The 9/11 attack, like all terrorist incidents, was a global message aimed at multiple audiences. That it is now seen as a generational moment may be attributed to a CNN camera crew which happened to be, by dint of luck, timing, or the will of God, in position to film the impact of the second jet striking the Twin Towers. The sixteen-second film clip, replayed by the international media for days, fixed the horror of the act in the minds of all who saw it.
Recently, another video went viral, likewise impacting a global audience. In a graphic sixteen-second clip, Khalid al-Hamad, a Sunni-Muslim, Syrian resistance leader, was filmed cutting the heart out of the body of a dead Syrian soldier and eating it, declaring that he would eat the hearts and livers of the enemy.
The video is grainy, gruesome, and possibly not originally intended for dissemination. The act itself was redolent of Islamic history and was understood in that context by Muslim audiences. Viewing this film, no Muslim could miss its religious connotations.
In the sixth-century wars that brought Prophet Mohammad and the Message of Islam to power, the Muslims were on the losing side in the Battle of Uhud. Overjoyed at this revenge for the deaths of her male relatives, Hind Bint ‘Utba rushed onto the field of battle cutting open the chest of Hamza, a relative of the Prophet, and eating his heart (or liver in other sources).
It is thus no coincidence that al-Hamad, covering all his bases, declared that he would henceforth dine on post-battle hearts and livers. The commander further stated that he was enraged by pictures on his cellphone showing Sunni women being raped with sticks. He vowed to exterminate all Syrian Alawites—members of the Muslim sect to which President Bashir Assad belongs. The Alawites broke from normative Twelver Shi’ism in the 9th century. Today, they are seen as the primary beneficiaries of Assad family rule.
Of all the Muslim audiences of the film, perhaps the most important is the Lebanese Hezbollah, a Shi’a militant group and political party. Fresh from its success in the Israel-Hezbollah war of 2006 and riding high in regional politics, the group’s foreign policy has greatly overshadowed that of the hapless Lebanese state. The full impact of the video on Hezbollah’s constituency remains to be seen, but it may greatly benefit Hezbollah’s policy of assisting Assad’s regime in its attempt to crush Syria’s Sunni insurgency.
Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict began with volunteer Shi’a fighters and medical personnel entering Syria in response to sermons urging them to defend Shi’ite shrines. With Iranian support, Hezbollah fighters entered the war to blunt the expansion of Sunni jihadists who declare Shi’ites to be kafir (unbelievers or in the worst case, non-Muslim pagans). Hezbollah and Syrian government forces are currently poised to recapture the strategic city of Qusayr.
The war has now spilled over into Lebanon, raising fears of another civil war. While that seems unlikely, the rocket attacks that have been a daily fact of Shi’a life in the Bekaa Valley have now spread to the Shi’ite neighborhoods of south Beirut. The threat to Shi’a non-combatants is very real. Should this violence escalate, the war could create a regional crisis and make the Balkanization of Syria irreversible.
Many Lebanese Shi’a did not support Hezbollah’s intervention from the beginning, though few predicted the risks it now poses them. Shi’a have always been hostile toward the heterodox Alawite sect they believe to be kafir. For the Shi'a, by propping up the Assad regime, Hezbollah is in effect fighting fellow Muslims to defend the kafir Alawites.
Hezbollah’s leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, addressed the delicate issue on Lebanese television. He stated: "Syria has real friends who will not let it fall to the US, Israel or Islamic radicals."
Hezbollah’s dilemma harks back to the 1980s. Imam Musa al-Sadr, the Lebanese charismatic leader who founded the pre-Hezbollah Amal movement to defend Shi’ite interests, issued a ruling which, against centuries of jurisprudence, declared the Alawites to be Muslims. In political Islam, when the situation calls for it, the politics can drive the Islam. Historically the survival of the Shi’a has often been based on its ability to dissimilate (taqqiya) in the face of threats. Hezbollah’s Syrian policy is thus not altogether novel.
Given this background, there is every likelihood that the video will bolster Hezbollah's position by showing that the Sunnis rather than the Alawites are kafir imitators of the reviled pagan Hind, who may be seen as Khalid al-Hamad’s model for emulation.
Baker, Aryn. "Exclusive: ‘We Will Slaughter All of Them.’ The Rebel Behind the Syrian Atrocity Video.” Time Magazine. May 14, 2013.
Davies, Wyre. "Syria conflict: Growing signs of Hezbollah role," BBC News. May 1, 2013. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-22369609.
“Kafir.” Political Islam: Political Islam is Islam's ideology about unbelievers, Kafirs. July 17, 2008. http://www.politicalislam.com/blog/kafir/.
“What do Shi’ites Think of Alawites?” Paklinks Discussion Boards. August 29, 2005. http://www.paklinks.com/gs/religion-and-scripture/191925-what-do-shias-think-of-alawites.html.
Author, Dr. Jeffrey Kaplan, was a Ph.D. student of Dr. Marty, graduating from the History of Culture Committee in 1993. He is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Institute for the Study of Religion, Violence and Memory, at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. His latest book, Terrorist Groups and the New Tribalism: Terrorism’s Fifth Wave, examines millennial violence among African terrorist movements. Radical Religion and Violence: Theory and case Studies, in press with Routledge, is a critical retrospective of his work over the last twenty years.
Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a PhD Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Martin Marty Center.