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The Death of Osama bin Laden, and the aftermath

Last night, I was overcome with both a sense of relief and fear at the news of Osama bin Laden’s death at the hands of a U.S. Navy SEAL team. This is something American’s over the last decade have been hoping and praying for, the day when we could rest at last upon the capture of our arch-enemy. But I have not found rest on this day, rather I have found a deep pit in my stomach, stemming from not only his death but his burial.

Islamic tradition can often be a difficult thing for a non-Muslim to grasp, which is largely the reason that I’ve spent so much of my time this last year focusing on it in my studies. It’s fascinating and difficult to study a culture rooted in such drastically different tradition than my own. In my search for answers regarding the very controversial burial at sea that bin Laden received, I contacted a revered professor at Arizona State University, Dr. Abdullahi Gallab, whom has extensive knowledge in Islamic law, history and tradition, and who graciously linked me to reliable sources.

Tradition in Islam is crucial to orthodoxy and orthopraxy, requiring at times a delicate negotiation of rituals and duties. Death is an event that is very meaningful in the life of a devout Muslim, ushering the believer into an afterlife with Allah and a judgement of the deeds done by the follower. The Quran tells of God’s creation of Adam from a lump of clay, filled with Divine light, or the spirit of God. All people are thought to be a body, or shell, of clay, represented by darkness, with a center of Divine spirit, or pure light. The space between body or shell, and spirit or light, is the soul — mixed darkness and light. The unique mixture of body and spirit in the soul is what differentiates individuals. At the time of death, the shell of clay is removed, exposing the soul to God (Chittick, 1992). As in other religions, death is not the final journey of a Muslim but rather the start of an entirely new life . After death, Islamic tradition requires the preparation of the body begin immediately. In pre-Islamic tradition the failure to bury a corpse would deprive the soul of eternal rest  (Kassis, 1997).

When thinking of a burial at sea, one most often conjures of images of Vikings sending off their fallen soldiers into a the ocean on a fiery barge of wood. However, the Muslim tradition of burial at sea intimates a vastly different type of burial. Especially since in Islam, cremating a body is forbidden. Ebrahim Moosa, a Professor of Religious Studies at Duke University, has described the Islamic tradition in which burial at sea is prescribed. He indicates that burial at sea is permissible when a corpse threatens the health of other passengers and when a land burial is impossible. The body is to be wrapped in a shroud, placed in a casket, and sent off into the ocean with the hope that it would arrive on land allowing the residents to lay the body to rest. If the ship is too far from land, the casket is loaded down with weights to ensure it sinks to the ocean floor. In each of these cases, it is implied that the corpse died on a ship rather than on land, where there would be different burial requirements.

Burial At Sea

The U.S. Government has stated in various places that there were no countries willing to intern the body of bin Laden for reasons many of us can understand. Burying the body of one of the most hated men of my lifetime would certainly bring a large amount of criticism if people were to interpret that as a sympathetic gesture. Also, where ever he would be buried would certainly become a controversial site, drawing supporters to enshrine his grave and victims who may desecrate the grave out of grief and deep-set hatred. Let’s remember, Bin Laden not only murdered several thousand American’s but Muslim’s all over the Middle East. In fact, one article I cam across stated that he murdered 8x more Muslims than Americans, which would certainly create a level of hatred among the world-wide congregation of Muslims.

When we consider these facts, there are still questions remaining. The largest of which in my mind, is “will this effort to intern bin Laden in a respectful and traditional way be received with the respect in which it was intended?”. Obviously we also have to combat the sneaking suspicion that “if there aren’t any pictures, it didn’t happen”. But the reception of this action is the cause of my greatest concern. The radical Arab world (called in my line of study “Islamists”) often finds fault in everything America does, regardless of intent. My concern however, actually pertains to the reactions of the more moderate Muslim’s in the world who have been victims of Islamists, but who also have disagreed with the actions taken against the Muslim world on behalf of America. My hope is that they would recognize the American soldiers acted as respectfully as they could (burying the body before nightfall) when facing the challenge of no country wanting his body at all. Surely we could have done horrific things to bin Laden, things I’ve seen mentioned on Facebook/Twitter and heard from friends and family, things involving the desecration of the body. Did his burial follow Islamic tradition to the letter? No, but it seems great efforts were made to do so. Will we get credit for that? Only time will tell. I would hope that the sincerity of the gesture would sound loud and clear to the Muslim community in the United States, and the community world-wide. My Muslim brothers and sisters who practice their faith in love and peace are surely rejoicing with us this day, as a terrorist of many has been brought to justice. Sadly, the animosity toward the United States as a result of political frustration, post-colonialism, and economic disparity and inequity that encouraged the acts of men like bin Laden, are still alive and well in much of the Middle East.

For now, I lay in wait with bated breath, hoping for the best but sadly expecting the worst.


Rachel Page Gerrick


What about this whole Egypt/Muslim Brotherhood/Democracy thing?

This last week has been heavy laden with tragedy, protests, and devastation in Egypt. For the last decade or two, the spotlight in the Arab world has shown most brightly on Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and a few other countries.

Ever since Jimmy Carter successfully brokered peace between Egyptian President Anwar Al Sadat (who was assassinated by the Muslim Brotherhood shortly after the treaty was signed) and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at what we call the Camp David Peace Accord of 1978, Egypt has spent very little time in the forefront of political and religious discourse. The treaty they signed turned the massive tide of worry the world over – Israel and Egypt were finally at Peace, something many people thought an impossible feat. The peace was brokered out of mutual respect and a weariness from war, and required concessions from both sides.  Thus the Arab-Israeli Conflict ended, ushering in 33 years of peace between the two nations, and untold gains in freedom and economic welfare.

1979 Peace Accords After that brief history lesson (which was as much for myself as for you), we must address the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) as an Islamist organization, because since Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has been in power, the Muslim Brotherhood has since declared itself a non-violent organization. (Let’s recall that was immediately after they assassinated an Egyptian President.) Here is a BBC Mubarak Article that will bring you up to speed relatively quickly on Mubarak’s policies.

The Muslim Brotherhood (which I have linked you to above) was started in Egypt in 1928 by Hassan Al Banna (a known xenophobic and misogynist) in his campaign to restore the Caliphate and meld politics into Islamic law and belief. The MB had ties to Nazi Germany before and during WWII, complete with all the pomp and panoply of formal state visits, de facto ambassadors, and overt as well as sub rosa joint ventures. (Information about MB gathered from Barabar Zollner’s book about The MB and it’s founder) They are credited with a myriad of terrorist attacks which you can discover in detail through a google search. In spite of all this, the MB has not been directly linked to violence since it’s non-violence declaration in 1979. However, it is important to note that there are several violent offshoots from the MB, many of with which you will be familiar. Hamas (meaning zeal in Arabic), the Islami Jihad, the Hezbollah, and Al Qaeda.

So I guess that’s two history lessons. Now on to actual discussion about what’s happening. First – it’s apparent in this situation how closely connected religion and politics are. The protesters and demonstrators marching in the streets are almost certainly composed of a majority of Muslims.  Second – Mubarak has had a fairly secular government, one which has been difficult to deal with for many Egyptians. One cannot deny that Mubarak should probably go, and the idea of free elections with decent (to the Egyptians) candidates is an excellent one.  Here’s my personal concern: should the MB become heavily involved in the political process and offer up a candidate that wins the upcoming election, Egypt will start to move from a secular country to one more likely to lean toward Islamism ideology – the ideology Iran is governed by. This will pose a problem for the entire region of North Africa and the Middle East, potentially plunging Arabs into war with Israel again. If that happens, the likelihood of Iranian and United States involvement in a conflict increases. It also poses a threat to the more “moderate” or “secular” Muslim population within Egypt itself – perhaps inviting radical MB offshoots into Egypt to wreak havoc.

Should the United States step in? How should Israel prepare for the upcoming months? Do you foresee a situation of global war? How can moderate Muslims participate now in order to perhaps stem the tide of riots and protests in favor of Islamism. Should we as private non-Egyptian citizens  even concern ourselves with this conflict?

I’m interested to hear your comments or questions.

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