Soundscapes and Our Sense of Belonging

Sounds are also not a cultural universal: music for one person may be noise to another; the sound of thunder may frighten some and be soothing to others; the call of the adhan may be "grating and annoying" to some and "beautiful" to others.
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On Jan. 16, Duke University's Chapel bell tower was scheduled to resound for the first time with the "Adhan" -- the Muslim call to prayer. The chant, which would have announced the beginning of the Friday prayer services, was to be made by students in the Duke Muslim Students Association and be "moderately amplified," according to Duke Today. But in the end, the vitriolic responses to the event -- including threats of violence -- proved to be too much, even for an academic setting like Duke University: Duke administrators withdrew support for the adhan from the chapel bell tower and left Muslim students to issue it from the quad outside.

What a loss for us all.

We missed an opportunity to hear our campus, town, and city soundscapes ring out with a rich and dynamic expression of the values of inclusivity and diversity that we consider so essential to the American experience. Worse still, we privileged fears of exclusion (or forced conversion) over a sense of belonging.

Much of the debate around whether or not the adhan should be allowed from the bell tower is anchored in broader national conversations about the role of religion in the public and private spheres of our country. These debates often revolve around visual symbols of religious practice. Is it acceptable for the Ten Commandments to be displayed on state Capitol grounds, for example? What about a Christmas tree or menorah in a public setting?

The debates become even more challenging when it comes to sound. Sounds, of course, do not honor a public and private divide -- depending on how loud they are, they can extend well beyond their point of origin: road work or the garbage pick-up can be heard inside our homes; the sirens of ambulances and fire trucks are designed to broadcast "Emergency!" far and wide; church bells can be heard from within our town halls and capitol buildings.

Sounds are also not a cultural universal: music for one person may be noise to another; the sound of thunder may frighten some and be soothing to others; the call of the adhan may be "grating and annoying" to some and "beautiful" to others. The same can be said for church bells or the shofar. Sounds affect us, our emotions, and our sense of identity.

Religious identity and, more broadly, our individual and communal sense of belonging is influenced in multiple ways by ambient sounds. These sonic cues have long histories that go well beyond contemporary debates about "free speech," modern technologies of "amplification," and recent "noise ordinances." Who we are is closely interwoven with our sense of where we are, our sense of place -- a place that can be claimed, marked, or signaled by sounds as well as other sensory markers, like the look, feel, and smell of a place.

We have often overlooked just how strong an impact the sounds of our environment (our place) have had on religious ideology, literature, practice, and experience. Rituals and liturgies are perhaps the most obvious example of the importance of sound for religious traditions. But we might also consider how the Bible speaks of God's voice as the sound of thunder or the sound of rushing waters; the Quran, where thunder praises God; the Hindu notion of creation happening with the sound of the sacred Om. For fourth and fifth-century Egyptian and Palestinian Christian monks, demons roared like lions and hissed serpents, angels and demons alike chanted the psalms, and the monk's best response to both was prayer uttered under the breath. Simultaneously, these very same monks created tools for calling fellow monks to prayers, especially the semantron, or wooden sounding-board, that the monks struck (and continue to do so in monasteries across the eastern Mediterranean) to call the community for prayers and vigils.

So when we strike the semantron, ring the church bells, or chant the adhan are we controlling public space by means of sound waves, encouraging conversion or asserting the "rightness" of our belief, making a political claim by way of religion, or providing a sense of belonging, place, and ritual for a particular religious group? The answer is far from simple. It requires attention to our values of inclusivity, the ways in which our sonic environments have intersected with religious ideals, and a long view of the use of sound as an "acoustic territory" that may at once incite hostility for outsiders and a sense of belonging for insiders. Are we -- at Duke and in towns and cities across this country -- willing to allow our soundscapes to ring with the religious diversity we claim to value?

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