Double Standards and Decapitation

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The self-styled "defenders of the West" should look a little closer to home before decrying Islam.

Last September Subhaan Younis, a young Glaswegian, was discussing the Iraq war with Charlotte McCay in the shop of the city's Moathouse hotel. He asked if he could show her something that would give her nightmares. When she responded, "Aye, right," Younis held out his video phone and played her a clip he had downloaded of a hostage in Iraq being beheaded.

McClay was understandably shocked and upset. Notwithstanding Younis's unreserved apology and admission that he had made a "colossal mistake", believing McClay to have an idea of what he was about to show her, Glasgow stipendiary magistrate Euan Edment sentenced Younis to 60 days in jail for a breach of the peace.

"I struggle to understand," Edment said, "why any decent individual would have images showing the degradation and death of another human being, regardless of their race, political or religious persuasion."

So presumably we can now expect a massive legal assault against Hertfordshire police.

So far 140 officers and staff are implicated in the circulation of a grotesque clip of a man jumping from a bridge to avoid police, impaling himself on railings and being decapitated. The e-mail jokes, "Look what happens when you run from the police". And, not that it would be much mitigation, this is not the action of a few idiotic rookies. According to the Black Police Association (BPA) - deeply concerned by their colleagues' sneering at the pain and death of a black man - supervisors forwarded the e-mail to junior staff.

Perhaps mindful of a PR disaster, the force has launched an inquiry, and its deputy chief constable has stressed that there is "absolutely no room" for such behaviour. A good start, but even the BPA stresses that it doesn't want anyone sacked, and is only calling for demotion of those involved. Why? Surely what's sauce for the Younis goose is sauce for the police gander. At a tariff of 60 days per glorying-in-decapitation, Hertfordshire's looking at 8,400 person-days of jail time - more than 23 years.

In fact, when it's the police disseminating images of painful death for a laugh, the penalties aren't quite as stiff. We know that because, unbelievably, this is the second load of officers caught sending around this particular snuff film. A couple of months ago ten officers and three other staff in Merseyside were disciplined for the same action. The most severe penalty any of them had to face? The loss of three days pay.

So why is Younis's foolish and ghoulish act so much worse than that of more than 150 police staff? Is it that his showed deliberate murder? But surely it's a peculiar morality where mocking "degradation and death" isn't so bad if they're accidental.

Of course, it's who committed the murder that Younis showed, and where, that made the difference, and that explains his absurdly harsh punishment. Beheading is not just peculiarly vile but, it is increasingly insinuated, peculiarly Muslim. It has become the focus for an Islamophobia, according to which "western civilization" is under threat from savages. A few moments on-line nets plenty of articles with titles such as "The Sacred Muslim Practice of Beheading", and "Muslim Beheaders" explaining by tendentious theology how such acts are "sacred jihad practices".

So the brutalities of the Saudi state and acts of a tiny number of murderers are the Islamic mainstream, but the millions-strong colossal majority of Muslims who don't behead people are, what, an apostate sect? When radical, devout Sunni and Shia groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah condemn the decapitations, are they being un-Islamic?

Given how many horrible methods of execution humans have thought up, it's hard not to think that the uniquely horrified reaction to beheading bespeaks a particular cultural anxiety on the part of "defenders of the West" (perhaps a vague embarrassment about the historical beheading pedigree of European democracy?). However, their insistence that such dreadful acts shock the moral conscience of the more enlightened West is somewhat unconvincing, given the gusto with which capitalism can fetishise such violence.

These very Iraqi beheading videos, for example, are all over the internet, but the majority of sites hosting them, racing to the top of a Google search, are not "jihadist" pages, disseminating them for purposes of recruitment, but stupid, unpleasant American and European purveyors of porn videos, disseminating them - like the Hertfordshire police - for a laugh.

The perpetrators themselves presumably believe these murders to be political and symbolically powerful acts. For some puerile Americans and Europeans, however, they are entertainment. Beheading is now recycled in the West as a tawdry viral e-mail, and, what's more, as a profitable commodity. For those who find the crackle or screams of the original footage distracting, there's always the US DVD, Terrorists, Killers and Middle East Wackos. It sets its compilation of beheadings, mutilations and other deaths "to a kick-ass hip hop and punk soundtrack". Western civilisation indeed.