Just another old-fashioned, fundamentalist way to die?

It is getting harder and harder for the mainstream press to ignore the importance of the word "infidel" in Iraq and around the world. Clearly, Islamist terrorists are doing everything they can to make sure that the world understands that Jews, Christians ("Crusaders") and Muslims who they see as betrayers of the true faith are, quite literally, going to lose their lives and often their heads.

The death of Kim Sun-il has put this disturbing topic right there in the New York Times lead:

BAGHDAD, Iraq, June 23 -- A South Korean interpreter who dreamed of becoming a Christian missionary in the Arab world was beheaded Tuesday by the insurgents who held him captive after his abduction five days ago near Falluja. ...

He had been working for a South Korean company that supplied goods to the American military, and held degrees in Arabic, English and theology. ... (The) worst fears of Mr. Kim's family and friends were realized on Tuesday night, when Al Jazeera showed part of the videotape of his death.

The video showed a large black banner with a yellow circle hanging on a wall behind the men. Words at the bottom revealed the name of the group, Jamaat al-Tawhid and Jihad, which means Monotheism and Holy Struggle. A standard Islamic saying runs across the top of the banner: "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet."

What is harder to figure out for journalists is whether the religious symbolism of beheading the victims is a valid part of this news story and, in particular, whether the press should be linking this act to a literalist version of Islam. After all, beheadings are not new, including events in the Old and New Testaments. The results of a beheading can be seen in the icons of any Eastern Orthodox parish, in images of the life and death of St. John the Baptist.

It has been several weeks since this topic lept into the blogosphere through an article entitled "Beheading and its place in Muslim tradition" by Andrew G. Bostom. It is particularly interesting to trace the discussion of this article at a left-leaning site -- www.indymedia.ie. Here is a sample of the article itself:

The classical Muslim jurist al-Mawardi (a Shafi'ite jurist, d. 1058) from Baghdad was a seminal, prolific scholar who lived during the so-called Islamic "Golden Age" of the Abbasid-Baghdadian Caliphate. He wrote the following, based on widely accepted interpretations of the Qur'an and Sunna (i.e., the recorded words and deeds of Muhammad), regarding infidel prisoners of jihad campaigns: "As for the captives, the amir [ruler] has the choice of taking the most beneficial action of four possibilities: the first to put them to death by cutting their necks; the second, to enslave them and apply the laws of slavery regarding their sale and manumission; the third, to ransom them in exchange for goods or prisoners; and fourth, to show favor to them and pardon them. Allah, may he be exalted, says, 'When you encounter those [infidels] who deny [the Truth=Islam] then strike [their] necks' (Qur'an sura 47, verse 4)"....

Bostom notes that ritual decapitation is being used against all of the appropriate victims.

Recent jihad-inspired decapitations of infidels by Muslims have occurred across the globe -- Christians in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Nigeria; Hindu priests and "unveiled" Hindu women in Kashmir; Wall Street Journal reporter, and Jew, Daniel Pearl. We should not be surprised that these contemporary paroxysms of jihad violence are accompanied by ritualized beheadings.

The question, of course, is whether these acts have anything to do with mainstream Islam, apart from the actions of radicals who know how to use digital video equipment as well as long knives. Writing in the Glove and Mail, reporter Doug Saunders offers this cautionary language. It is especially crucial for U.S. officials and journalists to note the links to the practice of the faith in the land of Saudi Arabia.

Last year alone, the Saudi government had 52 men and one woman beheaded, up from 47 people the previous year. Their heads were chopped off by the official Saudi executioner, who lives in London. Their crimes ranged from homosexuality to armed robbery to apostasy.

The Saudi government, like Iran's radical Shia regime and the erstwhile Taliban government of Afghanistan, says this punishment (and limb amputations for lesser crimes) is sanctioned by Islamic tradition.

Yet the practice has little respect in most of the Islamic world today. Sharia law, the set of Koranic codes that govern both personal comportment and criminal law in many Muslim countries, is interpreted by only the most extreme regimes as requiring decapitation. Few mainstream Muslim scholars and observers believe the beheadings are sanctioned by the Koran.

Personal note: I am out the door for a week-long trip to Turkey and Greece. I hope to file from time to time, but that is far from a certainty. Doug has returned home from his travels and will keep things lively, I am sure.

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