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My God is not bigger than his

2011 May 6
by Paul Vallely

Much has been made, in debate over 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 as to 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 like 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 American authorities to stress 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 in the head.  Traditional procedures for Islamic burial were followed, with the body ritually washed, shrouded in white cloth and prepared 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 cointrast, said that a sea burial was permissible where there is a risk of enemies digging up a land grave and exhuming or mutilating the body – a rule that could plausibly be applied in this case.

Either way, the attempts made by the Obama administration demonstrated an anxiety or sensitivity which 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 Centre 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 the word rang alarm bells all round the Muslim world.  It threatened the start of the large-scale “clash of civilizations” between Christians and Muslims which Samuel Huntingdon had predicted would be the new post-Cold War global polarisation. One American general even used the phrase of a Muslim adversary that “my God was 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.  In 2008 the bodies of the Muslim extremists who killed 166 people in Mumbai, were refused a proper burial by the Muslim Council of India and allowed to decay for three months before being interred. But the views of the Muslim scholar at Harvard who wanted the same done with bin Laden, on the grounds that he was an enemy of Islam, did not hold sway with President Obama.

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 that America is currently God’s most favoured nation.

“We can do these things,” the President told his people on Monday, “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 in properly in place.

from the Church Times 

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