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Performing One's Own Death: Martyrdom, Sovereignty and Truth


This work develops a new understanding of the socials significance of martyrdom through a comparative analysis of the concept’s deployment in three distinct settings. Beginning by critically assessing the linguistic provenance of the term “martyr,” from the Greek word for a court witness, combined with a discussion of how such deaths are discursively shaped in opposition to the victim, soldier or suicide, I argue for a heuristic that centers on the opposition of interpretive frames at work in conflicts that create martyrs. To support such a model, I proceed by analyzing collected sets of texts said to be written by martyrs where they frame their intention and link their death to larger political and symbolic complexes. To establish a common lens through which to investigate deaths that occur in radically different contexts, I introduce the concept of the sovereign imaginary: a coherent ideal of cosmic order that configures moral judgments of right and wrong, delineates social boundaries, and provides processes of establishing legitimate authority. The contemporary political and religious authorities who rely on and propagate such imaginaries are responsible for shaping life for the communities under analysis, and their words are considered in tandem with those of the martyrs themselves.

The concept of the martyr as we understand it today originates in early Christianity, which has largely determined the contours of the term’s usage today. Second century Christianity in Asia Minor – the so-called cradle of martyrdom – provided much of the context for Christian martyrdom, and is the first case analyzed here. This area boasts members like Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna, two significant voices that shaped the understanding of martyrdom in early Christianity. By examining the socio-political context between the early Christian communities, their Jewish counterparts, and the Roman state, I trace the developing conflict around the true sovereign authority in the world, and show how harm against the body was used as a means of shoring up such authority. Armed with their own ideas about legitimate suffering, and refusing to capitulate to the coercive measures of the Roman State, Christian martyrs gave their lives in a show of affiliation to the true power in the world and thereby became exemplars of the true way to live.

A similar dynamic exists within the second case under study, the Shi’a Islamists of 1980s Iran and Lebanon, from whence the modern phenomenon of “martyrdom operations” or “suicide bombings” springs. Looking explicitly at the Iran-Iraq war – where huge numbers of young men walked willingly into bullets to overwhelm their enemy – alongside Hizbollah’s resistance to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon where human bombs were first employed as a tactic toward Islamist ends, I show how the repeated invocation of mytho-historical persons led to the experience of re-living history. Attending to the Shi’a roots of what will largely become a Sunni phenomenon, I show that the self-sacrificial violence was seen to be a necessary act in order to bring about the only truly just rule of God, one incumbent upon all true Muslims. The ability of one group to determine the requirements of a social group, I argue, resulted in the willingness of young men and women to place the ends of community over their own lives.

My last case leaves the Abrahamic context to examine the way martyrdom discourse is employed in regards to the self-immolations that have been occurring in twenty-first century Tibet. Though an explicitly Buddhist culture, here too I discover conflicts around legitimate sovereignty and political self-determination – issues at the heart of all cases under analysis – compel a discourse that encourages self-sacrifice through reference to sacred narratives. By tracing the language employed by the self-immolators in tandem with the ways the struggle with the People’s Republic of China is framed by the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, I demonstrate how the same dynamic is evident in labeling the auto-cremations martyrdoms: a historic, political, and religious truth is expressed and cemented in the bodies of those willing to die rather than act against it.

In conclusion I articulate a new theoretical model by which to understand martyrdom as performance suffering, acts of voluntary affliction – contextualized in a symbolic world – that are seen to have the potential to change the situation on the ground by remaining true to the larger cosmic goals that would bring about a just existence. Maintaining that the operations of martyrdom occur on both personal and social levels simultaneously, I show that these deaths are used as pieces of evidence in support of a particular interpretive vision of truth, and that these deaths are particularly powerful and provocative due to the spectacular nature of a sovereign imaginary appearing in the flesh of those who suffer for it.

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