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Martyrdom and terrorism: a Q&A

Martyrdom and terrorism are not new ideas, and in fact have been around for thousands of years, often closely tied to religion. We sat down with Jolyon Mitchell to discuss the topic of martyrdom and how it relates to terrorism in the past and today.

How did you get into working on martyrdom and related topics?

Before moving to the University of Edinburgh, I worked as a producer and journalist with BBC World Service. While there I was part of a team who covered a number of news and human interest stories relating to martyrdom, terrorism and hostage-taking. For example, we interviewed a number of Western hostages (such as Terry Waite and Brian Keenan) soon after they were freed from several years of captivity in Lebanon. Listening to their stories led me to think further about the motivations of those who had captured and had then held them for many months. I would later investigate why some of their number would go further and resort to acts of violence or terror against Westerners, while others would be prepared to give up their lives to promote their cause. It became clear then to me that one community’s martyr can be another community’s terrorist.

What fascinates you so much about the topic of martyrdom?

In Media Violence and Christian Ethics, I investigated how different people remembered, responded to and interacted with images of violence. I became fascinated with how different audiences handled “dangerous memories,” including memories of martyrdom. This work led in turn to research trips to countries such as Rwanda and Iran. In Tehran I found myself surrounded by stories and images of martyrdom, which went back many hundreds of years. In Rwanda, I investigated sites of martyrdom from the genocide in 1994. I am also fascinated by the different ways in which martyrdom is interpreted. For some, a martyr and a martyrdom are objective empirical realities that can be studied as isolated phenomena, for others they are largely created by later communities. From both perspectives there can be many different kinds of martyrdom. Who makes a martyr and their martyrdom is a more complicated question than it at first appears. Some suicide bombers embrace death in such a way as to lay the foundations for their ends to be described as a martyrdom and themselves to be thought of as martyrs. Some actively pursued martyrdom while others, when they realized death was inevitable, became more considered in their actions, writing, or speech. Some individuals such as Charles I or Jose Rizal, the founding martyr of the modern state of the Philippines, may have lost control of their lives, but they attempted to control the way their deaths would be remembered. Others did not have the luxury or time to be able to try to influence their earthly afterlives. The way in which later communities describe and then interpret a death influences whether it is remembered as a martyrdom. This diversity of interpretations and perspectives are rich topics for analysis.

How far has militant martyrdom become increasingly secular?

There are different kinds of martyrdom and different motivations for being prepared to offer one’s life to promote a particular cause. Those who are prepared to die, and take other lives, are described by some as martyrs and by others as murderers. There is a tradition of “secular martyrs” who are motivated not by religious belief, but by political objectives. For example, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka used suicide bombing as a way of promoting their own cause. Their deaths were celebrated by many local Tamils as seeds of freedom. Nevertheless, in other contexts such as in the Middle East some individuals are prepared to die to kill for both religious and political reasons.

Why is it so important to look at connections between martyrdom and terrorism today?

While it can be useful to make a distinction between active and passive martyrdoms, predatory and peaceful martyrdoms, military and non-violent martyrdoms, there is clearly a close connection for many between martyrdom and terrorism. In Martyrdom: A Very Short Introduction, I suggest that over the last few years martyrdom has gone digital. The digitization of martyrdom is changing the way martyrs are commemorated, remembered, and interpreted. Audiences now have direct access to countless original martyrdom stories, texts and martyrologies (lists of martyrs). Online images of martyrs are now widely accessible. A few taps on a computer or mobile phone and anyone can see the faces of those named as martyrs. They criss-cross the globe weaving unexpected patterns, leaving traces of deaths that otherwise might be forgotten. As memories of martyrdom are remembered and re-presented digitally, images of martyrs and martyrdoms can “bear witness” both to practices of violence and peace.

Your chapter in Martyrdom and Terrorism: Pre-Modern to Contemporary Perspectives is about filming the ends of martyrdom. How far is a film like Cecil B. Demille’s The Sign of the Cross (1932) only a period piece or does it still have something important to tell us?

Every film reflects the historical and cultural context out of which it was produced. Cecil B. Demille’s The Sign of the Cross is no exception. To our CGI-trained eyes, like most black and white films from the 1930s, this films looks like a window onto a foreign land. The dialogue, the shots, and the narrative all seem peculiar or certainly idiosyncratic. Nevertheless, this film, like several other films touching on martyrdom, raises important questions pertinent to discussions about martyrdom today. For example, why do some people embrace death for their faiths? How do state powers attempt to control the bodies of their subjects? And what role does religious belief have in the making of martyrs?

Still from The Sign of the Cross
Film still from Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross (1932), reproduced courtesy of Paramount and the Kobal Collection, ref. SIG001CC.

In your chapter you also mention the movie Becket, which includes another notable cinematic martyrdom. What kinds of materials have been used to preserve the story of King Henry III and the knights who killed archbishop Thomas Becket in his own cathedral in 1070?

Following the murder of Thomas à Becket (c.1118-1170) by four of King Henry II’s (1133-1189) knights in Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December 1170 his remains were buried at the eastern end of the Cathedral’s crypt. Concerned that his body might be stolen, the monks ensured that the burial was carried out swiftly, with a stone placed over his tomb. At least one hole was cut through the stone so that pilgrims would be able to kiss the place where Becket was buried. Becket was canonised in 1173 by Pope Alexander III (c.1100-1181), just three years after his murder. Thousands of pilgrims were soon visiting the shrine of the former Archbishop of Canterbury. Here was a Northern European Norman saint whose remains became a magnet for visitors. The significant increase in the number of visiting pilgrims substantially augmented the wealth of the Cathedral and the city of Canterbury. When alive, Becket’s manner as Archbishop had won him few friends, but when dead he was venerated as a saint and a martyr. As such he could pray for the living, so becoming a focal point for generous giving. Pilgrims, for example, were able to purchase Becket badges or tokens marking their pilgrimage. By 1220, his bones were transferred into a jewelled golden shrine on a raised platform in the Cathedral’s specially constructed Trinity Chapel, where offerings also increased.

Both relics and images of Becket travelled swiftly in the first few decades after his death. It was not long before stained glass, wall paintings and manuscripts were being illustrated with scenes of his life and martyrdom. The V&A’s director in London, Alan Borg, claims that there was “a sort of Becket mania” that “spread across Europe.” Evidence suggests that within a few decades of his death, the spread of Becket’s martyr cult stretched from Iceland and Scotland to Palestine and Italy. Becket’s memory touched many people’s lives, though by the time the humanist Erasmus (c. 1466-1536) visited the shrine at Canterbury in the early sixteenth century he was bemused at the wealth and showmanship of one of his guides introducing him to the relics. The story of Beckett would later become the subject of plays (notably T.S. Elliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral”) and films. In this way the story of Beckett’s martyrdom has been amplified, elaborated and translated into new materials.

Dominic Janes, Alex Houen, and Jolyon Mitchell are the co-editors of Martyrdom and Terrorism: Pre-Modern to Contemporary Perspectives. Dominic Janes is Reader in Cultural History and Visual Studies at Birkbeck, University of London. In addition to a spell as a lecturer at Lancaster University, he has been a research fellow at London and Cambridge universities. His latest book project is Queer Martyrdom from John Henry Newman to Derek Jarman. Alex Houen is Senior University Lecturer in Modern Literature in the Faculty of English, University of Cambridge, and Fellow of Pembroke College. He is author of Terrorism and Modern Literature, as well as various articles and book chapters on literature and political violence. Jolyon Mitchell is Professor Communications, Arts and Religion at University of Edinburgh .

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