Past Event

A talk by Timothy P.A. Cooper (Cambridge)

March 6, 2023
5:30 PM - 7:00 PM
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A talk by Timothy P.A. Cooper

"Live Controversies: Azadari Networks and the Shi’i Muslim Present"

Organized by the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life

Co-sponsored by the South Asia Institute

Time:  5:30pm - 7:00pm

Location:  Room 207 Knox Hall, 606 West 122nd Street, between Broadway and Claremont

Abstract:  Twelver Shiʿa Muslims form the largest religious minority in Pakistan where they occupy a precarious position in relation to a Sunni-Islamic majority state. Despite the threat of marginalization and violence, finding new avenues through which to practice publicity has become central to Shiʿi groups’ demands for recognition. Seizing on an increase in smartphone ownership, combined events-organizers and digital collectives known as “azadari networks” use existing platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok to publicize Shiʿi faith. These networks are recognized by their audiences as experts in “liveness”, that sees technology contribute to the reception of divine presence or lend affective significance to existing rituals.

Building on ethnographic research among Shiʿi videographers, this paper examines the qualities of liveness that have long been desired in Shiʿi media. This can be traced to the availability of sound amplification, the rare appearance of Shiʿi orators on broadcast television in the 1960s, and the adoption of home recording technology in the 1980s that allowed ritual events, processions, or regular commemorative gatherings known as majlis to be recorded and reproduced on audio- and videocassette. Yet since the launch of Facebook Live in 2016 and the ensuring popularity of livestreamed events, reform scholars, popular orators, and audiences have debated the ethics of liveness, particularly whether the mediation of co-presence constitutes an appropriate performance of belief. Contrary to Shiʿi discourse on the glory or trauma of past events, these debates address what the Shi’i Muslim present should look, sound, and feel like in an era of public life characterized by outrage, heightened sentiment, and religious controversy.

Timothy P.A. Cooper is an anthropologist and ethnographic filmmaker. He is a Research Fellow in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge and a College Research Associate at King’s College, Cambridge. His first book, “Public Demand: Film, Islam, and Atmosphere in a Pakistani Marketplace” is under contract with Columbia University Press. The manuscript was awarded the 2022 Claremont Prize in the Study of Religion. His work has appeared in journals such as Comparative Studies in Society and History, Material Religion, and the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. He has also disseminated his research in impact projects, such as the organization of a major international retrospective on Pakistani film at the British Film Institute, radio documentaries, and the production of four ethnographic films screened at international festivals.