On Tuesday February 3, 2015 the Islamic State released a video showing Jordanian pilot, Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh, 26 being burned alive while locked in a metal cage.
The 22 minute video includes footage of Jordan’s King Abdullah II declaring his support for the anti-ISIS coalition. It shows Lt. Al-Kaseasbeh, who was captured by the Islamic State in December after his aircraft crashed over Syria, being interrogated, paraded in front of heavily armed men, walking towards the cage, and then standing inside the cage wearing an orange jumpsuit that is doused in flammable liquid.
The executioner uses a torch to light a trail of gasoline that leads to his feet. Lt. Al-Kasasbeh is engulfed in flames and remains alive for over 1 minute and half and collapses to the floor. Militants pour broken masonry and other debris over the cage which is then flattened with a bulldozer with the body still inside. Despite the surprise and shock of seeing a young man burned alive, this is not a new tactic. In fact it is a common method of ritual murder in Iraq and other countries particularly in honor killings and the murder of Christians.
The significant difference is that the Islamic State media films the execution using sophisticated editing and highly choreographed techniques turning the killing into a scripted reality show.
Hundreds of women in the Muslim world have been murdered by fire in honor killings. The murders were often disguised as suicides or accidents. In the first six months of 2007, in Iraqi Kurdistan, 255 women were killed, three-quarters of them by burning. An earlier report cited 366 cases of women who were the victims of so called fire accidents in Dohuk in 2006, up from 289 the year before. In Irbil, there were 576 burn cases since 2003, resulting in 358 deaths. In 2006 in Sulaimaniyah, Iraq there were 400 cases of women burned.
In Tunisia in May 2014 a father burned his 13 year old daughter to death for walking home with a boy. In October 2013 a 15 year old Yemeni girl was burned to death by her father for communicating with her fiancé. In March 2009, a 16-year-old Muslim girl suspected of having a relationship with a boy was burned to death by four male neighbors in her village in Ghaziabad, North India. They came to the girl’s house and demanded to know why the young man frequently visited her, and then the men beat her, doused her with kerosene and set her on fire.
There are numerous more examples of women burned alive. This form of punishment is not just reserved for women. In April 2011 three men were set on fire in Iraq for being gay. A video of that incident is easily accessible online. In June 2008, the Taliban burned three truck drivers of the Turi tribe alive for supplying the Pakistan Armed Forces.
There have been numerous reports of Christians burned alive by Islamist jihadists. In November 2014 a Christian couple in Pakistan Sajjad Maseeh, 27, and his wife Shama Bibi, 24, were burned alive in a brick furnace after it was rumored that they had burned verses from the Quran.”Bibi, a mother of four who was four months pregnant, was wearing an outfit that initially didn’t burn…… The mob removed her from over the kiln and wrapped her up in cotton to make sure the garments would be set alight.”
These incidents are rarely reported by the mainstream media and were difficult for most people to comprehend as real until ISIS started filming documentaries of their ritual murders.
Fire is symbolic of the destruction of evil. Symbolically people who are burned alive are human sacrifices that are expiating evil from the community. Tainted victims are purified through fire. Fire is considered a powerful transformer of the negative to the positive. Because of such properties, fire is commonly found in purification rites throughout the world.
In other cultures polluted persons may be required to walk around, jump over, or jump through fire. Historically, burning a person to death was reserved for the most threating evil, such as heresy or witchcraft and considered an extreme form of purification. In the context of honor killing the use of fire is not only symbolic but practical. Practical in Iraq because most of the homes do not have electricity so every house has a large supply of oil which makes it easier to conceal honor killings under the guise of suicide or kitchen accidents.
In the context of the murder of Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh fire is an Islamic purification ritual that serves vengeance and restores honor and purity to the community of believers.
Islamist jihadists from different movements, countries, sects, and factions all emphasize the need to cleanse Islam of its impurities. Al Qaeda’s ideological belief is the purification of Islam through violent struggle. Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri have continually called on supporters to purify Muslim holy lands of infidels, un-Islamic beliefs, and practices.
The Islamic State cleanses Islam of its impurities while protecting its territory in the same manner as Mexican cartels, using brutal tactics that are justified as vengeance.
The title of the video, Healing the Believers’ Chests, is a quote from the Quran: “Fight them, and Allah will punish them by your hands, cover them with shame, help you over them, heal the breasts of Believers.” (Qur’an 9:14).
It was reported to mean ‘giving them pleasure’ – interpreted as a reference to achieving revenge. That is one interpretation, however healing is symbolic of purification, the title Healing the Believers’ Chests can be understood as cleansing the community of the contamination of impurity. Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh’s alleged crimes symbolically unleashed an epidemic of contagious evil. The function of the burning ritual is a communal act of expiation, expelling the contagious evil of an infidel enemy through fire.
Having ISIS fighters participate and watch makes it a communal sacrificial ritual. Ritualizing the violence justifies it and makes it sacred. Once the transgressor is ritually killed the impurity is removed, the evil has been expelled, taboo has been ameliorated and justice is served. The body is immediately buried under the earth, another purifying element, restoring honor and purity.
Filming and disseminating the ritual killing strikes fear into the hearts of enemies and attracts new recruits. Similar to an arsonist that is fascinated with fire, disaffected young people will be attracted to this ritual burning. Like moths to a flame.