Why do they behead people? Why do Islamic extremists—like those who killed the American journalist James Foley—choose beheading as their savage tactic of choice? I have not heard anybody ask that question on the media over the last week. But it is quite an important question, and its absence says a lot about our absence of thought as well as our fearfulness.
This occurred to me after a BBC discussion I was involved with about ISIS and Foley on Sunday Morning Live – you can see the segment here:
I was on with Dame Ann Leslie, Shiraz Maher, Lord Winston and a Muslim convert called Myriam Francois-Cerrah. We had quite a good discussion, much helped by the unanimity sprung upon us thanks to the appearance of one of Anjem Choudary’s circle who was supporting ISIS. But I was once again struck – in a discussion in what remains a free country with a right of free speech – by the desperate efforts to not explore, indeed to shut down, discussion heading in one particular direction.
Myriam, as ever, remained insistent on the oft-repeated line that the bad guys are ‘misinterpreting’ Islam. But it was Lord Winston’s attempt to stop any linkage between the actions of groups like ISIS and the religion of Islam which struck me far more. Lord Winston is a scientist. In any other sphere he would be eager to follow a trail of thought, evidence, discovery and logic. But not here. ‘It’s not to do with Islam’ he scolded Ann Leslie and then me. ‘This is not a British problem and it’s not an Islamic problem either.’ True, it’s not only any one of those things. But it is partly those things, isn’t it?
Towards the end I made the point I keep trying to make – which is that although the radicals like the murderer of James Foley have what is obviously the worst interpretation of Islam, it is nevertheless a plausible interpretation. They didn’t get where they got from nowhere, and we hamper our efforts to defeat this terrible interpretation if Muslims and non-Muslims do not take it straight on. But it struck me again – as it does every time I make this point – just how unwilling people are to have this debate. Which brings me back to beheading.
Of course there is no one reason why somebody leaves Britain and beheads an American journalist in a desert. I am sure we can all agree that a range of factors are at play. But why do the Islamic extremists so often bring beheading into it? It’s not just in the Middle East. Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam. Drummer Lee Rigby in South London. Why do the extremists seem so keen on beheading? It is more difficult than shooting someone. Obviously it is also a far more effective way to terrorise people.
But surely one part of the reason beheading is chosen – if not the major part – is the fact that the Qu’ran has verses telling believers, in certain circumstances, that this is the appropriate way to kill those who are not Muslim? Is this not an important point? What about the fact that the founder of Islam himself engaged in such acts? There will be those who say I am making this up, so I suppose I ought to refer people to the sources.
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.’
Now a lot of Muslims in my experience do not know such verses are there – they are as ignorant of the actual details of the Qu’ran as many Christians are of the contents of the Bible. Others simply deny it is there because they are taught about God as all-loving and all-merciful and they would rather ignore or deny that the same God seems both quick to anger and somewhat bloodthirsty afterwards. The extremists, on the other hand, know it is there, often cite it and believe they are doing what Allah has instructed them to do when they perform such savageries.
It is the same when it comes to the example of Muhammad. 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.’ 
I think these facts, in Islam’s foundational texts, matter. I think that instead of pretending there is no such problem, Muslims and non-Muslims should take them on. But it seems that this is not a tactic that many other people agree with. At some point our society seems to have informally decided that this discussion cannot be had. Perhaps it is because a Christian or post-Christian country just assumes that all religions are like Christianity and all religious founders must be Christ-like in their behaviour. Or perhaps it’s because a lot of people think the problem is insurmountable and will outlast them.
Either way it’s a great mistake. Because it is an important discussion to have and highly relevant to current world events. After all, wouldn’t the history of Christianity have been different – and Christianity’s history been even bloodier than it has been – if instead of saying ‘Turn the other cheek’ Jesus had said even just once ‘Slay the idolaters wherever you find them’ [Quran, Arberry trans, Chapter IX, verse 5]. Imagine if Jesus had beheaded people. There would be a lot of work to do to make sure no Christian anywhere followed his example. But we don’t want to – or can’t – address this or even have that discussion when it comes to Islam. While it remains inconceivable that we would have a discussion about Christianity without reference to the teachings and the life of Christ we are still trying to have a very public discussion about Islam while refraining from mentioning any of the more ‘challenging’ aspects of the teachings or actions of Muhammad. It is very strange.
But this now leads to another trouble. For the line that ‘This has absolutely nothing to do with Islam’ now appears to be creating a growing number of people who think absolutely everything in the way in which Muslims behave or might be expected to behave comes from citing a few verses such as those above. They can end up suggesting that ‘bad’ Muslims are the ones who don’t do any beheading – a curious position to end up in. But as the politicians and ‘moderates’ continue to deny there is any problem a growing number of Muslims and non-Muslims pick up a Quran or life of Muhammad for themselves, think ‘bloody hell’ and either run with it as a literal guide or run a million miles from it. Today I hear an increasing number of people who say ‘Muslims are told they have to behead people’ and so on. Demonstrably ridiculous – not least because most Muslims rather obviously don’t spend any time beheading anyone.
But we exacerbate the problem on all sides when we refuse to tackle or even address the problematic things in the Muslim faith in the same way that we would with any other faith. We assist the claims of the extremists by failing to provide any counter-narrative (ranging from the possibility that what Muhammad did then is not permissible now, all the way through to ‘this didn’t really happen – it is a kind of metaphor’). And we simultaneously heighten the suspicion from many non-Muslims who can see that there is a problem and become increasingly frustrated at the interminable effort to shut discussion down.
All very strange. All I would add is that I suspect that in the years ahead the line ‘Another beheading: nothing to see here’ is going to become increasingly difficult to hold.