“Faces on the walls – martyrs freshly emerging from life and the printing presses, a death which is a remake of itself. One martyr replacing the face of another, taking his place on the wall, until displaced by yet another or by rain.” Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, accurately captured the culture of martyrdom and the phenomenon of martyr iconography in his book Memory for Forgetfulness. He understood how these images can create a vicious cycle of violence.
Martyrs exist throughout the world, but their images are increasingly used in places of crisis, and especially in the Middle East, to reflect social changes, shape society, and prolong violence. In the West Bank, Gaza, and the refugee camps in Lebanon the walls and streets are plastered with the faces of martyrs killed in the struggle against Israel. Posters, billboards, signs, and hand-painted murals with the images or names of martyrs are constant visual reminders of the struggle. On television, videos of martyrs pronouncing their last words fill the airspace. And in houses, pictures of heroic martyrs line the walls and children collect cards with the stats of martyrs, like baseball cards. Martyr iconography in these areas symbolizes the resistance struggle and the opposition to the current situation.
In Iran martyrs are national icons, symbolizing the struggles of the Islamic Revolution. On a wall near Tehran University there is a painting of a twelve-year-old boy, Hussein Fahmideh, who blew himself up in front of an Iraqi tank during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. And this image, according to a former professor of mine, was plastered on billboards and inscribed into history books throughout the nation. Fahmideh became a symbol of the new Islamic Republic and was immortalized as a hero. His struggle was emblematic of the greater struggle of the new Iranian government and his death was a sacrifice for this cause. In Iran martyrs are not symbolic of resistance or opposition, but of the hardships faced by the Islamic Republic.
But martyr commemoration is not as innocent as it seems. It serves three goals, the last of which is most shocking and ominous.
First, images of martyrs reflect socio-economic conditions. In the the Occupied Palestinian Territories and refugee camps, they reflect the struggle against Israel, the growing strength of movements like HAMAS and Hezbollah, and the divided political conditions. Most of the martyr images in these areas are of those killed fighting against Israeli occupation, whether suicide bombers or innocent victims. And whereas prior to the 1980s most martyr images in these areas were more secular, they now contain more Islamic symbols, demonstrating the growing strength of Islamic groups. And the political struggle between parties like Fatah and HAMAS is also evident in these images. Posters and images now contain the stamp of the party that the martyr was affiliated with and the party that organized the attack. Sometimes this is the party name, party symbol, or the party slogan. In addition, the changing role of women has also been reflected, with the first woman martyrs appearing in posters and murals in 2002.
Second, martyr commemoration attempts to shape the socio-political conditions and becomes a political and social tool. These images are used to remind people of their hardships and struggles and channel their anger towards a particular goal. They unite people through grief and try to recruit them into a movement or political party. In Palestine and Lebanon, these images have been used by HAMAS, Hezbollah, and other movements as part of the political struggle to win over the hearts and minds of the people. And in Iran, martyr commemoration reminds the people of the sacrifices and struggles of the Islamic Republic. But there has also been a shift in Iran in the use of martyr iconography. The Islamic Republic no longer maintains a stranglehold on martyr images. Following the elections in the summer of 2009, the opposition movement used the video of the death of Neda Agha Soltan, as a rallying cry to incite more protests.
But perhaps the most sinister thing about martyr iconography is how these images create a discourse on martyrdom that perpetuates the cycle. They immortalize normal citizens, making them into larger-than-life heroes. Martyrdom is not only made culturally acceptable, but it is exalted. A culture of martyrs, where violence is encouraged, is created. And this helps to recruit people into the struggle, producing a new generation of young boys and girls willing to give their lives for their nation and their cause.
Martyr commemoration is perhaps most visible and most shocking in the Middle East. Yet it is not limited to the Middle East or to Islamic societies, but appears in many areas of struggle and strife. Christianity, like Islam and other religions, also honors martyrs and uses their images as symbols of its struggles. And more recently, the media in the United States have used the images of soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, or the images of their coffins, to honor those killed serving their nation and to inspire patriotism. There are countless other examples of martyr iconography throughout the world and throughout the ages, but the current situation in the Middle East and the struggles inherent therein, have made this phenomenon very public and visually striking.