AMMAN, Jordan — There was one feeling that many of the Middle East’s fractious clerics, competing ethnic groups and warring sects could agree on Wednesday: a shared sense of revulsion at the Islamic State’s latest excess, its video showing a Jordanian pilot being burned alive inside a cage.
In Syria, the government denounced the group that has been fighting it for months, but so did al-Qaida fighters who oppose both the government and the Islamic State. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian government for once agreed on something, the barbarity of the militant group for the way it murdered the Jordanian, 1st Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh. Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the head of Cairo’s thousand-year-old Al Azhar institute and a leading Sunni scholar, was so angered that he called for the Islamic State’s extremists to be “killed, or crucified, or their hands and legs cut off.”
In a way that the beheadings of hostages had not, the immolation of al-Kaseasbeh united the Arab world in an explosion of anger and disgust at the extremists, also known as ISIS, or to most Arabs by the word “Daesh,” derived from the extremists’ Arabic acronym.
The sense of anti-Daesh unity made for strange scenes throughout the region. Jordan’s King Abdullah II, caught by surprise in Washington when the video was released, returned home not to anger at his absence, but to a hero’s welcome. Crowds lined his route from the airport to cheer Jordan’s decision to promptly retaliate by executing two convicted terrorists, both with connections to the Islamic State, only hours earlier.
Never known as a charismatic leader, King Abdullah got rave reviews at home for his tough talk in Washington, where in a meeting with congressional leaders he said his retribution would remind people of the Clint Eastwood movie “Unforgiven.”
While the propaganda video, with its vows to kill other fighter pilots bombing Islamic State positions, was clearly aimed at trying to scare Jordan out of the U.S.-led coalition fighting the extremists, it seems to have had the opposite effect among many Jordanians. Jordan is one of a half-dozen Arab countries actively participating in the coalition, in addition to Iraq, and Jordan’s government spokesman said the kingdom would now step up its involvement.
“I guess in a way we lost a pilot, but at the same time I think the government gained a collective support for fighting them, in Jordan and from all around too,” said Adnan Abu-Odeh, a former head of Jordan’s intelligence service. “Daesh have made a big error. When you are weakened as they have been, you try to make your supporters think you are strong by being more monstrous, but this time they went too far.”
In Syria, where a chaotic four-year insurgency provided the Islamic State with an incubator, both those supporting President Bashar Assad and those opposing him condemned the act, as did their foreign backers.
Iran, the Syrian government’s most important ally and no friend of Jordan, called the pilot’s killing “inhumane and un-Islamic.” Al Manar, the television station of another ally of the Syrian government, the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah, called it “the most gruesome” of many atrocities committed by the Islamic State.
Qatar, which opposes Assad, likewise condemned the killing as “contravening the tolerant principles” of Islam. Turkey, blamed by many in the region for allowing foreign fighters to cross its borders into Syria, where some join the Islamic State, also chimed in. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called it an act of “savagery” that had no place in Islam, adding, “I curse and damn the burning of the Jordanian pilot.”
Denouncing the Islamic State as a “diabolical” terrorist group, Al Azhar’s leader and grand imam, Tayeb, cited Quranic verses to show that Islam forbids the burning or mutilation of enemies at war. “This vile terrorist act,” he said in a statement issued by Al Azhar, “requires punishment as cited by the Quran for oppressors and spoilers on earth who fight God and his prophet, that they be killed, or crucified, or their hands and legs cut off.”
Mainstream Arab leaders reacted to the immolation in a categorically different way to the long string of hostage beheadings that preceded it. Partly that may have been because, according to many commentators Wednesday, burning someone alive is prohibited in Islam as a punishment that belongs to God alone, applied in hell. Beheadings, on the other hand, have a long Islamic history.
Others, while condemning the Islamic State, sought to draw attention to the Syrian government’s barrel bombings of cities that, according to Human Rights Watch and other organizations tracking the conflict, kill far more civilians than the extremists — however depraved and attention-grabbing the militant group’s methods.