On eating one’s enemy
[ 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.
Not without reason did Kurtz whisper at the end of Joseph Conrad‘s Heart of Darkness, as in Francis Ford Coppola‘s Apocalypse Now:
The horror! The horror!
May 19th, 2013 at 6:20 am
Civil wars are often a moral ratchet fpr the worse – producing figures like this
May 19th, 2013 at 6:31 am
No wonder Cameron and Kerry (who got to cool his heels for three hours) are begging the Putin to help them resolve this diplomatically. The Yakhonts and possible Iskanders (ONE of which took out a Georgian tank brigade’s HQ during the 08/08/08 war) have put the kibosh (or nyet) on NATO getting directly involved.
And the Baba Amr Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom Thugee brigades would just as soon IED and ambush the Marines as they would fight alongside them to take Damascus.
Naturally, these painful facts of life have Russophobes hopping mad and blaming the Russians for the heart or lung ripping.
May 19th, 2013 at 6:36 am
May 19th, 2013 at 11:36 pm
Posing with the dead is very common in war.
This dare I say it is normal, during a long war the frame of reality becomes warped.
May 20th, 2013 at 1:26 am
Yup. It’s the “eating” that’s most disturbing, though — whether real or just threatened, I don’t know.
May 20th, 2013 at 11:14 am
Its part of the creation of social and moral distance, it makes it easier to kill your enemies, as they become no longer human to you. It is a double edged sword.
Civil wars often allow people who would have been considered social outcasts or failures to indulge there sociopathic tendencies. Informal militias such as in Syria become breeding grounds for depravity, as they enable killing through the creation of social and moral distance (our enemies are heretics, rapists, murderous non humans), without the restraints of military authority.
You can see this in the language of the parties, and how they depict each other.
May 20th, 2013 at 1:16 pm
My first med school class was an anatomy class, a room filled with cadavers and each cadaver with a team of dissecting medical students.
Early on, a rumor went around that a student had mimicked, or maybe actually, eating a little piece of cadaver fat. The student was expelled for the behavior. Don’t know if that really happened, it was so early on that I didn’t know all the students in the class and like most students, so focused on getting through the long days a lot of outside the classroom details escaped my attention.
Joey’s points about civil war are well made. Incredibly awful and sad, but that is a civil war.
May 20th, 2013 at 1:21 pm
Looking back on it, there was a lot of emphasis placed on treating the cadaver with care, with respect, don’t you dare behave inappropriately because that is expelling territory, to the point that only the portion of the cadaver being dissected was uncovered. My most vivid memory is of the neatly manicured nails of our cadaver. For some reason, this first glimpse of the uncovered arm and the evidence of a lived past shocked and saddened me, made the stakes seem incredibly high to what had previously been viewed as another year in my ‘forever’ studies.
May 20th, 2013 at 4:06 pm
Regarding Mr. X’s streetwiseprofessor link, what are your opinions on on Israel not allowing the advanced Russian missliles to be deployed?
May 20th, 2013 at 7:08 pm
I’ll sit back and listen — I’m ignorant of too many of the factors involved, the situation is way too volatile for me to call, and besides I have yet to see a “side” I could support in good conscience. It’s a terrible, shuddering mess from all angles.
May 20th, 2013 at 7:38 pm
My own uninformed opinion is Israel will not and cannot allow those missiles, especially the SAMs, to be fully deployed. They will strike. How I can”t guess.
May 20th, 2013 at 10:05 pm
There is one reason and one reason only to do this
They have another very good reason and are likely using the Syrian situation as a way to disrupt the increasing cooperation between Turkey and Israel which will be another blow to their once lucrative gas exports.
May 20th, 2013 at 10:05 pm
May 20th, 2013 at 10:11 pm
Its over as far as I can see, there will be no more strikes from the Israelis, the Syrians will soon have the means to defend themselves. They currently have the means to attack Israel, but for there own reasons have held fire.
The balance of forces has shifted enough to convince the Israelis that force will only achieve diminishing returns.
May 20th, 2013 at 11:44 pm
Why won’t they strike? Depending on the version, the S-300 system could threaten a large part of israel’s airspace. They have shown little hesitation to strike in the past. Why not now?
May 21st, 2013 at 4:09 pm
Next time will result in a Syrian counter strike, they already have the ability to close civilian air traffic if they wish.
Also much better to study the new Syrian system in place to discover how to defeat it in case the Iranians get it from the Russians. Which if the Iranians would if the Syrian S300 system was bombed (which would almost certainly result in Russian deaths) .
It is the transfer of ground to ground missile tech that’s the red line for the Israelis, not the S300.
My guess is for the moment the Syrians are not trying to gear up Hezbollah, they have been put off by Israeli actions.
If they did strike it would need to be as part of a sustained bombing campaign to eliminate Syrian ground to ground and ground to air capabilities, this would be a totally different proposition to a few surgical strikes on missile depots.
May 21st, 2013 at 6:29 pm
Succinct and well put. I disagree to a certain extent, but not so much as to strongly disagree. I figure since I think the Slovaks operate that system we may know as much about it as we can short of fighting it and I don’t see how Syria can be stronger than before the civil war so as to make a counterstrike. Also Israel didn’t mind killing Russians in the 70s when they were genuinely strong. But you may be right on all counts.
May 21st, 2013 at 7:08 pm
Rumsfeld had some wise words on this sort of thing….Without sitting in on cabinet meetings we are all groping in the dark.
May 21st, 2013 at 7:32 pm
Rumsfeld was in on all those meetings and he was still clueless. I get you point though.