Osama bin Laden, today's pop culture superstar

Experts are brought in to analyze every word, phrase and intonation in hopes of divining some hidden information that holds the key to only God knows what. “His right hand seemed to be shaking while he was speaking; what do you think this indicates?” A news anchor asks in a concerned but even voice, “Well, there was intelligence information indicating that bin Laden sustained injuries during the bombing of Tora Bora. Also notice how drawn his face is and the whitening of his beard compared to his previous appearances. We believe this is due to a kidney disease he’s suffering from. In fact he is probably undergoing kidney dialysis at this time.”

The anchor pauses for a few seconds saying nothing, but the camera tells all, relaying his facial expression as he marvels at the fine attention to detail the expert has just displayed. This never lasts long as there is always a gold mine of information to be dug up in the remainder of this five-minute segment. So he swiftly shifts out of worship-mode and continues to blather on with more penetrating questions.

Meanwhile, intelligence agencies issue dire warnings about the possibility of Osama bin Laden issuing “coded messages” to terrorist-cells operating in shadows and darkness in every corner of the world. This should be the least of their worries, for little do they know that a star has been born. There are viewers watching Osama bin Laden’s performance who dismiss his words as the mere ranting and raving of a murderous nutter.

His words fall on their ears like seeds on stony ground, destined to wither away in the scorching heat of their loathing and hatred. Other viewers prove to be more fertile ground; Osama bin Laden’s words yield a harvest of sympathy and active support for his cause. People say “time is money,” and there are corporations that spend millions purchasing air-time to display messages intended to convince people to buy things they never before knew they needed or wanted. Osama bin Laden’s coded message is broadcast around the world, and it doesn’t cost him a dime. “You may not have known or wanted it, but a holy war must be fought against the enemies of Islam.” In this age of global communications there is no such thing as a local conflict. Where blood and guts flow, vultures must follow, hovering over the dying, staring down intently with powerful camera lenses. According to scholars Dale F. Eickelman and James Piscatori in “What is Muslim Politics?”, “As the second Gulf War suggests Muslim politics becomes incomprehensible if the symbolism and shared assumptions of Muslims are disregarded. There is an implicit consciousness of common notions-an underlying framework of languages, ideas and values, while not always self evident or explicitly expressed, becomes apparent when the shared assumptions are violated or attacked.”

The shared assumptions being attacked in this case was the presence of infidel troops, including women, in Saudi Arabia-Islam’s holiest land and the site of Mecca and Medina-which is a sacrilege. The presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia is a “crime” that Osama bin Laden uses as evidence to show that the Saudi regime is illegitimate and that his attacks on American interests are justified. “Oh Arabs, oh, Muslims and believers everywhere, this your day to rise and defend Mecca, which is captured by the spears of the Americans and Zionists,” he says. “Keep the foreigner away from your holy shrines.”

The implications of this shared Muslim consciousness and the ability of modern communications to bring local conflicts in the most graphic detail to everyone’s television or computer desktops is not a trivial matter. For whenever there is a conflict in one part of the world that can be cast in terms of Muslims versus the enemies of Islam-particularly when the Muslims are getting beaten-a Muslim in another part of the world, can at the flick of a switch partake-albeit vicariously-in this humiliation.

Even among Muslims in China, some believe that the dispatch of western troops during the Gulf War was the latest sign of the Saudi regime’s un-Islamic character (Gladney, The International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies). I wager that precious few Chinese Muslims will ever have any dealings with the Saudi government. Yet they kept keeping track of Saudi transgressions.

During the Gulf War, CNN was watched widely throughout the Arab world. The effect of its broadcasts was both to anger and dishearten many of its viewers there.

According to Mohammed Heikal, “Broadcasts from Baghdad by its correspondent Peter Arnett showed the effects of the coalition bombing and proved that the targets were not confined to military facilities. The bombing of an underground air-raid shelter in Baghdad on Feb. 13, 2002, killing women and children taking cover inside it, caused shock and anger in the Arab world … Arabs sympathetic to Iraq were disheartened by CNN pictures demonstrating the ability of American ‘smart’ bombs to hone in on targets such as bridges, which are hard to destroy with conventional free-fall bombs because of the need for a direct hit. Such pictures contributed to a feeling that it was useless to struggle against an enemy armed with science-fiction weapons.”

A ten-course meal will soon be laid for vultures in Iraq, but like all luxurious feasts, it comes with a heavy price tag.