Politics & Policy

Off With Heads

In Saudi Arabia, it's the legal norm.

In recent years, the act of beheading has become a popular trend among Islamist terrorists. Non-Muslim “infidels” have been beheaded in the Philippines, Chechnya, and Kashmir. The Koran’s Sura Muhammad, Verse 4, has been cited as the theological basis of their actions: “When you meet in battle those who have disbelieved, smite their necks; and after the slaughter fasten tight the bonds, until the war lays aside its burdens. Then either release them as a favor, or in return for ransom.”

”Hitting the neck” (in Arabic: Darb Al-Anak), literally speaking, is one of several words in Arabic for “killing.” It is not “murdering,” since the word “murdering” carries a derogatory meaning. It is simply “killing.” This word, which is taken from ancient Muslim vocabulary, preserves the actual manner in which beheadings have been carried out. Therefore, beheading is not seen as unusual or inhumane: It is an act of Islamic punishment under sharia.

The beheading of Daniel Pearl in February 2002, followed by the killings of Nicholas Berg, Paul Johnson Jr., and Kim Sun-Il, among others and the kidnappings and threats to behead a growing list of captives, have garnered major media attention for the terrorists as Arab satellite channels rush to air these acts.

These recent killings of Westerners have been condemned by the Saudi royal family. The Saudi Press Agency reported that Prince Sattam bin Abdul Aziz, the vice governor of Riyadh Region, expressed condolences on behalf of King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz to the wife of Paul Johnson. Prince Sattam said that Johnson’s beheading was a malicious crime that is rejected by Islam, declaring that “this has happened for the first time in the Kingdom.”

The Saudi government, however, has carried out beheadings as a form of punishment for breaking an assortment of laws. According to a CBS News report on June 25, 2004, the Saudi government beheaded 52 people in 2003, for crimes including murder, robbery, drug smuggling, and homosexuality. The beheadings are ordered by the government and are performed after Friday prayer services in the courtyards of mosques in some of the Kingdom’s biggest cities.

There are many examples posted by the Saudi Press Agency. In August 2003, a Sudanese and a Chadian were beheaded for smuggling drugs into Saudi Arabia. An Afghan was beheaded for peddling opium in September 2003. A Pakistani and an Iraqi were beheaded for smuggling heroin into the Kingdom in April of 2003. In October 2002, a Palestinian was beheaded for murdering his father after an argument. Two Pakistanis and an Indian were beheaded in the summer of 2002 for smuggling heroin into Saudi Arabia.

Saudis from all backgrounds are also beheaded. The London Arabic daily Al Hayat reported on May 3 that the punishment of beheading was about to be applied to the son of Prince Nayef Ibn Abd Al-Aziz, Saudi Arabia’s interior minister, who murdered another Saudi citizen. In the end, he was pardoned by the victim’s father. The life of the killer, Prince Fahd, was spared on May 1 when “[Fahd] was brought to the prison yard, his eyes blind-folded and the executioner was prepared with his sword to sever his neck… In front of a large throng of citizens, Prince Fahd begged the father of the victim: ‘Save my life’…. Suddenly, the father of the victim kneeled twice in front of Prince Fahd, who was lying down in front of the executioner…. [He] got up and to the cheers of the crowd pardoned Prince Fahd and untied his hands. The judge signed the pardon document which demanded that Fahd learn the Quran entirely by heart. Fahd went to his office of his uncle, Prince Salman, the Emir of Riyadh, who hugged him.”

Earlier this year, an al Qaeda member in Saudi Arabia warned of beheadings in his last will and testament. Hazem Al-Kashmiri, the son of a retired leading general of the Saudi internal-security force, informed the world that al Qaeda had “a message to the American soldiers…. We promise that we will not let you live safely, and you will not see from us anything else just bombs, fire, destroying homes, cutting your heads….”

The 18th issue of the al Qaeda-identified journal Sawt Al-Jihad included an interview with Fawwaz bin Muhammad Al-Nashami, commander of the Al-Quds Brigade, which took responsibility for the May 29 attack at Khobar, Saudi Arabia, in which 22 people were killed. Al-Nashami detailed how al Qaeda members cut the throats of non-Muslims, and in one case, beheaded one of their victims–all as “acts of devotion to Allah.” “We turned to the third site…found a Swedish infidel. Brother Nimr cut off his head, and put it at the gate [of the building] so that it would be seen by all those entering and exiting.”

The beheading of Daniel Pearl, which at the time seemed like an isolated incident, has now influenced other Islamists in Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Even in London, the website of Islamist Sheikh Abu Hamza Al-Masri features video of children pretending to behead other children. Islamic history includes periods in which beheadings against “infidels” were a common practice, and it seems that this history has begun to repeat itself.

Steven Stalinsky is the executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute.


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