Osama bin Laden's Controversial Sea Burial

Within hours of his death, the U.S. Navy discarded Osama bin Laden’s body in the Arabian Sea, outraging both Glenn Beck and radical Muslim clerics. McKay Coppins on the government’s rationale.

05.02.11 5:31 PM ET

Hours after Osama bin Laden was shot in the face by Navy SEALs in Pakistan, the terrorist leader’s corpse was loaded onto the USS Carl Vinson, washed, wrapped in a white sheet, and gently pushed into the North Arabian Sea.

When the first sketchy details of this sea burial emerged early Monday morning, there was one question on everyone’s lips (and Twitter feeds): Why?

Photos: Inside Osama bin Laden's Hideout

To some, the swift disposal of bin Laden’s body reeked of conspiracy. To others, it represented a “ strategic mistake”. But most were simply confused.

U.S. officials said the speed of the burial was intended to conform to Muslim tradition, which instructs that a body should be buried within 24 hours of death. According to news reports, the procedure followed all the Muslim customs for sea burials: the body was cleansed, wrapped in a white sheet, and then placed in a weighted bag. A military officer read prepared religious remarks, which a native Arabic speaker translated. When the remarks were finished, the body was placed on a flat board, and then tipped into the ocean.

Of course, the religious funeral has drawn fire from all over the ideological spectrum.

Glenn Beck criticized the U.S. government for showing too much respect to the mass murderer. “My problem with this is that we gave this guy a dignified burial at sea,” Beck said on his radio show. “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.”

The defense of the religious funeral has been both moral and pragmatic: The U.S. government wasn’t paying respect to bin Laden himself, but rather to the rites of Islam – a faith with millions of peaceful adherents who would be dismayed to see the U.S. government treat the Koran’s teachings cavalierly.

If the U.S. military is viewed as dismissive of Islamic teachings – even in the case of its adversaries – it could turn otherwise ambivalent Muslims into enemies, or even turn bin Laden into a martyr among nonviolent believers. The government’s sensitivity to its Muslim allies has been apparent in the U.S. officials’ continual claim that they “took pains to observe Muslim law” in their handling of bin Laden’s corpse.

“Americans want to humiliate Muslims through this burial,” said a radical cleric in Lebanon.

But even this assertion has come under fire by radical Muslim clerics, who say the sea burial is actually an insulting break from Islamic protocols. Traditionally, deceased Muslims are placed in a grave with their heads facing toward Mecca, while sea burials are supposed to be reserved for the rare occasions when a Muslim dies aboard a boat, or when there is no one available to claim the corpse.

“Americans want to humiliate Muslims through this burial, and I don’t think this is in the interest of the U.S. administration,” Omar Bakri Mohammed, a radical cleric in Lebanon, told the Associated Press

U.S. officials conceded that the sea burial was, in part, an effort to avoid creating a burial shrine for bin Laden’s fellow jihadists. But they also said that no country would allow the mass murderer to be buried within their borders

And so, almost as quickly as bin Laden’s corpse was collected by the Navy, it was discarded, never to be seen again. Already, conspiracy theorists at home and abroad are spreading rumors that the death was faked by the U.S. military, a phenomenon that has led the White House to consider releasing photos of the corpse. Some worry that the graphic nature of these images could inflame anti-American zeal even further, but others believe the world needs to be convinced that its most hated enemy has finally been beaten.

McKay Coppins is a reporter for Newsweek and The Daily Beast covering politics and national affairs. His writing has also appeared in The Daily Caller and Salt Lake City's Deseret News.