Who is this mysterious Osama Bin Laden? And where in the world will he turn up next? According to mainstream American media, he'll definitely be at the next site of "terrorist" activity. One minute he's in Saudi Arabia, and the next minute he's in Afghanistan. Then again, he could be in Pakistan. Or Yemen. Apparently he likes to travel a lot. Well, at least in the popular imagination.
Osama bin Laden is a suspected terrorist, but he has been transformed into something far greater than that in the minds of Americans who read the daily news. He is a euphemism for Islam, Muslims, and Arabs. He is almost always blamed for any attack on the American entities overseas. Before investigators even arrive on the scene, collective fingers from the U.S. media point in his direction. Why? Osama Bin Laden is a reliable and dependable scapegoat. So perfect, in fact, that sometimes I really wonder if he is real. That is how much he has captivated popular American imagination. He is a nemesis that is larger than life--a boogeyman who might creep up at unexpected moments, like at the attack of the USS Cole, which was innocently meandering through the Gulf, on its way to join other naval ships that launch missiles against Bad Boy, Saddam, according to the U.S. corporate media. In all actuality, the USS Cole was on its way to enforce sanctions, which are the starving Iraqi people, but the media often fail to separate Saddam and innocent Iraqi people.
But why is Osama Bin Laden so perfect a criminal? Because he is the Orientalist's dream come true. He fulfills every single pre-requisite for the job of Muslim-Arab Terrorist. He's a straight A student in the B's of American xenophobia.
In this xenophobic imagination, Arabs and Muslims were (and are still) divided into what is commonly called the four B's: Billionaires, Belly dancers, Bombers and Bedouins. The billionaires (businessmen, rich politicians, leaders) are always "threatening" the U.S., with the chance that they (OPEC) might raise oil prices. (God forbid that they might actually be able to control their own resources.)
The belly dancers are erotic women, living in harems, who are forced to hide behind veils, completely repressed, represented as both symbols of desire as well as entrapment. These representations often serve to fuel American feminists (of the Friedan-Steinem variety) and women's fantasies about the other, pressing them to write books such as The Princess (Jean P. Sassoon) and Nine Parts of Desire (Geraldine Brooks).
The Bombers are fanatical and religious "fundamentalists". They are terrorists who seek nothing else than to rid the world of life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. They do it by extreme rage and violence, otherwise known as jihad. Incidentally, the annual report, "Pattern of Global Terrorism" for 1999, issued by the American government reports that "most terrorist attacks against American targets do not emanate from the Middle East or South Asia. Of the 169 specifically anti-American attacks on foreign soil in 1999, 96 were in Latin America, 30 were in Western Europe (many of these committed by groups opposed to the war in Kosovo), nine in the countries of the former Soviet Union and 16 in Africa. Only 11 were in the Middle East, and just 6 in Asia. And last but not least, the Bedouins, who are trapped in a time long ago, riding camels, drinking goat's milk: innocent and pure creatures with strange, befuddling customs (i.e. genital mutilation), fables, and proverbs, transmitted to us through good American foreign correspondents (who, rarely if ever, know the language of the locals they talk to) and eventually filtering into the colorful text books (written by recent college grads) of public American schools. Fortunately, organizations like CAIR (Council on American Islamic Relations) and CIE (Council on Islamic Education) are working to change that.
Overall, Osama Bin Laden, powerful, rich, religious, and nomadic fulfills almost every single "B" here. Steeped in imperialist culture, American discourse goes still further in its explanation of the root of it all--what gave birth to an evil genius like Osama? It's simple.
The explanation these so-called experts give is that Islam is a menacing religion that keeps people ignorant, disillusioned, dark, greedy, violent, and sexually repressed. Over and over again, pictorial and textual representations by American media, books, and movies have served to create an over-developed sense of xenophobia of Arabs and the Muslim world. It's easy to pick on the Arab and Muslim world, since they are both vulnerable and weak politically. But picking on Arabs and Muslims isn't a new phenomenon--it goes way back, to the Crusades. But that is another story, for another time.
Sarah Waheed is a freelance writer in Chicago and a regular contributor to iviews.com.