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Spools of propaganda

October 02, 2016

The audio cassette was essential equipment in our car while working in Azad Kashmir after the earthquake in 2005. Our driver, although deeply religious, had a predilection for contemporary Bollywood music. Using wagons to move around locally and between Rawalpindi, Bagh and Muzaffarabad taught me that tastes were diverse. There were drivers who only played naats, others had Western pop and some played old Pakistani pop and folk. In many of these vehicles today the cassette has been replaced with newer technology, but with the iPod shuffle or smartphones its virtues have only been superseded. In Tajik Pamir an iPod shuffle exchange system exists for long distance jeep or bus drivers: when they reach an army checkpoint not only do they show their documents and declare their passengers, but also exchange their iPod against one of the many stored in a box at the checkpoint. A continuous flux of these devices is ensured.

In the scholarly realm, in Pakistan and elsewhere, these audioscapes are still relatively poorly exploited. Apart from pure entertainment and a means to make the often arduous journeys in remote regions more diverting, what messages do these recordings contain? What do they tell us about the very essential job of public and private drivers, and could they provide material for a map of intercultural exchange? A landmark study by Charles Hirschkind on cassette sermons in Cairo is limited geographically and under-acknowledged in its value. Few scholars likely have the combination of language skills, time and patience to sieve through such material and with their rewriteable nature, few collections exist. Flagg Miller, professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Davis, recently published a book on one such extensive archive that even though associated with a famous name, lay relatively untouched so far. His proficiency in Arabic, training as a linguistic anthropologist and previous research on Yemeni soundscapes provides him with a key to make some of the content of 1,500 audiotapes found in late 2002 in a house owned by Osama bin Laden more accessible to the less proficient reader.


A cache of audio recordings of Osama bin Laden is analysed by Flagg Miller


The book, The Audacious Ascetic — What the Bin Laden Tapes Reveal About al-Qa’ida has an ambitious subtitle. It suggests to be much more, or something completely different, than an anthropological account of the weight of cassette recordings in global terrorism. Reading into the book, heavily focused on what Al Qaeda was construed to be by Western media and scholarly narratives, I was wondering whether a vault of cassettes could really tell us more. Bin Laden was interviewed numerous times, many of his companions and family members have since told their story of the man, his rise and the ominous organisation that came to be associated with his name. And then Miller writes, “Much of the value of the collection lies, of course, in its connection with Bin Laden himself, or at least with the house he occupied in Kandahar between 1997 and 2001. […] Tempted though we may be to link specific cassettes and their owner’s own intellectual formation, however, influences must be qualified for at least one important reason: Bin Laden appears not to have made a regular practice of listening to audio cassettes.”

His son even claims that he can’t remember one time when his father would listen to one. And not only was Bin Laden himself not interested; the tapes were “originally found in a run-down Kandahari cassette shop. The owner of the shop had indeed found the cassettes useful, though not for their contents: he was planning to use their cartridges for Afghan pop songs […].” To whom, then, did these tapes matter? The book does not really make that clear. But it does provide the reader a chance to understand the phenomenon of Al Qaeda better.

Miller picks out just two types of recordings — speeches by Bin Laden himself and sound bites from everyday life among associated militants in Afghanistan — and uses the speeches by famous Islamic scholars that were popular in the collection only as a reference in his analysis. The transcripts of both are tedious to read, however Miller does provide an online source where they can be listened to in their original Arabic. He then uses these transcripts to dispel some major misconceptions still prevalent when it comes to Bin Laden and Al Qaeda.


Even his leadership was fragile; among fighters in Afghanistan he was not always considered the leading figure, and by the audiences he was often confronted with critical questions doubting his sincerity in the struggle against the other.


The first and most basic is what Al Qaeda constitutes. And from what the sources suggest, the Arabic word for “the base” is really rather used for just that: the house in Peshawar where Bin Laden resided in the beginning or a training camp in Afghanistan. Apart from referring to Bin Laden as a leader, little points to Al Qaeda actually being an organisation. Even his leadership was fragile; among fighters in Afghanistan he was not always considered the leading figure, and by the audiences he was often confronted with critical questions doubting his sincerity in the struggle against the other. Who that other really was is unclear to many. The West, for some, but for many the main adversary were rulers in the Arabian Peninsula and other Muslim states as well as Israel. Miller shows that the rhetoric against the West started with Bin Laden’s much later speeches — that is, once he was aware of the attention he would get — otherwise he would have met with little response from local audiences.

Al Qaeda has by now been superseded by another name on the global stage of terror — the militant Islamic State (IS) group. Recordings associated with it today exist, if in formats other than the cassette, as YouTube videos and digital audio recordings put forth by the propaganda departments. As with Al Qaeda, it is largely unclear how the IS functions. The problem, as Miller states, “was that ‘the base’ proved too diffuse to respond as predicted to the kinds of militarised intervention marshalled by the United States after 11 September.” This diffuse point of attack is mirrored by a diffuse fear of something not quite known. The attacks in Madina just proved once more that here, too, the problem is more complex and our perception of what the IS is and what it wants still largely flawed. An analysis like Miller’s — and in this case the data would be much easier to access and process — could be a helpful approach to understand an ever-growing global worry much better.

The reviewer has a degree in Environmental Engineering and works in research and development projects in Europe and Asia.

The Audacious Ascetic — What the Bin Laden Tapes Reveal About al-Qa’ida
(Terrorism)
By Flagg Miller
C. Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd., UK
ISBN: 978-1849044844
320pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 2nd, 2016