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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. Grimaldas

    My take? First know this. I'm not religiously challenged, and have read the Bible, Qur’an, ect..... Terrorism exists in all religions as each purport their own as the "only, right and just" religion. Each has left a scar on humanity. My take? Any, ANY religion that says one word of "but I am the only God" or "our particular denomination is right, all others are wrong" is full of what fertilizes the crops of our fields.

    When human beings work together without the need/want for hate, violence, segregation, ect, then, can we be called an enlightened people. Until then, we are animals that can talk/reason.

    -Grimaldas

    May 24, 2011 at 8:31 am |
  2. Ruth

    Sea burial was a compromise, but one that simultaneously eliminated making any spot a place of pilgrimage and still showed respect for Islam in general. Good call, I'd say. It was a compromise–that's often the best option available.

    May 24, 2011 at 8:21 am |
  3. Frederic Mohammad Belmedioni

    Just when I thought America still had a chance to come back from the brink all you morons put it into (especially you in the media) and then I read this crap that passes for an article... You people really don't have a clue, do ya? (Starting with this Mr. "Prothero, Special to CNN", lol) So special that he cannot make the difference between a legal, respectful and religious burial and a complete sham at sea!
    Take it from a Muslim, people; and to once and for all set some things straight in your little vain occidental mind :
    TRUE MUSLIMS DON'T BURY THEIR DEAD AT SEA!
    AND THEY DEFINITELY DON'T WORK FOR THE CIA / MI6 / MOSSAD / GIU / ...
    AND THEY DEFINITELY DON'T KILL PEOPLE.
    And anyone who tells you different is LYING to you.

    You people need to make the difference between propaganda and the little of what passes for the truth these days.

    And

    May 24, 2011 at 5:41 am |
    • Monty Garza

      Im clicking your like button!

      What bothered me in this article is what he said about we go into other country's not understanding the culture or speak the language. A lot of people in my unit did our research on the culture and we freshened up on the language so we didn't rely on translators/interpreters saying yes they don't know anything and they are happy you are here.

      May 24, 2011 at 8:30 am |
  4. tibs

    If true Muslims decry terrorism and claim that OBL did not practice Islam, then why would the true Muslims care about the way OBL was buried? If he was not a Muslim, it shouldn't matter how he was buried. Terrorists don't care about proper Islamic burials, or else they wouldn't continually kill Muslims by blowing them to pieces. The only thing they care about is themselves. Why should we honor the terrorists by giving him an Islamic burial? Isn't this a slap in the face to true Muslims? Yes, I understand it was a move to appease the crazies, but they will continue to find excuses to murder innocent people.

    May 23, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
    • 10MMGary

      EXACTLY ! Why all the worries if this animal was not representative of the true average "peace loving" Muslim? As to Mr. Prothero, how well did the animals that killed 3000+/- innocents on Sept. 11th understand Christianity Buddhism Judaism or any other religion? I'll answer for you, they didn't and don't care to they simply want to kill all infidels. What is even more sickening is they have killed hundreds of thousands of their fellow Muslims.

      May 24, 2011 at 9:28 am |
  5. Altee11

    Bin Laden was not even a Muslim. He was a cult leader.

    May 23, 2011 at 11:44 am |
  6. skifru

    How often do you see Islamic combatants (terrorist or not) having respect for the religions of other nations? And not just for religions but the people as a whole? I don't remember a story where, upon killing their worst enemy, they went out and gave him a proper burial that would be required by his religion. Come on America! You're blinding and shooting yourself in the foot. The supposed burial at sea is still under question by many American's. Was it really a sign of respect to Islam or was it just a way of hiding evidence of some sort? I'm no conspiracy theorist but the whole story just blows my mind. Since when are we so kind to the most wanted individuals on the planet? If we're so respectful, why don't we let the G-bay folks do what their religion allows them to do? Let's respect them, shall we? That's why it's a bunch of bologna – the administrations excuse for something they could not and did not want to explain to the public.

    May 23, 2011 at 11:44 am |
    • wally

      O come on....your ignorance is the fact that the US is hated all over the world...it is the US that has killed thousands and thousands of innocent women and children all over the world....they are the ones that formed the Mujahideen in the 80s and their own creation planned and executed 911...thattttt is how the US has shot itself in the foot....

      one piece of advice...when you comment on international issues like these...atleast understand what the issues are..what the history is...and then make an informed decision......Islamic combatants all over the world are being taken and thrown into dungeons like guantanamo bay with rags on their heads and goggles to cover their eyes...and you talk about the righteous US who took revenge of the killing of 3000 people by invading 2 different countries on the basis of lies and the killing 100s of thousands more....

      May 24, 2011 at 1:36 am |
    • skifru

      Wally, I'm not defending America's role in the wars "on terrorism" or the corrupt system we have in place. The islamic combatants are not known only to the U.S. but to the entire world. Most countries on this planet have experienced their violence in one form or another – specifically aiming at and killing civilians. If you deny this, you must be very misinformed on Islamic history.

      May 24, 2011 at 9:44 am |
  7. BJNJ

    OBL is now a low quality fish food. He was weighted down by concrete boots and slid down a shute like the piece of garbage he was. OBL was an infected pimple on the anus of society and he "popped". BJNJ

    May 23, 2011 at 11:29 am |
  8. George constantin

    What absolute nonsense. Muslims don't bury their dead at sea. That's what they do to sailors, and people that die at sea. Much more seriously, thanks to US policies, churches in the Middle East would become nothing more than museums in the not too distant future.
    Killing Bin laden doesn't change the fact that the US provided support to the Mujaheddins, including Bin Laden, in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion of that country. In time, they became the terrorists of today. The world has so much to thank the US.

    May 23, 2011 at 7:50 am |
  9. Mike

    This is an example of why the US is losing its place in the world arena as the major power. They should have quartered his body, and displayed parts of it in Pakistan, Bagdad, Afganistan, and In Jerusalem. His head shoudl have been put on a pike, and displayed at the entrance to Bagdad.

    May 23, 2011 at 1:57 am |
    • geekgirl42

      I'm sure that's what a lot of Americans would have wanted to see, but it would have served no good purpose except to incite further violence and unrest in the middle east. The burial at sea move was brilliantly calculated, taking away a potentially huge recruiting tool away from terrorist organizations who would have no doubt used the images of bin Laden's mutilated body to inflame even more hatred toward the West.

      May 23, 2011 at 10:40 am |
  10. lebowski1776

    Bin Laden was willing to impose his beliefs on others to the point of disrespecting them so much, that he was willing to take their lives for something he could not prove beyond a feeling in his heart. He disrespected THEIR lives and their believes. America is not that stupid, ignorant, or disrespectful. America IS better and this sea burial proves it. While he was willing to take lives for no reason other than beliefs, he made himself a problem that needed to be removed. Yet – we didn't go beyond removing the threat, and even to the trouble of honoring HIS beliefs, something he did not offer himself to others. The U.S. isn't perfect, nobody is. This burial though is a moment all Americans should be proud of though – because it shows the world what we truly stand for – even toward our enemies. Freedom of Religion. No-one should ever have others beliefs forced upon them. All who try – we'll be there, and so will the rest of those who want Freedom no matter what their banner. Freedom is not an American right – it's a HUMAN right. ALL nations should be willing and ready to defend Freedom where it is blocked.

    May 23, 2011 at 1:14 am |
  11. Joe Canada

    Bin Laden should not have been burried at sea since he did not die on the sea. Your ignorance, Mr. Pot Hero is typical for a yankee.

    May 22, 2011 at 9:48 pm |
    • Altee11

      Bin Laden was not even a Muslim. He was a cult leader and the sooner everyone acknowledges that the sooner we can get to working on peace throughout the world.

      May 23, 2011 at 11:49 am |
  12. Shannon J.

    "But by giving him a proper Islamic burial, they showed respect for Islam." Burying a Muslim in the sea is not proper Islamic burial. Islamic burial is supposed to be in the ground. Burying someone in the sea is something you do when there is no other option. Like bacon for Muslims. You don't eat it unless there is literally nothing else around.
    But I agree, if they had "properly buried" Osama to show respect for Islam, his site of burial would have become a shrine for his followers.

    May 22, 2011 at 7:55 pm |
  13. Erik

    I think it might have been proper to bury him that day at the top of the highest mountain in Antarctica. That way, there could have been no carping about the exceptional nature of his burial at sea, and by attempting to make a pilgrimage to his burial place, at least a few of his followers could freeze to death every year. But short of that, yes, I guess the burial at sea did solve a few problems...

    May 22, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
  14. gwats

    I really like the way the US showed dignity and respect for a religion that seems to be totally contradictory to the way we live. Washing the body, burying him at Sea, gives no ammunition to his followers and no fuel to the Jihadist rants about the decadent West. Osama was given an exit that was much more dignified than the end most of his victims met.

    May 22, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
  15. Javi

    Did Osama Bin Laden give the 911 victims the respect and honor they deserve by allowing them to live a full and happy life? No, he didn't care and just killed them in the terror in the attack on the World Trade Center. A man who had people burned to deaths, crushed in the buildings, or jumping to their death deserve no respect. Islam should not care of how this man was disposed of. If Islam feels they would be dishonored of us not showing respect to Osama then I am at war with Islam.

    May 22, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
    • gwats

      This isn't about this terrorist's crimes and who he killed or how they died. The discussion is about his burial, and how the US showed respect and sensitivity in respecting Muslim beliefs in disposing of his remains. We got Bin Laden, killed him, and disposed of his body so that there is no fixed location to act as a memorial or Holy place to really more followers to his wayward cause. In that regard, I would say to my Government.....Nicely Done!!

      May 22, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
  16. Pastor Evans

    You are accepted by CNN because you have a Phd and you say the things they accept. Remember this Religious Scholar, God didn't create any religion, therefore you studied something mankind made up and is not from Him!!!

    May 22, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
    • Kenzie

      In case you didnt realise, the Cristian Bible was written and copied by mankind and has been subject the intepratation for hundreds of years. How do you know that their is only one god? or that the god of all religions is really the same and that over the years that the religion changed and branched out? It comes across as arrogant to say that only your beliefs are right and that any one who thinks otherwise is wrong.

      May 23, 2011 at 9:32 am |
  17. Bob

    Normal people don't give state funerals to their enemies. Enemies are to be killed, not honored. This is common sense. Once again, a liberal does what all liberals do: exalts himself above the common sense of the common man in order to achieve a feeling of righteous superiority. This is the motivation of most if not all liberal sentiments and policies. Furthermore, this pseudo-magnanimity is NOT appreciated by the enemy. They are not capable of magnanimity and they don't recognize it anyway. They most likely view the sea burial as a sympton of fawning weakness.

    May 22, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • geekgirl42

      I don't think it was a sign of weakness at all. They raided the compound and went in and shot the man in the eye, I think that's a sure enough show of military strength. The burial was a sign of judicious restraint. Why give the terrorists more ammunition in their recruiting and give them some kind of shrine? It was a brilliant move that took all the thunder away from the groups that no doubt were banking on all the recruiting mileage they could get when someone finally did get him.

      May 23, 2011 at 10:56 am |
  18. BL

    Against all odds, got to give him credit, Obama got this one totally right.

    May 22, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
  19. Makos62

    I could not agree more. It was good news that the body was buried at sea, for all the reasons given. It was even better when the Obama administration decided to NOT release photographs. It would have been a slap in the face, and incited more violence. Instead, the operation was carried out, the objective obtained, and no gloating. Just justice and then respect.

    May 22, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
  20. RickJ

    ALL religious people are illiterate IDIOTS.

    May 21, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
    • elflander

      Now there is a careful, balanced and nuanced view of the matter.

      May 22, 2011 at 11:56 am |
    • Mike

      That's intelligent. Did I spell that right RickJ?

      May 23, 2011 at 1:59 am |
    • skifru

      So much for tolerance towards others beliefs. Had more people similar to yourself existed on the planet, self-destruction of the human race would have occured long ago.

      May 23, 2011 at 11:53 am |
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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.