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    Superpower Osama

    Symbolic Discourse in the Indian Ocean Region aft er the Cold War

    Jeremy Prestholdt

    “ There are two superpowers in the world,” a man in Mombasa, Kenya explained in 2002: “the United States and Osama bin Laden.” “At the moment,” he added, “Osama is the one with the upper hand.”1 To appreciate the logic of this equation, and thus the symbolic potency of bin Laden, we should recognize that much of the world saw 9/11 as an unprecedented symbolic blow to the United States. Some embraced the actions of the hijackers as a fi gurative victory over a hegemon that they believe bears great responsibility for global inequities. In a world increasingly defi ned by shared imagery, from brand logos to twenty-four-hour television news, 9/11’s planners strategically harnessed the dramaturgy of visual simultaneity. Th ey not only targeted icons of America’s fi nancial and military prowess, but there was just enough time between attacks for news cameras, which fed thousands of media outlets worldwide, to be trained on the World Trade Center at the moment the second plane struck.2 Unable to mount a signifi cant military off ensive against America, the hijackers delivered a resounding blow to the superpower both by

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    striking its prominent national symbols and capturing the spotlight of the international media.

    Jean Baudrillard was among the fi rst to refl ect on 9/11 as more than an act of violence but also, and perhaps more importantly, a symbolic assault on the United States.3 Baudrillard’s analysis of the global reper- cussions of the event stressed the extraordinary humiliation of 9/11.4 Th is humiliation of the superpower infl icted by individuals, not a state, was a primary catalyst for the proliferation of Osama bin Laden iconography—from murals to T-shirts—aft er the attacks, particularly in Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. Th e profound humiliation dealt the US also helps to explain the seemingly contradictory response of some in the global South: sympathy for the victims of the attacks counterbalanced by a sense of vindication. In the horror and humili- ation of 9/11 a symbolic exchange, to use Baudrillard’s expression, was struck. Th e humiliation felt by a sizable portion of the world’s popula- tion, who see their interests as marginal to the desires of US multina- tional corporations and foreign policy-makers, was repaid, at least in the eyes of many, by the humiliation of America on its own soil. To a great extent this is why the event, or more precisely the media event, of 9/11 engendered excitement across the global South.5

    Genuinely surprised by this mixed response to 9/11, the Ameri- can press turned its attention to voices articulating the psychologi- cal traumas of humiliation in the global South. Th e crude “Why do they hate us?” question that occupied the US media for months aft er 9/11 off ered fl eeting consideration of such voices. Th ough moored in overly simplistic terms and absent of insight into the motivations of the hijackers, the ensuing debates about perceptions of America and American foreign policy revealed a cacophony of voices articulating similar sentiments. A Dateline NBC interview with unnamed Paki- stani men in December 2001 captured visceral reactions that revealed a dual sense of historical humiliation and vindication:

    Hoda Kotb, Dateline correspondent in Pakistan: What was your reaction when you learned about the World Trade Center bombing?

    Unidentified Man 2: I was kind of a bit happy that someone at least had done something to America.

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    Kotb: Was there any satisfaction in the World Trade Center bombings?

    Unidentified Man 3: Not really satisfaction, but a certain sense that you have brought the world’s greatest power to their [sic] knees for a minute, because they’re devastated, and they don’t know what to do.

    Kotb: And that felt good? Man 3: Good in a way, yes. Because you do that to us all the time,

    and then you don’t expect us to do anything in return.6

    Almost two years aft er the attacks, twenty-seven-year-old Nigerian shoe salesman Sanusi Ibrahim was more direct. Wearing a bin Laden T-shirt, he explained that he considered Osama a hero because, “he will continue to shame America.”7 It is this perception of the 9/11 attacks as a response to historic humiliation that registered so profoundly in many parts of the world.8 And since all of the perpetrators died, the symbolic capital of the attacks went to the event’s coordinator, making Osama bin Laden a common symbol of discontent for many people around the world. In his orchestration of such an extreme act of hos- tility toward the superpower, Osama came to be seen among some, according to Khalid Mahmud, as a “restorer of pride to so much of the Th ird World.”9 Osama bin Laden became the singular icon of an event that symbolically brought, in the eyes of the unnamed Pakistani man, “the world’s greatest power to [its] knees.”

    Th is essay is an attempt to account for the popularity of Osama bin Laden imagery and its relation to deeper social and political frustra- tions. It traces both how Osama bin Laden became one of the most celebrated folk heroes in recent history and, just as importantly, how his symbolic manifestations became references for a great variety of grievances, ones oft en incommensurate with his agenda. Osama became a powerful icon both because of the symbolic exchange of 9/11 and because people interpolated the imagery of his actions into a diversity of national and transnational rhetorics of discontent. His image has appeared on everything from protest posters in Surabaya to mobile-phone screens in Amsterdam and graffi ti in Rio de Janeiro. Osama T-shirts in Cape Town were captioned, Long Live. In Pesha- war and Niamey similar T-shirts labeled Osama, World Head and

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    My Hero. In Caracas, a popular shirt bearing Osama’s image simply read, The Best. Th is objectifi cation of Osama suggests that in many parts of the world bin Laden imagery is far less contingent on his mes- sage than his mutability as an icon, or the ease with which his symbolic acts wrought an iconography that can be integrated into individual worldviews, local political discourses, and consumer desire.

    Aft er 9/11, Osama became a symbol of political sensibilities, popu- lar sentiment, and, in many places, current style. For a small few, bin Laden’s popularity derived from his narrow political vision. For oth- ers, bin Laden was an object of fashion. Osama T-shirts, posters, and perfume (sold in Pakistan and India) came into vogue as a means of personal reference to events of great signifi cance. Yet others perceived Osama as an ideal hook on which to hang their particular frustra- tions. For instance, many who celebrated his attacks on the United States decried the killing of civilians. Others saw Osama as a defender of morality in the face of American cultural imperialism. Many more agreed with his critiques of American interventionism but did not share his interest in a global caliphate. It is this symbolic pliability of Osama that concerns me here. More specifi cally, I am interested in how the icon Osama, much like other icons, has acted as a focal point, symbolically linking people in many parts of the world in a “commu- nity of feeling” based on shared sentiments, oft en beyond the bound- aries of region and religion. (See the introduction to this volume.) Indeed, the reasons why bin Laden gained emblematic importance in disparate locales aft er 9/11 diff ered, in some cases dramatically, according to the grievances he was imagined to address. Th e extent to which people saw their interests as according with the actions of bin Laden suggests that as a fl oating icon Osama has become an impor- tant reference in post–cold war symbolic discourse.

    I will begin by exploring the ways in which the icon Osama has been integrated into articulations of particular grievances. I will then address the confl ation of local dissatisfaction and global consciousness that has, since the end of the cold war, fostered intense resentment of the West, ensured the attractiveness of overarching icons of dissent, and made the Osama icon resonant with a variety of experiences. By way of example, I will focus on one locale where young people were

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    attracted to Osama iconography immediately aft er 9/11: Mombasa, Kenya. To appreciate the conceptual links young Mombasan Muslims (particularly those who self-identify as “Swahili”) made with Osama’s actions, I will highlight the experiences of middle- and lower-class urban Muslim men, from the 1980s to the present, and the repercus- sions for them of al Qaeda operations in Kenya as well as 9/11. Th rough this strategy I wish to demonstrate how, in the immediate aft ermath of 9/11, people in one locale fused their particular frustrations