With the burning alive of Lt. Moaz al Kasasbeh — a Jordanian fighter pilot whose gruesome death was videotaped and celebrated by ISIS and its supporters — followed by the swift execution of two prisoners in Jordan, the Middle East’s proverbial cycle of violence keeps on revolving.
Just as swiftly, Israel’s foreign minister Avigdor Liberman, praised Jordan for this act of vengeance, expressing the hope that “soon other imprisoned terrorists in the kingdom will be executed as well.”
Revenge is always popular in that it briefly satisfies a visceral desire that scores can be settled — it offers the vain hope that order can be reestablished just as quickly as it was lost.
And it applies a theory of justice that has proved demonstrably ineffective throughout history.
Mitchell Prothero reports:
Jordan state television said Tuesday night that Jordanian authorities believe Kasasbeh’s killing was filmed nearly a month ago, and that that was why the Islamic State refused to provide proof that Kasasbeh was still alive during recent negotiations. That belief was consistent with tweets from rebel activists opposed to the Syrian government who posted on Jan. 8 that the pilot had been executed.
Jordan’s King Abdullah and Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh were in Washington meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry just moments before the video was made public. There was no hint that any of the men knew of the death as they exchanged pleasantries during a signing ceremony marking increased U.S. assistance – from $660 million to $1 billion – to help Jordan cope with the Syrian refugee crisis and rising energy costs.
Immediately after the ceremony, however, the video hit the Internet, and statements of condemnation and condolences began flowing from the Obama administration to Jordan. The president called it “one more indication of the viciousness and barbarity of this organization.”
Islamist groups often behead captives who’ve been convicted, fairly or not, of dire crimes in an Islamic court, and beheading is a common form of execution in Saudi Arabia, which claims the Quran as its legal code and constitution. But burning alive is a rarity, and its religious foundation was uncertain.
Jihadist supporters on social media said the justification for burning comes from a Quranic verse that authorizes Muslims to “punish with an equivalent of that with which you were harmed,” according to several postings on Twitter and other forums.
Zaid Benjamin, a Radio Sawa journalist who monitors extremists online, noted that the same scripture was invoked after a mob set fire to the bodies of four American security contractors and strung up their charred corpses on a bridge in the Iraqi city of Fallujah in 2004. Today, Fallujah is part of Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate.
At the time, mainstream Muslim scholars condemned the act, saying that Islam does not allow for the desecration of corpses. The clerics also pointed out that the second part of the verse jihadists use as justification suggests that revenge isn’t the preferred reaction: “It is better for those who are patient,” the verse states.
Here’s the complete verse from the Quran:
And if you punish [an enemy, O believers], punish with an equivalent of that with which you were harmed. But if you are patient – it is better for those who are patient.
Contrary to the widespread assumption in the West that the Middle East is governed by a philosophy of vengeance, this verse seems more than anything to be a counsel on restraint.
It says if you punish — not when you punish. And to say that the punishment should be equivalent to the harm, while also saying that patience is better, sounds much less like a call for vengeance than a call for restraint.
But if patience is better than punishment, does that mean there should be no war against ISIS? Not in my opinion.
Unopposed, ISIS will continue to advance. Even so, thus far if success can be determined by numbers, ISIS appears to be winning as its losses are more than replenished by new recruits.
That said, raw numbers might be a misleading metric upon which success can be measured.
Obviously it would be preferable if ISIS was visibly losing its appeal, but whereas last year it was ISIS’s unopposed success and its ability to create some kind of caliphate that drove its increasing popularity, those who are now flocking to its ranks are surely being drawn by their desire to die for their chosen cause. In other words, as ISIS becomes increasingly nihilistic, it appeals above all to those who see almost no value in life.
A group that terrorizes the people it wants to govern — that does things like executing children for watching soccer on TV — is demonstrating its own lack of faith in its ability to win popular support.
No doubt ISIS can continue drawing on an unfortunately abundant supply of death-hungry fanatics, but no one can construct a caliphate or any other kind of state with hands whose only skills are destructive.