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Countering the Cult of the Martyr

20/12/2009

This week marks the first anniversary of the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor, whose death triggered the Arab Spring. Looking at the celebrations in his home town and across the Middle East one would swear that Bouazizi has reached the cult status of an American rock star. Yet, any rational person would view the young man’s death as the height of despair, and rather a depressing episode. It was an act of extreme despair which motivated the young fruit seller to pour gasoline over himself and set himself alight following the confiscation of his cart. Yet Bouazizi and his family hold an honoured position now in Arab society. I would never forget a ten year old Egyptian boy informing me that he wants to be a martyr whilst his friends looked upon him with approval. I recall thinking that my own son was about this boy’s age and I wanted him to live not die!

This fascination with the death and its concomitant cult of the martyr needs to be countered and needs to form a central pillar in counter-terror efforts. After all before a suicide bomber detonates his or her vest he/she must be ideologically indoctrinated to believe that he/she is doing the “right” thing – both in terms of the act and the target. Moreover, such an act exists within a social milieu in which such acts are not only condoned but also lauded. For this reason Martha Crenshaw believes that martyrdom has a cultural base, ‘Unless martyrdom was valued by society or at least by a sub-culture, individuals would not seek it’. Moreover religious authorities in Muslim societies often gave legitimacy to such acts by sanctioning them. As Crenshaw goes on to state, ‘The martyrs were widely revered in Muslim society. In some cases, the individual who changes his mind about carrying out an attack was scorned as a “half-martyr”’.

Groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have certainly capitalized on this cult of the martyr. Robert Fowler, a former UN special envoy to Niger who was held captive by AQIM for four months between 2008 and 2009 noted that one of his captors informed him, “We fight to die, you fight to go home to your wife and kids. Guess who will win?” This love of death has fundamentally altered the challenge that terrorism poses to security officials everywhere. The seriousness of these profound challenges to counter-terrorism experts is summarized by British Lord Chalfont, ‘…the whole time I have been involved in [counter-] terrorist organizations, which goes back 30 years, my enemy has always been a man who is very worried about his own skin. You can no longer count on that, because the terrorist is not just prepared to get killed, he wants to get killed’.

Closely related to this love of death, is a profound negation of the status quo which is almost anarchic. Indeed violence, destruction and terror almost become an end in itself as confrontation with the proverbial other is actively sought. Indeed Al Qaeda itself is quite clear on its stance regarding dialogue, debate and diplomacy. Its training manual notes, ‘The confrontation that we are calling for with the apostate regimes does not know Socratic debates, Platonic ideals nor Aristotelian diplomacy. But it knows the dialogue of the bullet, the ideals of assassination, bombing and destruction, and the diplomacy of the cannon and machine gun’.

From a counter-terror perspective, those agents and institutions of socialization which promote the cult of the martyr will have to be identified and neutralized to prevent a new generation of jihadists from emerging.