MUCH has been made of the disposal of the body of Osama bin Laden, of the burial of the corpse at sea. For those of a conspiratorial bent, of course, it has raised doubts about whether he was dead at all. But, for most, discussion turned on whether a burial on land would have risked creating a dangerous shrine. Bin Laden’s Wahhabi/Salafi tradition, of course, rejects Sufi notions such as shrines. But terrorists have not always proved logically consistent in their application of Islamic theology.
What was perhaps more interesting was the anxiety of the United States’ authorities to emphasise that the body had been buried in full accordance with Islamic law. Muslim tradition requires the dead to be buried as soon as possible, and bin Laden entered his watery grave from the deck of the US aircraft carrier, the Carl Vinson, within 12 hours of being shot. Traditional procedures for Islamic burial were followed: the body was ritually washed, shrouded in white cloth, and prepared with ritual prayers, read by a military officer, translated into Arabic by a native speaker.
Not all Islamic scholars were happy, insisting that proper attempts had not been made to secure the preferred land burial. But it seems that the US authorities had not had time to negotiate for that with other countries, once Saudi Arabia, the place of bin Laden’s birth, had refused to allow the burial there. Other scholars, by contrast, said that a sea burial was permissible where there is a risk of enemies’ digging up a grave and exhuming or mutilating the body.
Either way, the attempts made by the Obama administration demonstrated an anxiety or sensitivity that stands in stark contrast to the attitude of Washington ten years ago, when the “war on terror” was declared five days after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Then, George Bush promised a “crusade” against this “new kind of evil”. Most Americans assumed the word to be a casual metaphor for a vigorous campaign, but it rang alarm bells all round the Muslim world. It threatened the start of the large-scale “clash of civilisations” between Christians and Muslims, which Samuel Huntingdon had predicted would be the new post-Cold War global polarisation. One US general even used the phrase of a Muslim adversary, saying “My God is bigger than his.”
The bodies of enemies were not buried within 24 hours then. Those of Saddam Hussein’s sons, Uday and Qusay Hussein, were held for 11 days before being paraded for the media and only then released for burial.
Yet not everything has changed. The idea that the United States has a “manifest destiny” to discharged divine commissions in the world persists, along with a sense that its citizens are a chosen people, and part of God’s most favoured nation.
“We can do these things,” the President told his people on Sunday, “not just because of wealth or power, but because of who we are: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. . . May God bless you. And may God bless the United States of America.”
Exceptionalism is a dangerous delusion, whichever side is possessed by it. The world still has some way to go, it is clear, before the mindset for real peace is properly in place.
Paul Vallely is associate editor of The Independent.