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America. The dark cloud that loomed over lower Manhattan eventually cleared but
the reality of the American entrance into the battlefield of terror didn’t dissipate.
When President Bush addressed his stunned and grieving nation, he declared a
crusade on terrorists and all who harbored them, and “when [his] remarks were
translated into Arabic for broadcast throughout the Middle East, the word crusade
was rendered as ‘war of the cross’” (Carrol 5). This religious reference rang true to
those terrorists who had attacked the World Trade Center; all were members of
Osama Bin Laden's terrorist network Al Qaeda. The group is a militant Islamist
organization that believes those who commit acts like those of September 11th are
martyrs, welcomed into eternal paradise.
The phenomenon of martyrdom is not exclusive to Islam. By definition, a martyr is
“one who voluntarily suffers death rather than deny his religion by words or deeds;
such action is afforded special, institutionalized recognition in most major religions
of the world…the term may also refer to anyone who sacrifices his life or
something of great value for the sake of principle” (Britannica). The word is derived
from the Greek word for witness. Throughout the ages, willingness to die for a
noble cause has been a persistent idea. In three of the world’s major religions-
Judaism, Christianity and Islam, martyrdom has played a significant role.
In Judaism, the concept of martyrdom is referred to as Kiddush Hashem which
means sanctification of God's name. This definition includes refusal to renounce the
word of God for reasons of convenience or to save one’s life. According to Judaic
beliefs, Abraham, the first Hebrew patriarch, was thrown into a furnace for
denouncing idolatry. Though he was saved by God, his brush with death made him
the first martyr of the Jewish faith. During medieval times, Jews were persecuted
by Christians throughout Europe, and were frequently put to death for crimes such
as blood libel and host desecration1. Many Jews were forced to flee Spain during
the Inquisition to avoid being unjustly persecuted under the pretense of similar
offenses. These martyrs were usually burned at the stake. In the 1940’s Hitler
systematically slayed over six million Jews during the reign of the Third Reich.
These are just a few examples of martyrs of Judaism.
In early Christianity, all believers were considered martyrs. Later, this distinction
was reserved for those who refused to renounce their faith and suffered as a
result, whether they were injured or killed. Eventually, only those who were killed
for their beliefs were considered martyrs.
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the word "saint"- persons in heaven (officially canonized or not), who lived lives of
great charity and heroic virtues, such as Mother Teresa.2 During Roman times,
Christians were fed to lions as a games spectacle for refusing to renounce their
faith. In the sixteenth century, Queen Mary, also known as Bloody Mary, killed
thousands of Protestants for refusing to return to the Roman Catholic faith.
Within the faith, there is a martyrology: a list of saints arranged according to their
feast day on the calendar.
The first Islamic martyr was Sumayyah bint Khabbab, the seventh convert to
Islam. She was murdered by a Meccan leader who sought to prevent Islam from
spreading. In general, there are two categories of believers who are deemed
martyrs of Islam: those killed in jihad, and those killed unjustly.
In recent years, the definition prescribed by each of these faiths has been
manipulated. Historically speaking, the term martyr generally has a passive, nonviolent
association; the martyrs are not actively committing violence or spreading
suffering, but are made to suffer as a result of their faith. Traditionally, a martyr
is one who accepts death rather than renouncing their beliefs. However,
organizations working to actively spread violence in the name of their beliefs are
gaining power in the world. Within these organizations, a new breed of martyrs has
emerged. The neo-martyrs do not accept death given by an oppressor, they actively
seize their own death in an attempt to further their cause. This perversion of
martyrdom is not limited to any one faith or belief system. Internationally, groups
are becoming more and more aggressive in furthering their interpretations of
religion. In the Middle East, in epic proportions, acts of neo-martyrdom are
terrifyingly common between Israeli’s and Palestinians; rarely does a day go by
without some sort of violence in connection with these groups. Activist Paul Hill is
the hero of the United States anti-abortion organization. He was tried and
executed for the murder of two men in connection with his anti-abortion crusade.
Timothy McVey, also of the United States, was convicted and executed in
connection with the Oklahoma City Bombings. McVey was a member of an antigovernment
militia that supported the bombings. Though both McVey and Hill are
not technically neo-martyrs as they did not die in their attacks, they were later
killed by the US Government, and are now hailed as heroes within their movements.
Israeli and Palestinian suicide bombers, Hill, and McVey and countless others
represent the power of the “poor man’s nuke…armed with a feverent belief in his
god’s appetite for blood” (Peters). In a 111 page report published for the United
States Congress, forty six separate groups are listed as foreign terrorist groups.
Each group has separate targets, goals, and means of committing violence. When
attempting to categorize these groups, one natural classification is by religious
affiliation. Among the groups with Islamic affiliation is Al Qaeda, the group
responsible for September 11th 2001. Al Qaeda is on a quest to destroy any power
that opposes or threatens the glory of Islam. This goal of promoting Islam by
targeting Western power has gripped regions of the Middle East. An examination of
these groups that wield violence as their tool to spread and defend Islam offers a
chilling glimpse into one strain of neo-martyrdom. In Marjan Satrapi’s graphic novel
memoir, she examines yet another type of martyrdom that occurred in her native
Iran during the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980’s. Though the two types of martyrdom
seem similar in many ways, there are fundamental differences that divide the two.
The definition of a martyr is dynamic and depends on the context in which the word
is used. It is important to understand the scope of the phenomenon within Islam.
Engaging in martyrdom is an act common to only an extremist sect within this widely
practiced religion. On the whole, believers in Islam are not extremists or inclined to
martyrdom. Oliveti says “less than 5 % of Muslims could be classified as
fundamentalist in outlook, and of that 5 %, less than 0.01 % have shown any
tendency toward enacting terrorism or ‘religious violence’”. Therefore, only about
“one in every 200,000 Muslims can be accused of terrorism”. Despite this
relatively tiny number of extremist Muslims, their influence is feared far and wide.
Referring to extreme Muslims who commit acts of violence in the name of Islam as
martyrs is wrought with controversy. After September 11th, President Bush
referred to those who piloted the planes as not “‘martyrs but ‘murderers’” (Wall
81). The Arab Press, such as the TV News Network Al-Jazeera, “generally refers to
a suicide bomber as a ‘human bomb’” (Pakin 79), and the most widely used term in
the United States for the pilots of September 11th is “terrorists”. These
distinctions highlight the varying viewpoints in acts of Muslim martyrdom. To avoid
confusion and be consistent, and also to remain mindful of the goal to see more
deeply into the world of extremist Muslims, martyr will be used throughout this
piece when referring to those who could be considered terrorists, suicide bombers,
homicide bombers, or murderers3.
Muslim martyrs are considered to be engaging in jihad (struggle) in the name of
their beliefs. Technically, only a “Muslim state of government can [formally proclaim
jihad]” (Shimoni)- not a single individual or a network of individuals working towards
the same goal. As is true in many religions, suicide is explicitly forbidden by the
Qu’ran4 (Cox and Marks 10); Islamic believers are not inherently more violent than
those of other religions or non-believers. Despite this general tendency towards
the view of martyrdom as an extreme act, there is a growing sect within Islam that
is more and more supportive of acts of martyrdom. “‘Islamism’ and ‘Islamist’ are now
terms widely used to refer to radical, militantly ideological versions of Islam, as
interpreted by the practitioners and in which violent actions such as terrorism,
suicide bombings or revolutions are explicitly advocated, practiced, and justified
using religion terminology” (Cox and Marks 6). These Islamists, as with “all religious
terrorists, engage in hermeneutics (interpreting of texts)” (Stern 47). Thus, the
organizations avoid or reframe the problems raised by the prohibition of suicide
and the requirement that jihad be declared by Muslim governmental bodies only.
Islamists manipulate tenets of Islam to serve their own purposes. The Qu’ran
contains contradictory messages, some of which promote peace and others that
incite violence against oppressors. The Islamists focus on the messages of violence
and ignore those of peace. This phenomenon is paralleled throughout history in
religious groups that have employed violence to achieve their aims. The current
strength of the Islamists lies in their ability to recruit those willing to carry out
their bloody bidding.
The power of the recruiting networks is an important part of the lure of
martyrdom. Rarely, if ever, does a Muslim extremist act alone. Instead, elaborate
and sophisticated networks exists that recruit, train, and fund martyrs, as well as
support the families the martyrs leave behind. The myth of Islamists as “the
illiterate desert nomads or Cairo’s zabeleen (garbage collectors)” (Davis 10) must be
dispelled. The power and influence of the recruiting networks is vast. Al Qaeda, the
network that carried out the acts of September 11th, is headed by Osama Bin
Laden, whose family has a monopoly over the construction industry in Saudi Arabia.
Dr. Ayman Zawahri, considered to be the intellectual power behind al Qaeda was “an
established Egyptian-turned holy warrior” (Davis 10) before heading to
Afghanistan. These and other leaders are motivated by a “burning and
uncontrollable eagerness to destroy the enemy” (Israeli 85). The enemies include
“godless communists, the corrupt and corrupting West, aggressive America and
Israel, and the like” (Israeli 84). The struggle has many fronts but underlying
motives pertain mainly to issues of “resentment and self-righteousness…perceiving
themselves as victims, the terrorists hone a hypersensitive awareness of slights
and humiliation inflicted upon themselves or a particular group, and picture
themselves as a part of an elite group heroically struggling to right the injustices
of a unfair world” (Pakin 80).
The Islamist leader “imagines himself a defender of his threatened faith and
humiliated people, an extremist equivalent of [the Western view of] a solider
revered for throwing himself on a grenade to save his comrades’ lives” (Peters).
Terrorist leaders tell young men that the reason they feel humiliated, personally or
culturally is that international institutions like the IMF, World Bank, and the
United Nations5 are imposing capitalism and secular ideas on them with the aim of
exterminating traditional values (Stern 283). This notion of a defender of Muslim
tradition sheds light on Bin Laden’s and al Qaeda’s encouragement for a “clash of
civilizations” (Oliveti), which is why Bush’s “war of the cross” translation was so
controversial6. By understanding the factors that incite Muslims to join these
networks, an understanding of the role of Islam as both a recruiting mechanism and
unifier can be gained.
The emotions of solidarity and camaraderie are “purposely manipulated by
organizational leaders, recruiters, and trainers to benefit the organization rather
than the individual” (Atran). By focusing on a unifying and powerful force, Islam,
the recruiting organizations often promote a sense of owed loyalty “through
religious communion” (Atran), to achieve their goals of weakening Western
institutions via terrorism. The recruiters strive (and all too often, succeed) in
making “young men feel that their lives are worth more as holy warriors purifying
the world than ordinary citizens” (Stern 236). The recruiting process is two-fold.
The networks convince the potential martyr that he is joining a noble cause that will
glorify his religion. Then, the martyr is immersed in a sense of community and
commitment to this cause. Thus the commitment is strengthened and sealed.
When identifying what makes a typical martyr, self-concept is crucial. The typical
profile of a self-proclaimed martyr is “young, male, unemployed with few prospects
economically or socially, mildly religious” (Pakin 80). The Muslim identity becomes
the central piece of the self-concept, otherwise the martyr is somewhat aimless.
An even bleaker description hypothesizes that martyrs are “recruited from the
ranks of troubled souls, from those who find mundane reality overwhelming and
terrifying. The suicide bomber longs for a release from the insecurities of his daily
experience” (Peters). Often, poverty and hopelessness are cited as reasons that
drive the Islamists.
The socioeconomic explanation is plausible, as “over the last quarter century,
standards of living have either fallen or remained steady for most Muslim majority
states. In some, extremist groups step in to offer the social services the state is
failing to provide” (Stern 287). Other researchers disagree, arguing that martyrs
“exhibit no socially dysfunctional attributes (fatherless, friendless, or jobless) or
suicidal symptoms. They do not vent fear of enemies or even express ‘hopelessness’
or a sense of ‘nothing to lose’ for lack of life alternatives that would be consistent
with economic rationality” (Atran).
Though the schools of thought vary on what exactly constitutes a typical martyr,
“the key ingredient [is] susceptibility to indoctrination” (Perina) . The primary
responsibility for the attacks, in turn, falls on these recruiting networks “which
enlist prospective candidates from this youthful and relatively unattached
population” (Atran). A driving underlying psychological motive to martyrdom is a
quest for solidarity. However, in addition to personal psychological motivations,
there are other, more obvious reasons that seem to attract followers. Herein lies
the true power of the recruiting networks. Grand promises of paradise are only the
beginning of a long list of benefits the martyr receives; “the allure of martyrdom
may in fact take second place to the very tangible economic and social benefits his
family will receive” (80). The families of martyrs are promised economic support
and often and in fact, “their martyrdom is subsequently celebrated and their
families given financial support, such as payment for the funeral service. The
bomber’s family and the sponsoring organization celebrate his martyrdom with
festivities…hundreds of guests congregate at the house to offer congratulations”
(Cox and Marks 10). And of course, there is the glory. Martyrs are considered
never endingly brave, full of zeal and valor. From an Islamist extremist book on
martyrs, the true glory bestowed to martyrs is evident in this description: “a
martyr can be compared to a candle, whose job is to burn out and get extinguished
in order to shed light for the benefit of others…the martyrs are the candles of
society” (Mutahhary 8).
This path to glory and eternal paradise is an interesting one to examine. A common
theme throughout the ages in inspiring undying loyalty to religion, the promise of
paradise is not new to martyrs. What is seemingly new, is the force with which the
recruiting networks promote paradise in exchange for martyrdom. Recruiters spare
no detail in their promises for paradise; young boys are promised virgins upon
entrance. With the power of paradise in hand, recruiting networks begin their
campaign for fresh blood.
In parts of Palestine, recruiting for martyr training camp starts as early as age
eight. The training for jihad varies by camp, but most include the same sort of
events. In many, the men7 are divided into cells of six or seven, and this has the
effect of strengthening the feelings of group solidarity and commitment. The men
are trained in “small arms practice, cartography, targeting, mines, and demolitions
and poisons, as well as religious instruction and prepackaged justification for killing
American and Jews” (Pakin 81). Recruits are carefully watched by their leaders in
attempts to sniff out spies or those who may not be fully committed to the
cause…during their time in the camps the shaeed al hayy (martyr in training, living
martyr), spends time reading the Qu’ran and grows more and more comfortable with
the notion of death by reviewing his will and the wills of his companions repeatedly.
On the day of his attack, the martyr takes a ritualized bath, puts on clean clothes
and tucks a Qu’ran into the left breast pocket above the heart, prays…as he pushes
the detonator he says ‘Allah akbar’ (Allah is great. All praise to him.) (Pakin 81).
Martyrs play a minor role in most of the Muslim majority states. Their presence in
everyday society could be understood as significant but not overly so. However, not
all Muslim martyrs act on the same principles. In fact, in Iran during the 1980’s,
thousands upon thousands of neo-martyrs unified by Islam died for a shared cause.
Their cause was not merely to promote and protect Islam. The cause shared by
these martyrs had political and nationalistic meaning.
Understanding the surge of neo-martyrdom in Iranian society during the 1980’s
requires an understanding of recent Iranian history, beginning in the period after
the Second World War drew to a close. The Pahlavi dynasty had been in power in
Iran since the 1920’s. Installed and bolstered by the help of foreign governments
such as Russia and the United States, the dynasty sought to modernize Iran. In the
1960’s the “White Revolution” was proclaimed, which introduced many Western
ideas such as equal rights for women and secular (non-religious) education
While many Iranians enjoyed the prosperity and entrance onto the global scene
that the Pahlavi dynasty afforded, not everyone was satisfied with the government.
Many feared corruption and Western influence and loss of traditional values. As a
result many religious leaders, most notably Ayatollah Khomeini, began to plot the
overthrow of the dynasty. Through the work of Khomeini and others, eventually the
Shah Muhammad Reza was forced to flee Iran in January of 1979. The Islamic
Republic was then established, the “closest thing to a theocracy since the dawn of
Islam” (Fourteen Centuries ofIslam 184), and Khomeini filled key positions in the
government with his “closest clerical allies…he also conducted a purge of ‘un-
Islamic’ elements from universities, newspapers, and other cultural institutions”
(Brumberg 1). After Muhammad Reza was exiled, he was allowed to enter the
United States to receive medical attention for his failing health. Angered by this
U.S. support of a leader many considered an enemy of Iran, “hundreds of Iranians
overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took the staff hostage. Khomeini refused
to release them until the United States apologized for its support of the shah and
met other demands” (Brumberg). Khomeini used the hostage crisis as a means for
rallying people around him, and then used that power to force out any opponents and
establish complete control over the Iranian government.
In September of 1980, in the midst of the Hostage Crisis, Iraq made a move that
launched the popularity of martyrdom in Iran. In an attempt to “prevent the new
Iranian republic from rising up against the secular Iraqi regime” (Brown 1), Iraqi
forces began an eight year conflict that fostered a “sense of national solidarity
that helped the new government consolidate power” (Brown 1). The invasion could
almost have been considered a hidden blessing to Khomeini, as he was able to use
the invasion to “whip up a wave of religious fervor that helped to sustain [Iran’s]
war effort against neighboring Iraq for eight years (Fourteen centuries of Islam,
184). The fervor was powerful, as the Iraqi “offensive [was] stopped by the
unexpectedly fierce resistance of Iranian forces” (Lorentz 71). The Iraqi forces
were anticipating an easy victory in light of the unstable status of the reorganizing
Iranian government. What the Iraqi government did not anticipate was the
staggering number of Iranians willing to join the war effort.
As the Iranian forces fought to withstand the Iraqi army, “youths as young as nine
years old as well as middle aged men volunteered to use their bodies to clear the
mines that Iraqi soldiers had laid along the border” (Davis 46). Children in poverty
stricken areas of Iran were recruited at school. Plastic keys painted gold were
handed out and said to be “keys to paradise” (Davis 46). Though the process of
recruiting and training these Iranian martyrs wasn’t as formulaic as the procedures
outlined above, the basic principles of glory and financial assistance to the families
of the martyrs were the same, and “the symbolic language of jihad and martyrdom
was used extensively and effectively to mobilize the masses of Iranians to fight
against the Iraqi invasion” (Aghaie 134).
The war lasted eight long years, and did not end when Saddam Hussein8 sought a
peace agreement and withdrew from all Iranian territory. Khomeini pressed on with
the war effort, struggling to push past a stalemate just inside the Iraq border.
“Waves of Iranian troops, many of them young boys, failed to destabilize the
Iraqis, who were equipped with superior weaponry (Lorentz 15). Sadly, the “demand
for martyrdom was far exceeded by the needs of the military…children were urged
to go to the front without their parent’s permission and were used to clear
minefields in a deadly trance that the naïve and unsuspecting young and
inexperienced minds were easily swept under” (Israeli 103). It wasn’t until 1988
when Iran finally gave up the goal of dismantling Hussein’s government, and
accepted a United Nations prepared cease-fire.
While the war raged on for eight long years, and the buildings and infrastructure
that had been built up over the years of the Pahlavi dynasty were destroyed, the
martyr became more and more revered in Iran. To this day, “few places on Earth
revere death and martyrdom as Iran, perhaps because the horror of what they call
the ‘Imposed War’ with Iraq is so fresh” (Davis 46). The ghosts of both the Islamic
Revolution and Iraq-Iran did not fade; their presence dominates many aspects of
every day Iranian life. In Tehran, there is an entire museum dedicated to keeping
alive the martyrs’ stories. Inside, “room after room offers photos of fresh-faced
boys, some smiling and shown with their mothers, dark-haired, handsome young men
and women clothed in the chador (black cloak)…along every wall, bits of clothing and
personal items are clustered behind glass cases, with copies of the Qu’ran,
remnants of weapons, and prayerful tributes to lives cut short” (Davis 45). During
the years of the Iraq-Iran war, “instruction in Islamic ideology and weapon skills”
were given in schools (Loeffler 225), “funerals of village martyrs were turned into
propaganda rallies, and at weddings girls chanted slogans like ‘salute the martyrs’
instead of the traditional wedding songs” (Loeffler 226). The cemeteries across
the city of Tehran became “gardens of the martyrs” (Aghaie 137) with banners and
signs with revolutionary slogans and other propaganda. Images of martyrs
permeated nearly every aspect of life; they adorned “stamps, and posters were
often painted in the form of huge murals at cemeteries or on the side of
buildings...special newspaper and magazine articles and radio and television
programs memorialized the sacrifices of the fallen martyrs…streets, parks, schools
and mosques and other sites were routinely named after martyrs” (Aghaie 138).
Perhaps most disturbing, erected in Tehran was a “water fountain colored in bloodred,
which symbolizes and eternalizes the endless flow of suffering and blood”
(Israeli 101). Today, over ten years since the end of the Iraq-Iran War, these
symbols remain in Iran.
In a time when the nightly news is dominated by reports of suicide bombings and
acts of terrorism, extreme fundamentalist believers who take up arms in the name
of their religion must not be ignored. These so-called martyrs are in no way new to
the human landscape. Throughout the ages believers have been fighting and dying
for their causes. The influence of extreme Muslims, Islamists, who work
aggressively to defend Islam is growing. Understanding the workings of these
groups is essential to slowing their momentum. During the 1980’s, the power of the
ideology behind the Islamist movement was demonstrated when young and old alike
joined the Iranian forces against Iraq. Though the flow of those willing to sacrifice
themselves has diminished in Iran since the end of the war, the continued
reverence for the martyrs illustrates the prestige and honor the role of selfsacrifice
1 the supposed drinking of the blood of Christian children in mockery of the
Christian Eucharist; torturing consecrated host wafers in a reenactment of the
2 Arguably, under this definition, iconic figures in history such as Martin Luther
King JR and Gandhi could be considered martyrs in light of their dedication to their
3 except in the case of use of direct quotes, in these cases, the original word choice
4 The sacred text of Islam, God’s revelations to Muhammad
5 IMF: International monetary fund, An international organization created for the
1. Promoting global monetary and exchange stability.
2. Facilitating the expansion and balanced growth of international trade.
3. Assisting in the establishment of a multilateral system of payments for current
The IMF plays three major roles in the global monetary system. The Fund surveys
and monitors economic and financial developments, lends funds to countries with
balance-of-payment difficulties, and provides technical assistance and training for
countries requesting it. (Investopedia.com. Copyright © 1999-2005 - All rights
reserved. Owned and Operated by Investopedia Inc.)
World Bank: a United Nations agency created to assist developing nations by loans
guaranteed by member governments (Investopedia.com. Copyright © 1999-2005 -
All rights reserved. Owned and Operated by Investopedia Inc.)
6 See introductory paragraph
7 The number of women participating in these camps is growing in number, but for
the sake of continuity, “men” will be used throughout the description. In addition,
the participants are still young enough to be considered boys and girls.
8 Leader of Iraq during Iraq-Iran War
Aghaie, Kamran. The Martyrs of Karbasa. London: University of Washington Press,
Atran, Scott. “Genesis of Suicide Terrorism.” Science Review 299 (2003): 1534-
Bloom, Mia. Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terrorism. New York: Columbia
Brown, Nathan. "Iran-Iraq War," Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2005 .
Brumberg, Daniel. “Ayatollah Khomeini." Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia
2005. Microsoft Corporation.
Carrol, James. Crusade: Chronicles of an Unjust War. New York: Metropolitan
Cox, Caroline and John Marks. The 'West', Islam and Islamism : is ideological Islam
compatible with liberal democracy?. London : Institute for the Study of
Civil Society, 2003.
Davis, Joyce M. Martyrs: Innocence Vengeance, and Despair in the Middle East.
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