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Osama Bin Laden's Death — and the Islamic Way of Burial

10:50 AM, May 6, 2011 • By LEE SMITH
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“The interpretation of these two passages,” says al-Rahim, “is that God brings 'martyrs' directly to heaven. For everyone else there’s purgatory first, which is the reason for the ritual washing and the prayers.”

It’s that great middle ground, or between those Muslims that think the holy warrior is a martyr and those who could care less about the fate of bin Laden, that seems to pose a problem for the White House. This is the space the Sorbonne-educated Sheikh of Al Azhar Ahmed al-Tayeb shares with Tariq Ramadan. They’re both looking for room to criticize the Americans obliquely in order to win points with their constituency without supporting bin Laden outright and therefore damaging their credentials as moderates. Where Tayeb couches his critique in standard Middle East rhetoric—“the killing of Bin Laden will create thousands of Bin Ladens,” a conceit once employed by his former boss Hosni Mubarak—Ramadan uses the language of Western law and due process. “If it was possible to arrest him and to bring him to justice, this is what we would have liked,” said Ramadan.

Ramadan plays his hand perfectly. He’s not a supporter of bin Laden—even as he has made it clear he does favor resistance, especially against Israel—but this is an opportunity that he can’t let pass. This is how he reminds his interlocutors in the West that he is the man they need to speak to. He’s not a sell-out, like some of the Muslims who have achieved prominence in the West for their criticism of Islam and Middle Eastern political cultures. He’s the real thing, with his ear to the ground and therefore capable of listening to and speaking with all those thousands of nascent bin Ladens who, says the Sheikh of Al Azhar, the killing of bin Laden will now give rise to.

The question is, who are all those people that are likely to be “radicalized” in the aftermath of bin Laden’s death and his controversial burial? Maybe Tayeb and Ramadan and other Muslim spokesmen are misrepresenting reality and, aside from the known extremists, they are the only ones talking about the death of bin Laden in order to boost their own popularity. What’s worrying is that the Obama administration seems to believe they are telling the truth, that there are plenty of Muslims likely to take up arms against the United States, again, if they’re given the opening. Otherwise, or if there weren’t so many potential bin Ladens in the making, bin Laden wouldn’t have gotten his special send-off.

If American policymakers imagined that bin Laden was a decisive wedge issue among the Muslim masses, his death shows that this was far from true. Even now, some Muslims see an advantage in playing both sides, not really with bin Laden, but certainly not against him either. The fact is that at least two presidential administrations and several U.S. Congresses have acknowledged that the United States is at war with an organization whose grand strategy is to kill Americans—and of those already killed, none of their funeral rites were of much concern to the Sheikh of Al Azhar or the grandson of Hassan al-Banna. To fret over bin Laden’s end, to lament the killing of an American enemy, identifies you as something other than a friend of the United States. George W. Bush was ridiculed for his lack of nuance, but ten years after 9/11, there are many Americans who still want to know: Are you with us, or against us?

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