In recent months, to general horror, the Islamic State (in Iraq and Syria) has carried out many beheadings and one immolation. So, too, have others loosely or closely affiliated with it, most recently of twenty-one Egyptian Christians in Libya. These events have provoked significant debate and widespread condemnation on many levels. Some have argued that there is nothing Islamic in these actions despite the claim by the perpetrators that theirs is the Islamic State. Others have argued that whether these acts are Islamic or not they are far from unique. American pilots, we are reminded, burned Vietnamese soldiers and civilians to death with napalm while white Americans tortured and immolated African-Americans by the thousands in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Unsurprisingly comparing the Islamic State to the post-Reconstruction Confederacy is rhetorically satisfying but not at all illuminating. How, the implicit argument proceeds, can you criticize people for doing what your own forebears did in the not very distant past? A comparison that could provide insight is transformed into a mechanism of demoralization. The question that is worth asking is precisely why should the leaders of the self-proclaimed Islamic State choose this particular method of execution? People can be killed by gunfire or exposure and the Islamic State has used both. Why employ a method that, like the butchery of animals, requires so intimate a connection between executioner and victim? Like lynching, it deploys practices and language that resonate positively and negatively with a larger population and creates powerful emotional bonds among both those who perform the acts and those who observe.
Pilots on bombing raids famously have no connection to those they kill. Gunfire can be close but it is usually mechanical and quick. Lynching, like the recent executions, required a particularly close physical connection between the murderer and the victim. This was not a technological necessity but a requirement for creating boundaries of fear and loathing within and between communities.
The arguments swirling around the terrifying executions carried out by members of the Islamic State re-enact the conundrum of Christianity and lynching. Both now and in the past many Christians vigorously asserted that there was nothing remotely Christian in lynching. And yet accounts of lynching are clear: those who undertook it claimed they were acting in accord with the needs of a Christian community and lynching’s most widely recognized practice was a distorted version of Christianity’s central image: a man hanging from a tree.
There have been many explanations and excuses for lynching. Theodore Bilbo, who served Mississippi as both governor and US Senator, advocated lynching as the spontaneous justice of the white Anglo-Saxon men for the supposed misdeeds of African Americans. Toward the end of the 20th century it became common in academic writing to explain lynching as a form of terror undertaken largely for rational reasons. With the abolition of slavery and the necessity of ensuring that African American labor remained cheap, lynching provided an inexpensive method of terrifying African Americans into economic submission. Lynching was a crude but effective way to ensure the social control necessary for the production of agricultural commodities by unskilled labor in the American South just as whipping, branding, and other forms of torture had in the antebellum period.
An economic explanation is entirely plausible for much of the violence in the American south between 1865 and 1955, but it leaves unexamined the specific form that the violence took. Lynching was accomplished with impunity but often with little publicity. A significant fraction however was the highly publicized activity of an entire community. These lynchings were far from spontaneous. They were carried out in a particularly orderly, even if emotionally highly-charged, fashion.
In 1998 the Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson published a provocative analysis of lynching in a book titled Rituals of Blood. Patterson recounts and accepts earlier explanations of lynching as a form of social control highly responsive to the social, economic and demographic features of the American South. Drawing on earlier work that classified four types of lynching (small-scale terrorism, private grievances, semi-legal posses, and community-wide mobs), Patterson proposed that 35-40 percent were what he termed sacrificial killings. To understand the meaning and cultural import of these lynchings, he argues, it is necessary to see them as forms of human sacrifice. It was a practice that drew heavily on themes of Christian devotion and was highly resonant within the Christian society in which it occurred.
Reviewing the anthropological literature on human sacrifice, Patterson notes that it has been among humanity’s most sacred rituals and that it played a crucial role in consolidating a compact of fellowship among the sacrificers. He proposes six defining characteristics of human sacrifice: highly ritualized drama, performance in a sacred place, fire, the tethering of the victim, the demonization (or sacralization) of the victim, the disposal of the body. Patterson’s characteristics are drawn from the anthropological literature but they also respond to the particular features of American lynching in which victims were typically hanged, then burned, and in which pieces of flesh and photographs were often deployed as mementos or in the literal meaning of the word, souvenirs.
The decapitations carried out by the Islamic State are indeed quite similar to the kind of lynching Patterson refers to as sacrificial killing. The immolation of Muadh Kasasbeh more completely mirrors Patterson’s paradigm, but it also allows us to see that crucial elements of contemporary human sacrifice are the creation of a particular set of ritual elements performed in a ritual space sanctified by previous sacrifices, for victims who are allegedly both evil and impure.
As in the post-Civil War South, the Islamic State uses murder for many purposes. One such use is summary justice. There are accounts and even videos of numbers of captive Iraqi or Syrian soldiers, police, or simply men of military age being murdered by gunshots to the head. There are also accounts elsewhere of communal summary justice that strongly resembles lynching. On June 15, 2013 writing in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Misry al-Yawm, Islam Diyab reported that there had been 25 cases of accused criminals being executed primarily in villages in the previous six months. These unfortunate men (whose guilt is undetermined) were beaten to death and their bodies exhibited. Whatever agonies they suffered in the final hours or minutes of their lives, however, were unrecorded and unceremonious. Unconscionable as these murders were, they were not carefully staged or professionally filmed.
The killing of foreign aid workers, reporters, and now 21 Egyptian Christians as well as a Jordanian air force officer is different precisely in the creation of a clear ritual which removes the victim from everyday secular life and forces him to enter the realm of sacrificial space. There is a brief period in which the victim, invariably clothed in an orange jump suit, is made to walk with his captors from a point of origin to where he will be killed. Once there the executioner makes a short statement proclaiming the reason for the killing. The reason is not the criminal behavior by the captive but an event in which he did not participate for which his death is either retribution or expiation. With the exception of Kasasbeh the executioner then uses a knife to cut the victim’s throat and there is a final scene of the head lying on or next to the torso of the body. Frequently the execution party shouts “God is Great” as the head is severed. Nothing about these events is random. The prisoner never appears to display any emotion at all—neither crying, screaming, or even attempting to escape from the blade. Recent news accounts of Kasasbeh’s death indicate he was drugged but it is by no means clear if this is common.
These beheadings have been compared to those of Saudi Arabia but they are clearly different. A filmed account of an execution in Saudi Arabia shows a woman beseeching the executioner not to kill her as she vainly thrashes on the ground and tries to escape. That execution itself takes place in what appears to be a parking lot although many occur in city squares. Grisly, terrifying and inhumane as the execution is, it is clearly not a ritual. It is a messy and banal murder of a frightened woman who proclaims her innocence. The filming itself, like all images of executions in Saudi Arabia, was made surreptitiously and like other public executions in Saudi Arabia the location assumes no sanctity even if human blood is shed there. Whatever the Saudi executions are meant to be, they are not intended to create the heightened state in victim, executioner or observer of the rituals being created by the Islamic State. Nor is any record made to exhibit the power of the state.
These IS executions are performed for the camera. The executioner proclaims the rationale behind the event and places the ultimate blame for the deaths on the presumed enemies of Islam—the United States, Britain, Japan, Jordan, and most recently the Roman Church. Sometimes the victim makes a confessional statement which is, again, not a confession of criminal behavior but an indictment of a home government. Such statements may be echoes of previous statements in which the political authorities are accused of various moral failings, including a refusal to rescue the soon-to-be-killed victim.
The rituals surrounding the murders have developed over time. As Yuval Neria and his co-authors pointed out in a 2005 article in the journal Religion (“The Al Qaeda 9/11 instructions: study in the construction of religious martyrdom”), the murders committed by the hijackers on 9/11 were conceived as acts of slaughter. Since the decapitation of Daniel Pearl such acts have become more stylized, formally developed and intended as public ritual. A state that claims religious authority is carrying them out.
Here at least we can see one aspect of these ritual murders that differs significantly from lynching given the religious background of the murderers. Patterson notes that trees play a significant role because Jesus was sacrificed on a wooden stake or cross. For American Christians therefore rituals engaging wood were culturally relevant and meaningful. Although the Qur’an mentions crucifixion as a punishment for certain crimes, the practice has little contemporary resonance in Islamic thought or practice.
What does have enormous religious significance for Muslims and Jews alike, however, is ritual slaughter as a form of sacrifice. For Muslims and Jews (unlike Christians), flesh is only acceptable as food if the animal has been slaughtered in an appropriate way: by rapidly slitting the throat. It is this particular form of slaughter that makes an animal ritually available for consumption. There are other rules: the head is not severed until the animal is dead; generally the animal should not see the knife; and the animal should not be aware that it is about to die. Lynching was an obscene parody of the sacrifice that Christians believe lies at the heart of their religion; the decapitations by the Islamic State are also a parody of the daily slaughter of animals for human consumption. Does it also address something at the heart of the religion as well? It does.
The “binding of Isaac” is well-known to Jews and Christians from the Torah. The same story appears more briefly in the Qur’an where it may also refer to Ishmael rather than Isaac. The crucial point is that Abraham is initially commanded to slaughter his son. Abraham agrees but ultimately is relieved by God of this task after which human sacrifice ceases to be a religious practice. The rituals surrounding the slaughter of animals for food retain a link, by analogy, to older practices of animal sacrifice. The Arabic verb (dhabaha) deployed in the Qur’an is still used for butchering of animals.
Why, if this form of execution is a form of human sacrifice, has it become so popular with people who ostensibly (as was the case with American whites in the south) do not believe in it? These events have been described as advertisements that seek to attract more recruits to the Islamic State as well as attempts to terrorize the local population. Both of these may well be true, but there are, it seems to me, other aspects as well. First, these executions have certainly terrorized foreign aid workers and reporters who now give areas of Syria and Iraq a wide berth.
Second, and far more important, they strengthen the sense of community of those who participate in them. Patterson argued that human sacrifice, like enslavement, is something done to outsiders. Slaughtering people quite literally transforms them into animals. By deliberately slitting the throats of their victims, the agents of the Islamic State are transforming them into objects void of moral standing. The murders themselves transgress established Islamic (and Jewish) norms of animal slaughter. These require the butcher to instantly sever the arteries so that the victim feels no pain and has no awareness of imminent death. Unlike the national community or the community of Muslims or of humanity, the community of the Islamic State is not defined by common human form, good works, language, or even nominally shared religion. It is defined only by loyalty to the state and its own ideology.
Like lynchings or indeed any form of highly ritualized killings they transform observers into participants who have engaged in behavior that is at once highly charged emotionally and widely understood elsewhere as criminal. There is, it appears, no way to go backward for those who have undertaken such rituals which are, like lynchings in the American South, terrifying parodies of sacred behavior. That the concepts animating this behavior appear, to outsiders, as something of a pastiche or mash-up of historical events, religious texts, and apocalyptic cinema does not make them any less useful as tools for obedience. To the contrary, those who have adopted such practices and the beliefs that legitimate them have cut off any path back to the societies they have left behind.
Third, the making of the videos has the effect of turning viewers into potential members of the community of ritual killers. No one in the video, obviously, stands up to stop it and those who watch cannot should they wish to. This is therefore, for the moment at least, a literally monstrous second coming of the Islamic state in which, as William Butler Yeats wrote in a different context nearly 100 years ago, “the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” It is a moment in which the participants on the ground become members of a community bonded by the ritual shedding of blood while the passivity of viewers reinforces feelings of fear, anger and disorientation.
[This piece is copublished by Jadaliyya and Nisr Alnasr]