[ by Charles Cameron — not good branding, not Islamic, dumbstruck? — not a whole lot else to say ]
Let’s take the bald facts first:
Commander Abu Sakkar of the Farouq Brigades, Free Syrian Army, had himself videotaped this month cutting open and seeming to eat the flesh of a just-killed Syrian soldier loyal to President Assad — to send a message. According to a New York Times “Lede” blog-post, he preceded this act with the words:
I swear to God, soldiers of Bashar, you dogs — we will eat your heart and livers! … God is great! Oh, my heroes of Baba Amr, you slaughter the Alawites and take their hearts out to eat them!
His rhetoric as reported speaks of eating the heart: in the event, it is a portion of lungs that he eats, or mimics eating.
This has to be seen in many contexts — one of them, the branding of the Syrian rebels in general and the Farouq Brigades in particular.
This is taken from an article a couple of weeks ago on a WSJ blog titled For Some Syrian Rebels, It’s a Battle of the Brands:
Twelve activists in an office in Reyhanli, Turkey near the border run Farouk’s Facebook page, web site, and Twitter account. They’re working on the TV channel, which Mr. Awad says they’ve envisioned as a tool to resocialize fighters off the battlefield.
“The regime will fall one day,” he says. “We have 20,000 fighters–they all won’t stay fighters. They will put down their weapons, and need to integrate into the world. TV, radio, these things will help.”
The media office’s latest brand offering? A three-dimensional version of the Farouk logo, which will be used in videos and other online material.
“The guys complained the logo wasn’t nice enough,” Mr. Awad said, laughing. “They wanted a 3D one.”
Moralizing about someone eating the flesh of a deceased enemy is pretty easy to pull off — unless one still thinks it’s a potent way to acquire one’s enemy’s courage, which is now something of a curiosity in the anthropologist’s cabinet of concepts. Here, dug up from the section on Homeopathic Magic of a Flesh Diet in Sir JG Frazer‘s 1922 edition of The Golden Bough, now long out-dated, is the picture as it used to be seen:
When Basutos of the mountains have killed a very brave foe, they immediately cut out his heart and eat it, because this is supposed to give them his courage and strength in battle. When Sir Charles M’Carthy was killed by the Ashantees in 1824, it is said that his heart was devoured by the chiefs of the Ashantee army, who hoped by this means to imbibe his courage. His flesh was dried and parcelled out among the lower officers for the same purpose, and his bones were long kept at Coomassie as national fetishes. The Nauras Indians of New Granada ate the hearts of Spaniards when they had the opportunity, hoping thereby to make themselves as dauntless as the dreaded Castilian chivalry.
Even as a cannibal delicacy, the white man’s heart seemed to have special virtue! As I say, though — that’s all a little out of date.
Eating one’s enemy, however, is a distinctly un-Islamic behavior, whatever century we’re in. One early Islamic narrative concerns Hind bint ‘Utbah avenging deaths in her own family by eating the heart of a great Muslim warrior, dear to the Prophet — far from being an example of what is permitted in Islam, she’s an example of what Muhammad was up against by way of enemies in the early days of his preaching:
Hind Bint `Utbah, the wife of Abu Sufyaan, ordered Wahshiy to bring her Hamzah’s liver, and he responded to her savage desire. When he returned to her, he delivered the liver to her with his right hand, while taking the necklaces with the left as a reward for the accomplished task. Hind, whose father had been killed in the Battle of Badr and whose husband was the leader of the polytheist army, chewed Hamzah’s liver hoping to relieve her heart, but the liver was too tough for her teeth so she spat it out and stood up shouting her poem:
For Badr we’ve paid you better
In a war more flaring than the other.
I was not patient to revenge the murder of
`Utbah, my son, and my brother.
My vow’s fulfilled, my heart’s relieved forever.
Hind did eventually become a Muslim — but on account of this very event, was never fully included among “the Companions of the Prophet”.
I don’t want to moralize over Commander Abu Sakkar‘s act, not having been in his shoes — but it is vile under pretty much any moral standard you might choose. A problem arises, though, when one attempts to use it to justify one side or another, in a conflict in which brutality of one kind or another seems to be present on both sides. As Sakkar himself told a Time correspondent:
You are not seeing what we are seeing, and you are not living what we are living. Where are my brothers, my friends, the girls of my neighborhood who were raped?
Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch is quoted giving another kind of context to the affair:
Abu Sakkar is just one man, and there are many other armed fighters in Syria who reject such sectarian actions and would be horrified by the mutilation and desecration of a corpse — let alone an act of cannibalism. But he is a commander in a decisive battle in Syria — hardly a marginal figure.
The horror! The horror!