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Qanta Ahmed, MD Headshot

Invitation to a Beheading: South Waziristan Park on Steroids

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The past week has seen a flurry of controversy centered on the speculated implied depiction of at least one Messenger of God as a cartoon disguised in a bear suit. Dissertations on the issues of formal and informal fatwas have followed in serious newspapers and on animated literary sites. It strikes me that, in an age of illusion, cartoons evoke more impassioned responses than real world atrocities. We are desensitized to the presence of violence. As self-described ex-Muslims debate the freedom of speech, as network executives evaluate the potential seditious capacities of Comedy Central, and as the irrevocable death of common sense, as Mr. Wajahat Ali so aptly captured it, comes to pass, I am reminded of an invitation just a few weekends ago...

Late one afternoon, I took an empty elevator up. Hurrying back from a glittering party in Glen Head, I was already quite late. Normally punctual, I noted my own ambivalence, for the date had been in place for some weeks now.

Fluorescent lights failed to scatter the Sunday afternoon desertion. Under carefully applied lipstick, I suddenly noticed my dry mouth. For a moment, I was seized with a unexpected urge to turn around and run, unsure exactly what or whom I wished to flee.

As I approached the room, I thought about the chain of events that had led me to this strange moment, wondering how the next hours would transform me. It was 5:30 PM -- time to view a decapitation.

I was surprised to find the door closed, even though I was expected. I heard no voices on the other side. In a brief moment of relief, I hoped that perhaps the others hadn't appeared after all. Briefly, I was distracted by the distinctly American font on a wall sign. A familiar thrill coursed through me, pushing my anxiety aside. Eighteen years after first moving to New York City, I am still amazed at how I made this extraordinary country my intimate home, my reality. Gathering Dutch courage, I knocked, announcing my presence. A male voice responded, obscured. I entered.

Inside, my friend, Richard Horowitz http://www.rhesq.com/ was moored at his desk. Shyly, he half-stood in greeting, rising awkwardly from his chair. Even on a Sunday, a subtle, latent restraint to the man disclosed the retired Israeli Captain at his core. Around him, his library revealed a deep, lifelong, much-nurtured intellect. So, it was from this modest space that he waged quiet, unseen battles in the clandestine worlds of terrorism, a room at once masculine and comforting. A small radio to Richard's left evoked intense, sudden memories of my British father, also an inveterate listener. A world map was perched against the window, reminding me of my childhood home. Behind my head, soft ticks from a mantle clock, an antique heirloom from an age long before Al Qaeda or the Taliban, marked the slow unraveling of the afternoon. Gazing upward, I spied an ink map of Jerusalem, humbly framed in wood. From my seat, I found myself drawn to Damascus Gate, the Old City calling me even from here.

To my right was seated Brooke Goldstein, Richard's friend and colleague. An award-winning filmmaker and human rights lawyer, she and I were meeting for the first time. An attractive, articulate woman, fortified with Dayquil this afternoon, she was engaged in her own personal battle against viral coryza.

Closing the door behind me, we were promptly locked in muffled silence. Despite our proximity to Times Square, the absence of traffic noise was striking. In short moments, my world had contracted into the narrow dimensions of the Captain's cabin. We exchanged perfunctory pleasantries, each of us anxious for the ordeal to be over.

This moment had been hatched in a recent correspondence Richard and I had shared as we explored our observations on terrorism and Islamic extremism. Until our dialogue, my experience of terrorism in the name of Islam had been purely abstract, remote. Terrorism was an intellectual sojourn in sanitized columns of broadsheets, tucked away into crisp paragraphs composed in climate-controlled offices in Boston, London, New York. Terrorism scrolled from left to right through network tickers spewing vapid bytes quoting celebrity anchors and paid pundits. When in Lahore or Karachi, terror scrolled right to left, a companion to well-dressed, articulate treatise on Deshat Gardi bringing it deep into me, an intrusive, uncomfortable intimacy.

Moving extensively within the very geographic and cultural uteri that have delivered much of this heinous nihilistic ideology, I feel intimately acquainted with the environments which gestated such destruction. Osama bumper stickers catch my eye on a Lahori minivan. A driver racing to get me to a restaurant in Gulberg confirms that newborn children continue to be named Osama, in pride. Yet I had never confronted the terrorists in their element, never examined the species or Nasl (as we say in Arabic) engaged in their ferocious work. It was in this context that I was invited to witness the Islamic fascists at work. Had I ever seen a decapitation, a decapitation of one Muslim by another?

I had not.

The question perturbed me. How would viewing it change anything? How would witnessing such violence impact me? For some days, I was deeply troubled by the question, mulling it over on my long drives back and forth to my office.

I had first become aware of decapitation as the calling card of ferocious Islamic nihilists, as I like to call them (inclusive of those elements, groups, and individuals who exploit Islam in the name of nihilistic destruction), with the tragic 2002 murder of handsome, trusting Daniel Pearl. It was with a sinking feeling that I read about his disappearance in Karachi, the city of my childhood vacations, noticing, as his wife grieved for his loss, how much he looked like a man I myself might have loved. In the thirty-eight years since I had been traveling to Karachi, the chaotic city had gone from being a haphazard, laconic but inviting seaside resort to a fecund abyss harboring frighteningly unbound darkness and violence under an increasingly brittle, well-spoken veneer. Carjacking was routine, practically de rigueur, mugging entirely unremarkable. Decapitation was just another part of an increasingly unremarkable underworld landscape sinking into homogeneous depravity. It was in one such particularly dark sinus of evil, Gadap Town, thirty miles north of the metropolis, that Daniel had met his callous end. I had never watched the offensive filming of his death, believing his death a desecration and voyeurism of his brutal murder a further assault. Reading about it was enough.

I am learning that since then, decapitations -- whether in the name of militant sectarianism in Iraq, the enforcement of brutal Taliban rule in warlord-lacerated Afghanistan, or the surging blood-red tides of Talibanization of northwest Pakistan -- have become commonplace. While beheadings have probably been long standing, perhaps predating even 9/11, the West has been largely unaware of them until the sentinel execution of both journalist Daniel Pearl and Nicholas Berg, an American Jewish businessman who was decapitated while traveling in Iraq. These events were widely viewed internationally, outraging the West while effectively launching Islamic nihilists' global marketing campaign. Experts suspect such tapings are likely to have been circulating among terrorist radicals long before registering on any outside radars. Once the tapes went global, sympathizers triggered escalating searches in Western engines, finally drawing the scrutiny of both international authorities and the security academe.

As I thought more about Richard's question, I began to wonder why I had never explored such matters, at least in my own reading. If such killing was happening in the name of my faith, why was I not arming myself with information to expose such abuses? Acutely aware that the first duty of being a Muslim is the exposure of any and all injustice, I couldn't help feeling if I didn't care enough, why would any other Muslim care either?

I turned to Brooke. I had so many questions. Brooke's work focuses on the abuse of children used as instruments of terror, a journey she has brilliantly documented in her must-see movie, The Making of a Martyr. Learning more about her work, I realized that in these environments that incubate terror, children are especially vulnerable as indiscriminate vessels to channel terror. Brooke's contributions are among the first to identify that the exploitation of the child in service of terrorism, specifically in the role of suicide bomber, has been completely overlooked, legally, ethically, and morally. These children are utterly invisible in every capacity, driving Brooke to found the Children's Rights Institute. Now, as the Taliban becomes increasingly deranged and demented, children are being inducted into executing the most lurid, heinous acts of violence. As I listened to her findings, I wondered to myself just how some 'Muslims' had become so utterly inverted in their morality.

A religion that has valued the sanctity of human life above and over any right (including any rights God has over man) has, a mere 1500 years later, been distorted by brilliantly manipulative imposters into a growing subculture that today, in punctuate ideological ghettos across the planet, perversely prizes death over life. A Revealed Coda that enshrines the rights of a child -- including specifically explicit rights concerning the protection and guardianship of orphans (the most vulnerable of all children) -- is today, in demented hands, nurturing generations of children who aspire to serve as human detonators, agents of death, or worse, perhaps even brutally co-opted as body bombs. Insanely, 'Muslim' parents, whose directive (like all parents in all societies and cultures) is to protect their child at all and every cost, have in some places in the world redefined their identity through the voluntary, commercialized murder of their own children, accepting financial pensions, monetized 'martyrdom' in lieu of a decimated pediatric carcass.

"I wouldn't normally share these images with anyone," Richard explained, "except that because you are a doctor, I thought you might be able to cope with them -- there is, after all, something that can be learned through examining all of this material."

I doubted my experiences even as an experienced critical care physician had prepared me for what I was about to see. I didn't know whether to laugh at my naïveté or his. What in medicine could possibly prepare me for this? Could our worlds be any more different? While we had both dedicated our lives to averting death, my struggles are to preserve the loss of life to disease, while his are to avert entirely man-made mortality, a far more sinister pathology. In his own oddly powerful yet simple words, Richard's work was encompassed in keeping people "alive and safe" from some of the darkest forces at work.

"I have questions of you!" I announced, disregarding even a modicum of decorum. Asking questions always makes physicians feel better -- we have to be in control and always at a comfortable distance from our own distress. I assumed the familiar mantle, brightening up almost immediately. Brooke sat back, intent.

"Why do you have these images? Why do you have to see them? Where do you get them from? " Even to my own ears, I sounded rather aggressive. Richard leaned back in his chair, pulling his chin in and, veteran soldier that he is, puffing his chest out. My bald questions had put him on the defensive. I guessed my fear was badly showing. I still wasn't sure if I wanted to be here or not, but I was already in way over my head -- it was too late to turn back.

"Since 1993, I have been lecturing on terrorism and strategies in counter terrorism. I have had to keep up with how terror is changing. These videos are widely available on the internet and are accessible to anyone who wants to see them. I have to know what they show and sometimes I have to talk about this in my work." Now that I finally allowed myself to listen, I found that his tone was calm and not at all defensive.

"And in my opinion," he continued, "it's important to know just who exactly we are dealing with. People here in the West generally only know of the Daniel Pearl and Nicholas Berg beheadings but don't realize that with the Taliban, for example, these beheadings are commonplace and have been occurring perhaps for much longer than we think".

My questions addressed, he leaned forward and handed us a printout discussing one of the movies we were about to watch. I wouldn't read it until days later, finding it was an article published by the Associated Press. I was surprised at how mainstream these events truly were. Why was I unaware of them? Why were we not hearing about this on CNN or Fox or MSNBC? I asked as much.

"Because no one cares about Muslims killing Muslims, Qanta," he responded, barely missing a beat, "'Let them do what they will to one another' is the prevailing attitude," he explained.

"Even now, in the setting of the global war on terror?" I asked, thunderstruck. I found this explanation simply too hard to believe: what better ammunition have we to demonize Islamofascism than exposing their bestial brutality to their own? With a brisk nod, he confirmed.

Two-handed, he picked up his reading glasses, securing them onto the broad bridge of his nose, his bespectacled expression made suddenly benign, almost avuncular. His lined brow furrowed, anticipating our distress.

"Are you ready, ladies?" he asked, peering over the half-moon lenses. I tried to fathom his intent in his eyes, drawing a blank in their inscrutable darkness. Taking a deep breath, I signaled my consent. In silence, we peered into the laptop, into the abyss.

We watched three or four films in quick succession. Each depicted multiple decapitations, all of Muslims by Muslims. Every film was taped in broad, blistering daylight. These atrocities were not occurring in dank, secrete concrete fortresses, rather they were orchestrated in public squares. Evidently, the perpetrators had no fears of being discovered. The executions were conducted with both tacit and overt societal acceptance without even a semblance of fearing reprisal.

Allow me to share one such killing. The video opens mid-scene. Enter stage right, dead man walking. A young Afghani or Pakistani man is being led roughly by men who look just like him. Mid-to-late twenties, bearded, dressed very much in the manner of tribal northwestern Pakistan, the doomed man's shalvar flaps around his lean legs in the headwinds of hell. I strained to hear the audio. These men were certainly not speaking Urdu or Punjabi or Arabic. I guessed they were either speaking Pushto or Dari, their voices drowned out against an endless loop of choral jihadi Arabic replayed in the habitual 'hall effect' mode, preferred sound setting of fanatics. Maybe the echoes reminded them of boom-box audio bouncing off the walls of a deep Hindu Kush cave, I thought to myself, blackly.

The man awaiting his doom was tied at the wrists with clumsy ropes, hands behind his back. He was tall and rangy, and very much a member of the same ethnic community as his killers. He didn't struggle, nor did he stumble. I wondered why he didn't resist. I asked. Richard surmised it was possibly because the man feared torture prior to death and so was cooperative. His steps were too facile for sedation or tranquillization. I realized the man was fully aware, and, worse, fully resigned to his appalling destiny.

He was lain to the ground, belly down. Thus proned, his head was extended, his chin jutting out. His beard, overgrown, long and straggly, served as a monstrous makeshift handle for his head. In a circle of men, a vigorous boy, head encircled in a banner of some kind, leapt to the task. He was perhaps twelve at the very most, I decided, possibly even ten. Significantly shorter than the men around him, his voice was high pitched. Poised on the fragile threshold of manhood, he was brandishing a kitchen knife, with a wooden handle. Like the boy, it wasn't particularly big.

The camera panned back and forth between the boy, the victim, and, to my astonishment, the public crowd. Several thousand Muslims, all men, were seated in orderly rows. Under an O'Keefe noon, the sun cast short, brutal shadows, blanching the macabre amphitheater. No women were present as far as I could tell -- perhaps they watched off camera, peering mutely through the cotton filigree of blue-meshed prisons. In every direction, the crowd was arranged in neat, organized lines. I had a sickening feeling that this was occurring around the time of the Zuhr or noon prayer. Possibly it could have been a Friday. I stared at my fellow spectators, 'fellow Muslims.' The crowd was as transfixed by what was about to transpire as I. Watching from the lip of the abyss ensconced in the safety of the Captain's cabin, we were just as powerless to intervene.

The boy-man took hold of the beard in his left fist. The victim was voiceless, already limp with the knowledge of his own imminent death. A crescendo of Takbirs began to chorus around the boy as he made the first astonishing incision. 'Allah hu-Akbar! Allah hu-Akbar!' chanted the cast. Barehanded, his approach was anterior, much to my surprise -- any decapitation implied in box office films I had seen (Marie Antoinette's or Mary Queen of Scott's, for instance) was always depicted from the back.

Legs astride, the boy straddled his prey. Out-of-the-box-new sneakers gleamed painfully white in the noon sun. He hadn't quite grown into them, I noticed. Instead, the boy-man began to slice through the front of the victim's throat. The blade was shockingly sharp for such a crude-looking, filthy tool. I was sure he had chosen the level of the larynx at which to begin advancing the blade. I found myself sinking deep into a visceral memory, reminded of that private, somatic nausea only a physician can know. A sickening feeling I experienced when performing tracheostomies on my critically ill patients surged back to me. There is a distinct crunch when one enters the trachea (windpipe), verifying one's correct position but the frankly brutal act of penetrating another human being with force always nauseates. Some sensations never leave one.

Watching the boy sawing pretty much at the same anatomic spot, I could feel the cartilage crunching under the blade. My brain had slowed every image, valiantly trying to comprehend what I was seeing. Only a few frames later, broadening his incision, the initiate was slicing open the jugular veins bilaterally and the massive, pulsatile carotid arteries that course directly, diagonally in front of them. Silent blood emptied out of the man. Jihadi poetry mounted to a tumescent crescendo as his life force was meaninglessly ejaculated forth. The man would lose his entire blood volume within seconds and soon, six liters of blood would seep into the Godforsaken Pakistani dirt around him.

Richard asked me if the death would be 'instant,' as though seeking reassurance. I had to be honest. I truly wasn't sure. The man would have had some awareness, memory, consciousness -- even now, well into the culling, the spinal cord was still intact, preserving full cortical function. As we watched a few frames later, he had already begun asphyxiating while the blood now poured into the open trachea, the man's windpipe. He still hadn't exsanguinated. Blood began sputtering, not just ebbing, because of the bubbling of air exiting from his lungs into the blood torrent. I noticed how quickly the rate of bleeding diminished, as blood pressure vanished into oblivion. Thankfully now, he would have passed out.

As the frenzy of Allah-hu-Akbars rose around the boy, he became increasingly emboldened as he began the grim, repugnant work of separating the head from the trunk. The child was surprised to find it quite such a task, unaware of the fibrous ligaments, sturdy strap muscles and immense atlas and odontoid vertebrae which anchor the head to the body. There was no dignity in this death. I couldn't help feeling we were firmly arrived in an era that can only be described as Kuliyug.

Despite the enormous crowd, no one rose in dissent and no one attempted to intervene, even though the crowd far outnumbered the executioners. I looked up. Brooke had covered her face in distress and began to look increasingly ill. Richard was impassive, pensive, the reflection in his lenses veiling his thoughts. Most of all, I was astonished at my own detachment. The retired officer was right: medicine had desensitized me, much more than I thought.

I returned to the scene. It was full minutes before the beheading was over, at which point the small, short boy with neatly trimmed hair and a clean, downy face that doubtless his mother had scrubbed that morning began waving the trophy of the man's head. He held it up for the crowd to see. A faceless hand snapped pictures with a store-bought Nokia, capturing the moment to MMS for his ghastly network. The boy smiled a wide smile, showing a full set of young, permanent and very white teeth. This was not a kid raised on Coca Cola. The crowd responded to the disembodied head, chanting more Allah-Hu-Akbars. The blood and violence hadn't shaken me physically, but hearing the same words that my parents had taught me in earliest life along with my ABCs and "Aleph, Behs" in this context truly turned my stomach.

The camera panned over the headless corpse, following the boy attempting to prop the decapitated head over the man's groin. Uncooperatively, it kept rolling onto the ground. Carefully, the determined boy kept repositioning the severed head until finally it balanced, in a ghoulish display of degradation, over the cadaver's deflated penis.

As he smiled for the cameras, the boy used the blade of the knife to clean blood off the dead face. For a moment, I covered my face in horror fearing imminent ennucleation, but no, the boy-killer was innocently tidying up the scene for his very own Kodak moment. He wanted the face of his quarry to be recognizable. In a final desecration, he took the long, bloody blade of the knife, and wiped it back and forth through the matted hair of the dead man's head and beard, treasuring the implement which had brought him induction into the special world of madness among these men. Like a Samurai for whom his sword was his soul and honor, for this boy, this kitchen knife was irrevocable proof of his manhood.

The precision with which he cleaned the blade was in stark contrast to the crude, ill planned blows with which he had severed this head only moments earlier. Utter ignominy. Even sheep and cows when slaughtered are quietly laid on their side, the abattoirists instructed by the Quran to make the moment of death as fast and painless as possible. I couldn't help comparing the brutal execution of the anonymous man to the humane slaughter of an animal for Halal meat.

Mission accomplished, the boy was surrounded by his adult peers. Men draped with automatic weapons and ammunition belts; men wielding cell-phones and camcorders vied to praise him. I watched the victorious boy. He looked elated, much as he might have done if he had grown up in another family and had just been congratulated for memorizing the Quran. His ruddy, blood-spattered complexion glowed, his face gaping open in a grinning slash. Suffused with joy, now he looked more obscene than the remains of the victim. Older men ruffled the boy's hair, squeezed his shoulders, validating his alleged courage, playfully reinforcing his nascent, blossoming brutality.

The tape ended.

I returned to my surroundings. A crystal prism gleaming in the long, low New York rays caught my eye. Engraved with the word Rwanda, the ornament was an award Richard must have collected while speaking there. Hastily, Brooke excused herself, now thoroughly unwell. I watched her distress, worrying about the absence of my own. I spied a copy of my book on a nearby bookshelf and wondered how much more I would have to learn in the years since it was published, marveling at the scale of my ignorance.

In the Captain's cabin, I had entered another world, one that most Muslims have never fully confronted. These worlds are overrun with the worst bastardizations of our beautiful religion and yet we sit to one side, limp, voiceless, passive, and defunct, rather like the man going to his own slaughter. We worry more about cartoons than carcasses, we editorialize on South Park rather than Swat. Terror has become an illusion, an entertainment, an abstraction, 'A Triumph of Spectacle,' as Chris Hedge brilliantly captures our spiraling narcissism.

We have relinquished our power to take back our values, our religion and our responsibilities as Muslims. Unless we change something, we will witness our own destruction at the hands of these very same nihilists, the Munafiq the Quran talked about, the "dogs of the People of Hell" that the Prophet Mohamed (SAW) himself warned of during his lifetime in his famous hadith predicting his worst fear: those who would come from amongst us and use the Quran for their own nefarious purposes.

Forget South Park and bear suits: South Waziristan on Steroids is here.

Roaming, foaming, "the dogs of the People of Hell" are firmly in our midst. If we don't take action as decisively and emphatically as an illiterate boy-man chooses to in Waziristan, if we blinker our focus to cartoons on cable or comic strips in newspapers, we will pose no obstacle to the endless anonymous, slow execution of Islam at the hands of a thousand unrecorded decapitations, ending the fullness and richness of Islam as we had once known it. In its place, both we and our once-great monotheistic religion will be left as bloated, forgotten husks, baking and swelling as an unremitting zenith of Islamic fascism ascends over barren plains, where the wild dogs roam free.

That's no cartoon -- I promise you.