The Message of Islamist Beheadings

In a world wracked by violence, Islamist beheadings stand out for their savagery. While the absolute number of victims is relatively small, the threat this practice poses should not be underestimated, and the lessons it suggests about prosecuting the “war on terror” must not be ignored.

Brahma ChellaneyProject Syndicate

Last month, an 18-year-old Chechen immigrant stalked, stabbed, and decapitated a history teacher, Samuel Paty, in a Paris suburb near the middle school where Paty worked. Soon after, a Quran-carrying Tunisian man beheaded a woman and fatally stabbed two other people in a church in Nice. In the same month, two British-born Islamic State (ISIS) militants were brought to the United States to face trial for their participation in a brutal abduction scheme in Syria that ended with American and other hostages beheaded on camera.

In a world wracked by violence, such killings stand out for their savagery. While the absolute number of victims is relatively small, the threat this practice poses to fundamental principles of modern civilization should not be underestimated.

The ancient Greeks and Romans instituted beheading as a mode of capital punishment. Today, radical Islamists commonly employ it in extrajudicial executions, which have been reported in a wide range of countries, including Egypt, India, the Philippines, and Nigeria. In Mozambique, up to 50 people, including women and children, have reportedly been murdered – and, in many cases, decapitated – by ISIS-linked fighters this month alone.

Such savagery casts a long shadow – especially because perpetrators so often share images of their actions. Ever since the 2002 decapitation of Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan, terrorist organizations have taken to posting videos of beheadings online. After murdering Paty, the perpetrator tweeted a photo of the severed head.

For Islamists, beheadings are a potent weapon of asymmetric warfare. The gruesome spectacle inspires jihadi sympathizers around the world, while fomenting fear in local communities, to the point that the Islamists are often able to impose their will – including medieval codes of conduct – on the societies in which they operate.

Jihadis represent a tiny minority of the world’s Muslims. But, by making clear their willingness to behave inhumanely, they have ensured that few dare defy them. Just this month, a Bangladeshi cricket star was forced, under threat of Islamist retaliation, to apologize publicly for briefly attending a Hindu ceremony in India. Through such tactics, Islamists are gradually snuffing out more liberal, diverse Islamic traditions in non-Arab countries.

Although beheadings have a particularly visceral impact, they are far from the only way the jihadists incite fear. Earlier this month, ISIS-linked gunmen stormed Afghanistan’s Kabul University, killing at least 35 – mainly students – and wounding dozens more. In Vienna, another Islamist, who had previously been jailed for trying to join ISIS, killed four people and wounded 22 in a shooting rampage.

The persistent scourge of Islamist violence is a clear signal that the global “war on terror,” launched after the September 11, 2001, attacks in the US, has faltered. Even within Western countries, meaningful government action against Islamist extremism has often been stymied by concerns about discrimination. But, far from protecting Muslims, those crying “Islamophobia” often are making Muslim communities less secure, by allowing extremism to grow unchecked.

The truth is that there is only one country in the world today that is truly cracking down on Islam, rather than on radical Islamism: China. In the last few years, China has incarcerated more than one million Uighurs and members of other Muslim minorities in its western Xinjiang region. Under the pretense of fighting terrorism, the authorities are carrying out a methodical, large-scale erasure of Islamic identities.

And yet the international community – including Muslim countries – have remained largely silent about China’s actions. Last year, Malaysia’s then-prime minister, Mahathir bin Mohamad, explained why: “China is a very powerful nation.”

By contrast, after the Nice attack, Mahathir tweeted that “Muslims have a right to be angry and kill millions of French people for the massacres of the past.” The incendiary tweet has since been removed for “glorifying violence,” though Mahathir’s account wasn’t suspended – a missed opportunity to push back against incitement.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for his part, has called for a boycott of French goods, because French President Emmanuel Macron pledged after Paty’s murder to defend secularism against radical Islam. It is clearly far easier to attack a democracy than to stand up to a ruthless dictatorship.

But none of this will protect Muslim communities, let alone end Islamist terrorism. For that, governments must adopt a new approach, based on a better understanding of the enemy they are fighting.

Islamist extremism is not an organization or an army; it is an ideological movement. As recent attacks show, the existence of a clear doctrine of violence obviates the need to coordinate action. That is why eliminating high-level figures in ISIS or al-Qaeda does so little to stop the bloodshed, and why military action alone will always fall short.

Instead, counterterrorism efforts should target the fount of jihadist terrorism: the militaristic Wahhabi theology, which justifies and commands the use of violence against “infidels.” This means, first and foremost, discrediting that “evil ideology,” as former British Prime Minister Theresa May put it, by attacking its core tenets, starting with the claim (unsupported by the Quran) that 72 virgins await every martyr in heaven.

It also means taming the clerics and other preachers of violent jihad. As the late Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew explained, we must target the “queen bees” (the preachers of violence) who inspire the “worker bees” (suicide attackers), not the worker bees themselves. Otherwise, the war on terror will continue to rage, and violent Islamism will become more deeply entrenched in societies.

Brahma Chellaney

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian Juggernaut; Water: Asia’s New Battleground; and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Project Syndicate, 2020.