daily prayer is replaced by daily song and dance.

It is interesting to consider the campaign in the light of some of the literature on Cultural Revolution. The historian Wang Ban, for example, has provided a searing personal account of experience of the ‘revolutionary rituals’ of the Cultural Revolution, noting the importance of embodiment, repetition, and the internalization of bodily norms. These were especially noticeable in the widespread practice of amateur performances of the revolutionary model operas:

“Through the constant reproductions of the plays, people no longer just acted out the roles on the stage: they came to live these roles in daily life. They came to identify with the heroes, taking on the tone, pitch, and manner of their speech and assuming their bodily postures. They even gesticulated and moved in the same heroic and theatrical way” (Wang 1997).

How do these weekly song-and-dance sessions ‘counter extremism’? It is increasingly clear that the anti-extremism campaign is not only aimed at the small minority capable of carrying out acts of violence in the name of jihad. This campaign is aimed at the much more broad-based Islamic revival that we have seen in Xinjiang over the past decade, which has seen large numbers of people adopt a pious Muslim lifestyle, including embodied practices such as daily prayers, reciting the Qur’an, habits of Islamic modesty, and avoidance of tobacco and alcohol.

The focus on embodied practice is central to readings of the Islamic revival movement in the Middle East. In her study of the revival movement in Egypt (2005), Saba Mahmood argues that forms of bodily practice (such as veiling, daily prayers, or reciting the Qur’an) do not simply express the self but also shape the self that they are supposed to signify. Embodied practices and soundscapes are intimately linked. As Eisenberg (2013) argues, the Islamic soundscape recruits a set of bodily practices through which Muslims transform the ostensibly public spaces of their neighbourhoods into the private spaces of the Muslim community. Eisenberg is concerned with the call to prayer that resonates out from the mosque five times a day, demarcating the private space of the Muslim community.

The call to prayer is hardly audible in Xinjiang. If we can speak of an Islamic soundscape in this region, it is one barely resonates in public spaces. But recent decades have seen a revival of Islamic sound in private spaces, and in digitally mediated spaces of online forums and smart phone apps, creating a resonant virtual Islamic soundscape, which serves to promote and strengthen the changing bodily habitus. Crucially, this virtual Islamic soundscape maps onto Uyghur national identity and onto the territory of Xinjiang, changing the ways in which Uyghurs inhabit its landscape.

Thus, we can read the Islamic revival in Xinjiang as a set of sounded practices that reframe the landscape in ways that are deeply antithetical to the state development project, and hence a contesting of state power. This is what the anti-extremism campaign seeks to counter.

Viewed in this way the campaign seems to be impelled by a more powerful logic than might be immediately apparent: it is a battle not for hearts and minds but for bodies, and it is directly focused on countering these Islamic forms of habitus through the use of revolutionary traditions of embodiment and performance, reclaiming bodily practice and redefining space.



Eisenberg, Andrew, ‘Islam, Sound and Space: Acoustemology and Muslim Citizenship on the Kenyan Coast’, in Georgina Born (ed.) Music, Sound, and Space: Transformations of Public and Private Experience (Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp186-202.

Feld, Steven (1996), ‘Waterfalls of Songs: An Acoustemology of Place Resounding in Bosavi, Papua New Guinea’, in Steven Feld and Keith H. Basso (eds.), Senses of Place, Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, pp. 91-135.

Mahmood, Saba (2005), Politics of Piety: the Islamic revival and the feminist subject, Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Wang Ban, The Sublime Figure of History: Aesthetics and Politics in Twentieth-Century China (Stanford University Press, 1997).

Yeh, Emily T., Taming Tibet: Landscape Transformation and the Gift of Chinese Development (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2013).

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