Monday, March 02, 2009

Dawn Perlmutter on Beheadings as Terrorism and Ritual Murder

Dawn Perlmutter
(Image from

A couple of weeks ago, I openly wondered if Muzzammil Hassan had beheaded his wife in a ritual act as a type of honor killing. Now, I see that Bill O'Reilly of Fox News, on a segment of "The O'Reilly Factor" for February 26, 2009, attempts to deal with the same question by interviewing the Dr. Dawn Perlmutter, who seems to be the director of the Institute for the Research of Organized and Ritual Violence, Investigating Religious Terrorism and Ritualistic Crimes, though I cannot locate a website.

Anyway, let's see what she has to say about honor killing in Muslim culture, with some words on how beheading fits into this sort of killing:
[Honor killing] is ingrained in rights of purity, in ideas about the afterlife. A lot of what has to do when somebody is disrespected or dishonored by her filing for divorce, he has to restore his honor through blood vengeance, and it becomes a symbolic act....

[T]here is a thin line between the two [types of beheadings, terroristic and ritual murder]. With a ritual -- they're all ritualistic murders. A beheading by its very nature is highly symbolic, which adds that degree to it. The jihadist beheadings -- and by the way there is hundreds of them....

[T]heologically, in the Koran there are actual passages that say you need to smite the neck of your enemy. They're interpreted differently. There's lots of passages that require specific mutilations. They take an eye for an eye literally. And the idea is that, in some ways, it's to prevent your enemies from going to paradise and to -- for you to restore [your honor]....

[I]t's about — more about them restoring their purity and their honor so that they can be -- go to -- there's higher levels in paradise....

[T]he jihadists cut the heads off, because they sort of are aligning themselves with an authentic form of Islam. They liked the idea of identifying with the sword of righteousness, with Mohammed. So, Al-Zawahiri had -- Al-Zarqawi had really perpetuated that. And they referred to the sword verses in the Koran. So the jihadists specifically liked to align themselves with that tradition....
The entire transcript is available at Fox News, which also provides a video link. What do I make of this 'analysis'? Hard to say. Dr. Perlmutter has clearly gotten into the literature on terrorism and ritual killing, and she is something of an expert, as the fact of her published book would indicate, but I'm left with some doubts about the sophistication of her understanding. She comes across in the interview as somewhat inarticulate, though I admit that I would probably not do very well at the interview thing either. I also expected more specificity and precision in explaining just how the Muzzammil beheading fits into the category of honor killing, but I didn't find that.

Disappointed with this interview, I Googled "Dawn Perlmutter" but didn't locate much. I did, however, come across an article, "Mujahideen Blood Rituals: The Religious and Forensic Symbolism of Al Qaeda Beheading," published in Anthropoetics, Volume 11, Number 2 (Fall 2005 / Winter 2006). This journal, whose full title is Anthropoetics: The Journal of Generative Anthropology, is published online by its editor, Eric Gans, who teaches in French and Francophone Studies at UCLA and who seems to devote the journal to an exploration of René Girard's ideas on sacred violence. I have the impression that this journal is a pet project of Dr. Gans, but go there and judge for yourself.

As for Perlmutter's article, I wouldn't call it a first-rate piece of scholarship. It's somewhat informative, and certainly more specific and precise than the Fox interview was, but I am surprised to find that Perlmutter cites Wikipedia 5 times (out of 42 citations). I consider Wikipedia a wonderful resource, but I would never cite it in a scholarly article as a source! Dr. Perlmutter needed only to go a step or two beyond Wikipedia to the sources that its anonymous editors used in order to reach material more appropriate to a scholarly article. Not to dig deeper suggests that Perlmutter is satisfied with sloppy scholarship.

But I'm not.

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At 9:57 AM, Blogger John B said...

The four Wikipedia citations seem to be for definitions that could be considered common knowledge for anyone familiar with the region. In a journal of West Asian history they might not be footnoted to begin with.

Most of the citations seem to be news articles. Two of the citations look like they might be from peer-reviewed journals. She quotes from her own book, as well. Wikipedia references aside, it doesn't look exhaustively researched.

At 10:17 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

John B, that's precisely my impression.

I think that she's some minor academic with an interest in Girard's theory of mimetic violence and has branched out from her work on the symbolism of ritual killings to investigate honor killings and Islamist beheadings.

She's out of her depth and is naive enough to rely on Wikipedia for things that she should have followed up further.

Not that she has nothing to contribute, of course, for I'm also no expert, but she ought to take more care in her selection of sources.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

An 'academic' appealing to Wikipedia in a piece of 'scholarship', is something of an expert? I doubt it. She doesn't appear to have conducted any real research or produced any honest original scholarship.

At 10:03 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hmmm . . . "something of" -- but to put it less courteously, not much of in this article.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This woman is clearly an ignorant fool.

At 5:20 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, you may be right . . . but I suppose I ought to look more carefully into her book before I finally decide.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:54 AM, Anonymous sumnonrabidus said...

Dawn Perlmutter is a quack. In fact, she might be said to be -- well, let's just say you can't fool all the people all the time. Her "academic" publications are in Anthropoetics, a journal not recognized by any academic discipline, and by the Mideast Quarterly -- a virulently one-sided pro-Israel, Islamophobic rag.

At 12:46 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for the comment and info.

Jeffery Hodges

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