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Celebrating False Martyrs   


Public discourse in much of the Arab world is in need of a thorough de-lousing after the capture of Saddam Hussein — if only to maintain the hygiene of Islamic theology.

St. Stephen
first Christian martyr

The ignominious capture of Saddam had provoked widespread — but thankfully, not universal — disgust that he did not die fighting, going down as a courageous martyr.

“It would have been far better if he had fought to the end and died as a martyr as his two sons did,” wrote Adbelbari Atwan, the influential editor of the London-based pan-Arab newspaper, al-Quds al-Arabi .

Martyr? Suicide bombers — whether in Israel , Turkey , Indonesia , Iraq or New York — are often described as “martyrs” in the Arab and Islamic world. In the Hamas kindergartens of the West Bank , the kids are encouraged: “The children of the kindergarten are the shaheeds (holy martyrs) of tomorrow.”

The idea that Saddam could have in any sense died a martyr — or that his sons were in fact martyrs — demonstrates how terribly corrupted the concept has become. And a culture which has lost the true sense of martyrdom has lost its moral bearings.

To be a martyr is to be a witness, as the Greek etymology of the word indicates. The martyr willingly suffers death as a witness that there are truths worth dying for. Martyrs suffer death rather than apostatize from their faith, contravene the moral law, betray their friends, punish the innocent, or endanger their family. There are also martyrs for the fatherland, who suffer death in defense of their nation and culture. In each case, the witness testifies by his blood that he is willing to die for truths and loves without which life would not be worth living.

What witness would Saddam have offered by his fighting death? His sons were martyrs for what cause? A deposed tyrant is no more a martyr than is a hostage-taker slain by a policeman's bullet.

To credit Saddam with the possibility of martyrdom is to say that what he stood for is worth more than life itself. Standing up to the United States and United Nations is not such a principle. Tyrannical rule is not such a principle. Pride is not such a principle.

To the contrary, the martyr lives on the horizon of eternity. Only the conviction that there is a reality beyond this terrestrial one makes sense of martyrdom. Only if what one stands for does not pass away with one's body is martyrdom reasonable. A willingness to be martyred is a profound act of faith and hope in the reality of all that is transcendent. The martyr writes boldly of his faith with the very blood he sheds.

The witness of the martyrs inspires because it is perfect testimony, wholly untainted by self-interest. The power of that testimony moved the third-century theologian Tertullian to write the famous phrase sanguis martyrorum semen Christianorum — the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.

Just as true martyrs inspire, false martyrdom corrupts. The horizon of false martyrs ends in this world. The goals of false martyrs — whether it be removing American military bases from Saudi Arabia or perpetuating Ba'athist dictatorship in Iraq — are entirely here-and-now. The false martyr is a witness of an anti-religion; faith is transferred from a God who is transcendent to the power struggles of this world. The sure hope of the true martyr is translated into despair by the false martyr; the latter dies not in the hope of principles vindicated, but rather convinced that principles are less worthy than sheer power.

A culture which celebrates false martyrs — especially those who die in order to kill others, as suicide bombers do — is a culture in which the whole possibility of moral action is threatened. While only a few are made of the sturdy stuff of martyrs, the possibility of martyrdom animates the whole of the moral life, in which integrity without compromise always remains an option. In the face of all alluring compromises, the witness of the martyr invites courage in making sacrifices — and without sacrifices the moral life is drained of its nobility.

The witness of the false martyr teaches instead that moral sacrifice has no power, and that only brute strength in this world is valuable. If you are in a position of relative weakness — like Saddam's sons or the Hamas bombers — then the praiseworthy thing to do is simply to be as destructive as possible while going out in a blaze of counterfeit glory.

The memory of the martyrs is safeguarded by all religions, including Islam. Saddam's capture has shown that protecting the integrity of martyrdom is now a pressing task. Saddam was not a candidate for martyrdom, whether he fought or not. He could not be a martyr. He had nothing noble to fight for.


Father Raymond J. De Souza, "Celebrating False Martyrs." National Post, (Canada) 19 December, 2003.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post.


Father Raymond J. de Souza is currently assigned to Our Lady of Lourdes parish as a curate, and as a chaplain to Newman House at Queen's University.

Copyright © 2003 National Post



Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved