The search engine Google can easily become a kind of ouija board for those of us engaged in connected scholarship. There is much useful information just a click away, but also much out there of which to be wary. It is worthwhile to take time out every once in awhile to see what Goggle will offer up for an innocent query. Out of curiosity on October 4, 2005, I decided to type “beheading” into Google and see what came up.

The first 10 sites (of 1,890,000) are instructive (you can see for yourself) of the problem facing the representation of Islam on the internet. Three of the top ten link to information on the beheading of Nick Berg, including a site with the grisly video available for viewing. Also distasteful is the following link to an article called “The Sacred Muslim Practice of Beheading” from (a front for conservative pundit David Horowitz). The article’s author, an Associate Professor of Medicine, collects several “medieval” references to beheading as though it was the sine qua non of jihad theory and the preferred mode for Muslims dealing with Jews. Indeed, there were 11th century Muslim scholars who legitimized cutting off the heads of the enemy; so did popes and a wide range of European monarchs.

Warfare and violence against out-groups in the past were unrelentingly intolerant. The point is that mainstream Muslim clerics routinely condemn these beheadings, including the political killing of Nick Berg. For a sample of some of the recent fatwas.

The irony of the Google list is that the very next site after the article sacralizing beheading in the name of Islam is a link to a famous painting by the Italian Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. This is “Judith Beheading Holofernes” (ca. 1598 C.E.), about a heroine of ancient Israel who visits the enemy leader Holofernes in his tent, makes him drunk, then beheads him. The ethical symbolism is one of virtue triumphing over evil, with beheading placed here as the mode of divine justice. The point is that when we speak of good vs. evil, it is the intention rather than the specific act that ultimately matters. Beheading is now viewed everywhere as barbaric, though it still occurs around the world. But it was once justified as a legitimate and quick way to dispense justice and overcome evil, as in the case of Judith or as the guillotine served the cause of liberté in the French revolution. It is important to note whose neck is being cut, stretched or severed from the body by a cluster bomb.

One site that came up gives a short term-paperish “history” of beheading, which I quote below. Note how the comparison here makes Islamic countries look worse, because it claims that no one else but Saudis, Qataris and Yemenis (not even the Japanese or Red Communists) behead these days. The world’s billion-plus Muslims are judged by what the conservative Wahhabi regime in Saudi Arabia does on rare occasions. What then of all the Islamic countries where beheading is not legal? Beheading respects no religion.

“Historical background.
Beheading with a sword or axe goes back a very long way in history, because like hanging, it was a cheap and practical method of execution in early times when a sword or an axe was always readily available. The Greeks and the Romans considered beheading a less dishonourable (and less painful) form of execution than other methods in use at the time. The Roman Empire used beheading for its own citizens whilst crucifying others. Beheading was widely used in Europe and Asia until the 20th century, but now is confined to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Yemen and Iran. Saudi Arabia publicly beheaded 52 men and 1 woman for murder, rape, sodomy and drug offences in 2003. (See Saudi Arabia below). One man was beheaded in Iran – the first for many years.
Beheading was used in Britain up to 1747 and was the standard method in Norway (abolished 1905), Sweden (up to 1903), Denmark and Holland (abolished 1870), and was used for some classes of prisoner in France (up until the introduction of the guillotine in 1792) and in Germany up to 1938. China also used it widely, until the communists came to power and replaced it with shooting in the twentieth century. Japan too used beheading up to the end of the nineteenth century prior to turning to hanging.”

On September 22, 2004, an article in the San Francisco Chronicle added a further disturbing twist to the internet spin on beheadings. A website which provided video of the recent beheading of Jack Armstrong soon had 50,000 people per hour downloading the images; over one million browsers had already downloaded the image when the article was written. The idea of beheading as a political act is now condemned as uncivilized, yet the fascination with seeing such horror continues unabated. This interpornetographic fascination with sadistic violence is deserving of further study. The issue is not that beheading is a product of some “sacred” concept of jihad. Contemporary ethics worldwide is fortunately heading beyond beheading. But terrorism is often in the eyes of both the beheader and the beholder regardless of the religion or country.

Daniel Martin Varisco