Flagg Miller

Professor, Religious Studies

Office: 916 Sproul Hall
Phone: 530-752-6255530-752-6255
Email: wfmiller@ucdavis.edu

Flagg Miller is a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California at Davis. Trained as a linguistic anthropologist, Dr. Miller’s research focuses on cultures of modern Muslim reform in the Middle East and especially Yemen.  

His latest book is entitled The Audacious Ascetic: What the Bin Laden Tapes Reveal about Al-Qa`ida (available from Hurst / Oxford University Press, September 14, 2015; www.audaciousascetic.com ).  Drawing primarily on an archive of over 1500 audiocassettes formerly deposited in Bin Laden’s house in Kandahar, Afghanistan, the book explores how Islamic cultural, legal, theological and linguistic vocabularies shaped militants’ understandings of al-Qa`ida.  Contesting the idea that al-Qa`ida’s primary enemy was, in fact, America and the West, the book argues that Western intelligence and terrorism experts collaborated with global media networks in managing Bin Ladin’s growing reputation in ways that were exploited by Osama and those who supported his militant vision.  

His first book, The Moral Resonance of Arab Media: Audiocassette Poetry and Culture in Yemen (2007), examined how Yemenis have used traditional poetry and new media technologies to envision a productive relationship between tribalism and progressive Muslim reform.  Along with publications in a variety of professional journals including theAmerican Ethnologist, the International Journal of Middle East Studies, the Journal of Language and Communication, and theJournal of Women’s History, Dr. Miller has written the preface to Poems from Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak (University of Iowa Press, 2007), a collection of translated poems written by detainees at Guantánamo Bay.

Education and Degree(s):

  • B.A. in English, Dartmouth College, 1991
  • M.Studies in Sociocultural Anthropology, Oxford University, 1994
  • Ph.D. in Linguistic Anthropology, The University of Michigan, 2001

Research Interest(s):

  • Dr. Miller's research focuses on cultures of modern Muslim reform in the Middle East and especially Yemen
  • His interdisciplinary work on religion draws from linguistic and cultural anthropology, history, media theory, poetics, philosophy, and cultural studies
  • He has lived and studied in the Middle East and North Africa for over four years, including Tunisia, Syria, and Yemen

Course(s) Taught:

  • Religion Today (RST1F)
  • Fundamentalism (RST1E)
  • RST 80 Religion and Language (2011-12)
  • RST 160 History of Islamic Thought (Spring 2008)
  • Modern Islam (RST161)
  • The Social Life of Islam (RST163)
  • The Language of Heresy (RST201)
  • Performance and Politics (CRI 200B)
  • Culture and Media
  • Cultural Anthropology and Human Diversity
  • Cultural Anthropology: Theory and Ethnography
  • Anthropology of the Middle East and North Africa
  • Text and Context
  • Issues and Methods in the Study of Religion (RST100)
  • Religion and Language (RST70)
  • RST 160 - Introduction to Islamic Thought

Committees and Service:

  • Director of the Graduate Group in Religion, The University of California, Davis, 2011-present
  • Director of the Middle East / South Asia Program, The University of California, Davis, 2011-2012

Reviews of The Moral Resonance of Arab Media:

The American Ethnologist, 39(1): 213-14. (2012)

The Middle East Journal, 62(3): 530-1. (2008)

Comparative Studies in Society and History, 50: 1052-4. (2008)

The International Journal of Middle East Studies, 42: 510-3. (2010)

Other Recent Publications:

"Rereading the Origins of Al-Qā`ida through Usāma Bin Lādin's Former Audiocassette Collection," in Ten Years Later: Insights on Al-Qaeda's Past and Future through Captured Records. Eds. Lorry Fenner, Mark Stout and Jessica Goldings. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Center for Advanced Governmental Studies. (Pp.100-11). (2012)

"Listen, Plan and Carry Out ‘al-Qā`ida': Theological Dissension in Usāma Bin Lādin’s Former Audiocassette Collection," in Contextualising Jihadi Thought. Eds. Jeevan Deol and Zaheer Kazmi. Hurst and Company/Columbia University Press. Pp.69-97. (2011)

"On the Ethics of Graduated Disclosure in Contexts of War," in Anthropologists in the Securityscape: A Casebook of Stories in Identity, Practice and Ethics. Eds. R. Albro, M. Schoch-Spana, G. Marcus, L. McNamara. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press. (2011)

“The Ethics of Sound in the Osama Bin Laden Audiotape Collection: Lessons from the Art of an Egg,” Anthropology News, December issue. (2010)

"Al-Qa`ida as a 'Pragmatic Base': Contributions of Area Studies to Sociolinguistics," Language and Communication, 28(4): 386-408. (2008)

"Forms of Suffering in Muslim Prison Poetry," in Poems from Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak. Ed. Marc Falkoff. The University of Iowa Press, 2007. Pp.7-16.

"Of Songs and Signs: Audiocassette Poetry, Moral Character, and the Culture of Circulation in Yemen," American Ethnologist, 32(1): 82-99. (2005)

“Metaphors of Commerce: Trans-valuing Tribalism in Yemeni Audiocassette Poetry,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, 34(1): 29-57. (2002)

"Public Words and Body Politics: Reflections on the Strategies of Women Poets in Rural Yemen," Journal of Women's History, 14(1): 94-122. (2002)

(Co-author Ulrike Freitag). "Three Poems on British Involvement in Yemen, from the Yemeni Press 1937," The Modern Middle East: A Sourcebook for History. Eds. C. Amin, B. Fortna, E. Frierson. Oxford University Press, 2005. Pp.492-500.

Entries for “Yemen,” “Aden,” and “Sanaa” in Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World, vol.2: Locations. Continuum Press, United Kingdom, 2005.

Review of Mandana Limbert’s In the Time of Oil: Piety, Memory and Social Life in an Omani Town, in the International Journal of Middle East Studies, (forthcoming in 2012.)

Review of Janet McIntosh’s The Edge of Islam: Power, Personhood, and Ethnoreligious Boundaries on the Kenya Coast, in the American Anthropologist, December issue. (2010)

Review of Charles Hirschkind’s The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics, in Contemporary Islam.

Review of Jillian Schwedler’s Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen, in International Journal of Middle East Studies. (Forthcoming in 2008).

Review of Niloofar Haeri’s Sacred Language, Ordinary People: Dilemmas of Culture and Politics in Egypt, in Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 17(2): 305-7. (2007)

Review of Paul Dresch’s A History of Modern Yemen, in Yemen Update, Spring issue. (2003)

Review of Martha Mundy's Domestic Government: Kinship, Community, and Polity in North Yemen, in Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford, 29(2): 182-5. (1998)

Current Projects:

His current book project is entitled The Audacious Ascetic: What Osama Bin Laden's Sound Archive Reveals about Al-Qaida (Hurst & Co., Dec. 2014). In late 2002, over 1500 audiotapes were discovered in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in a house once occupied by Osama bin Laden. The Audacious Ascetic is the first book to explore this extraordinary archive. It details how Islamic cultural, legal, theological and linguistic vocabularies shaped militants' understandings of Al-Qaida, and, more controversially, challenges the notion that the group's original adversary was America and the 'far enemy.'  Miller argues that Western security agencies' 'management' of bin Laden's growing reputation went awry.  When magnified through global media coverage, narratives of al-Qaida's coordination were exploited by Osama and his militant supporters.  

Focusing on over a dozen previously unpublished speeches by bin Laden as well as on discussions by top al-Qaida leaders and Arab-Afghans, Millerchronicles the Saudi radical's evolving relationship with a host of Muslim insurgencies that found his stripe of asceticism (zuhd) tactically useful, especially when circulated via audiotape.  These recordings also reveal militants' disenchantment when bin Laden, marginalized through the '90s, began pandering to Western television networks in his attempt to direct heterodox Islamist armed struggles against America.  Such audio evidence exposes al-Qaida's diminishing coherence before 9-11, and invites scrutiny of dominant narratives of Western law enforcement, intelligence and terrorism analysts.

Honors and Awards:

  • The University of California President's Research Faculty Fellowship in the Humanities, 2013-14
  • American Council of Learned Societies’ Charles A. Ryskamp Fellowship, 2010-11
  • Woodrow Wilson International Center Fellow, Washington, D.C., 2009-10
  • Hellman Fellow, University of California, Davis, 2008-09
  • National Humanities Center Fellowship, Durham, North Carolina, 2007-8 (declined)
  • Institute for Research in the Humanities Fellowship, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Fall, 2006
  • American Institute for Yemeni Studies, November-January, 2005-06
  • The Franke Institute for the Humanities Postdoctoral Fellowship, University of Chicago, 2001-02
  • Malcolm H. Kerr Award Runner-Up, Middle East Studies Association, Social Science Dissertations, 2001-02
  • Social Science Research Council - International Dissertation Research Fellowship, 1998-99
  • Fulbright-Hays Fellowship, 1998