Americans were appalled the day the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria beheaded the American journalist James Foley; ISIS has used the same method to murder others since.
In many cases, there is cultural significance to execution. Crucifixion, for example, was only used for the lowliest of criminals anciently. Communist countries formerly used guns for mass murders. Lethal injection is used today to avoid “cruel and unusual punishment,” while in some countries capital punishment is banned altogether.
Decapitation appears to be a favored form of execution for the terrorist organization.
Media began reporting a connection between beheadings and religion only recently.
Since the terrorist attacks on 9/11, many preconceived notions about Islam and Middle Eastern culture have surfaced. Some political commentators have accused Islamic beliefs or cultural norms of being the source of such violence against Americans and other Western countries.
Quinn Mecham, a political science professor, does not believe there is any religious or cultural connection with Islam or the Middle East. “There is no specific history of beheadings in the Middle East, as far as I’m aware,” Mecham said.
Decapitation is an ancient form of capital punishment and has appeared in almost every culture throughout history. Decapitation has cultural significance in some cultures, but in others it is simply another execution option.
Andrew Reed, a visiting professor teaching Judaism and Islam at BYU, agreed with Mecham that beheading is not Middle East-specific. “We’ve seen beheadings throughout history. It’s now being promoted so we can see it.”
Reed said the world’s reaction to the ISIS videos connects to the way we view violence today. Television viewers have grown accustomed to violence on the screen. Shootings, stabbings and punching are now commonplace in films and television shows. Viewing a beheading is so rare that it causes most audiences to feel uncomfortable.
“It’s traumatic,” Reed said. “It catches us off guard a little bit. It’s not a religious thing. Beheadings are a form of intimidation; it’s a display of power.”
Mecham said beheading is a terrifying way to die. ISIS has not been the only group to use decapitation. This execution style has been used by many other groups in the past to signal to others that they are willing to use brutal means to achieve their goals.
Verses in the Quran could suggest a religious connection to these brutal acts.
One Quranic verse reads, “When ye encounter the infidels, strike off their heads till ye have made a great slaughter among them” (Quran, Sura, Chapter 47).
Reed said while these verses are difficult to swallow, similar verses can be found in the Bible and other religious texts. Just as social media can speak to a large group of people, scripture reaches a wide audience. Throughout history leaders used religious rhetoric to inspire violence and gain political power.
“These are difficult texts,” Reed said. “We must first acknowledge that they exist.”
Although ISIS uses religious rhetoric, Reed emphasized that ISIS is not a religious group. He explained that ISIS is a political and terrorist group striving for power.
Historic uses of beheadings:
- Salome persuaded Herod Antipas to behead John the Baptist.
- Emperor Nero ordered the beheading of Paul the Apostle.
- Decapitation was favored to execute nobles during the Middle Ages.
- Samurais used decapitation as a part of assisted suicides in ancient Japan.
- French Revolutionaries used the guillotine to execute thousands in the 1700s.