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Martyrdom is defined as voluntary death for a cause, often for a religious purpose or as the result of persecution. The terminology of martyrdom varies from region to region. The term martyr comes from the Greek martur, which means “witness,” as does the Arabic shahíd (pl. shudadá). Martyrs thus bear witness to their cause by sacrificing their lives as proof of its validity. Eastern cultures tend to use words closer to “sacrifice,” focusing on the valor of the agent; e.g., sati, “immolation” after the eponymous Hindu widow who sacrificed herself on her husband’s pyre.
Although martyrdom is historically conditioned, these voluntary deaths have structural similarities, being rooted in traditions of the warrior-hero and religious sacrifice. The noble deaths of kamikaze pilots, Christian martyrs, Indian widows in sati, the Jews who committed mass suicide at Masada in 72 CE, or Moslems on jihad are all sacrifices that transform and sanctify (or divinize) the martyr. Martyrs put their lives on the line, choosing to sacrifice their lives for a cause rather than submit to an opponent and betray their principles. In dying on their own terms, martyrs die heroically, like archaic warriors in battle, sacrificing their lives for the tribe. To their communities, martyrs are god-like in their honor, nobility, and glory. Like King Oedipus or Christ, martyrs are scapegoats and saviors, dying that others may live. Martyrdom is the ultimate and apocalyptic vindication of the martyr’s cause and proof of his or her righteousness. After death martyrs become saints in Christian tradition, divine in Japanese traditions, and hallowed in all traditions.
Martyrdom joins politics and metaphysics. The martyrs’ moral authority becomes a means of confronting an enemy’s superior political and military power, as it did when Antiochus IV persecuted the Maccabees, when Romans persecuted early Christians, when Japanese pilots faced the Allies in World War II, or presently, when Palestinians confront Israel and the United States. Martyrs are marginal agents—crossing the numinous boundary of death, they seek to harness a spiritual power to their own advantage. Being unnatural, voluntary or self-inflicted death is shocking, awesome in the fear and wonder it inspires. Why did the martyr die? If the martyr chose to die, what is worth dying for? At what point is life so unbearable that one is better off dead? What gave the martyr the strength to face death so bravely?
The power of martyrdom lies in its potential to change society: It forces an audience to think about ultimate questions (if only momentarily) and make moral judgments. These decisions can redress injustices and eventually change the world. Because the death of the martyr invests a cause with meaning, with numen or “weight,” the cause is no longer ordinary. It has been sanctified with the offering of one life; perhaps it is worth the cost of many more. Martyrs draw public attention to the cause for which they died. Not only do they educate the audience, they strive to make their own views normative, converting (if not convincing) their critics. The propaganda value of martyrdom is so great that shrewd opponents avoid martyring their enemies, who are more dangerous dead than alive. In the Middle Ages, the cult of saints and the development of pilgrimage sites was of such political and economic importance that relics were stolen, traded, and even manufactured. Today, pilgrims still visit Karbala, Iraq, famous for its Shiite martyrs, and Rome for its early Christian martyrs. Historically, martyrs have meant economic prosperity, political authority, and social eminence.
The dynamics of martyrdom are unusually histrionic, as if the martyr’s ordeal takes place in a transcendent, metaphysical arena or a universal courtroom of conscience that hears the martyr’s case. As J. Huizinga’s theory of play and his game theory suggest, opponents adopt strategies to win, but events unfold unpredictably and are subject to multiple interpretation. Martyrs feel deprived of what they deserve; they challenge existing authorities and offer their case to God and the world at large for judgment. Entrusted to Higher Powers, martyrs and their cause have moved into the realm of the sacred. But the ordeal is also public, a political spectacle in the here-and-now; at any one time, much is “in play,” fluid, indeterminate, and ambiguous.
The martyr’s power comes from holding the moral high ground of innocence and purity. Guilt and unworthiness must be pinned on the opponent. The spectacle of martyrdom is inherently biased in the martyr’s favor insofar as endurance of suffering and death is taken as prima facie evidence that the martyr is in the right—that God is on the martyr’s side. (Otherwise, how could the martyr face such terrible ordeals?) Even if death is clearly selfinflicted, the enemy is held responsible. He has forced the martyr to choose between life on the enemy’s terms and death on the martyr’s terms; he is the guilty persecutor. All martyrdom redounds ultimately to this choice between self-determination and submission to the will of another. Here, the warrior spirit affirms that death is preferable to subjection, dishonor, suffering, and the betrayal of beliefs; whether in Imperial Japan, Christian antiquity, or contemporary Islamic circles, an honorable death is preferable to a life of degradation and misery.
Martyrs seek vindication and retribution for their innocent suffering, some definitive judgment denied them by existing society. Viewed strategically, martyrdom obliges the audience to avenge the innocent or share the guilt of the wrongdoers. If martyrs can turn public opinion against their opponents, they can undermine their enemies’ power. The assassinations of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Stephen Biko not only stunned the world at large, they were of such great political consequence that they broke the resistance of the enemy camp. Shifting public opinion often takes the form of boycotts. During the civil rights era boycotts such as the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 added momentum to the movement for racial equality. In the 1980s, divestment in South Africa hastened the end of apartheid. Individual protests can take the form of hunger strikes (a kind of slow martyrdom), such as that undertaken by suffragettes in their struggle for the franchise, or that of Gandhi, who undertook over a dozen long fasts against the British, or the seventy-five prisoners protesting their illegal detention in Guantánamo in 2005–2006. Such lesser martyrdoms can tweak the conscience of the world audience.
Although the ordeal or spectacle of martyrdom is biased in the martyr’s favor, part of the audience may reject the martyr’s voluntary death, viewing it as “a waste,” “irrational,” and “tragic,” the “pathetic suicide” of a “brainwashed fanatic” or a “selfish act” that disregards family and community. The dead are called “victims,” as if they had not acted willfully, but instead succumbed to circumstances beyond their control. The deaths of such fanatics do not lend credibility to the cause, but discredit it even further, even as the deaths of prominent leaders (or the moral support of living celebrities) lend credibility to a cause.
The intrinsic worthiness of a cause is critical, but not determinative in distinguishing martyrs from fools or criminals. The worthiness of a cause, the social status and deeds of the martyr, the martyr’s behavior under stress, the strength of the enemy, the resources of both sides, and the sequence of actions are all variables “in play.” While dying for freedom is clearly different from dying for the sake of a lost shoe, a range of causes exists whose importance might change in the public eye were a sufficient number of martyrs to bear witness: global warming, animal rights, or the malfeasance of corporations (e.g., Enron). The deaths of martyrs invest a cause with meaning, and this is cumulative. When a cause builds up sufficient “weight,” it earns a public hearing and triggers change. In 1963, the self-immolation of the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc in Vietnam opened a flood of media coverage, facilitated by the letters of protest he left behind. Six other monks followed. The event is credited as the final turning point, the death knell of the Diem regime, which collapsed a few months later.
Martyrs lose their power when they lose their innocence, when the greater public rejects their cause and/or refuses to sanction their actions. Then martyrs become enemies (or persecutors themselves) engaged in open warfare with the rest of humanity. The cause must be worth the cost. Martyrs may gain attention and sympathy for their cause by offering their own lives, but they cross a line when others die. Martyrs have no right to deprive others of free choice, not to mention life itself. Belligerent nations in World War II (1939–1945) offer a clear example. Kamikaze pilots accepted that killing Americans was the price of vindicating the purity and divine purpose of their emperor and nation. Validating the cause, they also accepted the cost. But Americans and the Allies rejected the cause of Japan and called it “war.” In the Middle East, the sides are of unequal power, but each has moral claims. To Israelis and their allies, Palestinian suicide bombers are terrorists who murder innocent bystanders, but Palestinians see themselves as victims of an occupation sanctioned by all Israelis and feel justified in fighting against that occupation. To them, Israeli bystanders are casualties in a war that has already cost the lives of many more innocent Palestinians.
Martyrdom operates within that indeterminate field where opinions change and variables are “in play.” Affirmation and rejection are extremes of a continuum; advancement of the martyr’s status depends on numerous contingencies. Sooner or later, the martyr’s case gains public attention, but rational understanding of the martyr’s grievances may not convert an audience driven by equally compelling drives. The audience’s capacity for empathy is unpredictable. While historical conditions such as economic security or social similarity increase chances that the audience will identify with victims and feel compassion, studies of authoritarianism demonstrate that personality structure can diminish or even preclude empathy with others. No act of valor, no leader, no matter how august, can convert those who are deeply prejudiced.
What triggers empathy varies. The calculus of martyrdom favors elites, so that the death of one important leader outweighs the deaths of the innumerable nameless. Assassinated in 1980, only Archbishop Oscar Romero is honored as a martyr in the civil war in El Salvador, even though 30,000 others were exterminated by right-wing death squads between 1979 and 1981. The prestige of martyrs sacrificed lends authority to the cause, but the lack of martyrial “quality” can be addressed by an increase in “quantity” (the number of martyrs, the length and intensity of their suffering). All lives are not equal. Certain markers are more valuable than others. In 2003, a young American was killed by a bulldozer as she tried to prevent the Israeli army’s destruction of homes in the Gaza Strip. A play based on her letters, “My Name Is Rachel Corrie,” commemorates her life, as does a memorial Web site; she is the subject of various articles, media spots, etc. Corrie is not the first to die resisting the demolition of houses, but she is the first Westerner. Europeans and Americans can identify with such a young, attractive, and highly literate “peace activist,” while Palestinians remain invisible. The less kinship the audience shares with martyrs, the more onerous the martyrs’ suffering.
Examples of martyrdom or noble death are nearly universal. These include:
- Judaism. Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of the name) is found in Abraham’s binding of Isaac; Rabbi Akiba, who was killed by the Romans in 135 CE; Hannah and her sons; and the killing of Jews in the Rhineland during the First Crusade. A dispute exists about the terminology used for those dying in the Holocaust. Traditionalists argue that Jews did not choose to die and therefore the term “martyr” is inappropriate. They are instead victims, murdered in war. But Yad Vashem (sponsor of the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem and the leader in Shoah research and education) calls itself “The Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Authority.” What matters to most people is that Jews were killed for no other reason than being Jewish.
- Islam. A spiritualized definition of martyrdom goes back to the Middle Ages and the distinction between the lesser jihad, the struggle against unbelievers, and the greater jihad, the struggle against evil. Martyrdom lies in intention; death on the battlefield is no guarantee of salvation. In present usage, any observant Muslim who dies gratuitously is a martyr. But martyrdom also has a militant side that goes back to Muhammad’s grandson, Husayn ibn #Ali, who was killed at Karbala in 680 in a battle against supporters of the caliphate for leadership of the community. Husayn’s followers are Shiite and martyrdom is an honored goal; those of the caliphs, are Sunni. Also in this militant tradition are the Assassins (from hashish), a secret society of Nizari Isma$ilis (schismatic Muslims) who fought against European Crusaders in the Middle Ages. They called themselves fedayeen, meaning those “willing to sacrifice their lives,” a term that survives in the second intifada (September 28, 2000, to the present).
- Christianity. Persecuted by Romans, early Christians, like Jews, saw themselves as “dying for God.” Acts or passions record the martyrs’ ordeals, many of which contain purported court records or eyewitness accounts. Protestants memorialized in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs date from the sixteenth century, when Catholics persecuted Protestants in the Counter-Reformation. In Nagasaki, twenty-six Jesuit missionaries were martyred in 1597, and persecution continued under the Tokugawa shogunate costing several hundred lives. In 1981, members of the Irish Republican Army incarcerated at Maze prison went on a hunger strike in protest of the British government’s refusal to grant them status as political prisoners (instead of ordinary criminals). Bobby Sands and nine others died and are widely commemorated in Ireland. In 1998, statues of ten twentieth-century Christian martyrs were unveiled at Westminster Abbey in London, among them, Martin Luther King Jr.
- Hinduism. The Hindu practice of sati was most frequent in western India from the tenth to nineteenth centuries. Outlawed by the British in 1829, it has survived sporadically up to the present. A new tradition borrowed from Christianity arose with the growth of nationalism in the nineteenth century and the struggle for an independent state in the twentieth century. While Gandhi is the most famous martyr, about a dozen others are deemed martyrs for the cause of Indian independence. While satis have altars and are treated as divine, of modern martyrs only Gandhi is occasionally commemorated at an altar.
- Sikhism. The Sikh theology of martyrdom (sahídí) is first found in the Siri Guru Granth Sahib, scriptures compiled by the fifth master and first martyr, Guru Arjan Dev Ji (d. 1606), who called martyrdom “the game of love.” Sikhs have suffered bitterly from persecutions by both Muslims and Hindus. Martyrdom is strongly associated with political resistance and the desire for political as well as religious autonomy, the Punjab being the possible Sikh homeland.
- Buddhism. The idea of dying for Buddha does not exist in Buddhism (which is atheistic); the notion of dying for something in the material world is similarly foreign, and Buddhism lacks a history of persecution. Nevertheless, the seven Buddhist monks who immolated themselves in Vietnam protesting the Diem regime’s policies are deemed martyrs in both the East and the West. As with Hinduism, Sikhism, and Islam in modern times, in Buddhism the struggle for freedom and national identity can occasion martyrdom.
- Abeii, Mehdi, and Gary Legenhausen, 1986. Jihád and Shahádat: Struggle and Martyrdom in Islam. Houston, TX: Institute for Research and Islamic Studies.
- Cormack, Margaret, 2002. Sacrificing the Self: Perspectives on Martyrdom and Religion. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.
- Fields, Rona, 2004. Martyrdom: The Psychology, Theology, and Politics of Self-Sacrifice. Westport, CT: Praeger.
- Pettigrew, Joyce, 1997. Martyrdom and Political Resistance Movements: Essays on Asia and Europe. Amsterdam: VU University Press.
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