ISIS shocked the world Tuesday by releasing video of Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kassasbeh being set on fire and burned to death inside a cage, a grisly escalation of social media murders-on-video that progressed from grisly beheadings to child executioners. Al-Kassasbeh was to be part of a prisoner exchange that ISIS has been negotiating for weeks, but his killing reportedly took place on January 3, making the Jordanians’ insistence on a proof of life a canny and prescient demand. At a White House event Tuesday afternoon, President Obama reacted to the news with disgust:
I just got word of the video that had been released. I don’t know the details of the confirmations. But should, in fact, this video be authentic, it’s just one more indication of the viciousness and barbarity of this organization. And it, I think, will redouble the vigilance and determination on the part of a global coalition to make sure that they are degraded and ultimately defeated.
And it also just indicates the degree to which, whatever ideology they’re operating off of, it’s bankrupt. We’re here to talk about how to make people healthier and make their lives better, and this organization appears only interested in death and destruction.
Late Tuesday evening, the president met with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, who had already been scheduled to meet with Vice President Joe Biden, but was added to the president’s schedule after news of the pilot’s murder broke. Their conversation was kept mostly private, but shortly thereafter, the king returned to Jordan, where Sajida al-Rishawi and Ziad al-Karbouli, two of the prisoners who had been discussed in the trade for al Kassassbeh, were executed early Wednesday morning by hanging.
As the president and others have noted, the latest iteration of ISIS’ grisly theatrics represents further evidence of their barbarity, but it was more than just a ratcheting up of the cowardly horrors they like to inflict on hostages. Burning to death is a particularly agonizing and horrifying way to die, but it’s also a particularly un-Islamic way to die. The burning of bodies after death is forbidden in Islam, and so, apparently, is burning them before:
Influential Saudi Cleric Salman al-Odah responded on his Arabic-language Twitter account stating that execution by fire was a “heinous” and “unacceptable” crime.
التحريق جريمة نكراء يرفضها الشرع أياً تكن أسبابها،وهو مرفوض سواء وقع على فرد أو جماعة أو شعب.ولايعذب بالنار إلا الله.#حرق_الطيار_الأردني
— سلمان العودة (@salman_alodah) February 3, 2015
The Jerusalem Post, via Reuters, translates this as “Burning is an abominable crime rejected by Islamic law regardless of its causes.It is rejected whether it falls on an individual or a group or a people. Only God tortures by fire.”
Google Translate offers a similar translation. Many other Muslim clerics also denounced the killing specifically because of the method, including Abu Sayaf, who is getting all kinds of credit from cable newsers for denouncing the murder as “un-Islamic,” but whom they obviously aren’t listening all that closely to:
Even clerics sympathetic to the jihadist cause said the act of burning a man alive and filming the killing would damage Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot which controls wide territory in Syria and Iraq, and is also known as ISIL or ISIS.
“This weakens the popularity of Islamic State because we look at Islam as a religion of mercy and tolerance. Even in the heat of battle, a prisoner of war is given good treatment,” said Abu Sayaf, a Jordanian cleric also known as Mohamed al-Shalabi who spent almost 10 years in Jordanian prisons for militant activity including a plot to attack U.S. troops.
“Even if the Islamic State says Mouath had bombed, and burnt and killed us and we punished him in the way he did to us, we say, OK but why film the video in this shocking way?” he said. “This method has turned society against them.”
Whatever you think of him, Sayaf adroitly exposes the ISIS rationale for burning a Muslim to death, which no true Muslim would ever do, which is that the Jordanian pilot was not a true Muslim. It was an act designed with disrespecting al Kassassbeh specifically in mind, aimed squarely at Muslims who oppose ISIS. As Sayaf (perhaps unintentionally) pointed out, ISIS has separated itself from all other Muslims more effectively than endless choruses of denunciations have managed to do over the years, and thy did it on one fell swoop. Instead of inspiring solidarity, they have invited revenge.