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Yesterday's Hero Now a Mere Memory

January 27, 2002|ZAFFAR ABBAS | Zaffar Abbas is a Pakistani journalist who writes regularly for The Herald, a monthly magazine, and reports for BBC radio.

ISLAMABAD — Hero worship is part and parcel of the South Asian psyche, most assuredly among Pakistani Muslims. But memories also tend to be short here, and someone who looms larger than life one day can be all but forgotten the next.

Pakistan's history is rife with examples of such short-lived fame, the most recent being the meteoric rise and fall of Osama bin Laden. A month ago, the world's premier terrorist was hailed in the local press as a true and righteous hero of the Muslim world. The media's glowing tributes were echoed by many Pakistanis, for whom Bin Laden represented the vanguard of a growing Islamic movement against U.S.-led Western imperialism.

But times have changed, almost overnight, and so has the Pakistani media's depiction of the Saudi dissident-turned-holy warrior. Aside from the occasional cartoon or passing reference in letters to editors, Bin Laden commands little space in most local papers. When his name comes up, it's usually in connection with the U.S. manhunt for him and his Al Qaeda associates, with the odd writer or two reveling in the fact that the Americans, with all their military might and high-tech smarts, have failed to track him down.

Few, today, are singing Bin Laden's praises. Nonetheless, to the credit of his image-builders, no one has openly condemned him, either. To date, not a single Urdu-language publication has called him a terrorist.

The image of Bin Laden as champion of Muslims is largely the creation of the Pakistani media, particularly of the Urdu newspapers. His was a household name in Pakistan long before people in the West--even informed observers--knew who he was and what he stood for. With an eye to the future perhaps, Bin Laden had long courted the Pakistani press by shrewdly playing anti-American, pro-Islamic cards. As far back as the mid-1990s, journalists from Pakistan were taken on organized trips to Afghanistan to meet the Saudi dissident.

Urdu-language publications in Pakistan soon started churning out articles promoting Bin Laden as a devoted jihadi, or holy warrior, who had chosen rags over riches in pursuit of the "just cause." Here was a man, the Urdu press fawned, who fought alongside the Afghan moujahedeen against Soviet occupation in the 1980s and was now campaigning to rid Saudi Arabia of the U.S. troops based there since the Persian Gulf War.

Washington's failed attempt in 1998 to eliminate Bin Laden by raining Tomahawks on his camps in Afghanistan proved to be a blessing in disguise for the Saudi dissident. Hamid Mir, editor of the Urdu newspaper Ausaf, met Bin Laden several times over the last few years. According to him, the 1998 attack was a key factor in the elevation of Bin Laden to heroic status in Muslim societies where anti-Americanism had taken root.

A cartoon in a Pakistani newspaper aptly captured the rapidly changing mood toward Bin Laden in Pakistan at the time. The first half of the cartoon showed a mullah looking at a wall-mounted poster that read "I love USA." The second half showed him adding two letters, making it read, "I love USAMA."

Bin Laden's manufactured image in the Pakistani press received a major boost in the aftermath of Sept. 11, when Washington fixated on Afghanistan and the Al Qaeda network. As thousands of Islamic hardliners took to the streets in Pakistan in support of the Taliban and Bin Laden, coverage in the Urdu-language press made for some bizarre reading. Glaring contradictions were conveniently ignored.

Although no Urdu newspaper accepted the U.S. line that Bin Laden was behind the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, he was still portrayed as the moujahedeen (Islamic warrior) who had single-handedly taken on the world's only superpower. Several newspapers devoted weekend editions to furthering Bin Laden's angelic image, with features on his life and love for Islam and the way he had sacrificed material pleasures to fulfill his mission.

The hype was soon commercialized in the form of Bin Laden posters and T-shirts, which were sold, along with Bin Laden books and pamphlets, at makeshift stalls outside mosques. When Al Jazeera television started broadcasting his recorded statements, Bin Laden even gained cachet among Pakistan's Westernized elites, whose many rich and educated women could be heard discussing his "cool" looks and "profound" style of speaking, not to mention the "unfair" manner in which the United States was conducting its war.

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