Three days before I met Samih Mohamed, a wooden sign marking California’s first fully Muslim cemetery, which his father founded in 1998 and was buried in six years later, was pulled up from the dusty Antelope Valley soil and cut to pieces. With a jigsaw, Mohamed told me, the word “Islamic” had been carved out of “American Islamic Institute of Antelope Valley,” the name of the organization his father established to bring together the Muslim community residing in the broad, dry land basin an hour and a half north of Los Angeles. It was as if the vandal could not tolerate the words “American” and “Islamic” next to each other.
According to Muslim custom, none of the plots at the Wal-Hamdu-Lillah cemetery, operated by the American Islamic Institute of Antelope Valley, are marked. Yet the graveyard has become a local source of Islamophobic tension. Soon after two radical Islamist shooters killed 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif., last December, rumors spread that the pair had been interred here. For reasons of discretion — and, one can speculate, fear of reprisal — no one at the Palmdale-based institute, including Mohamed, will confirm it. But eventually, the Antelope Valley Press obtained the death certificates: This is the final resting place of Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik.
This hasn’t gone over well with the neighbors. “If we can’t denounce this, is there anything we won’t condone? Is treason now acceptable in polite society?” R. Rex Parris, the mayor of next-door Lancaster, posted on Facebook in late December. Not long afterward, Parris asked Lancaster’s city attorney to draft an ordinance that would prevent the interment or burial of any known terrorist on any grounds, public or private, inside city limits — seen as a clear shot at the roughly 10,000 Muslims who live in Antelope Valley. During a phone interview last week, he called the burials “an attraction for martyrdom” and praised “the Israeli approach. They tear down the houses of terrorists with bulldozers — it follows them into death. And that’s how it should be, the absence of any tolerance. There should be a draconian response.” (But “I don’t equate terrorism with the Islamic faith,” he averred.)
Towns have long struggled with how to bury mass killers. What dignity should be afforded the perpetrators of such vicious acts? Is burial an honor or merely a duty the living owe to the dead? And who suffers the consequences in burying these infamous killers?
The burial of Muslim killers is particularly vexed — with violent threats against funeral directors, calls to desecrate the bodies and promises to violate Muslim rituals. In an era when American Islamophobia is rising in tandem with Islamist lone-wolf attacks around the world, disposing of the corpses poses an unusual problem. So far, Muslim American cemeteries have had to bury only a few of these killers. But the bodies and the burials are often denounced as un-American, and the future surely holds more.
Laws to prevent such burials are not unprecedented. In 1997, the U.S. government approved legislation that barred the burial of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, a veteran, at Arlington National Cemetery, a place of honor for servicemen and women. “The intent of the 1997 law was clear: We should not bury brutal murderers alongside America’s honored dead,” Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) said at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs in 2005. Craig also proposed tightening the law to prevent burial of those who were paroled, in order to protect the honor of those at Arlington.
If there is a dominant concern with the burials of those who have committed hideous crimes, perhaps it is in how the public will respond to them. For that reason, many families choose cremation or burial at an undisclosed location, without any ceremony. The body of Dylan Klebold, who along with Eric Harris killed 13 people at Columbine High School in 1999, was cremated, and Harris’s family has never revealed what became of his remains. The body of Adam Lanza, who killed 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, was buried in a private affair in an unnamed cemetery, in an unmarked grave. McVeigh’s body was cremated; his lawyer told media outlets that the location of his ashes would stay privileged forever. Virginia Tech gunman Seung Hui Cho was laid to rest in Fairfax County, Va., but the exact spot remains undisclosed.
One of the main reasons for the secrecy: to prevent desecration. After Lee Harvey Oswald’s death in 1963, his grave in Fort Worth, Tex., quickly became a site of defacement. In 1967, on the fourth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, high schoolers from Oklahoma stole Oswald’s tombstone. Eventually, Oswald’s mother recovered it and hid it in a crawl space in her house. Now the stone resides with a private owner in Texas, and the burial site is marked by a simple plate that says “Oswald.” At the request of Oswald’s family, the cemetery where he is buried still refuses to give directions to his grave.
But the feared taint of Muslim killers’ bodies seems particular — as though their “terrorism” is contagious, as though their presence will attract other Muslims who are susceptible to radicalization, an illness that could cause harm to “true” Americans. (Parris directly cited the “attraction for martyrdom” in our interview.) After Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev was “shot by police then run over and dragged by motor vehicle” in April 2013, according to his death certificate, his body was taken to a Boston-area funeral home, Graham Putnam & Mahoney Funeral Parlors, which received enough criticism to require a police detail. The funeral home’s director, Peter A. Stefan, struggled to find a cemetery that would accept Tsarnaev’s body. “Bury this terrorist on U.S. soil and we will unbury him,” read the sign of one protester outside the funeral home. Finally, nearly a month later, Al-Barzakh Cemetery in Doswell, Va., found a plot for the body.
Perhaps fearing a perceived association between his community and Tsarnaev’s crime, Imam Ammar Amonette of the Islamic Center of Virginia immediately spoke out against the burial. “The whole Muslim community here is furious,” he told the Associated Press in 2013. “It was all done secretly behind our backs.” (Reached by phone last week, Amonette declined to comment.)
Soon, protesters gathered at the Virginia cemetery, including James Lafferty and members of his organization, the Virginia Anti-Shariah Task Force. “Disinter the body as soon as possible, ship it to Russia, bury it at sea [as the Obama administration did with the body of Osama bin Laden] but don’t desecrate sacred American soil, soil that generations of American men and women sacrificed and died to keep free,” Lafferty told the Caroline Progress, a local newspaper, at the time. (So far, Tsarnaev’s grave site has not been desecrated or memorialized, and protests there dissipated quickly, says the Caroline County sheriff, Tony Lippa.)
Nevertheless, Islam requires that its dead be buried, and someone must perform the work of burial. Daniel Biggins, a spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association and co-director of the Magoun-Biggins Funeral Home in Rockland, Mass., sees burial — even of mass killers — as an obligation: “Our hearts break for the victims, but as humans, it is part of our culture that we take care of our dead.”
In 2013, cultural critic Daniel Mendelsohn likened the fear and outrage over the burial of Tsarnaev to the ancient contest of Sophocles’s 442 B.C. play, “Antigone,” in which the title character is buried alive as punishment for the unlawful burial of her brother, Polyneices, who had led an attack against Thebes. Reckoning with the bodies of the evil dead, burying them as we bury other humans, means that we must also reckon with their actions and with the responsibility, among all of us, for heinous behavior. “This is the point that obsessed Sophocles’ Antigone: that to not bury her brother, to not treat the war criminal like a human being, would ultimately have been to forfeit her own humanity,” Mendelsohn, writing in the New Yorker, concluded.
No mosque in San Bernardino was willing to take the bodies of Farook and Malik. The drive from there to Antelope Valley, where one mosque finally did, takes an hour and a half. Joshua trees lean in the high desert dust. Unannounced, I pulled into the American Islamic Institute of Antelope Valley, where the mosque is located, and approached a man in the parking lot: Samih Mohamed, the son of the institute’s founder, it turned out. When I introduced myself, he was at first agitated that yet another journalist had shown up. “What do you know about Islam?” he asked me, accusingly. “We condemn violence. We stand up for what’s right.”
Samih’s father, Gaber Mohamed, a professor at UCLA, commuted from Palmdale to Los Angeles to teach classes. He founded the institute in 1993 and the nearby cemetery in 1998. He died in 2004 . The institute gave his family a community and made Palmdale home, Samih Mohamed said, even with a straggling local economy. But discrimination has made the years since 9/11 challenging. He says his mother and sister, who cover their heads, have been targets of slurs. At a “State of the City” luncheon in 2010, Lancaster Mayor Parris told a group of ministers that the city was “growing a Christian community, and don’t let anybody shy away from that.”
The evening after the San Bernardino shootings, Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich, whose 5th District includes the Antelope Valley, told a gathering of constituents, “The first thing I asked about this incident: ‘Was the guy named Muhammad?’ ” Kamal al-Khatib, the president of the institute, told the Los Angeles Times that the statement was irresponsible for someone in office. “We are a victim too. Every time something happens, we are another victim,” he said.
The heightened attention after the San Bernardino shootings has put strain on the mosque’s families: They temporarily closed the institute’s attached day school; they take extra safety precautions when in public. Mohamed’s mother has since moved to Oceanside. The living always pay a price for the crimes of the dead.
Mohamed told me that Farook and Malik had done terrible things that he, his family and everyone he knew condemned, “of course!” Still, he was not the judge — God was. “They were human, too,” he told me.
Lancaster’s City Council voted unanimously in February to approve the ordinance Parris proposed, blocking the burial of “terrorists” in the city’s limits — albeit a version without religious or racial references. But when I contacted Parris to ask about his reasons for banning the burial of terrorists in Lancaster, he brought up Islam, echoing the worry that the bodies would inspire future martyrs. Those who violate the ordinance will be fined $1,000 or jailed for six months.
In a video of the session in which the City Council passed the ordinance, Parris’s voice cuts in near the end: “You sure we couldn’t just pass an ordinance that any terrorists have to go to the dump?”