Following the Charlie Hebdo shootings in France and the subsequent siege north west of Paris, I heard some comments which gave me reason to pause over how we view our own history.
For clarity, I believe the acts of the extremists in France were and remain abhorrent and I have no wish to act as an apologist for them in any way. However, I also believe it is very easy to caricature some of the actions after the murders as being wholly functions of Islam. A position I heard taken and would challenge with a quick review of our own history.
A frequent criticism of the gunmen’s attitude to the siege which followed their containment focused on their wish to die as martyrs. Some observers have seen this as reflecting on something fundamental unsound about Islam. Undoubtedly, it was a strong desire of those contained in the suburbs of Paris, but that doesn’t make martyrdom unique to any one religion.
Similarly many observers comment on how much an Islamic martyr may be influenced by the promise of 72 virgins awaiting their arrival in paradise. Whether or not the person concerned believes this is rarely questioned, however the tone typically takes the direction that anyone would be a fool to believe such a promise which somehow confirms their actions as those of a mad man/woman.
In fact, Islamic scholars (like many Christians and Jews) are unhappy with what they argue are simplistic interpretations of their respective texts. The interpretation of 72 virgins being reserved for martyrs is a case in point. Many scholars point out that the Qur’an forbids suicide with Istishhad (the permissibility of martyrdom operations) being contentious and splitting Islamic opinions. They point to the fact that the promise of 72 virgins is made in the Qur’an to all believing Muslim men not just martyrs.
The origins of the word should give pointer, far from an Islamic stem, the phrase martyr derives from the Greek for witness. It has been applied to religious zeolites, (some might describe them as saints, some as extremists, others as the ultimate conscientious objectors) far before the present Islamic jihadists. Nor does Islam have the monopoly on martyrdom.
The first Christian martyr was believed to be Stephen (now Saint Stephen) who was stoned to death outside Jerusalem for continuing to defend Christ against a crown of those who doubted him. Even today, the official Catholic record of Saint Stephen’s life states ‘After such an expression of love, the holy martyr went to his heavenly reward.’ – How is that so very different to the promises outlined by the arrival of multiple virgins?
Similarly (depending on your point of view), martyrs appear in the Jewish tradition. Many would include the killing of the innocents as the first example, but less contentious historical incidents are also recorded. The martyrdom of hundreds of Jews in Blois (France) over 800 years ago because of their religious beliefs being just one example.
In a recent visit to Melbourne museum I was reminded of those persecuted for their religious beliefs from English history.
Two contemporary images were on display the first (shown here) depicted a Catholic priest officiating at the burning of protestants under the reign of Mary Tudor. The engraving describes the martyrdom of the Protestants. This was strangely juxtaposed with a similar scene where the officiating religion was a protestant and those burned were Catholic. Strangely this made no mention of martyrdom, merely referring to the burning of Catholic dissenters.
This reminded me of Winston Churhill’s comment ‘History will be kind to me; I know because I shall write it’. Strange that the same acts could be described so differently. It did make it very clear that so much is dependant on your perspective, personal beliefs and prejudices.
It was also a timely reminder that our own history is sufficiently scattered with those who have been involved in creating or dying as martyrs that we should reflect on that before ‘writing off’ a whole people, nation or religion based on the beliefs and/or actions of some members of those groups.
As to the desire to ‘die as martyrs’ expressed by those responsible for the Paris siege this is hardly new. Police services around the world will tell you of ‘death by cop’ where some offenders wish to provoke police actions which would result in their death. Although this has no specific religious overtone, it is not that different at a behavioural level.
I have been reassured to see Muslim and Islamic community leaders denounce the actions of those who killed in Paris. I have no sympathy for those who took such appalling actions. There was no justification for violence against Charlie Hebdo, journalists, police or the public. Nor do I support religious martyrdom either historic or current. In my view, too many people of all religions have died in the name of religion.
My only hope is that we don’t ascribe negative acts, views or beliefs on whole communities based on fear. If we take the time to look we can find similar beliefs in our own histories. The last thing we want is further divisions based on the acts of extremists (of any kind) – or they truly have won.