Osama’s body and the power of shrines

It now seems clear that the hasty disposal of OBL’s body at sea wasn’t strictly about Islamic tradition. The Associated Press has quoted Muslim scholars criticizing the burial, including Dubai’s grand mufti Mohammed al-Qubaisi, who said:

“If the family does not want him, it’s really simple in Islam: You dig up a grave anywhere, even on a remote island, you say the prayers and that’s it.”

“Sea burials are permissible for Muslims in extraordinary circumstances,” he added. “This is not one of them.”

Over on the BBC, there’s a nice article that gets to the heart of the matter:

US officials were at pains to insist that the process was conducted in “strict conformance with Islamic precepts and practices”.

But the purpose of his burial at sea was clear – to ensure that there was no grave to become a shrine for supporters, and a recruiting tool for extremist Islamism.

As the BBC notes, such concerns are not new. The body of a dead leader holds an enormous amount of symbolic weight that is often manipulated by leaders left alive. The article notes the example of Lenin’s corpse, embalmed soon after his death and on display in Moscow ever since. It’s worth pointing out that Lenin never wanted to be preserved this way — he considered it “vulgar” to worship the remains of dead leaders. But Stalin knew a great propaganda opportunity when he saw one.

While it seems doubtful that bin Laden would have gotten a monument to match Lenin’s, the US government wasn’t taking any chances. To destroy a person’s life, then their grave, is a double obliteration that serves political ends. The BBC notes the fascinating example of Muhammad Ahmad, a 19th century Sudanese religious leader and enemy of the British:

Ahmad was not killed in a British raid – he died of typhus. But Lord Kitchener destroyed his tomb to prevent it becoming a rallying point for disciples and had his bones thrown into the Nile.

Meanwhile, a parallel discussion is taking place about the photos of Osama’s corpse. The first photo that circulated was revealed to be a fake. For a few days, the administration said they possessed images of of OBL’s corpse, but were hesitant to release them. About an hour ago, Obama said that he had decided not to release the photos after all:

After intense discussions with his national security team, Mr. Obama decided that the photos were too graphic and could further enflame Bin Laden’s followers, according to Mr. Carney, but would not change the minds of skeptics. Mr. Obama indicated in the interview that gloating by releasing the photos “is not who we are,” Mr. Carney said.

(Sadly, the images of American celebrating OBL’s death with drunken shenanigans have already done plenty to tell the world “who we are.”)

It seems likely the photo(s), or a faked version, will surface somehow. On Twitter, the brilliant Colin Dickey, author of Cranioklepty, wondered: “Per John Berger’s comments on Che Guevara’s corpse & Mantegna’s Christ, I am interested what Renaissance painting the OBL photo references.”

Berger’s essay “The Image of Imperialism” makes for some spooky, and recommended, reading right now. In it, Berger compares the photo of the dead Che to Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson:

Here is the photo of Che, from the Pbase galleries:

Berger goes on to compare the photo of Che to Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson:

As well as Mantegna’s Lamentation of Christ:

The Pbase site makes some good points about the history of the Che photo:

Unenthused by his efforts to incite revolution among the poor and oppressed in Bolivia, the nation’s army (trained and equipped by the U.S. military and the CIA) captured and executed Guevara in 1967. But before dumping his body in a secret grave, they gathered around for a strategic photo op. They wanted to prove to the world that Che was dead, in hopes that his political movement would die with him. in fact, anticipating charges that the photo had been faked, Che’s thoughtful captors amputated his hands and preserved them in formaldehyde.

But by killing the man, Bolivian officials unwittingly birthed his legend. The photo, which circulated around the world, bore a striking resemblance to Renaissance paintings of Christ taken down from the cross. Even as Che’s killers preened and gloated above him (the officer on the right seems to be inadvertently pointing to a wound on Guevara’s body near where Christ’s final wound was inflicted), Che’s eerily peaceful face was described as showing forgiveness. The photo’s allegorical significance certainly wasn’t lost on the revolutionary protesters of the era. They quickly adopted “Che lives!” as a slogan and rallying cry. Thanks to this photograph, “the passion of the Che” ensured that he would live on forever as a martyr for the socialist cause.

There are likely many reasons behind the decision not to release the photos of Osama’s corpse. But perhaps the 1967 photo of Che served as a cautionary tale?

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2 thoughts on “Osama’s body and the power of shrines

  1. Thank you Phil! I was also thinking about Cromwell while reading the initial reports of OBL’s death — specifically, about Cromwell’s head on a pole! Thanks also for the great link, I have saved it.

    Good point about the entire ocean as a shrine. But if so, Osama’s sharing that shrine with many, many others. What if some future salvager accidentally (or purposefully) dredges up his corpse? I wonder who will be the first to put that scenario in a work of fiction?

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