The grisly decapitations by Middle Eastern extremist groups are more than terror acts fueled by modern conflicts, they are potent evocations of ancient stereotypes and suspicions.
To their executioners, Nicholas Berg, Paul Johnson Jr. and now Kim Sun Il weren't innocent civilians, but infidel intruders upon Islam's holy places--in their words, "crusaders."
In America, the beheadings stir up latent images of Islam as a religion of the sword; the medieval crusades were inspired by rumors of Muslims beheading Christians in the Holy Land. In the eyes of contemporary Westerners, decapitation is particularly repulsive--an emotional response the abductors depended upon.
"It is certainly meant to create horror by removing from a human being the seat of consciousness," said historian Jacques Barzun, author of "From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life."
In the wake of terrorist attacks on American troops in Iraq, some have painted Islam with a broad brush as a religion of violence, said Fred Donner, professor of Near Eastern studies at the University of Chicago. The recent decapitations have contributed to that image.
"Beheading has been practiced in the Arabian peninsula, probably since pre-Islamic times," Donner said. "But the recent beheadings are simple vigilante justice. They have nothing to do with Islam, any more than Christian extremists have to do with Christianity."
In fact, an earlier wave of Muslim extremism led Islamic jurists to prescribe precise rules and procedures under which the death penalty can be taken. In the early centuries after the Prophet Muhammad, members of the Kharijite movement preached that it was a Muslim's duty to eliminate non-believers from the Muslim world, even, if necessary, by killing them.
"As a result of the horror that many Muslims felt at that horror, the Kharijites were read out of the mainstream," Donner said. "Islamic law developed a more deliberate approach to capital punishment."
Muzammil Siddiqi, head of the Islamic Law Council of North America, said that among the guiding principles the religion developed is a conviction that people cannot take the law into their own hands.
Extremists in the Middle East try to justify the current beheadings as a religious duty, enjoined by the Koran, he noted.
"But the extremists take such texts out of context," Siddiqi said. "There are many more Koranic texts that speak of peace."
Siddiqi added that Islam has evolved over the centuries, though many Americans were only dimly aware of the religion before Sept. 11, 2001. "Islam didn't emerge three years ago," Siddiqi said. "For most of the centuries, Muslims and non-Muslims had good relations."
There are, however, extremists in the contemporary Islamic world, said M. Cherif Bassiouni, professor of law at DePaul University. They can unfortunately draw inspiration from the example of Saudi Arabia, one of the few states that practices decapitation.
"There is no doubt that the continued use by the Saudis of decapitation for the most serious of crimes has inspired others to do the same," said Bassiouni, an advisor to the International Court of Justice.
Extremists feed on their enemies' extremism, Bassiouni said. One side's prejudices contribute to the other side's growing influence.
"Think of President Bush's initial characterization of the war on terror as a 'crusade,' " Bassiouni said. "Christian fundamentalists have proclaimed Islam a religion of terrorists."
By posting horrifying images of beheadings on their Web sites, Middle Eastern extremists are reinforcing that image, Bassiouni said. By the heat of their rhetoric, Western anti-Muslim voices only seem to make the case for Al Qaeda and similar groups. Islamic fundamentalists preach that America's military presence in Iraq is a continuation of the infidels' efforts to dominate the region dating to the medieval crusades, when western knights occupied Muslim lands.
"The extremists can say to the Muslim world, 'You see, even they call themselves crusaders. So we're not making it up. There really is a crusade against us,'" Bassiouni said.
For their part, contemporary Westerners are deeply repulsed by beheading. Every age likes to think it is more civilized than its predecessors--even when it comes to administering death, Barzun said. The electric chair was promoted as more humane than hanging; a similar argument now is made for lethal injection. Thus decapitation seems a throwback to barbarism--even when carried out not just by religious extremists, but by governments.
Although decapitation dates to biblical times, it was still practiced by some supposedly enlightened European countries a century ago. According to the Old Testament, after beheading Goliath, "David took the head of the Philistine and brought it to Jerusalem." In the New Testament, Salome claimed the head of John the Baptist as her reward for dancing before King Herod.