Earlier this week Syria’s foreign minister Walid al-Moallem said that his government is “fighting a war against al-Qaida linked militants who eat human hearts and dismember people while they are still alive, then send their limbs to family members.” The comments were made on behalf of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad in a speech to world leaders at the United Nations.

Though the statement is shocking, demonizing a leader’s enemies by claiming they are cannibals is an ancient tradition. Elements of this claim can be traced back to anti-Semitic “blood libel” rumors as well, the idea that Jews kill Christian children to use their blood for religious rituals (or cooking).

Terrorists, including al-Qaida, certainly commit countless atrocities. Actually eating human flesh is another matter, however. It is possible, though unlikely, that some member of al-Qaida ate a human heart at some point, though even if true it almost certainly not the routine practice that al-Moallem suggests.

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In his book “The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy,” William Arens, associate professor of anthropology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, notes that “the cannibal epithet at one time or another has been applied by someone to every human group the ‘Congo’ tribe of Africa, who fattened their war prisoners to the desired plumpness before serving them up; the Fijian chiefs who regularly dined on human flesh; New Guineans whose human cargo was consumed one at a time during long river voyages; the Aztecs, who participated in mass cannibalistic orgies at rituals; and the South American Tupinamba, whose culinary arts included elaborate rules of etiquette in distributing human flesh.”

Despite these and many other sensational examples, however, Arens concludes that there is a lack of “adequate documentation of cannibalism as a custom in any form for any society.” This is not to say that humans don’t sometimes eat other people’s flesh, of course. It clearly does happen in cases of famine, psychopathology, and other aberrant events. But Arens challenges the idea that eating other people is, or ever has been, a socially accepted practice.

Cannibalism as a Political Act

It is true that terrorists and criminals have been known to do gruesome things to their enemies. Al-Qaida terrorists, for example, have beheaded many people including journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002. Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel is infamous for similarly brutal and inhumane actions, including sending body parts to victims and beheadings. The goal in these cases is political, sending the unmistakable message that they mean business.

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Folklorists Gary Alan Fine and Bill Ellis, in their book “The Global Grapevine: Why Rumors of Terrorism, Immigration, and Trade Matter,” explain how terrorism can spawn rumors: “The power of terrorist acts to sow uncertainty and to change worldviews provides an opening for rumor. Rumor responds to the plausibility of events, and terrorism alters what people see as plausible. Further, terrorism creates a situation that is important and frequently ambiguous.” This ambiguity, in turn, can be exploited for political purposes.

In some cases dictators may even spread such rumors about themselves; in the 1970s Ugandan ruler Idi Amin was said to be a cannibal, a story he may have encouraged as a way to strike fear in his political opponents. According to the New York Times, “When asked about allegations of cannibalism, instead of denying it he answered: ‘I don’t like human flesh. It’s too salty for me.’” Amin knew that a terrorist or dictator doesn’t need to actually eat a human heart in order to strike fear in his enemies; he need only make people believe he has—or might.

Rumor, combined with politics and terrorism, can wield great power.

Image: A Syrian rebel fighter. Credit: iStock