In Peshawar in the weeks following 9/11, bin Laden’s image seemed to be everywhere I looked. The posters showed Osama as desert warrior, Osama as kindly grandfather figure to an appropriately adorable child, Osama’s tranqility undisturbed as a plane slammed into the side of a gleaming silver skyscraper in the background.
There were Osama t-shirts for sale, too, but the only person I saw actully wearing one was an American journalist. The t-shirts featured in media reports and op-eds for years afterwards – but the journalists who desribed them with prim disapproval were also the main market. A desirable souvenier for foreigners willing to pay inflated prices.
While bin Laden iconography was widespread, Peshawar is not really a t-shirt zone, which is why the stalls selling the Obama shirts were set up outside the international hotels. An anecdote doing the rounds among locals described how a foreign journalist had taken a bin Laden poster into a teahouse and stuck it on the wall before taking his photographs. Despite the proliferation of the bin Laden posters, they were concentrated in street-stalls and at the Islamist street demonstrations, rather than pinned up on walls – unless pinned there by a photojournalist in search of an atmospheric shot.
bin Laden icongraphy gripped the West at least as as much as it gripped Muslims, although in the West it was an icon of a demon rather than a warrior-hero. This is not to understate the widespread support for bin Laden in Pakistan at that time (which had faded by the time I returned a few years later). But bin Laden’s embodiment as the symbol not only of 9/11 but also of the horrific conflicts of the subsequent decade was more deeply felt in the West than in Muslims societies and communities. So, too, with his death – it is more significant as the death of America’s demon than as the death of a Muslim icon.
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That is not to say the it will have no impact among his remaining supporters – revenge attacks are almost certainly being planned. But the lasting impact is most likely to be felt in the consequences that it may have on US foreign policy, now that the apparently endless pursuit of bin Laden can be set aside.