Martyrdom and Terrorism

Martyrdom & Terrorism Dustjacket_FotorOne of the nicest things to arrive in the post recently: a publication copy of Martyrdom and Terrorism, the product of a collaboration among historians working on different cultures and periods, in which I took part some time ago. Two of the volume’s three sections are useful in a way that might have been predicted from the title. Part One covers ‘classic’ historical martyrdom, and includes my own ‘Martyrdom, Memory, and the “Media Event”‘ on the Early Christian Period, along with Asma Afsaruddin’s excellent ‘Martyrdom in Islamic Thought and Practice: A Historical Survey’,  which explores how classical Islamic jurists made the distinction between martyrdom  and hiraba, the term used by Islamic jurists to identify and condemn terrorism. (Like the Greek martus, the term shahid originally means ‘witness’; over time it evolves into meaning ‘one who bears witness for the faith’.) Afsaruddin’s study is recommended reading for anyone who wants to understand the current debate about who has the right to claim that their actions represent ‘True Islam’. Part Three addresses Martyrdom, Terrorism, and the Modern West, and here four valuable essays consider themes that are of relevance to contemporary Britain: Guy Beiner’s ‘Fenieanism and the Martyrdom-Terrorism Nexus in Ireland before Independence’, Akil N. Awan’s ‘Spurning “This Worldly Life”: Terrorism and Martyrdom in Contemporary Britain’, Alex Houen’s ‘Martyrdom and Hostage Executions in the Iraq War: The Cases of Kenneth Bigley and Margaret Hassan’, and Jolyon Mitchell’s ‘Filming the Ends of Martyrdom’.  Together the four papers offer a valuable overview of the changing meanings of martyrdom in the British Isles (and elsewhere) across the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. Although it makes poignant reading since it was written before the most recent escalation of violence in the Arabic-speaking world, Akil Awan’s ‘Spurning “This Worldly Life”‘ offers a particularly timely analysis of the complex motives of modern suicide terrorists. But the surprise for me during the project – and I expect it will be a surprise for many readers of the volume – is Part Two, which focuses on the French Revolution of 1789 and the Reign of Terror that followed it in 1793 and 94.  All four of the contributions in this section (by Julia V. Douthwaite, David Andress, Ronald Schechter, and Dominic Janes) are intensely interesting. The one that stopped me in my tracks was Ronald Schechter’s ‘Terror, Vengeance, and Martyrdom in the French Revolution: The Case of the Shades’. The Shades, we discover, were the restless souls of the people (roughly one hundred of them) who were killed by the French military during the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789. These restless, bloodthirsty souls haunted the revolution, demanding vengeance on behalf of their unjust death. Schechter’s essay explores the magnetic power of these figures, whose vengeful otherworldliness he explicitly compares to that of vampires, in the eighteenth-century imagination. He then traces how the ‘profound and generous indignation’ which these patriotic spirits were seen to inspire was revered as sacred (p. 155), and yet  became a justification for those who wanted to convert the revolution into a bloodbath of vengeance. It’s an essay that has particular value at a time when scholars and others are asking whether religion is at the root of the most distinctively horrific kinds of modern violence. Schechter shows, arrestingly, that this isn’t necessarily the case. After all, the French Revolution was dedicated to the most deeply humane ideals of the Enlightenment, which were encapsulated in its rallying-cry, ‘Liberty, Fraternity, Equality’. While I have seen countless ill-informed pundits suggest that ‘Islam’ or ‘religion’ inevitably lead to violence, I have yet to see anyone suggest that the Enlightenment ideals of ‘Liberty, Fraternity, Equality’ are equally dangerous. And that is the point. We all need to think harder about whether the justifications for violence used by revolutionaries and others have anything at all to do with the causes of violence itself, and thanks are due to Dominic Janes and Alex Houen for showing that historical perspectives really can make a difference. Meanwhile, for for those who want to shake up their thinking, Ronald Schechter’s sacred vampires of the Enlightenment are an excellent place to start.

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The Table of Contents for Martyrdom and Terrorism: Pre-Modern to Contemporary Perspectives can be found here.

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2 comments

  1. Reblogged this on DIANABUJA'S BLOG: Africa, The Middle East, Agriculture, History and Culture and commented:
    And –
    Asma Afsaruddin’s excellent ‘Martyrdom in Islamic Thought and Practice: A Historical Survey’, which explores how classical Islamic jurists made the distinction between martyrdom and hiraba, the term used by Islamic jurists to identify and condemn terrorism. (Like the Greek martus, the term shahid originally means ‘witness’; over time it evolves into meaning ‘one who bears witness for the faith’.) Afsaruddin’s study is recommended reading for anyone who wants to understand the current debate about who has the right to claim that their actions represent ‘True Islam’.

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