Are Militants' Swords Mightier Than Guns?

He was beaten, threatened, had guns put to his temple and a sword placed menacingly at his throat. Then, after nearly a month of terrifying captivity, Murat Kizil says he was reborn.

Kizil had virtually given up hope when he was suddenly released by the militants holding him captive in Iraq. On July 4, the 28-year-old air-conditioning technician was reunited with his family in the southern Turkish city of Adana.

"The Fourth of July is my new birthday," said Kizil in a phone interview with from Adana. "It's my second birthday. I didn't think I had any chance of being released. I never dreamed I would make it out alive."

Kizil and another Turkish worker, Soner Sercali, were captured by militants June 9 after their car took a wrong turn on the outskirts of the restive Iraqi city of Fallujah. For the next few weeks, Kizil says he spent most of his time blindfolded, handcuffed, bundled from house to house in the dead of night and frequently threatened with execution.

Then the hostages' employer, the Turkish company Kayteks, announced it would stop doing business with the U.S. military in Iraq. On July 2, their captors dropped the two men near the Turkish Embassy in Baghdad. Two days later, Kizil was finally home with his family, tucking into his mother's special rice pilaf and lamb.

Where the Past Meets the Present

Not everyone captured by Islamic militants in recent times have been as fortunate. In May, American Nicholas Berg was beheaded in Iraq, and footage of the young businessman screaming while his captors slowly sawed off his head was posted on the Internet.

Berg's decapitation was followed by the beheading of a number of foreign hostages in Iraq, including South Korean contractor Kim Sun-il and Bulgarian driver Georgi Lazov. And in Saudi Arabia, Paul Johnson, an American engineer working for U.S. defense contractor Lockheed Martin, was decapitated by a group claiming to be al Qaeda's "wing in the Arabian Peninsula."

In each case, video footage of the killings showed hooded militants armed with machine guns, rifles and rocket-propelled grenades eschewing their modern arms for a weapon of a bygone era.

And in a ritual that is now sickeningly familiar, gruesome images of a form of execution often associated with a barbaric past were recorded and disseminated using up-to-date digital technology.

Offensive Acts, Ritualistically Implemented

While violent death in any form is disturbing, the visceral nature of beheadings — and the deliberate mutilation of the body it involves — makes it particularly horrifying.

"These are glaringly offensive terrorizing acts that are almost ritualistically and theatrically carried out," said John Esposito, professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown University. "It's not so much the punishing of the individual as the using of the individual."

And with a pattern of recording and releasing videotaped messages announcing abductions along with deadlines for their demands to be met, militants have been using the media to maximum effect.

In one of the more morbid moments of his captivity, Kizil said he once saw a photograph of himself and fellow hostage Sercali on television. But he was unable to hear the audio as his captors — who claimed to belong to a little-known group called the Mujahedeen Brigade — quickly switched off the television.

"They thought watching TV is a sin," he told through an interpreter. "We were forced to watch only tapes of Osama bin Laden and videos of how al Qaeda was taking hostages and killing Americans."

A Visible Display of Faith

Trapped, terrified and under constant scrutiny, the Muslim technician said he took to praying frequently during the day. "I believe in God, of course," he said. "But why did I pray so much then?

Because I felt that if they would see me praying, they might release me."

Weeks after his release, Kizil is convinced that it was his very visible display of faith — and the fact that he's a Muslim — that ultimately saved him.

Indeed, a day before he was released, the pan-Arab al Jazeera satellite television network aired video of Kizil and Sercali kneeling before five hooded men as one of the militants read out a statement, claiming the release was "to honor the Muslim Turkish people" following "the repentance of the two hostages."

‘They’re Muslims, So Don’t Kill Them’

While many Islamic extremist groups view secular Muslims as "slaves" to the "infidel West," Muslim hostages in Iraq were spared a gruesome, public death by sword — until recently.

Days after Kizil and Sercali were released, many Islamist Web sites featured vigorous debates about whether beheading a Muslim was justified.

While some contributors said all Turks, as citizens under a secular government, were "hypocrites" who deserved to be beheaded, others disagreed. "Slaughtering is something you started with the infidel crusaders and their allies, and we hope you won't deviate from that path," wrote a contributor who identified himself as the "Enemy of Foreign Infidels." But, he added, "They're Muslims, so don't kill them."

In an apparent shift in tactics, militants now have taken to decapitating Muslim hostages in Iraq. Last month, two Pakistanis were beheaded in Iraq and footage of their decapitation was sent to al Jazeera. On Tuesday, an Islamist Web site carried a videotape purporting to show the beheading of an "Egyptian spy" working for U.S. forces in Iraq.

The tape, allegedly made by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's group, identifiied the man as Mohammed Mutawalli. The tape's authenticity has not been verified.

History ‘Giddy’ With Severed Heads

While militants frequently espouse so-called Islamic canons to justify their brutal acts of vengeance, Diaa Rashwan, a researcher at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, Egypt, warns against attaching too much doctrinal significance to the beheadings.

"It's their interpretation of Islam," he said. "It's how they choose to interpret Islam." Even discussions about why Muslims should not be beheaded, Rashwan noted, were flawed and ultimately pointless. "It's their own interpretation of religion and it's their own interpretation of history, because there have been many great Muslims who have been beheaded."

Some analysts say Islam does justify decapitations. In a column in the online magazine Slate, Lee Smith noted the number of times beheadings appear in the Koran and concluded that "Islamic history is giddy with heads separated from their bodies."

At issue is book 47, verse four of the Koran, which says, "Therefore, when ye meet the unbelievers in fight [or jihad], smite at their necks at length." Another sura, or chapter, says: "I shall cast terror into the hearts of the infidels. Strike off their heads, strike off the very tips of their fingers."

But Georgetown's Esposito, author of What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam , maintains that while the Koran does have references to beheadings, they are part of a historical context. He also notes that if references in holy books are anything to go by, the Bible is replete with decapitations.

"The sword has been the common instrument for fighting wars, for fighting between individuals and also for executions," he said. "In the early days of Islam and Christianity, beheading was the common form of punishment — like lethal injection today."

Click here to read about some of history's infamous beheadings.

Beheading as a form of execution is part of the criminal legal code in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Qatar. But in practice, only Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to decapitate criminals, although the number of beheadings in both countries has been declining.

‘I Still See Their Faces’

While state beheadings are widely condemned by international rights groups, experts note there are critical differences between judicially sanctioned decapitations that take place after a trial process — no matter how flawed — and the recent spate of beheadings of innocent civilians.

During his horrifying weeks in captivity, Kizil says it was the very capriciousness of his abductors that rattled him most. But astonishingly, the young mechanic says he would still go to Iraq "if somebody would guarantee my safety."

With a sick father, a large family debt and no employment available in the sinking Turkish economy, Kizil says he desperately needs the cash. "I would not recommend that my brothers go to Iraq," he said. "But I'm willing to go again to repay our debts."

The recent capture of laborers from mostly impoverished Asian and African nations has highlighted the growing threat to foreign workers in Iraq. In recent months, more than 60 foreign workers have been abducted.

From his home in Adana, Kizil says he relives his ordeal every time he hears news reports of abductions.

"I get nightmares, I feel threatened," he said. "I still see their [his captors'] faces. I remember how they beat me. … Twice, they put guns to my forehead and once they put a sword to my neck. I didn't think I had a chance, but I was spared. I hope others are also spared."