The Symbolic Nature of Terrorist Beheadings

In recent days we have horrifically witnessed the murder of Lee Rigby, a UK British soldier who served in Afghanistan–with many reporting that his murderer either attempted to, or actually beheaded him. In that case the murderer who stood around with his bloodied hands and machete admitted to his act and stated, “I am fed up with people killing Muslims in Afghanistan” and added that his motivations were revenge—“because Muslims are dying everyday.”

The same style of ritualized killing was attempted by Mohammed Bouyeri, the Dutch second generation Moroccan immigrant who murdered Theo van Gogh—the celebrated filmmaker who had participated in the film Submission critical of Islam’s treatment of women with Ayaan Hirsi Ali.  Bouyeri stabbed van Gogh eight times before cutting his throat, nearly decapitating him.  He then pinned a five-page letter to van Gogh’s chest with his knife. Bouyeri wanted revenge for van Gogh’s critical comments about radical Islamists who van Gogh had referred to as “goat-fuckers” and was outraged over the film “Submission”, in which a Muslim woman is shown half naked with Islamic verses written across her lash-marked back and under her breasts shown under a see-through veil. 

Weeks earlier, when Dzhokar Tsarnaev admitted that it was he and his brother Tamerlan who had set off the bombs killing and maiming many at the Boston Marathon, a brutal triple murder case was reopened to investigate if Tamerlan was involved.  In that case Brendan Mess, Tamerlan’s “best friend” and two of Brendan’s (Jewish) roommates—Erik Weissman and Raphael Teken had also been nearly beheaded.  Their murder took place on 9-11, 2011 and appears highly symbolic in that there was no forced entry, the date of the murder was the anniversary of the 9-11 attacks and no money was taken and drugs were sprinkled across the nearly beheaded victims’ bodies. As the FBI tracked clues into the case and questioned Ibragim Todashev, a friend of Tamerlan’s about his involvement in the murders, Ibragim lethally attacked the agents leading them to shoot their suspect before the truth could be revealed 

A spate of beheading videos also date back to the time of journalist Daniel Pearl’s murder, allegedly at the hands of al Qaeda’s mastermind, Khalid Sheik Mohammed.  Likewise Chechen groups had been conducting beheadings long before this.  Such practices also proliferated during the Iraq invasion with hostages dressed in Gitmo orange filmed as they were beheaded in a horrific manner with demands made to release the Guantanamo prisoners.  Likewise a Muslim man in Buffalo, New York was accused of beheading his wife in 2009 and other such murders have also been reported.

Is there a symbolism to beheading that runs across all of these incidents? 

Looking to history and religious writings one finds that two verses in the Quran refer to smiting at the necks of one’s enemies but these are both commonly understood as referring to using deadly force in war.  Historically both Arabs and Christians beheaded their dead enemies on the battlefield as a symbolic act of victory.  And decapitation, as a form of criminal punishment was also used by both—occurring as late as 1977 in France and is still used in Saudi Arabia.

Terrorists who behead, due so to strike terror into civilian populations and into any who might oppose them and hope to use terror to try to force the political process to move in their favor.  Parviz Kahn who planned to kidnap a British Muslim soldier on leave in 2007 savored the idea of making him “squeal like a pig” and planned to film the innocent soldier’s beheading to cause panic among the general population and inhibit military recruitment. 

When these revenge attacks are carried out, it seems the idea is to slaughter a person much in the manner of cutting the throat of a sacrificial animal—perhaps unconsciously representing a rite of purification for the alleged “sins” of the victim or the group the victim represents.  Terrorists often refer to their victim as killing a “pig” which is of course an unclean animal for Muslims.  In any case the practice does incite terror and appears to be a type of ritualized murder by those who believe that through acts of terror they can cleanse the world of the “sins” of western governments’ actions—including military actions—that do in fact at times harm innocent civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq.  But of course these beheadings are only adding to the killing of innocents and doing little to change the course of politics.

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