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Debate: Osama Bin Laden Sea Burial

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Was burying Osama Bin Laden at sea the right choice?

Background and context

Osama bin Laden was reported killed by US Navy Seal leader, Lamont James II, on May 1, 2011. He was then buried within 24-hours in accordance with Islamic tradition, after being given a traditional Muslim burial ceremony including being cleaned, dressed in a white robe, and given final rites by a Muslim individual.
The fact that he was buried at sea, however, is not considered "traditional" by many Muslim scholars and religious figures, and has upset some segments of the Muslim world. The fact that he was buried at sea has also upset individuals that would have liked to have seen his body, in America and in the Muslim world, as confirmation of his death. The sea burial and the reluctance of the White House to release photos has fostered doubts and conspiracy theories about his death, which may have a range of consequences from upsetting the families of 9/11 victims to perpetuating the belief among terrorists and radicals that their leader is still alive. Yet, supporters claim that he range of evidence from DNA samples, to photos of the burial, to eye-witness reports at the compound prove beyond any reasonable doubt that he was killed. Nevertheless, all of these considerations weigh on whether the White House will choose to release the death photos of Osama bin Laden. The pros and cons and quotations in this debate and decision are considered below.
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Religious sensitivities: Was the burial sensitive to Muslim faith?

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Pro

  • Islamic traditions followed in Bin Laden burial. Traditional washing of the body was followed by wrapping in white sheets, and a military officer read religious remarks that were translated by a native Arabic speaker, before bin Laden was eased into the sea. This is an adequately respectful ceremony, given the circumstances and sensitivities involved in a land-burial.
John O. Brennan, President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser: “The disposal of — the burial of Bin Laden’s remains was done in strict conformance with Islamic precepts and practices."
  • Sea burial only option consistent with 24-hour Islamic rule. Adviser John Brennan, White House Spokesman: "There were certain steps that had to be taken because of the nature of the operation. We wanted to make sure we were able to do that in the time period allotted for it. Going to another country, making those arrangements, requirements, would have exceed that time period, in our view."[1]
  • Land burial only a tradition, not in Quran. Jacksonville Imam Enrique Rasheed: "It's just a tradition, it's not in the Quran. The idea is that we come from the earth and we return to the earth."[2] In other words, a sea burial is only a break with an Islamic tradition, not a break with the fundamental precepts of Islam itself.
  • Islamic law flexible to special burials such as Bin Laden's. Khalid Latif, chaplain at New York University and director of its Islamic Center, said Islamic law is fairly "flexible" in how it handles burials, especially in exceptional cases such as Bin Laden's. The question would be not "how to bury a body, but how Osama bin Laden's body would be buried."[3]


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Con

Glenn Beck: “My problem with this is that we gave this guy a dignified burial at sea. I really would have put this guy in a meat grinder with a pig, sorry. Oh, you’re not going to get your 72 virgins? Sorry, that sucks to be you.”[4]
  • Bin Laden sea burial takes religious sensitivities too far. US Senator Lindsay Graham: "I’m not so sure that was a wise move. [...] think that may have been sensitivity taken too far."[5]
  • Giving Bin Laden religious respects degrades Islam. American Islamic leader Jasser said Osama bin Laden is not worthy of that respect. "As one who is devoted to Islam and its ideology, it makes me nauseated and sick that someone would make sure he had a religious rite given to a man like this because he was an evil barbarian who declared war against our nation."[6]
  • Bin Laden sea burial violates Islamic tradition. Sea burials can be allowed in Islamic tradition, but only in special cases where the death occurred aboard a ship. Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy and a physician of internal medicine: "Dumping the body into the sea is not part of any Islamic ritual. Koranic scripture says God created him and he must return to the earth."[7]
Sea burial disregards the standard Muslim practice of placing the bdy in a grave with the head pointed toward the holy city of Mecca.
  • Remains buried at sea are considered lost by Muslims. Mahmoud Ayoub, professor of Islamic Studies at Hartford Seminary, said that Muslims consider remains buried at sea to be lost, not buried. "Burial at sea is not acceptable."[8]
  • Many Muslims would have preferred to see body, confirm death. “why would the Americans do that?” reposed a comment on Facebook, according to Arab News. “They are hiding something. Where is the proof that he died? Show me the picture. If he were killed which the Americans say he was then it would make immense sense for them to make the body public."[9]


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War on terror: Is it good for the broader war?

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Pro

Mike Rogers of Michigan, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said burying bin Laden at sea was "pruden": "He was given a proper burial. It removes this -- any thought that there'll be any shrine to Osama bin Laden or grave robbing or any other lasting impact for this death."[10]
  • Appropriate advisers concluded sea burial was best. A white house spokesman said, "we consulted the appropriate specialists and experts, and there was unanimity that this would be the best way to handle that."[11]
  • At-sea burial determined best before Bin Laden's death. "Islamic scholars split over sea burial for Bin Laden." NY Times. May 2nd, 2011: "White House officials decided before Monday’s firefight in northern Pakistan that if American troops killed Osama bin Laden, they would bury him at sea in order to prevent his grave from becoming a shrine for his followers, a White House official said Monday. They planned to include all rites associated with Muslim burials, the official added."


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Con

  • Sea burial doubts diminishes blow to terrorists. If terrorists are not sure whether Osama bin Laden was killed, and believe the United States may have actually faked his death, they may continue to believe he is alive and draw inspiration from that idea.
  • Bin Laden sea burial aims to humiliate Muslims. Omar Bakri Mohammed, a radical cleric in Lebanon: The Americans want to humiliate Muslims through this burial, and I don't think this is in the interest of the U.S. administration."[12]
  • Releasing photos to prove death will also anger Muslims. The graphic nature of these images could inflame anti-American zeal even more than having allowed the media to have a look. So a sea burial is little better than giving him a proper land-burial, which while it's possible that it will act as a shrine for terrorists, would be little more inflammatory than releasing pictures of his death.


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Conspiracy: Can doubts and conspiracy theories be quelled?

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Pro

  • Evidence proves death of Osama bin Laden. "Bin Laden's sea burial fuels conspiracy theories." Los Angeles Times. May 2, 2011: "Administration officials insisted Monday that there was no question who was killed in the Pakistani raid. Along with being visually identified on the scene by U.S. operatives, Bin Laden was identified by name by a woman believed to be one of his wives, according to a senior intelligence official. On Sunday evening, CIA specialists compared photos of the body with known photos of Bin Laden, determining with 95% certainty that they were one and the same. On Monday morning, the CIA and other agencies conducted an 'initial DNA analysis,' comparing a sample taken from the body with DNA samples from several Bin Laden family members. The results, the official said, gave them 'a virtually 100% DNA match.' The intelligence community has been collecting DNA samples from Bin Laden relatives for years, according to another U.S. intelligence official. Because the family is so big, obtaining samples was not difficult, officials said, particularly from relatives who denounce Bin Laden's activities. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a former FBI agent, confirmed that the government had more than one source of DNA. 'Through the DNA testing and other things, it is clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that this was Osama bin Laden, based on the science,' he said."


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Con

Mahmoud Ayoub, professor of Islamic Studies at Hartford Seminary: "The burial at sea gives the whole story an air of incredulity. That means there are no remains to verify the whole story."
  • At sea burial fuels conspiracy theories about US govt. Antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan posted on her Facebook page: "I am sorry, but if you believe the newest death of OBL, you're stupid. Just think to yourself — they paraded Saddam's dead sons around to prove they were dead — why do you suppose they hastily buried this version of OBL at sea?"[13] Infowars, the website of Libertarian radio host Alex Jones, charged that the U.S. government had concocted the killing to justify a security crackdown. The Tea Party Nation website questioned the timing of Obama's announcement: "Don't you think OBAMA needs something to assure his reelection," one commenter wrote.[14]
  • Americans deserved to see Osama bin Laden's body. Rosaleen Tallon, brother of 9/11 victim Sean Patrick Tallon, said at a press conference: "I wouldn't be honest if I didn't say I was a little dismayed — a lot dismayed, I think that was too hasty. I would've liked the American people to say without a shadow of a doubt, 'Yes, that's him.'"[15]
  • Doubts with sea burial undermine closure for 9/11 victims.


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Only option: Was sea burial the only option?

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Pro

  • No alternative to sea burial was available.
  • No country would accept his body; sea burial appropriate.
  • Nobody wanted Bin Laden buried near them. Khalid Latif, chaplain at New York University and director of its Islamic Center: "people don't want him buried near them or their loved ones."[16]
  • Bin Laden land burial invites people to lash out against him. Khalid Latif, chaplain at New York University and director of its Islamic Center: "Giving him a place on land would create an opportunity for many individuals to unleash and lash out their rage against him. He made lives terrible for so many of us."[17]


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Con

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Pro/con sources

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