+ + Stefanie Mabadi + +
In Iran, sacrificing one’s own life is at once a religious concept and political act.
During the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, the concept of martyrdom was invoked to infuse meaning into the deaths of what were often very young boy-soldiers. In the West, the idea of ‘martyrdom’ carries some fleeting and dark images of kerchief covered faces, cruel aggression and children bearing arms. To see more clearly how the concept of martyrdom is being used inside Iran right now, let’s peel apart this stereotype.
The Middle Eastern understanding of martyrdom includes honor of the fallen dead, a sacrifice of principle, faith and love. Sadness mixes with pride—rejuvenating, and giving meaning to an otherwise tragic death. Those who die for a cause deserve the highest honor – to be remembered publicly, with respect and pride. Although infused with religious tones, martyrdom is not exclusively achieved in the name of religion.
In the six months leading up to Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1979, the martyrdom cycle was irreplaceable in energizing both the devout and secular public. When protesters were killed, memorial marches took place, inciting crackdowns by the monarchy, resulting in more deaths of protesters. This cycle continued with increasing intensity, forcing the Shah to finally flee his country.
Though a religious movement does not motivate current events in Iran, this theme is woven into the fabric of the Iranian society, as is the concept of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice in Christian nations.
Weeks ago, we saw the genesis of this cycle with the first nameless protester shot dead by Basiji (1) from the rooftop of their Headquarters. Days later Mir-Hossein Moussavi’s camp called for a day of mourning. The dead were remembered in the silent march that followed.
Then young Neda, whose death on the city street was posted on YouTube, also received the title of martyr, and she was commemorated in a subsequent protest march as well. Most recently, on July 12 Sohrab Arabi’s body was finally delivered to his worried mother, making his death a reality. This sparked spontaneous public gatherings to mourn collectively, and show support for his family.
Remembrance of the dead in this way adds spiritual heft to the personal, emotional and political muscle fueling protesters anger and frustration against their current regime. Proclamation of martyrdom states to the collective that this innocent, or principled person will not have died in vain. The gathering, march or protest that follows is collective response to that claim. It’s a public agreement, a sacred pact over an honorable and tragic death. The public is then energized; resolve rejuvenated. The public connects more deeply with their movement, and with one another both in spirit and as countrymen and women.
The concept of martyrdom is described here as an entrenched cultural theme, spontaneously used and understood by protesters as impetus to continue. Observing these events with western eyes, perhaps we can disconnect the terrorist from the martyr, and see the martyr through these events as idealist, dissident and freedom fighter, As the Sea of Green continues to flow, we can expect martyrdom as an ongoing, energizing theme to aid hopefully in carrying Iran and Iranians to a new and better political reality.
(1) Paramilitary militia founded by the order of the Ayatollah Khomeini in November 1979, used in the current Iranian protests as active agents to intimidate and dispurse protesters. They have used batons, tear gas, knives, and guns both on men and women, elderly and youth.