The Martyrdom Hoax

St. Peter's Square in the early morning.
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Catholics put great store in their martyrs whom their church canonizes as saints because they have died in defense of their faith. Muslim suicide bombers also claim to be martyrs whose sacrifice will be a direct ticket to heaven. Supposedly young men who “martyr” themselves as suicide bombers are promised 70 virgins when they get to heaven!!

Does this mean there is sex in heaven, or do they simply get waited on by these “virgins”? And what about the women who martyr themselves? What is their reward? There are some who claim that the promise of 70 virgins may actually be based on a mistranslation of the word for “raisin.” Imagine blowing yourself up only to be rewarded in the afterlife with 70 raisins!

There is a  theological contradiction between these two views of martyrdom. The value of martyrdom comes from the fundamental assumption that other things being equal, the martyr wants to live. Suicide has been strongly prohibited in Christianity as it is seen to represent despair, which is a loss of faith in God. Islam has, if anything, a stronger prohibition of suicide. In both Christianity and Islam martyrdom and suicide are fundamentally opposite choices.

True martyrdom consists of two basic features – the willingness of someone to sacrifice life in defense of the faith or to save the lives of others, and the acceptance by the martyr of death at the hands of someone else. The martyr does not have a “death wish”, only a willingness to sacrifice his or her own life to save others or avoid committing a worse sin. In Islam as well as in Christianity and Judaism, life is a gift of God and each person has a responsibility to make the most of his or her life upon which he or she will be judged after death. How can there be any theological basis for the practice of suicide bombing where young people, with much life ahead of them, commit murder and suicide for political reasons unrelated to their spiritual fidelity with the promise of a direct route to heaven? How does this devaluation of life for political purposes serve the cause of Islam? How can it be more valuable to kill yourself and to murder others whom you don’t even know and often cannot even identify as belonging to some “enemy” and who may even share your faith than to live a life devoted to the defense of your ideals?

All religions that subscribe to the commandment “thou shalt not kill” face the question of whether killing is ever acceptable in the eyes of God. The doctrine of “just war” and the notion of “self defense” are part of the recognition that those who kill have to answer to God for breaking this commandment. For the devout, these are serious and difficult issues. How can it be defensible for any religious leader to condone an evasion of the responsibility to live and the slaughter of innocents by promising not just divine forgiveness but a direct route to heaven? Why should anyone live when by blowing themselves and others up they can avoid the trouble and avail themselves of an eternal reward? Agreeing to blow yourself and others up as a means of political violence may be your tactic of choice and may even be admired by those who share your political goals. It is not religious martyrdom.

There are Islamic religious leaders who have spoken out against suicide bombing for these very reasons.  They need to speak up more against this tragic waste of lives.

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6 Responses to “The Martyrdom Hoax”

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  5. Chantal says:

    This is the most articulate remark I have heard about this issue. Thank you.

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