Why Beheadings Are Back As Execution Method Of Choice For Islamic Terrorists

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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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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