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Martyrdom and 9/11

Martyrdom and 9/11

Ten years after September 11—and in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death and the rise of the Arab Spring—what does it mean to be a martyr?

YOU WERE OSAMA BIN LADEN. Ten years ago, the boldest act of terrorism in the history of the world made your name. The poor and weak can visit war on the rich and strong, this act proved. The poor and weak can demolish the symbols of the rich and strong, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and create new ones in their place, like symbols of absence. Incidentally, your adjuncts praised Allah in their final moments. Mohammad Atta, the lead hijacker, had a master's degree from a German university. He wrote a dissertation about gentrification in Aleppo, Syria, where grids and towers had replaced the old warrens, overtaking the so-called traditional Islamic homes.

It was already an age of superlatives, but those events were extremely loud and incredibly close, as one New York novelist would write: asymmetric warfare that looked like a movie, many said, at the low, low cost of something like $500,000. The hijackers defined a genre of violence, clarifying terrorism's purpose: spectacle and the rationalization of civilian death to strike fear in an intended audience. You were Osama bin Laden, but were you a mere mortal or a messiah? The question becomes important when we consider the issue of istishhad, or martyrdom, and when we consider how you died.

The Arabic word for "martyr," shahid, is a loan-word from Greek, says Charles Häberl, a linguist at Rutgers University. In the Greek language, "martyr" means "witness." In the Quran, martyrdom is a reward, but shahid means witness, too. "I believe that there is ample precedent for this; to be 'martyred' in Islam, one need not even die at the hand of another," Häberl says. You can be martyred just standing there, witnessing something—or, perhaps, recording something with your cellphone and uploading it to YouTube.

Never mind, if you were Osama bin Laden, that Muslims also died in lower Manhattan. Or that, in Iraq and Afghanistan during the next ten years, Muslims with car bombs and explosive vests and improvised devices consisting of cell phones and 155mm artillery shells generated many American martyrs, and other casualties, too: women and children in markets, on roads, Muslims by accident of geography and history but Muslims nonetheless. Many were as pious as you, but none rated even as collateral damage in your moral universe, for in suicide attacks the civilian dead are not martyrs but weapons—severed limbs and splattered viscera no different from the mass disordering of concrete and steel in lower Manhattan that September.

If you were Osama bin Laden, therefore, the aughts were a pretty good decade. Alive, though stuck in your compound, you had several wives and loyal friends, dedicated to your cause and the preservation of your peculiar situation. Time, human events and rivals had certainly eroded your status. But you knew this, according to records gathered later on, and did that not prove the righteousness of your cause, human ego aside?

If you were Osama bin Laden, for most of the past decade, the "far enemy"—America—was flailing away in the Muslim world, killing innocents but not you. As a young, international militant in Afghanistan, you had helped destroy the Soviet empire during the 1980s. Then you turned your sights on the American empire. You warned the Americans in the 1990s to leave your native Saudi Arabia, ease the suffering of the Palestinian people and lift UN sanctions in Iraq, or there would be something like hell to pay. September 11 goaded America into blowback just as you planned, inducing bankruptcy just as you predicted, and you achieved all this by sheer charisma alone. Were you more or less at peace?

Barack Hussein Obama is the grandson of a Muslim. By the logic of bin Laden's extremism, and the hysterical politics of the American far right, that makes Obama a Muslim too. That did not stop Obama from determining that bin Laden was living in the Langley, Virginia of Pakistan—within a mile or so of that nation's flagship military academy—and then dispatching American soldiers with instructions to violate the sovereignty of bin Laden's patron before landing two helicopters inside his compound.

If you were Osama bin Laden, thinking about the achievement of September 11 during your decade of solitude, your real problem may have been that the Prophet Muhammad was also just a man. So what stops you from noting that, just like a certain merchant from Mecca, your name might too live forever, whether in 67.3 million Google hits or in Paradise? In which case, during those final moments, were you smiling, though your eventual assassins had just shot your wife in her leg, to disable rather than to kill?

We cannot know what Osama bin Laden thought in those moments. How you behaved remains privileged knowledge. It belongs to those who were there, or those who watched from remote locations. The Navy SEALS then shot you in the face, erasing your final, ultimate Most Wanted poster, as you rose to meet the occasion.

AMONG MUSLIM MILITANTS, reactions to bin Laden's demise are impossible to generalize, says McGill scholar Christopher Anzalone. "Jihadi reactions on the internet forums ran the gamut between those who accept that bin Laden was killed and wish him 'the highest station in Paradise' to those who believe it is a ploy by the US government to legitimate a pull-out from Afghanistan," Anzalone writes. "A number of them have also pointed out that his death will not stop the transnational jihadi-takfiri trend. Indeed, it fits into their martyrdom mythology and narrative."

Anzalone points out how bin Laden was mourned at an Islamist conference in Somalia. One militant in particular, Omar Hammami—also known as Abu Mansoor al-Amriki, an American-born leader of Somalia's al-Shabaab who was radicalized in Toronto, among other places—said that Osama bin Laden was "just a man."

In Anzalone's transcription, at the conference Hammami said the following: "We are gathered here today to rejoice in the fact that our beloved sheikh has attained the fate he sought for two decades...despite our tears, because we firmly recognize that the Ummah of Muhammad is a nation whose destiny is independent of its leaders, no matter how great....Whoever turns back on his heels will not harm Allah in the least...The Muslims have proven time and again that their pool of talent and leadership will never dry up, and that their blood will never be spilled in vain."

We were all Americans after 9/11, joining a ritual of mourning that required recovery through revenge. Meanwhile, sympathetic vigils were reported in Muslim capitals, and some Americans identified so closely with the horror's events that phrases like "if you are just joining us" induced an odd effect, such that future generations may believe their ancestors had not only witnessed the event through the media, but were present at the scene. And among this decade's other ironies, the Somali conference literally proceeded under the banner of a slightly repurposed American phrase: We Are All Osama. Take comfort in collectivity, it proposes, while honouring life by refraining from pitying the dead. But to describe the sheikh as a martyr, something that "We Are All Osama" doesn't quite capture, may risk labeling you, of all people, a victim.

A VICTIM looks more like Neda Agha-Soltani bleeding to death on a street in Tehran, 2009, while angry Iranians contest disputed elections and the Green Revolution is born. Soltani dies on camera, and then dies again on Wikipedia minutes later, without knowing that, when death becomes a symbol, it also risks becoming a cliché. In classical Persian, Neda means "voice," and so her death becomes: #neda.

In Tehran, again, but now during the summer of 2011, the politics of martyrdom complicate a funeral. "The event was allowed after assurances were given that those who spoke would not refer to Saber as a martyr, or even mention the fact that he had been imprisoned several times. But when Saber's son spoke about his father, he did describe him as a martyr. Reports indicate that at least one person was arrested." So reads a Tehran Bureau report about, in part, the funeral of Iranian journalist Reza Hoda Saber, who died while on hunger strike at Evin Prison, with no sentence other than indefinite incarceration. Insistence on a single word by security officials overseeing Reza Hoda Saber's burial, Häberl writes, is "entirely consonant with the Iranian government's Orwellian attempts to control it, trying to prevent the Green Movement from appropriating a term that they 'own.'"

Most Iranian cities have a martyrs' cemetery. Its members are qualified by the year they passed away: 1980-1988. During those years, Iran fought Iraq, child soldiers innovated the suicide bomb, the country's contemporary power structure was formed, and the current supreme leader, a cleric of sorts, served as a general somewhere far away from the front.

Likewise, in Turkey, the government long owned the word sehit. It applied to Turkish soldiers, many conscripts from sprawling ghettoes in Istanbul, families maybe one generation removed from the countryside, killed in battle against Turkish Kurdish "separatists" and "terrorists" in the country's remote southeast. Defending the official secularism of the Turkish state and protecting the country's "territorial integrity" supplied the defining cause.

But martyrdom is now contested in Turkey, because the country ranks among the fastest-growing economies in the world. The countryside grew rich and new parties were formed to moderate the secular fanaticism that has historically ruled the institutions of what is now the West's favourite Muslim democracy. Redefining the state has meant failed attempts to alter the Constitution so that, for example, women could be allowed to wear headscarves in government buildings. By August 2011, much of the military's overwhelmingly secular leadership had resigned in protest. In Turkey, anti-authoritarianism depends on who possesses the presidential palace, and by 2005, the country's professional journalists' association had already changed the title of a list of names—those who died fighting for freedom of expression—from "Press Martyrs" (Basin Sehitleri) to "Murdered Journalists" (Öldürülen Gazeteciler). The pious had just taken possession of the presidential palace, after all.

But in Iraq, in 2004, did such nuances matter? For Margaret Hassan, the saintly Irish-born aid worker who learned Arabic, married into Iraqi life, and was revered for trying to heal the wounds of UN sanctions—which killed an estimated five hundred thousand Iraqi children by way of malnutrition—perhaps politics and purer aims were one and the same. Margaret Hassan was one of several women kidnapped during the height of the Iraqi Insurgency, but in the final moments of her life, did she pity her murderers? Did it occur to her that dying—that martyrdom—might just be the ultimate humanitarian gesture? Margaret Hassan, after all, opposed the Iraq war.

While a man named Mustafa Salman al-Jubouri was sentenced to life in jail for aiding Margaret Hassan's murderers, her death remains officially unsolved to this day. Her family still searches for remains, hoping for a proper Christian burial. A thousand years ago, people like Hassan were canonized decades or centuries hence. Today, Osama bin Laden is dead. The Americans—few know which SEAL actually pulled the trigger—dumped your corpse into the sea, the orderliness of the execution matched by the attention, it was claimed, to Islamic custom established some fourteen centuries ago.

"THE LIGHT OF THE REVOLUTION came from Tunisia. It has given the nation tranquillity and made the faces of the people happy," Osama bin Laden reportedly said of the Arab Spring. But we don't know what precisely you made of Mohamed Bouazizi, from Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. Bouazizi was an underemployed university graduate and, therefore, probably had something in common with you and me. He operated an unlicensed produce cart in a country known for corruption, but when it came time to offer a bribe, his token of obeisance for expediency's sake was refused. While bin Laden waged war against America for supporting corrupt Arab regimes, it was Bouazizi who ignited a revolution across those countries with a victimless act of self-immolation.

Recall that a martyr need not die at the hand of another. Bouazizi had not proclaimed jihad, of course, but surely Allah witnessed his act, and, without necessarily meaning to, he did what Osama bin Laden could not.

Revolution then went to Egypt and Libya, and now comes to Syria, where bin Laden's mother was born. A man with a cellphone has watched government forces kill dozens of Syrians at a time. In Homs, the man stands on a balcony along a narrow street. He films buildings, he films fleeing crowds. He notices a sniper on a balcony across the street, and films him, too. Soon after the sniper returns fire. We know what this man saw, what death sounds like. We saw that the screen went blank. He recorded it all as an actor and a witness, one and the same, martyrdom aside. Meanwhile, a decade of eternal war and aggrieved belief draws to a close, and we are left to wonder what the 9/11 hijackers and their victims—all martyrs in their own ways—felt in those last seconds before the inevitable. 

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