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Can we make sense of beheading?

_77382473_tv023724185It was surely only going to be a matter of time, following the execution of two Americans, that a British citizen was going to be the next victim of the brutal violence of the self-styled ‘Islamic State.’ David Haines was, by all account, an impressive individual, someone of ‘unstoppable energy’ who was deeply committed to humanitarian relief. After 11 years working with the RAF, he was involved in a wide range of relief work, most recently with the French agency ACTED. He was no stranger to dangerous situations, but it is impossible to imagine the trauma for his family and friends caused by, first, his 18 months in captivity, and then the very public nature of his murder. Justin Welby found the most apt words to describe this:

We are living through a time when it seems that daily the darkness deepens, the shadows fall, the weight of human evil seems to grow and even those who stand up for what is good find themselves assailed on every side.

All of us today will have heard this morning of the brutal, cruel murder of David Haines. He was in the Middle East on humanitarian work, he had gone to serve the people of Syria and Iraq, and his captors captured him, held him, toyed with the hopes of freedom, and then killed him.

And so where is Christ in that? On Holy Cross Day we are reminded above all that he is with David Haines, that he is in the depths of evil and the depths of our own suffering because of the cross.

Before reading any further, pause for a moment to pray for his brother, Michael, his first wife Louise and their daughter Bethany, 17, and his second wife Dragana, who is Croatian, and their four-year-old daughter.


Is it possible to make any sense of the brutality of IS and their strategy? The most common response in the media was underlined by David Cameron in his press statement: ‘These are not Muslims; these are monsters.’ James Dawes, author of a study of the apparently inexplicable, entitled Evil Men, sets out the paradox here. On the one hand:

We must not demonize because to demonize is to adopt a stance that shares features with the demonic – namely, a dismissal of the other’s full humanity. This is no mere theoretical concern. When moral outrage becomes, at its extreme, moral rejection of the other, it can become difficult to distinguish from hate, just as the cry for justice can become difficult to distinguish from the cry for retribution. This has consequences that are not only dangerously political, but also deeply interior. When we demonize we are committing ourselves to an idea about who the other is, and to an idea about who we are.

But on the other hand:

So that is why we should not think of evil as something other or demonic. But here is why we should. If we do not maintain our sense of the otherness of evil, we lose our capacity for making crucial philosophical distinctions. Our feeling that some acts defy comprehension, that they are alien to our nature, is not a “mere” feeling; it is an indicator of categorical distinctions. Our moral language is impoverished if it cannot account for those acts which shock our conscience, acts whose enormity cannot be encompassed by the language of the wrong, bad, or even wicked.

So we do need to both categorise these atrocities as inexplicable evil—and yet seek to understand. The disasters that have unfolded in Iraq and Afghanistan have largely been born of Western intervention which was based on a lack of understanding; the forces involved had long been labelled ‘an axis of evil’, and this incomprehension led to disastrous decision-making before, during and after the main conflict.

Ian Robertson, Professor of Psychology at Trinity College Dublin, offers one way of understanding extremism through exploring ‘the science behind Isil’s savagery.’ He notes the spiralling of savagery, the importance of group identity, the demonisation of the other (particularly in religious groups), the fuel of revenge, and the role of authoritarian leadership. The piece makes uncomfortable reading, especially for anyone who is religious, since these characteristics can be seen in many religious groups. But the one that stood out for me was the comment about revenge.

Revenge, which is a strong value in Arab culture, may play a part in perpetuating the savagery. Of course vengeful retaliation for savagery begets more savagery in a never-ending cycle. But more, while revenge is a powerful motivator, it is also a deceiver, because the evidence is that taking revenge on someone, far from quelling the distress and anger which drives it, actually perpetuates and magnifies it.

Here there is a marked contrast with Jesus’ teaching, and the thrust of the New Testament. Greg Boyd has offered a profound comment under the challenging title ‘How are we to love the soldiers of ISIS?’, and he starts by noting this teaching:

To begin, it’s first important to remember that the teaching of Jesus, Paul and the rest of the New Testament about never retaliating and about instead choosing to love, bless, pray for, and do good to our enemies is emphatic, unambiguous, and never once qualified (e.g. Mt 5:21-6, 38-48; Lk 6:27-36; Rom 12:14-21). Indeed, Jesus goes so far as to make our willingness to unconditionally love enemies the pre-condition for being considered a “child of your Father in heaven” (Mt 5:44-5; Lk 6:35-6).


It would, of course, be a PR disaster for David Cameron to suggest that Islam was a religion of violence, and Christianity was a religion of peace—not least because the histories of these two religious movements would not support such an easy distinction. You don’t have to know much about the Crusades, Europe in the Middle Ages, or even Britain’s own history to see that plenty of people felt quite happy enacting brutal violence on others in the name of Christ. (In fact, they were often a lot more brutal than IS; in some periods of history, beheading has been regarded as the privileged way of being executed.) But the pressing question is how this action relates to the life and teaching of Jesus himself—a question which is unavoidable for anyone who wants to bear the name ‘Christian.’

Kenneth Cragg, who was an Anglican bishop and widely respected scholar of Islam for a previous generation, identified a key distinction between Christianity and Islam in the lives of the two religions’ founders. In The Call of the Minaret, he sees the central decision of Jesus’s life in the turn to the path towards Calvary, to rejection, humiliation and death on the cross. By contrast, the central decision of Mohammed was to embark on the Hijra, the migration from Mecca to Medina in 622 with his followers, to avoid betrayal and death and establish himself as political and military leader. And the personal example of Mohammed is of key significance in Islamic discussions about ethics and action.

Where on earth would a British Muslim get ideas of beheading your enemies? As Douglas Murray points out, from reading the Quran.

I open one of my copies of the Qu’ran (Arberry translation, OUP) and read Chapter 8 (‘The Spoils [of war]’). Verse 12 has God saying:

‘I shall cast into the unbelievers’ hearts terror; so smite above the necks, and smite every finger of them.’

And he goes on to highlight the importance of the example of Mohammed:

Muslims are brought up to believe that the founder of their faith was the perfect human being – a man to be revered and indeed emulated. So what do they do when they read the early accounts of their prophet’s life and discover that among his exploits in war was the beheading of hundreds of Jewish men of the Banu Qurayza tribe? I’ve just been flicking through my copies of the Hadith (sayings of Muhammad). Plucking at random, what do Muslims do when they come across advice like that in the authoritative collection by Bukhari which includes (in ‘The Book of Jihad’) an answer to the question ‘If a pagan burnt a Muslim, should he be burnt?’ Of one such a group who displeased Muhammad we learn: ‘He (The Prophet) had their hands and feet cut off. Then he ordered that nails should be heated and passed over their eyes, and they were left in the rocky land of Medina. They asked for water, but none provided them with water till they died.’ [3018]

Mohammed was so fond of beheading his enemies that his sword was named Zulfiqar, which means ‘cleaver of the spine.’

Murray is careful to point out that this is not the end of the discussion. After all, many Muslims don’t know their Quran very well, and these ideas have certainly not shaped large periods of Islamic history and learning. It is not unreasonable, for example, to argue that the European Renaissance would not have happened without access to Greek texts that had been preserved in Islam.

But what he is pointing out is that Cameron and others are quite mistaken when they state that the behaviour of IS has ‘nothing to do with Islam’ or (as Michael Haines stated) ‘this has nothing to do with religion.’ It is to do with Islam, but not all Islam is like this. There is division, debate and a power struggle within Islamic history, and some argue that it is time to recover some key lost ideas from the past, such as those expounded by Sufism:

Prior to the advent of colonisation, Muslim populations stretching from Persia, Anatolia and the Indian sub-continent opened themselves to a range of understandings of the Islamic tradition based on flexible and non-dogmatic interpretations of canonical texts, which saw the peaceful integration of different cultural and customary practices into the Islamic mainstream. A large part of this social and political discourse – grossly neglected in the past few centuries – can be credited to the cultivation of Sufi practices that featured prominently in many of Islam’s intellectual fields.

And why the recent neglect? Primarily because another key movement in Islam, Wahhabism, has come to dominate in the Islamic world, not least because it has taken root in the places where the West buys its oil:

The oil-rich Wahhabi movement, which derives most of its religious knowledge from literal readings of scripture, has aimed much of its criticism towards Sufi orders for “distorting” authentic Islamic practices. Along with ultra conservative sects of the Muslim community, the Wahhabi-Islamist sect has condemned a multitude of Sufi practices, including Sufi pilgrimages to shrines of venerated Saints (inferred to as idolatry), metaphorical interpretations of the Qur’an as well as their additional ritualistic ceremonies.


Our response, then, to the beheadings (and there will certainly be more) needs to combine an abhorrence at the violence, compassion for the victims, a commitment to Jesus’ teaching rejecting revenge—and with all these an understanding of the debate and dynamic within Islam. At present, with its refusal to understand, and its unquestioning thirst for oil, the West very much looks like it is on the wrong side of the argument.


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17 Responses to Can we make sense of beheading?

  1. Angela September 15, 2014 at 1:51 pm #

    We cannot make sense of beheading , though I did attempt to . I looked up the dates and whether by coincidence or not one of the beheadings at least corresponded with the anniversary of the presentation of John the Baptist head on a platter as ordered by the daughter of Herod There were some paralells. I wondered how deep into the psyche of the people concerned this act had gone. It does seem to be deeply routed in this and the very act appears to have spread due to the dehumanisation of whole sections of society. This is present day real time Old Testament theology. It is offensive and distressing but can we get that message across. Even if we removed the arguments about whether Jesus is Saviour or any other God is all powerful can we quell the anger and the need for revenge? We need desperately to humanise society again, only then will it make sense. However having said we cannot make sense of it how far would you go to protect your status as a Christian and as a Leader for in your answer you may find part of theirs. Some Evangelicals are prepared to harm women by suppressing them, how far would that go if they insisted we saw many left the Church.

    • Ian Paul September 15, 2014 at 2:55 pm #

      But isn’t there a bigger question too: how does violence find expression in Christianity and Islam’s respective sacred texts?

      • Angela September 15, 2014 at 4:01 pm #

        I think possibly there are many way that violence finds a way in Christianity. It seems I can only say it seems as I cannot categorically know but it does seem that some use the very language put in place to protect to harm. This paralells what a lot of abusers do, when trying to justify their acts usually accompanied by a mocking tone, which is what we are witnessing from Jiihade john and what we always witness in these instances. The sentence that came to my mind for Christians would be “justification through faith” now that very sentence could be used in more than one religion.

        Violence as we know is not just about physical attacks but much more it is about attacking the core of what a person or organisation represents. Christianity does justify violence in some instances. It also justifies violence towards the self ie “it it offends ye cut it off” and similar. But there is the real problem of where biblical language is a poetic or analogy to explain a human concept like say hell is described as fire. So we hear people express the view “burn in hell” The bible encourages all kinds of behaviour that could be viewed as violent, that is why a real understanding of the “nature” of Christ is important. Christ was not a man of violence he was a man who made sacrifices and taught us that to be Christ like we needed to follow that example. Jesus however took it to the extreme he gave his life for us. I have never been comfortable with the thought I was responsible in part for Christ death and the continuing of harm to his spirit when I sin. But that is another issue because the violence in Christianity is more about fear which leads to reactions than it is about original action , which is why we see Jihade John saying “because you have done this I am going to do this” He is saying he is not the aggressor and that we are. If it were a Christian the more likely reaction would be “because you have done this I am going to make a “personal” sacrifice. But they are both about personal human sacrifice. Sacrificial acts rather than representative sacrificial acts have an element of violence about them rather than an element of submission. To submit is to be beaten, Jihade John does not want to disgrace Islam by being beaten but he is not sacrificing himself as with suicide bombers. So he is not representing Islam His attack on Christians is not about the faith It is about something much deeper. Violence has no rightful place in Christianity but that is a lesson learned as people draw closer to God.

        As I said in the earlier post I have thought a lot about it, I used to be very black and white about violence was outside of Christianity and Love was part of Christianity but now I see it is much more complicated than that, because it is about Christ humanity as well as our own humanity.

  2. James Byron September 15, 2014 at 2:44 pm #

    Interesting piece, Ian. 🙂

    The motives for these murders, while savage, are no mystery. Decapitating hostages is a calculated act of terror, designed to taunt countries with superior military hardware, and rally ISIS troops, and terrify their opponents in the field. It’s a brutal form of PR: it shouts, “ISIS is hardcore, submit or die.”

    As for the differences between Islam and Christianity, there’s plenty in the Gospels that can be yanked out of context to justify violence (“I come to bring not peace, but a sword”; Jesus separating humanity into sheep and goals, and casting folk into Gehenna, etc).

    It has far less to do with the differences between Christianity and Islam than it does the mindset of violent fundamentalism, seen also in Christians who bomb abortion clinics. This appeals in particular to disaffected young men, for the reasons highlighted in Robertson’s superb Telegraph piece: belonging, purpose and superiority being chief amongst them.

    For reasons probably tied to the state of the Middle East, and alienation of a tiny, tiny minority of people in Western countries, the version of violent fundamentalism that wears an Islamic mask is currently more popular, but that’s incidental. In different circumstances, Christianity has played the role, and likely will again.

    • Ian Paul September 15, 2014 at 2:56 pm #

      Yes, but as you say, NT texts have to be ‘yanked out of context’ in order to justify violence.

      Is that true in the Quran?

      • James Byron September 15, 2014 at 9:49 pm #

        Does it matter? Context’s inexact.

        Did 2,000 years of Christian antisemitism take Matthew’s “blood curse” out of context? As the statement’s ambiguous, it’s impossible to say with any certainty. What’s unambiguous is that those words led to horror and atrocity on a scale ISIS could only dream of.

        This shouldn’t be Christianity vs. Islam, but reasonable faith vs. fundamentalism.

        • Ian Paul September 16, 2014 at 12:04 pm #

          If context doesn’t matter, then in fact texts have no meaning.

          ‘This shouldn’t be Christianity vs. Islam, but reasonable faith vs. fundamentalism’. Yes, to a degree. But not all faith systems are equally amenable to being ‘reasonable.’

          Just think for a moment: what would Christian ethical discussion look like if Jesus had beheaded people, rather than teaching we should ‘turn the other cheek’?

          • James Byron September 16, 2014 at 7:13 pm #

            Context certainly matters, but it’s not precise.

            We can’t say ” ‘Matthew’ didn’t intend to place a curse on the Jewish people,” because, from the text, he may well have done. We of course would reject it even if he had so intended, not only because it’s bigoted and unjust, but since we, unlike him, know where it leads; but throughout the history of Christendom, what appears obvious to us was anything but.

            I agree that content does make a difference, but when it comes to Islam and Christianity, the content and history is so diverse that it can be interpreted in either direction.

  3. Petro Dollar September 15, 2014 at 3:40 pm #

    I wouldn’t be so quick to condemn out of hand our “thirst for oil” and consequent involvement in the Middle East. Our country cannot be run any more without oil and petroleum products. If the oil were to stop flowing suddenly, most of us in the UK would be dead by the following winter. The power grid would suffer widespread cuts and brownouts, businesses would have to close, supermarkets would run out of food within a few days, hospitals would close after exhausting their few days’ of diesel supplies, the police and army would be too few and too immobile without vehicles to keep order. Looting and crime would see many of us meeting violent deaths; many of the rest would starve or freeze to death.

    • Ian Paul September 16, 2014 at 12:09 pm #

      Yes, if this happened ‘suddenly’. But there are two important issues. First, a number of European countries are moving rapidly to be much less dependent on oil.

      Secondly, the way the West has handled oil exploration and development has been shocking, being based on self interest and often damaging the countries involved.

      If there had been greater awareness, and a greater sense of partnership, it would have made all the difference.

  4. Tim Chesterton September 16, 2014 at 2:20 am #

    Two comments.

    First, bombing is every bit as barbaric as beheading. In fact, it’s worse. How many innocent people have been barbarically slaughtered in air strikes over the past few years? ‘Collateral damage’, anyone?

    Second, i think these ISIS folks know what they’re doing. They’re using these beheadings to arouse anger in the west, hoping that they will provoke the US and Britain to war. War always produces more terrorists; if there’s one thing we should have learned since 2001, it’s that. The more we bomb and invade, the more we radicalize young men and send them off to terrorist training camps to take their revenge against the Great Satan. And funnily enough, it seems to be working.

    • Ian Paul September 16, 2014 at 12:11 pm #

      Tim, yes I agreed—but it is not so direct, personal, and subject to media manipulation.

      On ISIS, John Gray has an interesting piece where he describes then as a very ‘modern’ movement who make the most of media awareness.

      http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-28246732

  5. David September 16, 2014 at 7:17 pm #

    It is puzzling which deaths the west count as significant. Here we have the killing of 3 men apparently for their nationality. Recently aprox 770 were killed for being the wrong sort of Muslim which caused little comment. https://uk.news.yahoo.com/iraqi-soldier-survives-isis-tikrit-massacre-pretending-dead-123833401.html#huBP8KO

    I can not find a summary of the crimes of ISIS. A case for military action must be based on their total record,

  6. Angela September 21, 2014 at 8:38 pm #

    It has occurred to me that we often refer to context when reading the gospel, but also we read of revelation and Gods words to us through the gospel. Context in an inspired word of the gospel is always subjective. Otherwise how can e draw on the gospel for leadership. “God has a purpose for us and it is not to harm us but to make us prosper” So context is more about time zones and scales than it is about what the actual Gospel says at a particular time. We cannot really follow old testament theology and try to mould it to the New testament. For that is to negate the cross, the point about the Old Testament was to teach us where as a human race we got it wrong. Herein lies the problems of today we are still working with the historical gospel and the historical reactions to it. An eye for an eye or a countries submission as punishment for guantanamo bay. How do we heal the many generations that have been suffering since the first usurping king. When domination versus submission is the starting point. Humiliation isa difficult one

  7. Clive September 22, 2014 at 5:37 pm #

    What happened to my younger brother Mark was the modern version of beheading by simple execution with a gun to the head. He was made to kneel on the beach with hands behind his back and shot.

    Sorry to delay in posting but I wanted to wait until completion of the full inquest into the death of my brother. That has now completed and was simply factual. A verdict of unlawful killing is registered. However, that all hides the fact that in a very peculiar English way religion is refused its place entirely. If the Coroner was to see the killing truthfully he had to include religion but in the UK we absolutely refuse religion its place. The English administration, at all levels, ignores religion.

    In Libya there will not be justice as the Qu’ran will be quoted to justify the beheading.

    Allah does indeed command that unbelievers ought to be beheaded:
    “I shall cast into the unbelievers’ hearts terror; so smite above the necks, and smite every finger of them” (Qur’an 8:12).

    There is no doubt that Mohammed used what today would be termed “murder” and “terrorism” in order to propagate his beliefs and spread his ideology (Qur’an 8.17; 33.26; 8.67).

    They would quote from the Qur’an passages like surah 2:190:
    “Fight in the way of God against those who fight against you, but do not begin hostilities, for God does not love aggressors.”

    Notice, please, that Islam is unique in being the opposite way around. The “passive” passage is in number 2 but the more recent number 8 espouses violence. Islam, unqiuely, goes from relative passivism to violence whereas all other major religions go from violence to passivism, the other way round.

    Christianity had the Old Testament (“O.T.”) and New Testament (“N.T.”). The two are very different. In the O.T. God id revealed in history whereas in the N.T. God is on earth. It is not difficult to understand or see that when God is revealed in history there is included plenty of things that God didn’t want. Yet when protractors want to attack Christianity they do so by going straight for the Old Testament and steer clear of the N.T. In doing so, they are not actually going for Christianity at all, they are only pretending to do so.

    Similarly, Judaism is as far from the original Hebrew religion in the Temple as Christianity is. Judaism has moved away from the Temple and into the Synagogue. Judaism has similarly moved from Violence to Passivism. There is no example post CE of Judaism starting a war.

    Yet Islam, in spite of European politicians, does the opposite. Later Qu’ranic verses become violent.

    Islam will never actually be passive.

    • Angela September 24, 2014 at 9:01 am #

      Thank you Clive for this, I found it very helpful I followed it up by reading, John Azumas piece on” Responding to Jihadi” John Azuma amongst everything else he writes says “that part of the problem is that most people are theologically illiterate” I agree with that statement, whilst I also understand that there are so many religions that if religion is not your source of income or way of life it is difficult to find the time to understand it all. We tend to measure different religions by their more extreme aspects, which either becomes inviting or not . These things depend on where we are at and who we meet in the first instance . I often wonder if I had understood all the religions on offer at defining moments in my life would I have chosen Christianity, I think I would but I cannot know now because I chose Christianity I was not born a Christian I chose it and would not change my mind, otherwise I would be questioning not just the faith but my own ability to make sound judgements. We can all make the occasional unsound judgement but to build our lives on an unsound judgement is something else altogether. This is the other problem with Jihade the confidence grows as you say they go from passivism to violence and the increasing violence is a sign of deepening commitment which in Christianity it is the other way round. In all of that this to me at least suggest at some point there is a middle ground. It is that middle ground which needs to expand. That is what happened I guess in the Old Testament as there was so much death and destruction that Christ came to earth and was declared the saviour, teaching a new way. We do seem to have come full circle as things appear to be going back to old testament times in terms of religious rivalry I find my mind turning to the thoughts of the second coming, I do not see having no religion as an option. But I understand that is because I am a Christian and that those who are bought up with no religious conviction can see a world without religion. So then we get to the point of our freedom to worship or follow what ever we believe as human beings without infringing on other people rights. It is so difficult when the differences are so wide.

      • Clive September 24, 2014 at 1:07 pm #

        Thank you Angela,

        One of the things I wanted to point out is that often the UK administration is not excluding religion through being Biblically illiterate but because they are wilfully excluding religion.

        My younger brother’s death was filmed and appeared on the internet (I haven’t searched for it – I can’t bring myself to do that – but apparently my wife did to make sure that it was him). Therefore it is put on the internet probably to disuade others as an act of religion. I acknowledge that is not the only reason to put it on the internet but these are factors that should be considered. Religion should not be excluded as it is in the UK, it is a fact of life.

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