American businessman Nick Berg moments before he was beheaded by Islamist militants in Iraq
American businessman Nick Berg moments before he was beheaded by Islamist militants in Iraq
Matthias Heine

The news out of Afghanistan is that the Taliban beheaded 17 men and women who had gathered for a mixed-gender social event with music and dancing.

This, of course, is not the first time the excesses of Muslim jihadists have included beheadings. Dozens of headless bodies were found in the Tigris River years ago in Iraq, while the Taliban have used the terror of the literal sword to good media effect to enforce their archaic moral code.

Al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarkawi terrorized Iraq until he was killed by the allies in 2006. His specialty was beheading people, like American businessman Nicholas Berg in front of a video camera and then posting the film on the Internet. The computer server in Mali, from which the film could be downloaded, had to be shut down a few times because traffic was so high.

"Beheading" is actually a euphemism – the word refers to what was considered a relatively humane method of execution, by which the head was swiftly removed with a sword or guillotine. Compared to other methods used, such as crucifixion, burning at the stake, hanging, the wheel, or burying alive, the method actually represented progress and for this reason in Europe beheading was for a long time a “privilege” of the elite.

Berg’s head, however, was not separated swiftly. Like American journalist Daniel Pearl before him in 2001, it was slowly cut off, as were the heads of Russian soldiers in Chechnya, Serbian prisoners who fell into the hands of international jihadists during the Balkan War, and thousands of victims of the armed Islamic group known as GIA in Algeria during the 1990s – "Mohammed the Dwarf," a trained butcher, is said to have hacked off 86 heads in a single night.

Seldom has the term, used by German historian Richard van Dülmen — "Theater of Horror" — to describe punishment in early modern Germany, been illustrated in our own time as vividly as this. Just as political Islam is a masquerade in which various underlying motives such as nationalism, poverty, lust for power, criminality, sadism and delusions of grandeur parade in historical guise, beheading “infidels” is also a theatrical staging pairing Islamic tradition with mass electronic propaganda.

The head and the sword have a specific place in the rhetoric, heraldry and history of Islam. There is no shortage of passages in the Koran that jihadists can interpret to support their propaganda. Chapter 47, Verse 4, is a favorite: "When you meet the unbelievers (in battle), smite their necks until you have crushed them…” Still, the way that sentence continues is: "then bind your captives firmly; thereafter (you are entitled to) set them free, either by an act of grace, or against ransom, until the war ends.”

The Prophet Mohammed himself did nothing to support the view that passages like that in the Koran should be leavened by milder action. A favorite anecdote of fanatical Islamists is that of the Jewish Quraiza tribe that surrendered to Mohammed after a 25-day siege, after which 600 to 900 of the men were beheaded.

And it went on like that in North Africa, Spain, Asia, everywhere where Islam spread. The religion’s history is poor in philosophically uplifting conversion tales and rich in stories of conquered peoples given the choice to convert... or pay with their heads. Typically, the flag of Saudi Arabia, Osama Bin Laden’s native country and inexhaustible source of funding for preachers of hate and terrorists, features a sword.

Of course symbolic swords of that type are not exclusive to Islam, just as beheading as a method of execution isn’t – it was introduced during the days of the Roman Empire at a time when the usual means was being flung off the Tarpeian Rock, a steep cliff overlooking the Forum in Rome.

Although the Teutons practiced decapitation as a method of execution, the Germans in 1945 were proud of the fact that they used the relatively humane guillotine method as opposed to Great Britain and Austria, where hanging was the norm, or Spain where as late as the 1970s criminals sentenced to death suffered the slow strangulation known as garotting.

However in Europe, the Enlightenment and the experience of the abuse of the death sentence by dictators led to the demise of such archaic practices – which is why the Taliban knows they can count on high-grade outrage when they perpetrate their theater of horrors.

So when participants at a village fete are beheaded, on the one hand it is sheer madness and on the other, there is method to it. The “infidels” – who in Afghanistan also include all those who live under the protection of Western troops – are served the very clear message that they too are enemies of Islam and will be slaughtered like animals.

Koran interpreter Nasr Abu Zayd said a few years ago that these bloody messages from the bearded executioners in Arabic countries are viewed with mixed feelings: "People are afraid they’ll return to their own countries one day and do the same thing there." His fear was justified, and the latest outrage is by far not the only example of it. In the Taliban's Afghanistan, in Iraq, and everywhere else where Sharia law is a reference, far more Muslims have been killed than “infidels.”

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