UBC Undergraduate Research

Visual representations of martyrdom in the Lebanese civil war : secularism, nationalism and religious narratives, 1975-­‐1990 Walshe, Arran


On 4 January 2011, a twenty-six-year-old Tunisian street-vendor named Muhamed Bouazizi, driven to desperation after a spate of abuse at the hands of government officials, doused himself in petrol and set himself alight. While by all accounts Bouazizi’s self-immolation should have passed unnoticed, his act of defiance sparked a revolution that led to the overthrow of Tunisia’s autocratic leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and influenced similar regional movements. Bouazizi was declared a martyr, not for Islam, although he was a Muslim, but, to quote his mother, “all of the Tunisian people.”1 He was constructed as a secular figure, whose sacrifice transcended the parochial boundaries of class, religion and nationality through his single act self-destructive defiance. The framing of Bouazizi’s death as martyrdom was counter to the conventional popular understanding of martyrdom in the west, which, following the 9/11 attacks on America, has been narrowly conflated with suicide bombing. The attacks led to a plethora of works written by academics clamoring to explain the phenomenon of the ‘suicide martyr’ to an increasingly insecure public fearful of religious extremists bent on sacrificing themselves as a martyr. In the course of critiquing all of Middle Eastern society in one broad swathe, prominent Orientalist scholar Bernard Lewis ruminated that “if the peoples of the Middle East continue on their present path, the suicide bomber may become a metaphor for the whole region, and there will be no escape from a downward spiral of hate and spite, rage and self-pity, poverty and oppression.”2 Conversely, the emergence of the supposed religious phenomenon of the martyr is, in Lewis’ view, indicative of the regions’ historical failure to join in the project of modernization. Taking Bouazizi’s martyrdom as an inspiration, my broader intent with this paper is to counter the view that martyrdom is solely a religious phenomenon, and to show how the martyr has been constructed in particular historical situations as a secular politicized figure. There is more to martyrdom than suicide bombing, and by understanding the complexity and variety of these representations, I hope to contribute to the scholarship that recognizes the maturity and depth of contemporary Middle Eastern political and social culture. Before I do so I would like to briefly outline what it is I mean when I use the words ‘secular’ and ‘martyrdom’, two terms whose definitions in popular and academic discourse are amorphous at best. While in contemporary usage secularity has come to mean almost anything not of or relating to religion, this sharp distinction has little analytical utility in the study of how cultural and religious concepts become codified in nationalist discourses. Anthropologist Talal Asad has written extensively on the conceptual linkages between supposed secular and religious ontologies, particularly in regard to the fluidity of contemporary cultural transmission and the way the modern state constructs and promotes its own legitimacy. In Formations of the Secular Assad quotes Charles Taylor, who defined secularity as the “attempt to find the lowest denominator among the doctrines of conflicting religious sects.”3 Benedict Anderson placed religious communities as the conceptual antecedents to the modern nation state in his lauded Imagined Communities, arguing that individuals of differing cultures and languages would nonetheless understand each other through the shared ideographs of their religious traditions.4 Secularity then, if we are to take Anderson and Asad’s arguments, is not simply a concept’s state of ‘not being of’ or ‘not relating to’ religion but may also be a concept whose constituent parts can be shared and commonly understood across religions, cultures and temporal spaces. Martyrdom is one of Anderson’s shared ideographs in that while different communities and cultures conceptualize martyrdom in widely divergent ways, there is a basic narrative structure that each can share in. While the term ‘martyr’ in English, and its Arabic analogue ‘shahid’, are both rooted etymologically to the secular act of ‘witnessing’ in a legal context,5 it was adopted as a loanword in the Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions to refer to one who had died for their faith. It was within these faiths that martyrdom acquired a specific narrative and descriptive format. “In it’s purest form,” writes Samuel Z. Klausner, “martyrdom is a voluntary, conscious, and altruistic readiness to suffer and offer one’s life for a cause.”6 A martyr is generally presented as a hero fighting for a cause, who, although foreeseing harm done to them by their opponents, carries on despite the risk. Who can, and cannot be a martyr varies, as civilians, fallen soldiers, politicians, and public leaders have all, at one point or another, been memorialized by Middle Eastern communities as martyrs. When the son of Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad was killed in a car accident in 1990, for example, government run news agencies referred to him as a martyr to the state.7 Mohammad Bouazizi, as mentioned before, was hailed as a martyr to the Tunisian revolution. The framing of these two incredibly dissimilar figures as martyrs attests to the malleability of martyrdom, and was made possible, in part, by the reconceptualization of martyrdom as a secular concept that took place in the Middle East throughout the 20th century. In the broader study of the links and divergences between the secular and the religious in the Middle East, we must, in the words of Talal Asad, “discover what people do with and to ideas and practices before we can understand what is involved in the secularization of theological concepts in different times and places."8 By examining how martyrdom was conceptualized and formed in the modern Middle East, we can get a broader view of the ways in which the cultures of the region mediate and augment their cultural practices and respond to the ever-shifting challenges they face.

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