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Beheadings are the Middle East’s Twisted Ice Bucket Challenge

You have seen the method countless times by now. A man steps in front of the camera, makes a speech, challenges his friends to follow him in the cause, and then…Peppering most of our social media feeds all summer, the “act” is having a bucket of ice water dumped on his head. Let us admit it: many who participate in the Ice Bucket Challenge do so because of sheer vanity. To show off their wealth. To look cool. Or sexy. And there is nothing wrong with that, after all it is done to support a noble cause.

However, across the social media streams of would-be or actual jihadist, the act is a repugnant one, a bloodletting culminating in a beheading. Many of them do it because of sheer vanity. To look cool. Or sexy. And, according to them, there is nothing wrong with that, after all it is done to support a noble cause. That is, if you think that killing civilians by the thousands, eradicating ancient cultures, bringing a state to the brink of collapse and destroying historical monuments in an unprecedented scale counts as a noble, supportable cause.

Beheading journalists is just part of that game. People tend to think that the way the Girl Scouts or the Salvation Army collects donations is the proper way to raise funds for a charitable cause. This may well be the case, but there are alternative methods too. When watching the videos and pictures posted by the Islamic State (IS), most people, with an emotional amalgam of despise, impotent rage and compassion tend to forget that similarly to those Ice Bucket Challenge videos, the jihadist media content serves a multitude of goals, and the sheer shock value is just one of them.

Building a reputation as the most fearsome and bloodthirsty group can indeed help enormously in the conquering of land and the securing of power in a region with a long history of violent autocrats.

While most of the western media coverage has focused on the gruesome deaths of David Haines, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, in the course of the past year the Islamic State has beheaded hundreds of people: Syrian and Iraqi army soldiers, members of rival fractions, Christians, Shias and Jazidis. Virtually anyone who crosses their path risks ending up being beheaded or crucified, to mention but two of their most favored methods. It is also an effective tool of propaganda and may bolster recruitment – we have seen over the last year that IS has redefined terrorist PR and marketing, and takes brand building very seriously.

In the shadow of US airstrikes, it also needs to send out the message that the organization is well and alive, and ready to strike back. A second and related point is that posting videos of their victories and executions is of supreme importance to the Islamic State when it comes to financing. To keep the money flowing, the Islamic State needs to convince their supporters that they, and not other terrorist outlets are the ones who deserve the money. There is a whole market out there which is eager to give money to those representing charitable and just causes like the one outlined above. It is a big one, worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The way how the patrons of terrorism think is not wholly different from those of the ‘conventional’ charity market; first and foremost they want to make sure that their money does not get wasted and it really helps to make a difference.

Hence, the Islamic State is doing all it can to recruit new donors and maintain the support of existing ones – one way of doing this is to show that it does a good job in allocating its resources and it is making progress despite the growing intensity of the airstrikes. This race for donations and the desire to prove themselves leads many in the Islamic State to post ever bloodier and more violent videos and pictures – and it hardly can get more shocking (or reassuring, if you are a supporter of jihad) than a decapitation sequence filmed from close range. This truly is their twisted ice bucket challenge.

On the other hand, beheading is far from being a uniquely Muslim custom. The Assyrians used it often. The Romans mastered it and, during the Middle Ages, beheading by the sword was a standard procedure both in Europe and in Asia, not to mention the Americas. During WWII, the Japanese beheaded civilians and POWs by the thousands. Some of their officers even had contests about who could behead more prisoners. In France, the last guillotining took place as recently as 1977. More shockingly, there are more than a dozen references – but not commands– to beheading in the Bible. Nonetheless, there is a subtle difference between beheadings in empires of the past and those committed by IS and other terrorist groups: in former times, such actions, for the most part did not have a religious undertone.

The same applies to most modern beheadings by groups. Intimidating the enemy and waging psychological warfare has been an important factor in the history of executions since the dawn of man, and the seemingly pointless cruelty of the Islamic State fits well into the larger picture. Although the vast majority of decapitation cases currently occur in the Middle East, the phenomenon is by no means limited to the region. In fact, beheading occurs in virtually all regions where Muslim terrorist groups are active, let that be Nigeria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Russia, Pakistan or the Philippines.

While the beheading of Daniel Pearl in 2002 in Pakistan indeed marked an important turning point in the practice’s bloody history, it was far from being a starting point. The roots of beheading in a modern jihadist context can be traced back to the Soviet war in Afghanistan, waged between 1979 and 1989, as the foreign, mainly Arabic mujahedeen quite often resorted to the decapitation of Soviet POWs. The beheading of prisoners also occurred in Bosnia during the war there between 1992 and 1995, as part of the wider Yugoslav wars. Here, just as in other theaters of war, the beheading of the (Serb and Croat) captives was in most cases not the practice of local Bosnian Muslim fighters, but of foreign warriors, the majority of whom came from the Middle East, with a disproportionately high number from Saudi Arabia.

The method was quickly adopted by the Chechens during the two wars in Chechnya between 1994-1996 and 1999-2000, where the influence of foreign mujahedeen was again significant. While a few decapitations, such as that of Yevgeny Rodionov, or of 6 Russian soldiers in Dagestan, received some media attention in the West, these were predominantly treated as curiosities from faraway lands. It was not until the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 that beheadings made it to the headlines.

There are only four countries in the world where beheading with a sword is considered a valid form of capital punishment in accordance with Sharia law: Iran, Qatar, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. And only in Saudi Arabia is it actively applied as a method of public execution. It is not something of a rarity: 2013 alone saw 79 beheadings in the country. The underlying reason for this expression of jurisdiction is that the state religion of Saudi Arabia is Wahhabism, named after its founder Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, a 18th century preacher. It advocates an extremely conservative and puritanical version of Sunni Islam which is based on a strict and literal interpretation of the Quran and the Hadith, the teachings and sayings of Muhammad, which the Wahhabi muftis have spiced up with their own notions.

It is telling that they reject being labeled as ‘Wahhabist,’ and view themselves simply as Muslims who adhere to the purest possible version of Islam. Wahhabi teachings are extremely xenophobic as they tolerate no other religion, culture or branch of Islam. This was exemplified quite early during its history, when in 1802, under the leadership of Abdul Aziz, the second Saudi ruler, they sacked the city of Karbala in present day Iraq, killing its Shia inhabitants by the thousands, as the Wahhabis did not consider them to be Muslims at all. They additionally destroyed much of the city, one of the most important sites of Shia Islam, including parts of the tomb of Ali.

It is not a coincidence if such actions resemble those of the Islamic State, which include ethnic and religious cleansing in the areas under their control. The major financers of terrorism are from the Gulf region, and mainly from Saudi Arabia, the ideological hotbed of extremist ideas, which is hardly surprising in light of the radicalism of its state-supported Wahhabi movement. That said, however, no matter how radical Abd al-Wahhab’s theology may have been in its day, the last two centuries have seen the ideology become far more vicious than it originally was. The iconoclastic rage of al-Wahhab, for instance, was not directed against adherents of other religions, but first and foremost against Shia Muslims, whom he perceived as idolatrous.

Hatred towards Christians and Jews (who, despite the subsequent reforms, are still portrayed in Saudi schoolbooks as inferior species and enemies of Islam) was introduced only during the second half of the 20th century. In the context of the situation in Saudi Arabia, Bernard Lewis, one of the foremost scholars of Islam, once famously said in an interview that ‘Imagine that the Ku Klux Klan gets total control of the state of Texas. And the Ku Klux Klan has at its disposal all the oil rigs in Texas. And they use this money to set up a well-endowed network of colleges and schools throughout Christendom, peddling their peculiar brand of Christianity. You would then have an approximate equivalent of what has happened in the modern Muslim world.’

This is despite the situation that members of the Saudi royal family themselves often have a more relaxed approach to religion. Though the state does attempt to keep extremists at bay, Saudi Arabia is unable to put the genie back into the bottle, once it has been let loose. Unfortunately, the ideology behind beheadings does not stem only from Wahhabi teachings. Several chapters in the Quran contain commands as to how unbelievers should be punished, some of them explicitly mentioning beheading as the appropriate way. Verses of the Quran aside, the importance of the personal example set by Muhammad is perhaps even greater, as he is widely considered a role model for Muslims.

Following the surrender of his onetime allies, the Jewish Banu Qurayza tribe, who turned on the Muslims in a critical moment, the women and children of the tribe were enslaved, and all the adult males, some 400-900 in number, were beheaded. Though this was not ordered by Muhammad himself but by one of his companions, he approved the ruling, thereby setting a clear example of how to treat traitors and infidels.

Those claiming that Islam is a religion of peace are right. Partially it is. It also is an incredibly two faced religion, however, thus the Islamic State and similar organizations have the luxury of being able to cherry-pick from the teachings of Islam and the deeds of Muhammad, and can readily find lines which support their views. The material is abundantly available, and in the end it all comes down to the question of interpretation. Videos of civilians beheadings make it perfectly clear what their interpretation is.