Over the past few months, large parts of Syria and Iraq have fallen to the extremist militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Now this terrorist group, which formed only last year, plans to take Baghdad and create a theocracy that cuts across borders in the Middle East.
As world leaders struggle in how to respond, they should ask this: How did these Sunni Muslim fighters, who come from many nations, advance so quickly? One clue lies in the brutality of ISIS, especially its use of beheadings to cast dread far and wide.
Such a tactic strikes an unusual fear in its opponents and helps the group to impose harsh Islamic law in areas now under its control. In Iraq, both civilians and government soldiers have taken flight even though the militants barely raised a sword or pointed a gun.
Last week, a third of the people in Mosul fled as the group took over Iraq’s second largest city – in only four days. Journalists report that ISIS fighters have lined up decapitated heads on the streets to keep the population in line.
In a recent report entitled “Rule of Fear” about ISIS’s barbarous ways, Amnesty International interviewed dozens of people in Syria who were able to escape from the militants. One young man told this tale:
I didn’t want to be taken by them… so I started running. They ran after me, all masked, and captured me. I started shouting loudly to get the attention of the crowd of people: ‘What have I done, what have I done?’ I could see people looking at me, but no one said a word. They were all killed by fear…
The world cannot remain frozen in the face of this brutal form of killing. Beheadings are “cruel and unusual punishment,” to borrow a phrase from the United States Constitution. They have a long history going back to ancient times, such as the murder of John the Baptist. They were common in the West until the 18th century, such as in France during the days of the guillotine. Yet humanity has made progress in imposing rules on warfare and punishment, adopting less cruel forms and banning such methods as chemical weapons, hangings, and land mines.
Such progress requires a strong consensus that certain people, such as civilians, prisoners of war, and political opponents, are worthy of a degree of respect and deserve to be treated humanely. This is still a bold concept about universal worth in a world that continues to break down people over differences that are then often demonized.
Can Iraq and other Arab states form a consensus about the use of beheadings? One precedent is a campaign begun in the United States in the early 20th century to end the lynching of blacks by whites. By the 1930, the campaigned had achieved success.
One sign of hope for Iraq: Al Qaeda cut ties with ISIS in February, in part because it knows that the butchery of beheadings is no way to gain the support of Muslims. And in recent years, many Islamic leaders have expressed an abhorrence of this tactic, even though the Quran makes mention of “smiting the neck” of nonbelievers (a similar practice found in the Hebrew Bible).
Repealing the fighters of ISIS will take more than the might of government armies. Iraqis of all faiths and ethncities must join in rejecting this savage tactic. They cannot be “killed by fear.”