Published: Oct. 17, 2014

Chris Hammons, CU Anthropology Instructor and regular contributor to Anthropology News, recently published a great article on the recent beheadings by the Islamic State, entitled "Beheaded: An Anthropology," in which he shows how we can understand these beheadings as part of the Islamic State's claim to statehood. Here are a few paragraphs from the article, all of which can be read at

"What can anthropology tell us about the beheading of two American journalists by the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL)? Anthropologists have been mostly silent so far, but with the US government escalating its intervention in Iraq and Syria, they should be more forthcoming.* There are at least three ways that this new round of violence in the Middle East could be approached.

"First, the Islamic State is an aberration because most Muslims condemn it as extreme or as not Muslim at all. In “The Trouble with ISIS,” Daniel Martin Varisco argues that the Islamic State will unleash a new round of Islamophobia even though it is “…a trouble not with religion but the overt and spiteful abuse of a religious veneer to justify political ambition and hateful vengeance.” This approach avoids the Orientalist assumption that Islam is inherently more violent than Christianity or any other religion by attributing the violence of the Islamic State to its politics rather than its religion.

"Second, the Islamic State may be an aberration, but it is not novel: there have been caliphates before this one. What is new is the political context in which this caliphate has arisen. If a caliphate is not just a Muslim state, but one that has global ambitions, the conditions for the realization of those ambitions actually exist in the 21st century. This is why social media is as important to the Islamic State as controlling territory and resources, establishing a bureaucracy, and providing social services. It is a caliphate that has arisen from the conditions of globalization and uses them to its advantage.


"A variation on the second approach to the violence of the Islamic State could emphasize that beheading is a long-standing practice of statecraft, including Muslim statecraft. Beheading is almost always associated with the founding of a new social order or is reserved, after the social order is established, for outcasts, the worst criminal offenders, or both. In 2007, Saudi Arabia officially beheaded four Sri Lankan laborers who had been found guilty of armed robbery. This example and many others from history suggest that victims of state-sanctioned beheadings are not just criminals, but criminals who have been marked as different—as outsiders—by their race, ethnicity, nationality, class and/or gender.


"In beheading the journalists, the Islamic State was making a claim to statecraft. Even if it has declared the US and the West to be its enemy, and even if the expressed reason for the beheadings was that the US did not meet the demand of the Islamic State to stop bombing its territory, resources and subject population, the intended audience of the beheadings was surely not the US government, which the Islamic State must have expected to seek retribution. It was, instead, the existing and potential members of the subject population of the Islamic State. The beheadings are a classic case of what Rene Girard calls a founding violence—the violence at the origin of a new social order, usually directed at an outsider, a sacrificial victim, whose death is intended to dispel internal conflict."