|The murder of Nick Berg, a 26-year-old American businessman, by a group of Islamist terrorists in Iraq sent shock waves through much of the West. What has impressed most people is the fact that the terrorists cut Mr. Berg's head in the way that sheep are beheaded at the annual Feast of the Sacrifice.
Berg is, of course, not the first to be murdered in such a gruesome manner. Nor, alas, is he likely to be the last. For the cutting of heads (in Arabic, qata al-raas) has been the favorite form of Islamist execution for more than 14 centuries.
In the famous battles of early Islam, with the Prophet personally in command of the army of believers, the heads of enemy generals and soldiers were often cut off and put on sticks to be shown around villages and towns as a warning to potential adversaries.
In 680, the Prophet's favorite grandson, Hussein bin Ali, had his head chopped off in Karbala, central Iraq, by the soldiers of the Caliph Yazid. The severed head was put on a silver platter and sent to Damascus, Yazid's capital, before being sent further to Cairo for inspection by the Governor of Egypt. The Caliph's soldiers also cut off the heads of all of Hussein's 71 male companions, including the one-year-old baby boy Ali-Asghar.
Islamic history is full of chopped heads being sent around by special delivery to reassure rulers, to terrorize foes and to impress the common folk. In 1821, the Qajar king of Persia ordered a week of celebrations when he received the severed head of a Russian general who had been captured in a battle near Baku. In 1842, the Afghans massacred the British garrison in Kabul, a total of 2,000 men and their wives and children, chopping off their heads and putting them on sticks to decorate the city. (They allowed one man to leave to report to the British.)
In 1885, it was the turn of British Gen. Gordon to have his head chopped off and put on a stick in Khartoum after it had fallen to the forces of the Mahdi. Slightly later, Mullah Hassan, the Somali rebel known to the British as "the mad mullah" but to his fanatical supporters as "the Shah," made a habit of chopping Western heads in what is now Somalia. At one point he had a large collection of severed Italian and British heads.
Iran's Khomeinist mullahs also love severed heads. In April 1980, Ayatollah Sadeq Khalkhali wanted to cut off the heads of eight American soldiers who had died in a failed hostage rescue mission in the Iranian desert. He was prevented from doing so thanks to a last minute intervention by the Swiss government. In 1986, the Khomeinist mullahs cut off the head of William Buckley, the CIA's Beirut station chief who had been kidnapped by the Hezbollah and sent to Tehran for interrogation.
And in 1992, the mullahs sent a "specialist" to cut off the head of Shapour Bakhtiar, the shah's last prime minister, in a suburb of Paris. When the news broke, Hashemi Rafsanjani, then president of the Islamic Republic, publicly thanked Allah for having allowed "the severing of the head of the snake."
In 1993, Fereidun Farrokhzad, one of Iran's most famous pop stars, had his head chopped off in Germany by a Khomeinist hit squad after the mullahs issued a fatwa for his murder.
Chopping off heads was widely practiced throughout the Afghan wars of the 1980s. An estimated 3,000 Soviet soldiers, many of them Muslims, had their heads cut off by the Mujahedeen, who at the time enjoyed U.S. and other Western support. (In other cases the Mujahedeen cut off the testicles of the Soviet soldiers and fed them to other Soviet prisoners.)
Needless to say, rival Mujahedeen also chopped off each other's heads. The group led by one Haji Akbari was especially notorious in that respect. One of its members was Osama bin Laden.
Throughout the 1990s, head-chopping was routinely carried out by the Army for Islamic Salvation (AIS), the Islamic Armed Group (GIA), the Salafi Group for Preaching and Armed Jihad (GSPAJ) and other Islamist terror outfits.
One Algerian specialist in slitting throats and cutting off heads was known as Momo le Nain (Muhammad the Midget). He was a 20-plus-year-old butcher's apprentice recruited by the GIA for the purpose of cutting off people's heads. In 1996 in Ben-Talha, a suburb of the capital Algiers, Momo cut off a record 86 heads in one night, including the heads of more than a dozen children.
In recognition of his exemplary act of piety, the GIA sent him to Mecca for pilgrimage. Last time we checked, Momo was still at large somewhere in Algeria.
Four years ago, Iran was shocked by the murder of the well-known dissident leader Dariush Foruhar and his wife Parvaneh. The couple, in their 70s, had their heads chopped off and displayed on their mantelpiece. The regime blamed "rogue elements" within its Ministry for Intelligence and Security. But no one was punished.
Cutting heads is frequently practiced against clerics from non-Islamic faiths or even rival Islamic sects. At least four Christian priests and nine Sunni Muslim muftis have been murdered in that way in Iran since 2001.
In Pakistan, rival Sunni and Shiite groups have made a habit of sending cut-off heads of each other's activists by special delivery. By one estimate, over 400 heads have been chopped off and mailed since 1990.
Chopping heads is also practiced by Muslim militants on the Indonesian island of Borneo as a means of driving the Christian majority out. It has been effective in forcing nearly half of the island's Christians packing.
At one point in the 1980s, the Abu-Sayyaf Islamist group in Mindanao, The Philippines, used the tactic of severing heads as a means of terrorizing the security forces.
Americans should also remember Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was brutally murdered in the same way in Pakistan over two years ago.
Although head-chopping is now seen as a mode of communication between Islamist militants and the Western world, the overwhelming victims have been Muslims.
Mankind has a natural propensity to become used to the worst atrocities and factor in the cruelest facts of life. But the sight of a severed head will continue to shock even the most blasé of the cynics. This is why those who are defying the whole of humanity in this war on terrorism are certain to continue to employ people like Momo le Nain.