In the Land of Martyrdom?

Martyrs’ Square, Downtown Beirut, Lebanon

Following the latest blasts in Beirut-Lebanon – just before New Year’s celebration, and this afternoon -, and every explosion since 2005, one can easily notice the use (and misuse) of the word ‘martyr’. According to many journalists, political sciences experts and clergymen, victims of such attacks are labeled ‘martyrs’ (shuhada’), and Lebanon ‘the Land of Martyrdom’.

Lebanon recognizes three religions having an explicit ideal of martyrdom: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. From the story of Abraham and Isaac, to Daniel and the Maccabean rebellion, martyrdom is preferred to three transgressions according to the Jewish tradition: idolatry, sexual immorality and murder. Martyrs are honored ‘askedoshim’ (the holy ones) and martyrdom is considered by many rabbis to be the distinguishing quality of Jewish people. In current Jewish literature, victims of the Holocaust  are regarded as martyrs since they died for the sole reason of being Jews.

 In Christianity, the word ‘martyr’ in the New Testament means ‘witness’ – interpreted by the first Christians: ‘to one’s faith, unto death!’ (Acts 22:20 and Revelation 2:13). The disciples of Christ were no ordinary witnesses. They were brought face to face daily, from the beginning of their apostolate, with the possibility of incurring severe punishment and even death itself, but their suffering was to be exchanged for the reward of a bright and eternal honor in heaven. The second-century theologian Tertullian famously declared, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”. In the sporadic persecutions of the first centuries C.E., martyrs were highly regarded by Christians (their relics ‘more valuable than gold or precious stones).

The Islamic designation of shahid (witness) does not explicitly appear in the Qur’an (as ‘witness unto death’) – but it does receive treatment in the Hadith literature, in which it is stated that martyrs stand nearest the throne of God. There are two groups of shuhada’ (martyrs): those killed in holy wars, and those killed unjustly – and informally anyone who dies in a pitiable manner. For Shia, Imam Husain ibn Ali is the martyr par excellence, and most of them are proud to acclaim the sacrifices of their spiritual/political leaders and fighters. In recent times, Islamic martyrdom has become associated with suicide missions conducted by extremists. However, this type of martyrdom is very different from the classical definition which condemns suicide.

Defining martyrdom is a difficult task, especially in the Lebanese context, where ideologies, beliefs and practices are often different. I do not agree with those who see Lebanon as the land of martyrdom. Lebanese martyrs do exist, across all political parties and sectarian branches, but not all deaths are meaningful, nor are all deaths chosen. I learnt that the martyr cannot be a helpless victim of happenstance. Martyrdom assigns meaning to death (a noble cause). It is an act of choice (the martyr must possess choice and must elect to die) and purpose that can be remembered, treasured and emulated by later generations. The martyr attempts to change the power and moral structure of society, and poses questions of motivation that lie outside both history and sociology. But even here the denominator in all martyrdoms is discredited by controversy over what constitutes nobility and blurred by the inclusion of prolonged suffering that may not end in death.

Furthermore, imposing upon the ‘true’ martyr a voluntary death that contributes to the success of the cause severely limits the number of candidates and opens up a minefield of debate: should political leaders, who appear in a multitude of martyrologies, be excluded because they did not consciously elect to die? Can the term martyr be applied, as it has been done lately following suicide bombers attacks and blasts of all kinds, to the civilians who suffered unspeakably and were slaughtered, but did not choose their fate? Should those who die for ‘their private relations with God’ – seeking refuge in heaven -, thus for individual interests, be acclaimed martyrs? Let us not forget that the willingness to die can easily slide into a death wish that is indistinguishable from suicide. Early church fathers like Clement of Alexandria were deeply worried lest the hysteria of mass suicidal martyrdom undermine the psychological impact of the true martyr. Likewise, with the delights of paradise so overwhelming, many Muslim jurists, however, cautioned that no one is allowed to desire martyrdom; one can only wish for the strength to endure the pain of wounds should they be inflicted upon one’s body. Also, many psychologists have argued that martyrs are deeply disturbed men and women devoured by their obsession – hints of paranoia, masochism and manic depression have been observed. However, one cannot forget how totalitarian regimes attack martyrs’ individuality and exceptionality, dismissing them as social deviants in need of rehabilitation, or incarcerate free-thinking healthy people in madhouses.

Last but not least, Lebanese do not all agree on the importance of martyrdom. I regularly ask my university students if they would sacrifice themselves for the sake of their faith, or their country, but most of them prefer obtaining a visa for Europe, North America or the United Arab Emirates. They do not distinguish martyrdom from idiotic folly, or simply do not want to become martyrs. Their motto is: ‘I want to live’ (badde ‘ich), and by ‘living’ they mean: no war, but also, no sacrifice, no suffering. ‘Living’ becomes synonymous with ‘getting what we want with zero or minimum risk’, ‘we do not mind surrendering or assimilating’, and ‘no death counts for life’. But how can there be a revolution and social-political reforms when young people are divided between those who are eager to kill, those who claim they have become ‘crocodiles’ (tamssahna) or ostriches, and those who would rather escape? How can there be a nation when ‘it is easy to kill and be killed’, and ‘what is hard is to make one’s death count for life’?  (Erik Erikson 1969, p. 197, quoting Mahatma Ghandi).

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