“Words Could Well Be Whispered”: On the Contribution of Sound Studies to Research on Muslim Ethics and al-Qa?ida

By W. Flagg Miller
Submitted to Session P2754 (AME-You Say You Want a Revolution? Anthropology, Media, and Agendas for Radical Change in the Middle East, 2011 Annual Meeting
Rel Stds/Theo
All Middle East;
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
Anthropology offers scholars of the Middle East valuable resources for exploring the social motivation of new media. Visual and televisual media have proven especially generative topics of inquiry, especially where they enable area studies scholars interested in links between aesthetics and power to draw upon anthropological forays into critical theory, post-colonial theory and media studies. In this paper, I focus on anthropological studies of sound, especially as elaborated through models of language use, exchange, and ritual, in efforts to highlight new directions in anthropology’s contributions to media research.
In early 2002, Cable News Networks acquired a collection of one thousand five hundred audiocassettes from Usama Bin Ladin’s abandoned residence in Qandahar, Afghanistan. Approaching the collection of over two-hundred featured speakers as a sound archive whose assembly, contents and usage offer a conflicted rendition of what has come to be known as the al-Qa?ida organization under Bin Laden’s leadership, I focus in my paper on the ways speakers on the tapes turn sound production into an ethical resource for evaluating dominant assignations of voice and authorship. The critical leverage of sound studies for revisiting Western and American assumptions about modern authors and the limits of rationality are revisited through considerations of Bin Laden’s figuration within discourses of terror both popular and scholarly. As media studies theorist Jonathan Sterne (2008) has argued, Bin Laden’s voice unsettles Western listeners even as it licenses new initiatives of surveillance and control. Most of my paper, however, examines the ways in which the ethics of sound in Islam has been elaborated in relation to contending discourses of Muslim theology and hermeneutics. I focus in particular on one audiotape that features an extended conversation between Arab militants in an Afghan kitchen. Through ritualized exchanges of tea and food that are intentionally and irreverently upended, participants explore the differences between their own models of asceticism and those of idealized militants, including Bin Laden himself. Ultimately, I argue that the image of Bin Laden as the West’s antipodal Other, his voice shorn of bodily accompaniment well before his final live video in October 2004, provides speakers in the collection with a modern rendering of asceticism whose secular, self-inaugurating and existential elaborations prove most threatening to traditions of authority within rather than beyond the house of Islam. Agents of sound production in Bin Laden’s former cassette collection offer lessons on the pitfalls of misconstruing global jihadis’ primary goals and targets.