By Chris Lundry
It was bound to happen: London’s Daily Mail reported yesterday that the face of Osama bin Laden appeared on a Londoner’s piece of toast. I have been fascinated with how the image of Osama bin Laden became a pop cultural phenomenon after 9-11 in some parts of the Muslim world (including Indonesia, where I do much of my work). The image was usually intended to shock rather than express true solidarity with the terrorist leader, and I liken it to college kids with Che Guevara posters or t-shirts, or even early punk rockers adopting nazi symbolism.
The punk rockers were not Nazi sympathizers, and the college kids aren’t communists. The imagery of Che Guevara has become cliché, however, and turned into an internet meme: witness Colonel Sanders or Homer Simpson as Che. It’s lost its ability to shock. Nazi symbolism, however, continues to shock – just think back to some recent events, such as Jesse James’ ex-girlfriend/stripper Michelle McGee wearing Nazi gear in photos, or Prince Harry appearing at a party in a Nazi uniform.
Which will be the eventual fate of Osama bin Laden imagery? In the west, with bin Laden dead, it’s clear that his image has lost much of its ability to shock, and is now, rather, simply viewed with derision. The Daily Mail story misses no opportunity for a pun: “From terror to toast!” “One sandwich short of a picnic!” “Worst thing since sliced bread!” Puns such as these were unthinkable in the weeks following 9-11.
As one would imagine, the story found its way onto Islamist websites (I found it first through looking at arrahmah.com, an Indonesian extremist site). The puns from the Mail story are lost in translation – likely right over the head of whoever translated the story. But the end of the Mail story, where the death of bin Laden is discussed, has been replaced with the following in the arrahmah.com posting:
Whether or not this matter is true, whether or not there is an element of purpose in the appearance of the “face” of Sheik Osama, as a Muslim there is only one thing we can acknowledge as truth, that is that during his lifetime Sheik Osama was known as a warrior in the fight against the enemies of Islam to enforce the profession of faith in Allah on earth.
One group’s joke becomes another’s call to arms and faith.
After showing my colleagues the story, we noted that in the image the beard does not quite join at the chin, giving the appearance of mutton chops, and bringing comparisons to a salty sea captain or a 1970s British pub dweller. In the west, I think it’s safe to say the image of bin Laden following his death is no longer shocking. People claim that images of Jesus Christ have appeared on a piece of toast, and later on all sorts of other things (an iron, a potato chip, a pancake). These images have become internet memes, copied and rearranged for a variety of figures. Where will the next image of bin Laden appear? And will it too spawn spoofs?