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Mostly it’s religion, now and then it’s sports

[ by Charles Cameron — beheadings and the questions they raise ]


Tim Furnish, friend of this blog, had a piece titled Beheading in the Name of Islam in the Middle East Quarterly back in 2005, in which he wrote:

The February 2002 decapitation of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, true to its intention, horrified the Western audience. Chechen rebels, egged on by Islamist benefactors, had adopted the practice four years earlier, but the absence of widely broadcast videos limited the psychological impact of hostage decapitation. The Pearl murder and video catalyzed the resurgence of this historical Islamic practice. In Iraq, terrorists filmed the beheadings of Americans Nicholas Berg, Jack Hensley, and Eugene Armstrong. Other victims include Turks, an Egyptian, a Korean, Bulgarians, a British businessman, and a Nepalese. Scores of Iraqis, both Kurds and Arabs, have also fallen victim to Islamist terrorists’ knives. The new fad in terrorist brutality has extended to Saudi Arabia where Islamist terrorists murdered American businessman Paul Johnson, whose head was later discovered in a freezer in an Al-Qaeda hideout.

For myself, convinced as I am that perceived, preached or proclaimed divine endorsement for such killings plays a major role in facilitating them, the existence of what are overtly at least non-religious examples of the same brutal behavior are valuable, albeit humanly distressing, for the questions they raise:

  • is the brutal behavior in question a bestial aspect of human nature in general, and religion merely a thin veneer with which it sometimes conveniently clothes itself?
  • or are sports in some way alternative modalities of group transcendence — and thus effectively religious in their essence?
  • **

    Bryan Alexander, another friend, comments today on a related story at his gothic-themed blog, Infocult, under the heading When sports fans attack, Russian remix.

    DoubleQuote Sources:

  • Seventeen Afghan partygoers beheaded
  • Brazilian referee beheaded
  • 3 Responses to “Mostly it’s religion, now and then it’s sports”

    1. Kumail Says:

      I think beheadings can be motivated by religious sanction, blood craze or pragmatic consideration (to provoke or intimidate opponents) but most likely a mixture of the three. In the case of the Takfiris, I think religion acts as a powerful motivator and legitimizer, more than a veneer, for their bestial tendencies and distasteful tactics. I doubt that allegiances to sporting teams provide the same level of transcendental cover for beheadings as Islamic theology and history arguably do, but I’m not a much of a sports fan so what do I know.

    2. Grurray Says:

      That Brazilian football match sounds like a latter day version of Aztec hipball


    3. Charles Cameron Says:

      Kumail, Grurray:
      Thanks for that, Kumail — I pretty much agree with your suggestions regarding the mix of motives, but just how to phrase and understand that mix in all its varieties and nuances is something I’ve been worrying at (as a dog worries a bone) for some while now, and am not yet ready, obviously, to express with much confidence in my own clarity.
      As to football and transcendence — that, for me, is an as yet unanswered and fascinating analytic question. My assumptions would agree with your doubts about the issue, but I’d question them in part, for the kind of anthropological reasons that Grurray suggests — supplemented, eg, but the massive 1907 (classic) BAE volume by Stewart Culin on Games of the North American Indians

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