A Culture that Honors Martyrdom

Sometimes you’re reading along, internally nodding your head, and then you hit that one sentence, that one clause, that sets your nerves clanging. A clause like this one: “…particularly in a Middle Eastern culture that honors martyrdom…”

The article is otherwise great and I recommend you read it, Why Dissidents, Freed From Prison, Often Choose the Path of Most Resistance. But that clause is what inspired this post, which looks like it’s going to end up much longer than I originally thought it would.

A month or so ago I had a post mentioning the Shi’a Muslim holiday of Ashura, which commemorates the martyrdom of Hussein Ibn Ali, who died in the Battle of Karbala. He was not killed over his Muslim faith, as he and his army were fighting other Muslims, but because his supporters were fighting with the Umayyad Caliph Yazid’s supporters over who was the rightful Muslim ruler. So he was not a martyr to his religion, but to his nation.

The Sunni Muslims don’t even have a martyr figure at all. Christians, however, have a whole bunch of them. A calendar full of them and much, much more. I think you could even fairly say that crucifixion imagery amounts to honoring martyrdom.

Martyr is a word we don’t use much in the US. It’s kind of old-fashioned, definitely churchy. Wikipedia has a page on Christian martyrs:

The lives of the martyrs became a great source of inspiration for the Christians and their lives and relics were greatly revered. Second century Church Father, Tertullian wrote that “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church”, implying that the willing sacrificing of the martyrs lives leads to the conversion of many more.

Here’s a skimpy list of Christian martyrs.

Today I learned there’s something called a martyrology, which is a is a catalogue or list of martyrs arranged in the calendar order of their anniversaries or feasts.

Islam has nothing like this.

I’m seeing an amazing difference of opinion on how many Christians have been martyred lately, from an estimate of over 170,000 per year to just a few thousand a year. Here’s a notable quote from this page:

Have there been more martyrs in this century than in all others combined, as the current quote suggests? During this century, we have documented cases in excess of 26 million martyrs. From AD 33 to 1900, we have documented 14 million martyrs. So, yes, this quote is correct.

On the other hand, martyrdom has been on the decline for the past decade. The current rate is 159,000 martyrs per year — down from 330,000 per year at the height of the cold war.

I also found the site of this organization, the Voice of the Martyrs, (web address ‘persecution.com’) that wants to, among other things

emphasize the fellowship of all believers by informing the world of atrocities committed against Christians and by remembering their courage and faith.

Wikipedia’s page about martyrs even included a high school student at Columbine High School, who rates as a martyr apparently because she was asked if she believed in God right before she was shot.*

But enough about the church kind of martyr (although you wonder why this isn’t enough yet to conclude that the US has a western culture that honors martyrdom). An astute colleague pointed out to me that in the US we use the phrase “ultimate sacrifice” instead.

When you look at it that way, we have two national holidays honoring martyrs, Memorial Day and Veterans Day, and monuments all over the country honoring those Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice. Many other countries have national holidays to honor their soldiers who have died in war, and many of those countries call that holiday Martyrs Day.

Here are a few of the countries who have a national Martyrs Day: Panama, Albania, Burma, Armenia, Vietnam, India, Tibet, Israel. One of those is in the Middle East, anyway, but I don’t think it was what the author had in mind when he mentioned the Middle East culture that honors martyrdom.

Anyhow, that’s how one little clause led me to hours of Googling. In an otherwise very nice article, there was one little niggling phrase that was aimed at making Arabs seem strange, harsh, brutal. Wanting us to think Arabs are not like us, they don’t value their lives, they don’t love their children as much as we do. Backing up the arrogant assumption that we have evolved a little bit more than those people over there who dress like George Lucas’s Sand People.

As serendipity would have it, a friend sent me the link to this article today. From it:

I wish more Americans had an opportunity to get to know Muslims. Then they would not be susceptible to the silly anti-Muslim propaganda that is floated by some right-wing Christians.

Muslims are good folks. One fellow e-mailed me quite convinced that Muslims lop off the heads of every infidel they meet. I’ve been a guest in the homes of many Muslim friends, and the only thing they lopped off were extra servings of lamb.

Racism is a monstrous injustice because it imposes a stereotype on millions of innocent individuals. The only real solution is education and broad experience.

Disclaimer: I know that Arab doesn’t equal Muslim and vice versa.
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*Apparently this has been debunked, and the girl who was asked if she believed in God survived the Columbine shootings.
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Special last-minute bonus link: Which Pope am I?

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3 Comments

Filed under arab, arabist

3 responses to “A Culture that Honors Martyrdom

  1. I quickly read the article and missed that line. I guess you get used to these things, they are so prevalent. Good catch.

  2. Pingback: Memo From Cairo - Why Freed Dissidents Pick Path of Most Resistance - NYTimes.com | The Arabist

  3. David

    These “rapture” Prophets for PROFIT are ANTI-Christ DEATH CULTISTS. God/Jesus would have you in this LIFE to learn “soul lessons”, to increase your consciousness to the point of Redemption. Hagee and his Ilk REJECT the LIFE God gave you, and dangle a “shortcut” in front of people, just as SATAN dangled Temptation in front of Jesus. Do not follow the ANTI-Christ lies of FALSE prophets. Their “shortcut” of cheating God’s lessons does NOT lead to Heaven, any more than cheating on school work teaches you the subject.

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