A Brutal Act's Long History
By Steven Mufson
Sunday, July 4, 2004; Page B04
From the headless corpses of North African warriors lined up before ancient Egypt's Temple of Horus about 5,000 years ago to Kim Sun Il, the South Korean interpreter killed last month in Iraq, perhaps no method of execution arouses as much fear and revulsion as beheading. And usually that's just the effect its practitioners -- whether monarchs or terrorists -- want it to have.
Beheading is the latest weapon in the hands of those who have sworn to punish Westerners, but it has a long history. It has been used from Medina to Manchuria, from Norway to Nigeria.
When U.S. citizen Paul Johnson was beheaded by terrorists in Saudi Arabia two weeks ago, six Saudi clerics issued a statement that said: "The bombings and killings have revolted people and hurt individuals and their property, and no one with the slightest knowledge of Islam can doubt that this is an atrocious crime and grave sin." But in their eyes, the sin was the improper taking of a life, not the method. The Saudi government beheaded 52 men and one woman last year for crimes including murder, homosexuality, armed robbery and drug trafficking.
Is beheading un-Islamic? The Koran (chapter 47, verse 4) says: "When ye meet the Unbelievers in battle, smite at their necks; At length, when ye have thoroughly subdued them, bind a bond firmly on them: thereafter is the time for either generosity or ransom: Until the war lays down its burdens." According to some accounts, in 627 A.D., the prophet Muhammad approved the beheading of 600 people from a Jewish tribe living near Medina. He believed tribe members had betrayed him by negotiating with his enemies.
"In 680, the prophet's favorite grandson, Hussein bin Ali, had his head chopped off in Karbala in central Iraq by the soldiers of the Caliph Yazid," Iranian-born journalist Amir Taheri wrote in a New York Post column. "The severed head was put on a silver platter and sent to Damascus, Yazid's capital, before being sent further to Cairo for inspection by the Governor of Egypt."
Today, beheading is still used officially in a handful of Persian Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia and Iran. Historically, the practice was not limited to Muslim countries. The Romans used it; the Book of Revelation cites "the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God."
Some cultures considered beheading to be a quicker -- and, therefore, more humane and honorable -- method of execution than the alternatives, such as hanging, crucifixion or disemboweling. In England, beheading was introduced in 1076 and restricted to those of noble birth convicted of treason. When Sir Thomas More was convicted of that crime in 1535, his sentence was "that he should be . . . hanged till he should be half dead; that then he should be cut down alive, his privy parts cut off, his belly ripped, his bowels burnt, his four quarters set up over four gates of the City, and his head upon London Bridge." King Henry VIII commuted the sentence to beheading. As a warning to others not to defy the king's will, as More had by refusing to take an oath recognizing Henry's supremacy to the pope, More's head was indeed placed on London Bridge, where it stayed for several months.
But the punishment has not always been swift, or humane: It took three blows to remove Mary Queen of Scot's head in 1587.
Many of the countries at the forefront of human rights campaigns today once used beheading as a form of execution. In Sweden, about 600 people, including nearly 200 women, were beheaded in the 19th century.
In Japan, beheading was frequently performed as the second part of ritual suicide. The person committing suicide would disembowel himself and a trusted friend would then decapitate him with a katana, or long single-edged sword. Japanese warriors also cut off the heads of their enemies for many centuries. Beheading was one charge in the war crimes case against Japanese leaders for the 1928 massacre of more than 200,000 people in Nanjing during Japan's occupation of China.
Historically, axes or swords have been the instrument of choice. The guillotine (named after Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a French doctor and member of the Revolutionary National Assembly) was first used in France in 1792 to execute a highwayman. The next year it was used to execute the queen, Marie Antoinette. But many countries continued to use axes or swords. Germany used axes to decapitate criminals through the 1930s. In 1935, a baroness and her friend were convicted of spying and their heads were chopped off by an executioner wearing tails, top hat and white gloves.
More recently in Iran, the mullahs have cut off the heads of some political figures. The Beirut CIA station chief William Buckley was kidnapped by Hezbollah and sent to Iran, where he was beheaded in 1986. Agents were sent to cut off the heads of the shah's last prime minister in a Paris suburb in 1992 and an Iranian pop star in Germany in 1993.
Now that most governments have given up the practice, terrorist groups from Nigeria to the Philippines seem to have adopted it. While Iraqi insurgents and al Qaeda's offshoots have made beheadings something of a trademark lately, they aren't the first extremist groups to engage in the gruesome tactic. In Algeria in the 1990s, according to Human Rights Watch, members of the Islamic Armed Group (Groupe Islamique Armé, or GIA), "exhibited spectacular cruelty. In addition to guns, they used crude weapons such as knives and saws to behead or disembowel men, women, and children."
According to Taheri, the GIA recruited Momo le Nain ("Muhammad the Midget"), a butcher's apprentice, for the purpose of cutting off people's heads. In 1996 in Ben-Talha, a suburb of Algiers, Momo cut off 86 heads in one night, including those of more than a dozen children.
After Johnson's death last month, President Bush said, "The free world cannot be intimidated by the brutal actions of these barbaric people." Intimidation is exactly what it's all about.
Steven Mufson is deputy editor of Outlook.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company