On May 2, shortly after 1 a.m., Osama bin Laden’s body was washed and wrapped in cloth on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson. A military officer read out prayers, his voice closely echoed by an Arabic translator. A few moments later, the bundle was eased into the north Arabian Sea. A rather dignified—albeit inglorious—end for the world’s most wanted man.
Judging from Pentagon briefings, the handling of bin Laden’s burial was as smooth an operation as the 40 minutes of action that led to his killing. The decision to dispose of the body at sea, experts say, came out of a concern that a gravesite might become a shrine to the terrorist who masterminded the 9/11 attacks. Besides, U.S. officials said, no country seemed eager to become the final resting place for bin Laden’s remains. Even his native Saudi Arabia is reported to have refused to accept what was left of him.
And though the decision to dispose of him at sea was dictated by pragmatism, according to the official narrative, the burial did not neglect cultural sensitivity. Though Muslims usually lay their dead to rest in the ground with the head pointed toward the holy city of Mecca, U.S. officials say that bin Laden’s body was washed and shrouded according to the Islamic rite, and the burial occurred less than 24 hours after death, as prescribed by tradition.
Yet toeing the line between practicality and political correctness has landed the White House at the centre of criticism. Soon after details of the burial began circulating, a slew of Muslim clerics and scholars were shaking their heads in disapproval. A burial at sea “runs contrary to the principles of Islamic laws, religious values and humanitarian customs,” said Sheik Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Cairo’s al-Azhar mosque. Others rejected the notion, circulating on several Western news outlets, that a Muslim’s burial at sea is acceptable in extraordinary circumstances, and the Obama administration’s inability to find a country to take bin Laden’s remains constituted one of those exceptions. That isn’t the case, said Mohammed al-Qubaisi, Dubai’s grand mufti. Some even warned that the handling of bin Laden’s body is an insult to Muslims, and could possibly be grounds for retaliation against American targets.
John Esposito, a professor of international affairs and Islamic studies at Georgetown University, dismisses any such criticism as “ultra-conservative” and “legalistic.” He predicts that any hardline response will likely have little impact on the Muslim world. Even the very small minority of Muslims who had once been attracted to bin Laden had grown increasingly alienated from him, he says, after al-Qaeda killed hundreds of Muslims in attacks in Iraq and Pakistan. Rather than focusing on the minutiae of religious rites, adds Esposito, “American Muslim groups were very quick to deal with this in the way this incident should be dealt with—to talk about the fact that they were pleased that this kind of person was finally caught, and, because it was necessary, was killed.”
Yet, even in the U.S., some Muslims were questioning the White House’s pretense of propriety. Maher Hathout, a retired physician and a senior adviser to the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a civil rights advocacy group, wasn’t sorry to see bin Laden go, nor concerned that he was dumped into the sea. “Without him, the world is a safer and better place, and Islam is less vulnerable to the tarnished image he imposed on it,” says Hathout, calling the burial “pragmatically savvy.” But he rejects the claim that things were handled according to Islam. “From dust we came, to dust we go back,” he says, recalling the Islamic belief, “and from dust we are resurrected on the day of judgment.”
Edward Turzanski, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a think tank in Philadelphia, worries that the speedy, almost sly disposal of bin Laden’s body will fuel conspiracy theories and turn the story of his killing into the counterterrorism equivalent of the moon landing. A few photos and DNA samples taken by U.S. agents before the burial might not be enough to dispel doubts, says Turzanski. The disbelievers are already at work. A Facebook page called “Osama bin Laden NOT DEAD” launched almost immediately, and now counts 925 registered fans. And demands to see bin Laden’s death certificate became a favourite joke on the Web. “I wonder if the people that created Obama’s birth certificate will be the same ones that create Osama’s death certificate,” wrote one blogger.
Turzanski recalls that when the U.S. killed Uday and Qusay Hussein, sons of the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, their bodies were held for 11 days before being released for burial. And the administration even summoned international media to take photographs, so that it could be established that the two were, in fact, dead. Bin Laden’s burial, he says, should have been handled the same way. “The problem with the conspiratorial mind,” says Turzanski, “is that lack of proof is, in fact, proof.”