I was first invited to a beheading in Saudi Arabia while working as a physician in Riyadh. It was 1999, and I was an attending intensive care specialist in an advanced medical system that valued my United States training. As we finished resuscitating a patient, a colleague casually said: “We’re going to Chop-Chop Square tomorrow. Do you want to see a beheading?”
He was referring to Deera, the Riyadh district surrounding its major seminary and mosque. During the week, Deera bustled with commerce, home to the finest jewellers. But on Fridays, with shops closed for Islam’s holy day, people convicted of capital crimes such as murder, rape and incest were beheaded by the sword-wielding state executioner in full public view.
The horrific irony – saving a life while my colleagues discussed the entertainment of taking one – was too much for me. I politely declined the invitation, and in the days that followed, I did my best to push the incident out of mind as I grappled with the country’s tension between modern and medieval.
Avoiding the medieval wasn’t always easy. Beheadings were announced each week in local papers, with as little fanfare as a weather forecast. A clause in my own contract reminded me, a British citizen, that while living in Saudi Arabia, I too was subject to death by decapitation. Raised Muslim from birth and a lifelong practitioner of Islam, this was my first introduction to the dark side of Sharia law.
A decade on, everything had changed. I had witnessed 9/11 from Riyadh. I had written a book about my time in Saudi Arabia, In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom, and I was confronting radical Islamism through my journalism. In 2010, having moved to New York to continue my medical career, I received a familiar-sounding invitation. Attorney Richard Horowitz, an internationally recognised authority on terrorism who shared my concern about radical Islamist terrorism, wanted to know if I’d join him in his office to view some homemade jihadist recruitment videos. This time I didn’t refuse.
Exchanging Chop-Chop Square for Times Square, where Horowitz was based, we watched a rare series of grainy films. They transported us from New York to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. For long minutes, we watched a Muslim boy, who looked barely 12, decapitate a Muslim man with a blunt knife, struggling to sever each and every strap muscle, cartilage and vertebra that secured the head to the torso. The finale accomplished, the blood-spattered boy in too-big sneakers was lionised, roundly praised in the language of my faith. Hundreds watched with admiration.
It was a pivotal experience, and I knew I needed to know more about the people who committed these acts in the name of my faith. By 2012, I was meeting Pakistani child jihadists in Malakand, in north-west Pakistan. Boys groomed to be suicide bombers, Taliban operatives and Taliban informers, boys who might have been in videos like the ones I had seen, told me in the unschooled Urdu of the Swat Valley about their own paths to jihadism (journeys I have recounted in testimony on Capitol Hill).
In recent weeks, I have watched in stunned horror as the Western world struggled to come to terms with the brutal decapitation of American journalist James Foley (pictured), followed just two weeks later with that of Steven Sotloff. But unlike many westerners, I am all too aware of the fact that such barbaric punishment is far from unusual. In a recent conversation, Horowitz summed up the situation with these bleak words: “Decapitations are now mainstream.”
As a devout Muslim, the tragedies of recent days have packed an added blow for me. Along with the senseless loss of two promising young lives, I have been forced to confront the fact that the beautiful religion that continues to sustain me – that supports me in my life-giving work as a physician – is increasingly the domain of those who would use it to destroy everything I hold dear.
Recent events have left me able to draw only one conclusion: Islamism – the radical impostor form of my religion – has declared war on Islam.