When PBS Frontline reporter Arun Rath went to Kolkata, India, in 2003, to cover an opera about Osama Bin Laden, he was surprised to discover that the portrayal of Bin Laden was a sympathetic one. Al-Qaeda’s leader came off as a Robin Hood figure. Now, 11 years after the attacks of 9/11, Rath looks at the evolving image of Bin Laden on parts of South Asia and the Middle East.
I was living in New York 11 years ago when the city was attacked. I walked through the clouds of revolting smoke that issued from the pile for weeks after the twin towers fell. Naturally I jumped at the opportunity to see how the events had been transformed into a jatra, or street opera in Calcutta.
Jatras last around four hours, with as much song and dance as a Bollywood film, and live musicians. They are amazing.
But my feelings soured during the performance; even though I don’t speak Bengali, I gradually realized that this jatra portrayed Bin Laden as a Robin Hood character, and Americans and our allies as villains.
The audience—including a fair number of children—ate it up, and afterwards told me about how they enjoyed this portrayal of Bin Laden. I practically sputtered out my questions, “What about his means, the fact that he’s a terrorist?” One man told me that America had made Bin Laden, so was ultimately responsible.
Now Calcutta 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 the anti-war protests weren’t surprising. What unnerved me though was the anger, hatred even. I 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 Calcutta, says the city’s initial reaction to the 9/11 attacks mirrored the rest of the world’s “we are all Americans now,” response.
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 says.
“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 I saw in 2003 was how Hindus and Muslims were uniting to condemn America. And not just over the Iraq war: I encountered plenty of Hindus in Calcutta whose feelings towards Bin Laden ranged from ambivalence to approval.
What was the attraction? “It’s a question of sovereignty and it’s a question of dignity,” according to 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 very far in taking down the 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,” says Khouri.
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,” he 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 anti-colonial 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 Calcutta.
“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 Calcutta 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 US forces disposed of his corpse.