In death, as in life, Osama bin Laden a pop-culture icon across Muslim world


Osama bin Laden is a pop culture enigma across the Arab world.

Osama bin Laden is the star of an opera.

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Not the real Osama bin Laden of course, who was killed in a raid by U.S. Navy SEALs in 2011, but rather his character, a sort of Robin Hood figure in a Kolkata, India, jatra, or street opera, about the events of Sept. 11.

Jatras last around four hours, with as much song and dance as a Bollywood film — and live musicians.

In this particular opera, not only is bin Laden portrayed with admiration, but America and her allies are the villains.

The audience at one particular performance in 2003 — including a fair number of children — ate it up, and afterwards said they enjoyed this portrayal of bin Laden.

One man told said America had made bin Laden, so was ultimately responsible.

Kolkata has long been a seat of radical leftist, anti-western sentiment, so this kind of take on world events was pretty common. It was also April of 2003 — a month after the Iraq invasion — so a strain of anti-Americanism and anti-war protests weren’t surprising.

But still, the anger, hatred even — you never expected to hear “Death to America” chanted in an Indian city.

Cauvery Ganapathy, a fellow with the Global India Foundation, a think tank in Kolkata, says the city’s initial reaction to the 9/11 attacks mirrored the rest of the world’s — “we are all Americans now."

But bin Laden’s first post-9/11 video included a laundry list of grievances, something to appeal to Muslims across the world. For Indian Muslims, it was bin Laden’s mention of Kashmir, a Muslim-majority state claimed by both India and Pakistan.

“When you talk about Kashmir it’s one of those flashpoints in our heads, in the subcontinent,” Ganapathy said.

“It immediately captures your attention. So in many ways he played to the galleries in a way that would make any advertiser very proud.”

But the most striking feature of the protests in 2003 was how Hindus and Muslims were uniting to condemn America. And not just over the Iraq war: plenty of Hindus in Kolkata had feelings toward bin Laden ranging from ambivalence to outright approval.

What was the attraction?

“It’s a question of sovereignty and it’s a question of dignity,” saod Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut. “Osama bin Laden and these various Salafist movements play on this theme very much. It’s anti-imperial but it’s also about your own sovereignty and your own dignity.”

Khouri says that for many across the Middle East and South Asia, bin Laden appealed to a deep seated anti-colonial mindset. He was the little guy sticking it to The Man, in the most outrageous manner possible.

But as the years passed, bin Laden and al-Qaeda didn’t get far in taking down corrupt, post-colonial leadership in Muslim countries.

“His aura, his image faded years ago when it was obvious that he wasn’t really getting anywhere. And many people really didn’t like what he did on 9/11 — attacking big office blocks, thousands of innocent civilians being killed, is not the kind of thing that ordinary people in the Arab or Islamic world would do themselves. They would not support that kind of thing,” Khouri said.

By late 2010, bin Laden had been overtaken by history.

“You’ve had this huge groundswell of support for these uprisings in the Arab world, because they’re the last anti-colonial battle. These movements going on now, these Arab uprisings and revolutions really represent the will of the majority in these countries in a way that bin Laden could never, ever tap, even though he tried very hard,” Khouri said.

Ironically, the killing of bin Laden has raised his Q Score( once again.

His popularity had been on the decline even in Pakistan — but the US raid into Abbotabad ripped open a hornet’s nest of resentment. And the quick burial at sea has spawned a thousand new conspiracy theories. In Pakistan, some say he’s still alive. And he’s been popping up again in the rich pop culture of Kolkata.

“Although he was not a part of the popular imagination for a while now, in his death he has somehow managed to make a comeback,” says Cauvery Ganapathy. “The imam of one of the mosques in Kolkata led a prayer meeting for bin Laden after he was killed, for his soul to rest in peace. But you have to understand in a deeply religious community, that sets much store by the dictates of the Koran, eventually Bin Laden’s death became a story about what sort of last rites he was accorded.”

And that story served as the basis for another jatra in Calcutta last year, “Bin Laden Killed at the Hands of America.”

The new opera focuses not on the killing itself, but on the supposedly disrespectful way U.S. forces disposed of his corpse.

This report was produced by Arun Rather, a reporter for PRI's The world and PBS Frontline.