By Tom Ukinski
Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his 19-year-old brother, Dzhokhar, are accused of detonating two bombs at the Boston Marathon finish line on April 15, 2013, killing three people and wounding hundreds of others. They are also accused of killing a campus police officer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev was slain in a gun battle with police, but no cemetery in the United States appears willing to have him interred, out of fear of reprisals by the loved ones of others residing in the same cemetery. The fear is not lessened by the suggestion that Tsarnaev could be buried in an unmarked grave.
A funeral director in Worcester, Massachusetts, Peter Stefan, who assisted in the preparation of the body for burial, has received phone calls from people accusing him of being “un-American” because of his willingness to handle Tsarnaev’s funeral. A protest was staged outside his funeral home on May 5, 2013, at which protesters held American flags and chanted “USA!” One sign was more explicit declaring that Tsarnaev should not be buried on United States soil. One of the protestors shouted, “Throw him off a boat like Osama bin Laden!”
The United States government has yet to intervene and resolve this issue.
In the case of previous slain murderers, whose names and deeds remain vivid in the memories of Americans, no dispute arose concerning burial. Lee Harvey Oswald is buried in Dallas, the same city in which he assassinated President John F. Kennedy in 1963. The ashes of Oklahoma City terrorist bomber Timothy McVeigh were duly scattered. Because Tsarnaev was a Muslim, his body cannot be cremated.
Ray Madoff, a professor at Boston College Law School and specialist in the area of law related to death and burial, stated that she had never seen such a case of a dispute over burial of the dead.
Almost immediately after Tsarnaev was identified as one of the assassins, the media focused on Tsarnaev’s Muslim background. A YouTube channel that he had created includes a speech by a Muslim Russian militant. An aunt of Tsarnaev reported that he had shown a deepening interest in radical Islam.
The source of the resistance against Tsarnaev’s burial on American soil very likely stems from the idea that, as a Muslim, he was a practitioner of terrorism. The correlation of Islam with worldwide terrorism sometimes seems to be embedded in the American consciousness.
In fact, there is ample evidence from the history of Islam and its spiritual principles that Islam does not equal terrorism. In the Muslim Holy Book, the Qur’an, the Prophet Muḥammad does mention Holy War, or jihad, but in various section of the Qur’an he also condemns conflict. “Whenever they light a fire for war, God puts it out; they strive for corruption in the earth, but God loves not the corrupt.” (Sura 5 – The Table, E.H. Palmer tr.) Elsewhere he treats it as no different from any other human behavior that calls for divine pardon. “Verily, those who believe, and those who flee, and those who wage war in God’s way; these may hope for God’s mercy, for God is forgiving and merciful.” (Sura 2 – The Heifer, E.H. Palmer tr.)
Jihad is commonly misinterpreted as “holy war” though it most frequently appears in Qur’an in the idiomatic expression al-jihad fi sabil Allah, which means “striving in the way of God.”
In her book, Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet, Karen Armstrong indicates that the term jihad implies more than holy war but also a physical, moral, spiritual and intellectual effort that is completely unrelated to armed conflict. She also points out that the term “unbeliever” does not refer to a non-Muslim, but to a person that knows the truth of God but refuses to reorder his or her life in accordance with that knowledge.
Jihad is not included as one of the five “pillars,” of Islam, which are the foundation of Muslim life. These include belief in the Oneness of God, daily prayers, concern for the needy, fasting and at least one pilgrimage to Mecca, the holiest place in the Muslim world. There are Muslim scholars who have tried to add jihad as a sixth pillar, a position that does not have wide Muslim support.
Muslim extremism can be traced at least in part to Wahhabism, a sect of Islam established by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in the eighteenth century. Wahhab opposed any idea added to Islam after the third century of the Muslim era (about 950 C.E.). Wahhabi adherents do not consider their creed as one school of thought among many, but as the only path of true Islam. Since the establishment of the modern kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, there has been a close relationship between the Saudi royal family and the Wahhabi religious establishment. Wahhabism has been regularly exported from Saudi Arabia to the rest of the world by Osama bin Laden, among others.
Another form of extremist thinking can be found in Salafiyya, a reform movement that began in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in various parts of the Islamic world. Advocacy of jihad has been traced to both of these puritanical groups. Salafism, for example, has had a potent influence upon Al Qaeda. Islamic militancy was also an outgrowth of the war of resistance against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s.
In a report for Congress in 2008, entitled “The Islamic Traditions of Wahhabism and Salafiyya,” Christopher M. Blanchard, an Analyst in Middle Eastern Affairs, stated that there is evidence that Saudi financial support to Afghanistan, as well as U.S. and European funding to Pakistan, may have been diverted to fund the construction and maintenance of madrasas, Islamic religious schools that have helped to spread radical interpretations of Islamic teachings. Violent promulgation of Islam is by no means acceptable to the majority of the approximately one billion Muslims in the world.
In her biography of the Prophet, Karen Armstrong quotes from the Theology of the Jihad, which maintains that jihad has a significance that transcends the concept of Holy War. It means the duty of Muslims to struggle to make the world apply divine principles to their lives and to create a just society. Islam is no different in its fundamental teachings than Christianity, Buddhism, or any other major world religion.