Of Shrines and Trials

It was 2003 or 2004, I think, when I came across a news article in a UK newspaper — The Independent, I think, though it may have been The Guardian — detailing how a group of Afghan Sufi Muslims were turning the graves of fallen Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters into ad-hoc shrines. Where they would invoke the power of the fallen mujahedin in their petitions to God.

There was a lot of power in the place where the fallen were buried, one Sufi leader told the newspaper. They struggled in the name of God, they fought in the name of God, and they died in the name of God. They were closer to God than the rest of us. That made the ground where they fell, and the ground where they were buried, sacred ground. Holy ground.

The Sufis were not, however, pining for the days of the Taliban government, and they weren’t fighting for Al Qaeda or even supporting the organization. Indeed, Afghan Sufis had been oppressed — quite viciously — by the dry and brutal legalism of the Taliban. And they were not supporting the Taliban in its fight against the United States, or the Northern Alliance, or the Western allies. And they understood the irony of consecrating ground where their enemies and oppressors fell, and beatifying those now safely dead enemies.

But the Sufis did know holy men, and holy ground, when they saw it. Even when those holy men were their enemies.

That’s the interesting irony behind the desire not to allow whatever place Usama bin Laden might have been buried to become some kind of shrine or monument to the late Al Qaeda leader. Those Muslims most likely to turn his grave into a shrine, to venerate him as a saint, to draw upon his “power” and have it used on their behalf in their petitions to God, are the kinds of Muslims most likely to blown to bits by Al Qaeda types. In Pakistan, Sufis have been frequent targets, along with the Ahmadiyya (who are considered heretical in the way many Sunni consider the Shia) and the country’s small Christian minority, of a sometimes brutal campaign of violence — mostly bombings.

I appreciate that the Saudis did not want Bin Laden’s body. I can even appreciate that the Bin Laden family did not want the body. And I suppose that even in Saudi Arabia, there was the risk of Usama’s grave becoming an informal shrine, a pilgrimage site, a place of prayer. I find that unlikely, given the Saudis — whose official Islam is as dry and legalistic and the English Calvinism that gave birth to the settlements of New England — have done a good job of pulverizing just about every shrine they could find. Centuries old sites, many connected with important figures from the Qur’an and Islamic history, have been demolished. Even that built on the Prophet Muhammad’s grave was demolished. (To be fair, even the kingdom’s modern founder, Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud, was buried in an unmarked grave — at least that is my understanding.) Saudi Sufis have long complained about this. Very quietly, but they have complained.

So it is unlikely, had Usama Bin Laden’s body been kept around, that it would have become the kind of religious center that, say, Ayatollah Khomeini’s tomb has become. (Khomeini himself came from a Shis Sufi tradition, well outside the mainstream of Iran’s Shia clergy.) Because he wouldn’t have had a tomb. But an unmarked grave is somewhere, and even if no one quite knew where, I could see someone deciding, “well, it might as well be here,” and passing a place off as Usama’s tomb. It wouldn’t have been on the Saudi Tourism Ministry’s list of preferred destinations, and visiting the place would have earned you some time in lockup. But someone could have made a nice living “hosting” the grave of the sainted Usama Bin Laden!

But who know what will happen in a century or two or three, when Usama has passed into the realm of myth, when relics of him may be collected. I fully expect that the compound in Abbottabad to become some kind of shrine — probably run by the same kinds of Sufi Muslims who would otherwise find themselves on the receiving end of jihadi violence.

(This is not to say that Sufi Muslims are inherently peaceful. The 19th and 20th centuries saw lots of Sufi-led resistance to colonialism — the Naqshabandi in the Caucasus Mountains and elsewhere, the Sanusids in Libya, the various Mahdists of Africa. While it is likely in the short term that the Revolutionary Islam embraced by Bin Laden will become a criminal enterprise, along the lines of Colombia’s FARC, I can see a day long from now when Al Qaeda could be a Sufi order of some sort, practicing a spiritual discipline rooted in whatever understanding of jihad makes sense at the time. I’m not predicting, I’m just saying…)

Now, someone asked me if Bin Laden should have gotten a trial. No, he should not have. I have come to believe in something I call “rough justice” — that there are people who have acted in such a way that frankly, what they really need and the best they are going get is to be strung up by the mob. Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena strike me as relatively good examples of this in action. Manuel Noriega would have been another. I can just as easily argue for mercy in either case, as with Chile’s action in refusing to hand former East German leader Erich Honecker over for trial. I was not terribly excited about the arrest of Augusto Pinochet, foul as he was. Muammar Qaddafiy is a man who strikes me as in need of rough justice. Frankly, so does George W. Bush.

This is a matter of sensibility for me, and not a hard and fast rule. Generally, when it comes to certain kinds of crimes or human acts, such as those committed by heads of states and heads of governments, or by soldiers, or by guerrillas and terrorists, the legal process simply becomes morally inadequate. It spirals to absurdity. I would never vote against the prissy human rights lawyers who prosecute such crimes (they always seem to win)*, but believers in the “rule of law” conveniently tend to forget that laws can rule because men are prepared to do violence. Often times terrible, horrific violence. Which is why I was generally in favor of mercy for Pinochet and Honecker. It was not worth burning down anything to get “justice” for the victims of either. Both were old men, their regimes defunct, and I’m not sure what measure of satisfaction anyone could get from imprisoning unrepentant old men. I have no idea what justice means in instances like these. I’m not sure anyone else does either.

UPDATE 03 MAY: I’d like to clarify something. Typically, a trial is about the establishment of guilt, whether in the English tradition where innocence is first assumed and the state must prove guilt, or in the continental system, where guilt is assumed (on the basis of state charge) and innocence must be proved. (Given prosecutorial power in the U.S., there isn’t much daylight between the two stances anymore.) A trial is, ideally, a tool to establish guilt. Which means that not guilty has to be a realistic, possible outcome. Trials do not exist, at least in theory, to determine how guilty the accused is. However, in most cases I’ve cited above, guilt has already been assumed, and not just by non-state accusers, but also by the “legal process.” The point of a trial is, well, I’m not sure — to confront the accused with the pain and suffering the accused has caused? Public catharsis? If that’s the case, a trial is really just a slow-motion, legalistic lynching anyway. If the point of trying Usama Bin Laden is to find him guilty and punish him — to serve justice as angry and aggrieved human beings understand it — then why bother? A rope and a lamppost or a tall tree will suffice. You say we’re better than that, that’s what we have law for? No we’re not. No one is. Look how the law is being used. And by whom.

Rough justice cannot be taken for others, either. Prissy European human rights lawyers sitting in judgement in the Hague (or wherever such ridiculous people sit) cannot adequately take any kind of real justice for Rwandans, or the people of Sierra Leone, or Liberia, or Sri Lanka, or Libya, or whoever. The only real justice — if such a thing is to be had — they can find is the justice they make for themselves. The Rwandan genocide actually ended the way it needed to be ended, by Rwandans. And not outsiders. This is a matter of human dignity.

So no, the idea of a “trial” for Bin Laden was absurd. Not just from a legal standpoint (given the mess the Bush and Obama regimes have made out of the legal system for terrorism suspects), but morally as well. What justice can there be for anyone who lost anything that day? And what is human justice but vengeance with the occasional possibility of mercy — a possibility already foreclosed upon in the case of Bin Laden? As it is for so many others? I don’t know if justice was done in killing Usama Bin Laden. I suspect, however, that Sunday’s assault on the compound in northern Pakistan is probably as close as we could ever get.

Really, law is the triumph of brute force wrapped up in a neat little package anyway. Justice is the triumph of brute force enveloped in pretty words. Sometimes, for justice to be real, to make sense, it must shed the law and its cloak of pretty words and simply act. Mostly, it will be ugly and bloody. Most human struggles are. And it will rarely satisfy. Most human struggles don’t do that, either.


* That’s only because the prissy human rights lawyers have never taken on anyone truly powerful. In this, they are hypocrites, mostly.

Bin Laden’s Death and a Matter of Honor

I was working for the Saudi Press Agency at the kingdom’s U.S. embassy in Washington when the United States and the United Kingdom invaded Iraq in March, 2003. The Saudis I knew were not terribly supportive of the invasion, but they didn’t like the Iraqi government much either. They also knew there wasn’t much they could do, and that the Kingdom was tacitly supporting the invasion.

In the first week of the invasion, when the Iraqi army appeared to give little effective resistance to the American advance, a few Saudis I met in the embassy were a little glum. “We don’t expect them to win,” one told me. “But they do need to fight well. They need to show they can and are willing to fight to protect their country and their families.”

There is no sin in losing to a superior force if you at least acquit yourself honorably on the battlefield. This is both a matter of honor (in the premodern sense) and dignity (in a modern sense)*. To be utterly overpowered, to never have a chance to fight and die in a “fair” fight, to feel that you have been defeated fairly rather than unfairly is, I think, almost as important as whether you win or lose. The West’s way of war — technologically effective, impersonal, overpowering and overwhelming — is a way of war of the deprives those who are defeated of their honor and dignity. (This matters, because it’s impossible to make peace or even reconcile people to their defeat if they do not believe they maintain some amount of honor and dignity in the fight. It means that “winning” wars in such ways effectively does not matter.)

To stand, to fight, to even die like men — that’s important. We ignore that reality at our peril.

This came to me last night as I considered the scant reports we have now of Usama bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. commandoes in north-eastern Pakistan. As of this writing, it appears he died on his feet, fighting, and it was important that he did so. I do not know if this was intentional or not, but the Obama administration gave bin Laden an honorable death. Granted, unlike Saddam Hussein, bin Laden probably reconciled himself to dying years ago. And with his faith, he likely had no fear of dying either. I suspect he was not inclined to be captured alive.

And capturing him alive presented any number of problems — where to keep him, how to treat him, how public a spectacle he is to become. Treating him the way U.S. forces treated Saddam Hussein, the public humiliation of something like a health checkup, photos of bin Laden in a cage in Cuba, would have enraged too many people. Granted, Saddam was a coward who talked big about fighting to the end but hoped, instead, to live and rule another day. He did not. The American desire to humiliate bin Laden was intense, and it is good we were not given — and did not take — the opportunity to act upon our worst impulses.

This doesn’t matter because somehow those waging war on the United States will say to themselves, “the Americans are now honorable, so we can stop fighting.” They won’t stop. But in the outrage to come — about the violation of Pakistani sovereignty, the dumping of the body at sea — many will at least be able to say bin Laden died fighting, that he died like a man. There will be some begrudging admiration from friend and foe alike. It will provide something resembling an ending.

The only problem I have with how the administration has acted has been with what they did with the body of bin Laden. I would have seriously considered giving the body to the Bin Laden family in Saudi Arabia, knowing that the burial rules and customs of the Wahhabis require burial in an unmarked grave. The Bin Ladens could have buried their wayward and long-disowned son deep on private property and no one would ever know where. It does, however, make sense that the administration feared they would no longer have control over the conversation if they released the body. The burial at sea — I suspect with the presence of a Muslim cleric and maybe a Muslim service member or two for a proper funeral — was basically a dumping, a way to easily get rid of a now-inconvenient artifact, something too hot to handle. It’s clever they are justifying this by motioning to bin Laden’s “religious beliefs,” but this was all about not wanting to keep the trophy too long.

Because it would have been too tempting to want to do something awful to the body. Something humiliating. (I can just see the likes of John McCain and Joe Lieberman demanding that Bin Laden’s body be publicly displayed and “desecrated”…) Something that would have only angered Muslims across the world. It would have been Americans at their absolute worst. In according Usama bin Laden the dignity of dying in a firefight, dying on his feet, and then dumping his body in the deep blue sea, the Obama administration has also according the Muslim world a matter of respect. Some honor. Some dignity.

Real power is knowing when you don’t have to, and don’t need to, and probably shouldn’t, lord it over others. There’s much that I don’t like about Obama, and the actions of his administration, but he does have a more sophisticated and effective understanding of power than many in the GOP, who confuse barking orders and threatening people with real power.  Who confuse brutalizing and humiliating people with defeating them. And, like Israel’s Likudniks, confuse strength with aggression and domination.


* I have come to believe that dignity and honor are roughly the same thing. Honor being a pre-modern, very tribalist notion (that requires a community), while dignity is its modern and much more individualistic articulation.

The Resemblance is Creepy

Fugitive Saudi al Qaeda leader Usama bin laden …

… and French lawyer and Reformation leader John Calvin.

Again, bin Laden, who is the aspiring leader of a theocratic state (but so far has not managed to put one together outside wherever it is he is hiding)…

… and Calvin, who was the actual leader of a theocratic state, in Geneva, Switzerland.

Just interesting. That’s all.
UPDATE: I’m certain if I posted a photo of bin Laden in one of those wonderful, multi-cornered Afghan hats, they’d look even more alike.