How to Win Enemies and Disgust People

by Steven R. Corman and Jarret Brachman

On April 20, news surfaced from Peshawar, Pakistan of a gruesome Taliban execution video in which a young boy beheads a fellow Taliban supporter. The victim, identified as Ghulam Nabi, a Pakistani militant, “confesses” on camera to having betrayed a senior Taliban official. “He is an American spy,” the camo-clad boy proclaims to the camera, knife in-hand. “Those who do this kind of thing will get this kind of fate,” he states, before clumsily sawing Nabi’s head from his body, amid spurting blood and the sounds of other children shouting “Allahu akbar!” Finally the boy hoists the severed head aloft.

An AP story provided the initial mainstream news coverage of the video. It correctly concludes that this video stands out, even among the worst Iraqi execution scenes, due to the young age of the killer. Reuters, too, has quoted Afghani tribal and religious leaders who call the action un-Islamic.

There is a standard protocol for releasing these kinds of videos. The video is shot, edited, labeled with a logo (either as-Sahab, Labayk, al-Furqan or others), and uploaded through the al-Fajr Media Center network of trusted cyber partners on to the primary extremist websites. This video seems to have been sidelined before achieving widespread release. Its derailing is likely due to the almost universal reactions of disgust that it provoked among locals who viewed the tape.

Principles

Disgust is a powerful emotion that is, according to psychoanalyst Susan B. Miller, a mechanism for policing contact between the self and the environment. On a primitive level, it may help keep our bodies free of substances like rotten food and waste. But, on a more advanced level, it helps us understand which aspects of the broader environment to consider parts of ourselves and which ones to keep separate. Moral disgust, such as that noted in the quote above, need not require any kind of physical stimulus, but can result from revulsion to an idea, way of thinking, or way of behaving.

If disgust is related to the self, then it is also related to the self’s social manifestation, identity. This is the set of resources a person uses project an image of the self to the social world. This happens through acts of identification, communicating with others to produce and reproduce identity. For example, most readers of this post have a profession, an identity that includes an understanding of what they do, who they associate with, what they know about, how they support themselves, and so on. By talking about these things with others in relevant situations (for example, at work), they identify with their profession. Identity can also be reproduced through acts of disidentification, when people distance themselves from particular others and groups. For example, people often identify themselves with a political party by criticizing the views of an opposing party.

Analysis

The child executioner video has the potential to be a strategic communication disaster for the Taliban and their extremist brethren. To begin, it is clear that the spectacle created disgust, not just among distant bloggers and other commentators but among people in the region. So disgusted was one Afghani who lives near the Pakistan border, he said “[a]fter I watched this, I could not eat any food for two days.” A man who spoke with Radio Free Afghanistan (RFA) complained about broadcasts of the video, saying “it has a very bad effect on our minds.” Another theme was disgust over victimization of the boy. A man who spoke with RFA called it a barbaric act and said “It was a little boy who was beheading a young man. It is horrifying. What will become of this little boy when he gets older?” A contributor to the afghansite.com forum said “It’s unforgivable what they’ve made that innocent child do.” Another said “i just feel sorry for poor sob kid.. he is f-ed up for life…”

There was also more direct disidentification with those who arranged the execution, attempting to distance them from the beliefs of Islam. Iqbal Haider, secretary-general of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, called it barbarism and said, “Whosoever has committed this, whether they are Taliban or anybody else or any Afghan or al-Qaida or anybody, they are enemy No. 1 of the Muslims.” A religious teacher who spoke to Reuters was even more direct: “It’s very wrong for the Taliban to use a small boy to behead a man. I appeal to the Taliban to please stop this because non-Muslims will think Islam is a cruel and terrorist religion. The Taliban do not follow the laws of Islam.”

Expressions against the Taliban were not limited to western press stories, either. An afghansite.com contributor responded to the incident, saying “think how holy islam is being used and abused to [shed] peoples blood.” He goes on: “Take whole afghans into stone age.. wtf are the savage Talibams agenda? wt the want to achive?” Musab, a contributor to The Al-Firdaws forum, said: “Mistake that what you call these kind of things Mistake. ok i am not trying to expose any muslims i am just trying to live in Reality ALLAH Created me with A Heart and with Knowledge.”

Not everyone agrees with these commentators, of course. For example, Senior member Abu Sufayn responded violently to an earlier post of Musab’s:

Dear brother musab! I posted the news item just to show the whole world media is shouting and doing the propaganda against our brothers. It looks like you also unfortunately became the victim of this propaganda. I dont see anything bad with this beheading by 12 year old. Jihad is Fard on all of us, including children and women. So what is wrong if the youngster fulfilled his duty.

However, statements denouncing the execution are significant. They index strong feelings motivating people of the region to identify with the boy and Islam, and distance the Taliban from everyone. This is particularly important because religious legitimation is one of the primary goals of the extremist’s communication strategy. When disidentification becomes widespread, it can lead to the disintegration of an organized movement. The conflict about this incident could be among the first signs of a widening rift between the Muslim community and violent extremist sects.

This case illustrates the power of communication to divide audiences and create a systematic perturbance, opening opportunities to question those who advance the message. There are many examples in history where the game has changed because terrorists—or sometimes those fighting them—have gone too far. A few examples are: Red Army Faction violence in 1970s Germany, the 1972 attacks against the Israeli Olympic Team in Munich, the Golden Temple massacre in 1984, the attacks in Luxor in 1997, the Abu Ghraib prison abuse case in 2004, and Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s bombing of a Jordanian wedding in 2005. Perhaps in the not too distant future we will add the Taliban Child Executioner Scandal of 2007 to this list.

Further Reading

  • Beah, I. (2007). A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  • Miller, S.B. (2004). Disgust: The Gatekeeper Emotion. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press.
  • Scott, C. R., Corman, S. R., & Cheney, G. E. (1998). Development of a structurational model of identification in the organization. Communication Theory, 8(3), 298-336.