The Martyr Complex

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Posted by Tiglath from ( on Saturday, September 13, 2003 at 10:07PM :



Who is a martyr? In the West, "martyr" is mainly reserved for Christian victims of Roman lions, or used facetiously for those who let others know of their self-sacrificing ways. But in the Muslim Middle East, where religious terminology permeates the culture, it seems as if almost everyone is a martyr. Realizing this is a small but crucial step in understanding a major cultural gap between the West and the Muslim Middle East, a gap that becomes more obvious with every audiotape supposedly from Osama bin Laden.

In editing the rough translation of the memoir of an opponent of Saddam Hussein, for instance, we kept running into martyrs. Originally, both "martyr" and the Arab equivalent, "shahid," connoted someone who witnessed for the faith, but the words have taken on different meanings in their respective languages.

Iraqi opposition groups viewed Saddam Hussein as not a particularly good Muslim. Still, the memoirist's use of "martyr" for anyone who died at his hands indirectly or directly — but not because of religion — seems inappropriate to Western ears.

After all, the war memorials in Europe and North America don't list martyrs, but those "killed in battle." In the Middle East, however, whether in Arabic, Turkish, Persian or Pashto Muslim society, shahid is today used for any man who falls in battle.

Does this mean that in the Muslim world, wars must be justified in religious terms? Yes. In popular perception, shaped by state-financed school textbooks and proclamations by religious leaders, all wars are against infidels. That's easy when war is waged against non-Muslims. But even when the enemy is Muslim, he must be painted as infidel, something both sides did in the Iran-Iraq war.

The Arabic term shahid has been borrowed by other Muslim cultures regardless of language. It has an equivalent in another Semitic language, Aramaic, once the lingua franca of the Middle East and today spoken almost exclusively by the region's Assyrian Christians. The term "sahda" was used originally for those who died for their religion, but more recently has been used to describe Christians like Nadam Yonadam, an interpreter for American troops in Tikrit, who was killed on Aug. 19.

But only in Muslim cultures is religion-infused war terminology so widely employed as a handmaiden of zealotry. Other widely used words that fall into this category are "jihad," meaning righteous war; "mujahidin," those who fight non-Muslims or heretics; and "muhajirin," applied to religious refugees.

The widespread use of a religiously loaded word like shahid in popular Muslim culture is a hint of a mindset that also makes it almost inevitable that Muslims in the Middle East will see the West's actions in their region in religious terms. And it is subtle cultural gaps like these that make it harder for us to live peaceably in a world that gets ever smaller — unless we make an effort to understand one another.

Eden Naby is co-author of ‘‘Afghanistan: Mullah, Marx and Mujahid.’’ Richard N. Frye is emeritus professor of Iranian at Harvard.

-- Tiglath
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