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Making and mistaking martyrs

By Jolyon Mitchell


A protestor holds a picture of a blood spattered Neda Agha-Soltan and another of a woman, Neda Soltani, who was widely misidentified as Neda Agha-Soltan.

It was agonizing, just a few weeks before publication of Martyrdom: A Very Short Introduction, to discover that there was a minor mistake in one of the captions. Especially frustrating, as it was too late to make the necessary correction to the first print run, though it will be repaired when the book is reprinted. New research had revealed the original mistake. The inaccuracy we had been given had circulated the web and had been published by numerous press agencies and journalists too. What precisely was wrong?

To answer this question it is necessary to go back to Iran. During one of the demonstrations in Tehran following the contested re-election of President Ahmadinejad in 2009, a young woman (Neda Agha-Soltan) stepped out of the car for some fresh air. A few moments later she was shot. As she lay on the ground dying her last moments were captured on film. These graphic pictures were then posted online. Within a few days these images had gone global. Soon demonstrators were using her blood-spattered face on posters protesting against the Iranian regime. Even though she had not intended to be a martyr, her death was turned into a martyrdom in Iran and around the world.

Many reports also placed another photo, purportedly of her looking healthy and flourishing, alongside the one of her bloodied face. It turns out that this was not actually her face but an image taken from the Facebook page of another Iranian with a similar name, Neda Soltani. This woman is still alive, but being incorrectly identified as the martyr has radically changed her life. She later described on BBC World Service (Outlook, 2 October 2012) and on BBC Radio 4 (Woman’s Hour, 22 October 2012) how she received hate mail and pressure from the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence to support the claim that the other Neda was never killed. The visual error made it almost impossible for Soltani to stay in her home country. She fled Iran and was recently granted asylum in Germany. Neda Soltani has even written a book, entitled My Stolen Face, about her experience of being mistaken for a martyr.

The caption should therefore read something like: ‘A protestor holds a picture of a blood spattered Neda Agha-Soltan and another of a woman, Neda Soltani, who was widely misidentified as Neda Agha-Soltan.’ This mistake underlines how significant the role is of those who are left behind after a death. Martyrs are made. They are rarely, if ever, born. Communities remember, preserve, and elaborate upon fatal stories, sometimes turning them into martyrdoms. Neda’s actual death was commonly contested. Some members of the Iranian government described it as the result of a foreign conspiracy, while many others saw her as an innocent martyr. For these protestors she represents the tip of an iceberg of individuals who have recently lost their lives, their freedom, or their relatives in Iran. As such her death became the symbol of a wider protest movement.

This was also the case in several North African countries during the so-called Arab Spring. In Tunisia, in Algeria, and in Egypt the death of an individual was put to use soon after their passing. This is by no means a new phenomenon. Ancient, medieval, and early modern martyrdom stories are still retold, even if they were not captured on film. Tales of martyrdom have been regularly reiterated and amplified through a wide range of media. Woodcuts of martyrdoms from the sixteenth century, gruesome paintings from the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, photographs of executions from the nineteenth century, and fictional or documentary films from the twentieth century all contribute to the making of martyrs. Inevitably, martyrdom stories are elaborated upon. Like a shipwreck at the bottom of the ocean, they collect barnacles of additional detail. These details may be rooted in history,unintentional mistakes, or simply fictional leaps of the imagination. There is an ongoing debate, for example, around Neda’s life and death. Was she a protestor? How old was she when she died? Who killed her? Was she a martyr?

Martyrdoms commonly attract controversy. One person’s ‘martyr’ is another person’s ‘accidental death’ or ‘suicide bomber’ or ‘terrorist’. One community’s ‘heroic saint’ who died a martyr’s death is another’s ‘pseudo-martyr’ who wasted their life for a false set of beliefs. Martyrs can become the subject of political debate as well as religious devotion. The remains of a well-known martyr can be viewed as holy or in some way sacred. At least one Russian czar, two English kings, and a French monarch have all been described after their death as martyrs.

Neda was neither royalty nor politician. She had a relatively ordinary life, but an extraordinary death. Neda is like so many other individuals who are turned into martyrs: it is by their demise that they are often remembered. In this way even the most ordinary individual can become a martyr to the living after their deaths. Preserving their memory becomes a communal practice, taking place on canvas, in stone, and most recently online. Interpretations, elaborations, and mistakes commonly cluster around martyrdom narratives. These memories can be used both to incite violence and to promote peace. How martyrs are made, remembered, and then used remains the responsibility of the living.

Jolyon Mitchell is Professor of Communications, Arts and Religion, Director of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues (CTPI) and Deputy Director of the Institute for the Advanced Study in the Humanities (IASH) at the University of Edinburgh. He is author and editor of a wide range of books including most recently: Promoting Peace, Inciting Violence: The Role of Religion and Media (2012); and Martyrdom: A Very Short Introduction (2012).

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Image credit: A protestor holds a picture of a blood spattered Neda Agha-Soltan and another of a woman, Neda Soltani, who was widely misidentified as Neda Agha-Soltan, used in full page context of p.49, Martyrdom: A Very Short Introduction, by Jolyon Mitchell. Image courtesy of Getty Images.

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