The Burning of Muaz Kasasbah: How Will Islamic State Explain This One?

IS has had ample opportunity to negotiate prisoner exchanges, but it didn't.

By Moazzam Begg 

It’s not often that Fox News broadcasts material that exercises the grey matter, but in the case of downed Jordanian pilot Lietenant Muaz Kasasbeh who was horrifically burned alive by Islamic State (IS) this week, Rupert Murdoch’s notorious channel, more synonymous with embarrassing #FoxNewsFacts, has now outdone itself.

In publishing the slickly and sickly IS-produced video on its website, Fox News simultaneously becomes an important vehicle in helping to explain the IS narrative alongside evidence of the latter’s predilection to unrivalled inhumanity.

In the video, the signature Islamic State “A message to …” format followed by kneeling captives aside masked executioners is absent. In fact, there is no title to start off. All we have is Fox’s own ominous: “WARNING, EXTREMELY GRAPHIC VIDEO: ISIS burns hostage alive”.

The film begins with a clip of King Abdullah of Jordan explaining how out of the Jordanian pilots who were asked to volunteer to bomb IS targets as part of the US-led coalition, “every single pilot raised his hands and stepped forward”. Whether the hapless Kasasbeh was present or not, henceforth events were set in motion that sealed his fate at the hands of IS.

Fox News has not translated the video from Arabic, but the narrative is predictable, to a point: Jordan, an apostate monarchy, has sided time and again with the crusader states of the west in Iraq and Afghanistan with its military forces and intelligence cooperation with the US and its own secret prisons. The story then changes to the shooting down of the Jordanian fighter-jet in Raqqa, Syria and the capture of Kasasbeh. This time a title materialises: ‘Healing the believers’ chests’. This is undoubtedly in reference to the Quranic verse about fighting an enemy who Allah “will punish (them) by your hands and will disgrace them and give you victory over them and heal the breasts of a believing people.” [Quran 9:14]

This title suggests that IS is hurting from the effects of the sustained aerial bombing campaign it has been facing and, judging by the Dresdenesque destruction of Kobane largely carried out by the coalition, it is no surprise. However, considering what happened to innocent journalists or aid workers like James Foley and Peter Kassig who had come to Syria to help those more associated with the rebels – most of whom were in some way Islamic – and had even been declared ‘protected citizens’ and ‘innocent’ by IS’ own leaders, as in the case of British aid worker Alan Henning, it is no surprise either that IS would unleash its warped form of vengeance on its enemies. (NB: ISIS was imprisoning torturing, beheading and crucifying both Islamic and secular opponents in Syria well before it declared a caliphate).

I expect that the part most overlooked in this video will be the very reason why IS justifies such barbarity and whilst most people cannot stomach the idea of what IS does in the name of Islam it is important to understand its viewpoint. Dressed in Guantanamo orange, Kasasbeh explains candidly who he is and what he does. More disturbingly for Arab states involved in the bombing of IS he describes exactly what types of fighter-jets and missile they employ and identifies each country and the various airbases used as airstrike launchpads. He names Jordan, the Gulf States and Morocco as participants. He also names a Jordanian airbase used by US and French air forces. He goes on to explain the coordination between the various countries and the designation of sectors, which are surveyed using spy planes and satellites.

Kasasbeh then directs a message to the people of Jordan. “Our government is an agent of the Zionists…If we say we want to defend Islam then why do we not send our planes to [attack] the Nusayri (a pejorative term for Alawites), Bashar al-Asad forces who have killed countless Muslims, and the Jews who are closer to us…to defend al-Aqsa and Muslim land in Palestine.” Finally, he tells Jordan to stop sending its sons to fight IS or they will end up like him. The video then cuts to images of coalition airstrikes, incendiary rockets and charred bodies of children. Lt. Kasabeh is then seen walking, unshackled, unescorted, observing, perhaps even contemplating the effects of the devastation caused by airstrikes which he may even have carried out, as masked gunmen look on.

What happens next is unbelievable. Just as with previous executions there is a sense of surreal foreboding, that they wont really do it. But being burned by fire is so much worse, so horrific that Muslims have been taught the fear of entering naari jahannam (the fire of hell) since the birth of Islam. IS has justified execution by fire based on the Islamic law of qisas (retribution). The fact that there are clear prohibitions on burning by fire, viewed as solely a Divine right, as a form of capital punishment has been overridden by IS simply because of how hard they have been hit. Established Islamic principles have little to do with it.

IS could release details of its court proceedings so that that the Muslim world and the non-Muslim world – who IS undoubtedly would want to invite to Islam – can decipher for itself the nature of its procedures, advocacy and sources of law.

IS has stated that it has returned the Caliphate to the Muslim world, “on the methodology of the rightly-guided caliphs”. If that’s true, the caliph is absent. Even despots in the Arab world regularly appear in public and on social media to explain their policies, answer their critics or even to heap praise on supporters. In contrast hardly anything has been heard from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi since he took up the title of caliph.

IS supporters should know that the second and most historically influential of the rightly guided caliphs of Islam, Omar ibn al-Khattab, regularly held open court and was, on varying occasions, accounted and chastised in public. Once, a woman corrected him in the mosque regarding his mistaken view on marriage dowries; another time the Caliph, known for his frugal lifestyle and patchy clothes, had to explain why he had more cloth than everyone else (Omar’s son had donated his share to his father as the latter was a tall man and the share allocated to him didn’t suffice). The Caliph, on another occasion, was even told he’d lose the people’s oath of allegiance – bayah – and be straightened by the sword if he went astray. Omar did not imprison, torture or behead the man who openly said this; rather, he thanked Allah that such courageous people resided in his caliphate. IS has imprisoned and executed numerous people for refusing bayah. Their brutality will probably get worse.

The Islamic authority of al-Azhar in Egypt has called for killing, crucifixions and amputations against IS while Jordan has executed two failed al-Qaeda bombers, who were not part of IS, and has vowed an “earth shattering” response. IS has had ample opportunity to negotiate prisoner exchanges. But more often than not it either demands money, or simply kills its prisoners. If there is no room for negotiating even prisoner exchange the alternative is more airstrikes, more war.

In contrast, last year there was an unprecedented Afghan Taliban/US prisoner exchange. The Taliban too had been bombed by coalition forces and had lost many more people than IS. Yet the Taliban were not only able to secure their prisoners’ release from Guantanamo in exchange for US Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, they even managed handshakes in the process. Bergdahl had been their captive for five years. The Taliban’s parting statement to him was simply, “don’t come back to Afghanistan”.

– Moazzam Begg is a former Guantanamo Bay detainee and currently the director of outreach for UK-based campaigning organisation CAGE. (This article was first published in Middle East Eye.)

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