Campus & Community

Distinguished panel explores ‘martyrdom’

6 min read

Martyrdom discussed, defined in context of various religious traditions

If suicide terrorism is to be held in check, what’s needed is an engaging, exciting “counterperformance” – whatever that might be – that can be offered in place of the “theater of violence” exemplified by the al-Qaida attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Upcoming talks include ‘Economics in an Age of Terror’ on April 10 at 6 p.m. with Harvard Professor of Public Policy Alberto Abadie, Alan Krueger of Princeton University, and Abhijit Banerjee of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Emerson Hall, room 105); a conversation with Rob Storr of New York University and Homi K. Bhabha on April 19 at 6 p.m. (Sever Hall, room 113); and ‘Writing 20th Century Lives’ on April 28 from 2 to 5 p.m. (Thompson Room, Barker Center) with Linda Gordon of New York University, Alice Kessler-Harris of Columbia, Harvard’s Howard Mumford Jones Professor of American Studies Lizabeth Cohen, and moderator Nancy Cott of the Schlesinger Library.

That was one of the conclusions to be drawn from a panel discussion titled “Martyrdom in the Age of Terror” held March 9 under the auspices of the Harvard Center for the Humanities. The dialogue was intended to put suicide terrorism – redefined for purposes of discussion as “martyrdom operations” – into the larger cultural and theological context of martyrdom and self-sacrifice within the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions.

The panel, moderated by Louise Richardson, executive dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, brought together Elaine Pagels of Princeton University, Faisal Devji of the New School for Social Research, and Jessica Stern of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Richardson, noting the way suicide terrorism has escalated in recent years – in terms of numbers of incidents, of numbers of countries where it takes place, and of the kinds of people who get involved – observed, “Deterrence seems toothless in the face of terrorists ready to die.”

“Martyr” derives from the Greek word for “witness,” Pagels noted, and she defined “witness” as “one committed to telling the truth in a contested situation.” Some of the first martyrdom narratives are in the Hebrew scriptural traditions – the books of Daniel and 1st Maccabees – in which the heroes suffer and die and yet somehow triumph.

In such stories, religion and politics – the fact of Roman political domination of Judea – “are entirely inseparable,” according to Pagels. Martyrdom narratives represent “an attempt to challenge and invert the story,” she explained.

“These were powerful fictions written to incite active armed resistance against the Romans.” Similarly, she said, the Gospel of Mark can be seen as essentially the story of the trial, torture, and execution of Jesus of Nazareth on charges of criminal sedition. The Christian resurrection narratives, claims Pagels, are “a way to transform loss into victory and celebration.”

There is a fundamental difference, however, between a martyr’s willing acceptance of death and a suicide’s active seeking it out; and there is a difference between an individual suicide and a homicide bomber who carries others along with him.

And Devji, reading an excerpt from his 2005 book, “Landscapes of the Jihad,” made clear that the Islamic perspective on the voluntary aspect of martyrdom is very different from the Christian:

Jessica Stern of the Kennedy School listens to the comments of another panelist.

“Now witnessing itself means martyrdom, the Arabic word shahadat translating one term into the other, so that to have borne witness is also to be martyred. There is a close link between seeing and dying in the etymology of martyrdom, just as there is in the televised image of the landscape that as news is simultaneously seen and destroyed, becoming yesterday’s news at the very moment of its broadcast, because its universality depends upon its destruction. Unlike Christian martyrdom, which also invokes the idea of witnessing, shahadat involves not only the person whose life is voluntarily sacrificed for the cause of God, but everyone annihilated in this cause whether willingly or not.”

Devji also emphasized the role of the mass media in creating an “audience” for “martyrdom operations”:

“Only in mass media does the collective witnessing that defines martyrdom achieve its full effect, as the various attempts by would-be martyrs to film their deaths or at least to leave behind videotaped testaments, illustrates so clearly. A videotape obtained by Time magazine in which martyrs are shown reading their last testaments, saying goodbye to their families, and blowing themselves up at various places in Iraq is the closest the jihad has yet come to creating its own form of a reality television show.”

Stern implicitly challenged the claim of “altruism” in martyrdom: “When one does something to please God, why do we call that ‘altruism’?” Isn’t there something somehow self-serving, rather than altruistic, in doing something so that one gets into heaven? “Most boys,” she added, in a reference to the 72 unsullied maidens traditionally thought to await Muslim martyrs in heaven, “can’t stop thinking about the virgins.”

Stern also expressed concern about the “culture of violence” into which so many of the societies plagued with suicide terrorism have been trapped. “Ordinary” suicide is known to spread through “social contagion,” she says, as through a school. The same may be true of suicide terrorism, especially in the Palestinian territories.

She told of an interview she had had with a young man newly released from prison who told her he felt it was an advantage to have grown up in the kind of tough neighborhood in which people become inured to violence – so that they don’t flinch when they hear gunfire. The young man said he felt that his desensitization to violence was an advantage he had over her. “It sounded to me like a good description of post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, al-Qaida’s notion of “global jihad” has replaced the earlier Islamist vision of a theocracy in the Muslim world. “Al-Qaida has created a narrative to which others, e.g., in Chechnya, can sign on to,” Stern said, “a narrative which I think we must untangle. We have to undo what bin Laden has done using the media.”

The panel was the second in a series titled “The Age of Terror,” convened at the behest of Homi Bhabha, director of the Humanities Center. His goal in the series is “to bring the humanities into a profound conversation with other disciplines,” he said in a brief interview. It was clear to him that the question of martyrdom “was an absolutely central issue.”