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May 5th, 2011
10:29 AM ET

My Take: Sea burial shows U.S. religious literacy

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

A few years ago, I wrote a book decrying religious illiteracy in the U.S. population and in the U.S. government. Since that time, I have tried to demonstrate the huge cost of our ignorance of Islam in Iraq, Afghanistan and the wider Muslim world.

So it is only fair to acknowledge when U.S. officials demonstrate real religious literacy, as they have done with the death and burial of Osama bin Laden.

Over the last generation, American diplomatic and military actions overseas have been hurt by a woefully shallow understanding of Islam. Whether you were for or against U.S. military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, you had to admit that in each case Americans went into a country whose language they did not speak and whose culture they did not understand.

Our lack of understanding of Islam’s Sunni-Shia split, for example, cost us dearly in both wars.

As I watched the story of bin Laden’s death unfold Sunday night, I was preoccupied with the question, “What are they going to do with the body?”

If they buried it in a marked grave, that grave would almost certainly become a pilgrimage destination for Islamic extremists worldwide — a Mecca to Islamist martyrdom. If they buried it in an unmarked grave, dozens of such sites would likely turn up, each claiming to house the sacred relics of the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks. And if they desecrated the body in any way, there would be hell to pay not only among bin Laden’s supporters, but also in the wider Muslim world.

Prothero: Burying bin Laden at sea an elegant solution

I was hoping against hope that people in the Obama administration had been considering these implications. And apparently they were.

At some point between the moment this special operation was planned and the moment it was completed, U.S. officials went to the trouble to learn that when a Muslim dies, the body is washed, wrapped in a white cloth and buried. They also learned that prayers are said over the body before it is laid to rest.

U.S. officials then put this education into action in a manner that was both in keeping with Islamic customs and in U.S. national interests.

Everything they did underscored a point former President Bush and President Obama have made repeatedly: that the United States is at war not with Islam but with terrorism.

By giving bin Laden’s body a burial in the Arabian Sea, they prevented his followers from turning any specific site into a sacred place where they could visit his body and dedicate their own bodies to his cause. But by giving him a proper Islamic burial, they showed respect for Islam.

Muslims will of course disagree about whether a sea burial was proper in this case. From an Islamic perspective, land burial is clearly preferable, but burial at sea is allowed in exceptional cases. The only question here is whether this was sufficiently exceptional.

What is not up for debate, however, is the fact that in this case the Obama administration and the U.S. military demonstrated real religious literacy.  They should be commended for that, as well as for tracking down Osama bin Laden.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Death • Islam • Islamic law • United States

soundoff (282 Responses)
  1. vinita walter

    A research should have been made on his brain, to study why it was so full of hatred.

    May 21, 2011 at 9:05 am |
  2. shahgul

    The argument does not hold water. Osama was from Saudia. The Saudis are notorious for destroying grave sites for the express reason that they should not become worshiping grounds (strange, both US and Saudis think alike). They have destroyed the graves of the Prophet Muhammed's family, friends and companions, just to prevent grave worship. Grave worship is a serious crime in Saudi Arabia. There are armed commandos guarding the graveyard of the Prophet's family, just to prevent this. So how could have little man Osama's body been worshiped? No body, no picture, no burial, according to US law, no death.

    May 21, 2011 at 2:18 am |
  3. mrpops513

    Personally i think they didn't kill him
    no pictures no body
    if we ever get the right idea in our heads as a nation that when we treat the rest of the world like they treat us the better things will get
    what they should have done was cut his head off while was alive just like they do us !!pops

    May 20, 2011 at 10:48 pm |
  4. jeane

    No. Any jihadist would not worship at bin Ladin's grave, nor would any Wahabbi or Salafi Muslim, the two schools from which jihadism branched off. Wahabbi militants have killed Muslims for putting shrines at gravesites and reverencing the dead. This is strictly prohibited among al-Qaida devotees and "puritanical" Muslims. Our government got the wrong advice and Stephen Prothero does not appear to understand that al-Qaida prohibits using gravesites as a "Mecca," because this violate Tawhid (oneness of God).

    Burial at sea was a huge mistake. It risks fostering a myth of return of the "Mahdi" or charismatic leader that bin Ladin represented to his heretic sect. Followers took and oath to him personally, and they easily could develop a myth of return.

    Bin Ladin's religion was not conventional Islam, but a millennial sectarianism. I know, because I have studied and reported on it since 9/11.

    May 20, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
  5. dude1932

    osama body washed up on a beach in western australia 2 days ago and was given to CIA.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • shahgul

      If Laci Ferguson can, why cannot he?

      May 21, 2011 at 2:20 am |
  6. Donkeypower

    They should of buried him as a decoy and make record of everyone who visits.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
  7. Sean

    We don't care where you buried him. You can bury him in a dumpster for all we care. What we do care about is, proof that you killed him now, and not many years ago when reports out of Pakistan stated that he died in 2001.

    May 19, 2011 at 7:53 pm |
    • Matt

      Showing the dead body (proof) of Osama Bin Laden would cause more trouble
      with the Islamic world than the U.S. needs right now. So all of you that are asking
      for proof, just let it go, because if they were to show his dead body, I guarantee there
      would be a terrorist act within days of them showing the pictures.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
    • Kenzie

      I totaly agree with Matt. No one should have to see a dead body. By releasing the photos of the body to the media, you can guarantee that it will be on the news where any one can see it, including young children and people who dont want to see a dead body. The people who need to see the body to confirm death have seen it. It dousnt matter if the average person beileves that bin Laden is dead.

      May 23, 2011 at 9:41 am |
  8. Dan

    so its ok for terrorists to invade cities, states, and countries. It is not ok for the defenders to go seek justice as we did? the entire country has forgotten about the 2700+ victims on 9/11.. our Liberals feel the victims are the Muslims. So there you have it.

    May 19, 2011 at 11:29 am |
    • awaysaway

      Quit your whining. I'm a liberal and I'm glad he is dead. Where are you getting this information from? Now I listened to Rush for the two days after the death and he got more and more extreme and quite frankly anti-American is his attacking of the president.

      May 19, 2011 at 9:23 pm |
  9. earnest T Bass

    Crabs has got his A** now! Good rid dens. Let his dedicated followers who wish to follow tie a brick on their ankle jump into the Arabian sea and swim East at the call to prayer. The World would soon be a better place.

    May 19, 2011 at 10:31 am |
  10. Dale Bohnert

    I see ... We were very, very careful to handle his body in a holy, and righteous way .... After shooting him ... in the face. Hmm.

    May 18, 2011 at 11:11 pm |
    • awaysaway

      I know. We are awesome!

      May 19, 2011 at 9:24 pm |
  11. Tired old aged middle class American

    This is for CG:

    Dear Mr./ Ms. holier than thou:

    Don't know how old you are, but let me tell you this:

    If there's one thing I'm not doing here, it's beating my chest.

    I'm not that crude, and your comment was an insult.

    My chest is old and tired, and if I tried beating it, It might not take it.

    The point here is, where would America be today if our Christian citizens had not stood strong against it's enemies?

    Would you and all of you who think that I mis-interpreted the Bible like to walk onto a middle eastern battlefield and recite your doctrine to a member of Al Quida or the Taliban and say ,"Oh please Mr. terrorist, I am Christian and I want to make peace, and I want to understand you, and be friends with you.", before they blow your brains out?

    Go ahead and turn the other cheek. They will blow your cheek off of your face, as well as the other cheek.

    Remember, there were no firearms in Jesus' day.

    C'mon, we're taking names of Christian volunteer peacemakers who wish to go and stand up to the Al Quida and the Taliban un-armed.

    Just take your wonderful Christian peronality, along with your Bible, and that that is all you will need infadel.

    Don't you understand that the only thing that these terrorists know and understand is force? (Overwhelming force.)

    An eye for an eye.

    Don't you remember the old song lyric, "Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition, and we'll all be free."?

    It still applies today.

    It's clear to see that you aren't directly involved in the conflict. You have no idea whatsoever of what it means to be a soldier.

    I once knew a spy that was a devout Christian. He played a significant part in the collapse of the Soviet union.

    He didn't questionn the morality of it.

    He knew that he was saving American lives.

    I once knew a Colonel in the United States Army who was a devout Christian as well. His troops killed Chinese Communists in Vietnam, and he didn't question the morality of it.

    He was saving American lives.

    Neither of them pleaded with the enemy.

    They had the common sense to know that it simply couldn't be done.

    They knew that strength was part of the formula for victory over evil.

    They would have never even given Obama a proper burial, as he didn't deserve it.

    They saw to it that the enemy was eliminated, period.

    "Onward Christian soldiers"

    Do you think for one minute that the families of the 911 victims would agree with your ideas, Christian or not?

    This countries forefathers were Christian as well,, but they were bright enough to know that they had to go to war with the British if they wanted to be free men.

    They didn't say to the King of England ,"Oh please, please your highness, would you please let us be independant from you ? We're Christian and we want to make peace with you."

    They kicked the living Hell out of the British until they surrendered and gave us our freedom.

    Go ahead and walk out on the battlefield with your extended hand of peace if this is what you believe.

    Just let us know beforehand what size body bag and casket that you will need.

    We will miss you.

    If you are a Christian, show strength as Christ did on the morning of the resurrection. Show courage and authority as a Christian. Stand up to our country's enemies.

    Can you imagine Jesus making a plea deal??

    Let the Radical Muslims know that we will not stand for their insane campaign.

    You may wish to know that I am a Christian as well, just so that you won't think that I don't know what I'm talking about.

    I was a Deacon in the Church for seven years.

    Be aware that battlefields across the mideast are populated with American Christians.

    Their hands are not extended in peace.

    They carry weapons, and they use them.

    They aren't hiding their heads in the sand.

    Would you have said to Adolph, Oh please Mr. Hitler, won't you please stop this murdering of Jews, and can't we be friends? We're Christians after all.

    As I said,I am Christian, and I don't like to fight either, but just try to take my American way of life and my rights away, and see what a transition happens from peace to war.

    I don't like Shiria Law.

    You folks have a great imagination of the ideal Christian life,but you don't have any connection with real life.

    Get real folks, the radical Muslims are trying to kill us all.

    And yes, I do feel sorry for all ordinary Muslims for the stigma that these oddballs have created about their faith.

    Get your heads out of the sand and defend our country's way of life.

    I'd love to have the ideal Christian way of l ife, but modern times do not permit it.

    We're trying to survive in the Lion's den as the early Christians did.

    Alsharmuta, you are 1000 percent right!

    May 18, 2011 at 9:38 pm |
    • Allen

      Knowlege of the Koran does not make you Muslim just like going to church every week does not make you christian.

      May 18, 2011 at 11:10 pm |
    • SyracuseNZ

      TL;DR?

      Blah blah blah, I'm a Christian blah blah blah so on and so forth.

      May 19, 2011 at 12:26 am |
    • Atheism is GREAT!

      LOL UMAD BRO?

      May 19, 2011 at 10:17 am |
    • Donna P

      I agree!.. It's amazing that we can point fingers when the Bible gives honor to our leaders and the Bible encourages capitol punishment to those that are murders... In the Old and New testament... here's one for example:
      5 And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being.
      6 “Whoever sheds human blood,
      by humans shall their blood be shed;
      for in the image of God
      has God made mankind.

      May 20, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
  12. Muneef

    It is a shame for America to be afraid of Islam
    Senior member of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood on relations with West, Mubarak, bin Laden

    L.W.: What did you think of the killing of Osama bin Laden?

    E.E.: For us, Osama Bin Laden never represented Islam. Islam is a peaceful religion. Violent groups are a minority among Islamic groups. ... Even though it was war, it didn't give America the right to kill a person while the forces could capture him.

    L.W.: So Bin Laden shouldn't have been killed?

    E.E.: To be brought to justice, this would have been better for America. ... America committed some mistakes. First, killing him instead of arresting him. Second, they violated the sovereignty of Pakistan, putting the president and the Pakistani government in a critical situation. I criticize Bin Laden and al-Qaida. [Pakistan] is a corrupted regime. But we are talking about the state, not the regime. This gives an important message to others — to Saudi Arabia and all your allies — that they are not trusted.

    http://ikhwanweb.com/article.php?id=28572

    May 18, 2011 at 8:00 pm |
    • Allen

      not all americans are affraid of muslims, I have several freinds who are and I have adjusted my open faith in christianity due to it. In fact my eyes are open to the truths of many religions, I only wish other americans would also open thier eyes.

      May 18, 2011 at 11:08 pm |
    • earnest T Bass

      B/S!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      May 19, 2011 at 10:16 am |
    • Muneef

      You are isolating your salves from other races and cultures when you shouldn't whether friends or enemies, you got to know them and learn about them.!
      Any way guess America has many races within although all called Americans but wonder which of those races are the ones who hate Arabs and Muslims most out of all the American races..? Only then I would understand why... Any way those with their acts could become to be the cause behind any unity failure or the cause behind having it dismantled and divided in the short run or the long run....

      May 19, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
  13. guest

    I guess we'll never know if they really said prayers.

    May 18, 2011 at 7:11 pm |
  14. Levas

    I am going to make two points. 1. The reason for the at sea burial is that no country would take bin Ladin's body. And have you noticed that no country has spoken up to say that it would have taken bin Ladin's body? Enough time has passed to now assume that what our government said, no country would take bin Ladin's body, is true. 2. It would seem that the author of this article has little or no credibility when the whole focus of the article is about his idea that Muslim's might disagree as to whether the burial was appropriate or not. The author had to completely leave out the government's reason, no country would take bin Ladin's body, in order to have something to write. I'm surprised that CNN published it.

    May 18, 2011 at 7:00 pm |
    • mike

      No one would take him because it would turn into a point for pilgrimage; yes it was political, but very well thought out. How can you claim an author has no credibility because of your disagreement with his view? Have you researched the author at all?

      May 19, 2011 at 2:27 am |
  15. schmez

    A mass murderer of the lowest order, and my country is concerned that UBL received a "proper" Islamic burial while dumping his body at sea under the guise of not creating a martyr in the process. Why we continually have to explain ourselves to the rest of the world for their approval is ridiculous and weak.

    May 18, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
    • reasonable

      well schmez, it was the proper thing to give the man a proper burial. do we not, as a country and a culture, respect human life? if we stoop to the level of our adversaries, then we are no better than them and have nothing to brag about or fight for. wake up a little.

      May 18, 2011 at 9:33 pm |
    • Leprakawn

      "Doing an injury puts you below your enemy; revenging one makes you but even with him; forgiving it sets you above him."
      -Benjamin Franklin

      May 19, 2011 at 9:46 pm |
  16. Mark from Middle River

    Peace, I think the issue is that Andrew feels that he can effect change by ridiculing his opponents and I feel that this is a dangerous method of debating. I believe that there are more effective and safer ways to effect change and bring peace to a society. With ridiculing there is the lack of respect and without that then the only way to win, to effect change, is a peace at the end of bloodshed. I do not feel bad about attempting to correct Andrew.

    May 18, 2011 at 6:42 pm |
  17. Mark from Middle River

    I am posting here Andrew because folks like you get people wiped out because ridiculing is the wick to the dynamite. It is like when I said folks these days, especially on internet blogs, are too strong in their beliefs. When they refuse to fold then there are sadly ones in groups that listen to the ridiculing in speech after speech and come to the conclusion that it has fail so the next step is “direct action” to effect change. Why not, they have listened to and read hours of jokes about the enemy that makes them less than human, so why not move them, kill them..etc.

    May 18, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
  18. Mark from Middle River

    will entertain your statement about the sentence prior to when you said that tolerance “sucks”. You start with saying: "You have to tolerate all of them " and you end with "It sucks doesn't it?", and the middle you you dance around saying that beliefs that you do not hold true are "silly". So is it in that dance you feel that it I justified? This is too easy.

    May 18, 2011 at 6:38 pm |
  19. Mark from Middle River

    In other words, your method of ridiculing fails! 🙂

    My question is Andrew since ridicule only speaks to its own choir, what happens when it fails in the same way it has failed throughout history? Germany had a answer back in the 30s and 40s. After a period of ridiculing the Jews in speech after speech failed to motivate the same Jews to leave Germany the next step was taken. It is because, just you also stated, they did not care whose feelings got hurt. That is why I am saying that your method of choice very similar to the Nazis and pretty much a lot of people in history that have caused a lot of bloodshed.

    May 18, 2011 at 6:36 pm |
  20. Mark from Middle River

    You see this break down in something as simple as the split between the cable news network. People choose the media service that is closer to their views and spend page after page ridiculing the other side. Right now you have FoxNews on the right and MsNBC on the far left and somewhere left of center is CNN. If you read post on MsNBC about FoxNews they readers will say that Fox is not a legitimate news agency. Listen to FoxNews and MsNBC is not a legitimate news agency. Both blogs are loaded with page after page of post and guess what, in the great stream, it does not matter. All the demagoguery at each site will have no effect on the other site. Tomorrow FoxNews will be reporting with a lean to the right and MsNBC with a lean to the left.

    May 18, 2011 at 6:36 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.