8/22/15, the day after Hajji Mutazz, second in command of ISIL, died in an airstrike (Al Jazeera), a website maintained by Abu Hudhayfah (DOAM) republished a poem by Tarek Mehanna called A Drone Over the Skies of Madinah. Labeled ominously from Mehanna’s isolation cell, November 15, 2010, the poem conjures a drone strike on an imaginary modern vision of the Prophet Muhammad in a rhythmic set of 25 stanzas, each with four rhyming bars. Here’s the first stanza:
Ask yourself: if the Prophet was with us today,
If he spoke the same words and lived the same way,
If he returned with the same message to relay,
How long would the forces of the world let him stay?
Ask yourself: if a merchant returned from the desert today singing a message that he claimed to have memorized verbatim from an angel, would you take him seriously? Even with video evidence, any claim of contact with the divine would deserve extreme skepticism. Given Muhammad existed as more than a literary character, he spread his message at a time when a story could be accepted as fact without corroboration, sometimes at the point of a sword.
In a book about Muhammad’s generalship and military achievements, historian Richard A. Gabriel points out, “The biographies of saviors and messiahs cannot usually pass as history; they are rather the propaganda of an expanding faith” (Review). The historicity of Muhammad is perhaps more convincing than the historicity of Jesus, if only because of the evidence of Mohammedan conquest in the 7th century. ISIL’s leader Abu Akbar Baghdadi latched onto this narrative, and presents himself as a modern incarnation of the Prophet, with an inheritance to the glory of Muhammad’s battles.
Let’s examine Mehanna’s Muhammad martyrdom scenario further. If a theologian rallied an army to destroy the ancient idols and shrines in Mecca or elsewhere in a bid to unify the Middle East, the fight would have nothing to do with America (outside its oil interests). Certain Americans, like my youthful self, might get butt hurt by seeing violence on television or via social media and support an assassination plot, or several thousand eye-for-an-eye acts of aggression.
If American drones hit a modern day Muhammad mafia style, without a trial to bring context to his narrative, we might make him into a martyr and give a powerful grievance to his friends and followers.
The trauma might distract his admirers (because doubtless a modern Muhammad would be charismatic) from realizing that some of his teachings are ethically questionable rehashed traditions that predate even Zoroastrianism (like head coverings), and that many of the texts that are supposed to be Sharia were written down by a multitude of hands at a time when the seasons of the year were barely comprehended, when proposing a round earth was radical, during an iron age that saw the fall of the Roman empire, the Christianization of Europe and a renaissance in Arabic culture and scientific achievement.
Islamic society blossomed after the Mohammedan conquests, like Rome after Caesar. Empires generate vast wealth for a lucky few, and also the luxury of intellectual achievement. But Muhammad was never a martyr.
Let’s throw a few frogs into this Muhammad martyrdom fantasy. This reliance on an ancient oral narration for truth inspires some inane fatwas, and time wasting debate, like the contemporary discourse on eating frog legs: “It is confirmed in a Hadeeth that it is prohibited to kill frogs . . . the reason for this is that its croak is Tasbeeh [praise to Allah] . . . And Al-Bayhaqi classified this narration from Ibn Amr as Saheeh [authentic]” (Islam Web). However, you can dissect a frog for science (Islam Q&A). If the Prophet was with us today he might clarify the moral relevance and true posture of his dietary law. The fact is, if you didn’t grow up eating certain meats like frogs legs, they’re tough to stomach. At a table with frog legs, a religious objection is not piety but a polite excuse.
Another frog story tempers this criticism (Sufi Stories). Two frogs fell into a deep pit. Other frogs gathered, and seeing the depth of the hole they yelled at their friends to save themselves the pain of trying to escape because they were as good as dead.
One frog took heed, and died of despair. The other, despite the continued entreaties of its comrades to give up, to save the agony of exertion and to die, jumped with increasing vigor. In a final complex series of jumps, the second frog escaped up the walls. His friends asked why he’d ignored their advice, and he explained that he was deaf, and that he thought that they were encouraging him. Discouraging words are destructive, because false beliefs can also motivate life.
Belief in abstractions is understandable. Hell, heaven, and a final judgement, are all unfalsifiable. It is natural to fear death and to try to figure out ways of preventing antisocial behavior.
We each have only a few decades of life to enjoy, and religion offers some comfort and security in the doldrums. My parents believe that Jesus will return within their waining lifetimes, and the worst thing I’ve seen come from their religion is some unintentionally mean spirited conversation. Belief in a day of judgement offers a moral high ground from which we encourage each other to love our neighbors, by many means.
We can get violent about religious dogma. Every day that we spend discussing the ethics of killing homosexuals, or burning witches, or chopping off hands, or apocalyptic prophesies, is a day lost on our way to creating spaceship earth.
Churches (and Mosques of course) can be loving, and conditionally supportive. They offer nurturing communities. But they also limit our imaginations with fear of gods and death, and far too little conversation about sex and justice. The religious sometimes seem to relish the pain of others, apparently unaware that for some people living forever in the knowledge that the majority of humanity is being tortured for eternity would be unendurable. Heaven sounds hellish to me.
An ancient Greek philosopher, Epicures, already solved the problem of death more than two thousand years ago: “Death is nothing to us.” When we die that’s it. We cannot know what it’s like to die, and there is no reason to fear death because when we die we no longer exist.
Fear of death is wasted time that could be spent avoiding pain. Epicures suggested that we can be content by limiting our desires to the material world and banishing our fears of gods and death (IEP).
All good things came through applied skepticism, reason, and inquiry into the experiences of our senses. We can learn to enjoy our senses without getting greedy. Obsessing on death and theism is an expression of hubris. Conceit says I will live forever.
An atheist approaches theology like literary criticism. All legends are fictional, including most of our war stories. The truths of history died with those that experienced all the past moments of time. All we have now are a few stories.
I prefer the label apostate to atheist as a reminder of my former convictions and the fragility of my intellect. I was raised in a Christian tradition, and have read many known Christian and Jewish texts in English translation online and in print. Against everything I am told by some of the people closest to me I’ve realized that the Bible is a work of poetry and fiction in which truth is implicit, not explicit.
I am an apostate. I do not believe what I was raised to believe.
I worry about ideas that holy texts germinate when they are taken literally, especially since I see the most outspoken justifiers of warfare (in American societies at least) are adherents to Judaeo faiths.
Studying texts about gods as anything more than human efforts endangers our understanding of what is actually going on in the cosmos and in our lives on earth. Considering we all want happiness and measures of control over our fears on earth, since we can all make life better for each other, speculating on divine guidance is capricious and wasteful.
Theists often call atheists arrogant, concerned that when our interests are in life itself we each only look out for ourselves. Theists worry about preserving distorted versions of morality, including rituals about death. But humans naturally develop communities and ethics around all sorts of faith structures, and we rely on each other for many of the best experiences in life—drama, comedy and sex.
A better way of understanding life involves no metaphysics at all. Hallucinations, dreams and emotions are chemical reactions within our individual psyches, our minds free associating and fooling with our senses.
Rather than looking inward, to our desires for guidance, we can look out at the material world to form an understanding ethics (like we will not kill/steal/rape/enslave), and try to making life physically better for everyone on earth. By studying ethics we define those material sins that require material correction and form our justice systems. We may each even participate every few years in a court system, sitting in jury pools.
Our ethics develop to minimize harm, and are our best attempts at defining justice. Bans against gay marriage are not ethical, for example, because there is no reasonable argument against two people of the same sex loving each other and growing together as friends and partners.
Marriage is a social contract, an ancient business practice first documented in Mesopotamia (Ancient), an attribute of one person’s relationship with another. Marriage is useful in society because alliances offer purpose and substance not only for those involved, but for the dependents that those alliances can feed, cloth and house as well. We partner up to make profits.
The modern idea among the religious of marriage being between one man and one woman does not even explicitly appear in the religious texts, though polygamy does. In one version of Genesis Adam goes through two women (Gnosis). Lilith comes first, but she would not submit to the missionary position in sex. She escapes from Adam by saying the magic name of God, and she goes off to give birth. That’s the first time that devils enter the Jewish scriptures.
It seems marriage has already evolved. A religious person may decide to abstain from homosexual desires as a fast for whatever abstract purpose, which is fine. But to impose a fast on others is not ethical because it creates needless angst, fear, and rejection. Words can be harmful. Negative emotions can have real world consequences; study the murder of Matthew Shepard.
We find humility in the knowledge and acceptance of death. Asking for martyrdom attempts to express humility. It places a cause above individual interests, and on the surface it appears to be the antithesis of materialism. Certain ideas might be worth dying to promote, to improve the life and happiness of future generations, like Bruce Willis flying into the spaceship in Armageddon, but more often than not the deaths of self-declared martyrs are pointless and tragic.
One might ask to be a martyr, but the only way to be one is by dying on principle, a death one could have escaped, getting noticed, and then having one’s story used to further an ideological agenda. Why is this desirable?
How much less potent would Christianity be without its martyrdom narratives? Christians regularly cite their early martyrs to legitimize their stories about Jesus. “Why would someone die for a lie,” say defenders of the Gospel (Patheos).
But people have died for the honor of pretty much every holy text in the history of humanity. Consider the deaths of Japanese Kamikazes during WW2 as just one terrifying example of a long tradition of suicide deployments (The Guardian). Final solutions can be quite compelling.
I am hijacking Al Qaeda’s recruitment tract for two reasons. First I respect the intellect of any person with the tenacity to comprehend its message, and the courage to jeopardize her own life in jihad. Second I want to understand jihad, and define the term. I understand a struggle. Crusade might be an apt translation, but that word does not seem nuanced enough.
We need to break the conceit that anyone can know a god with certainty, or has the final and complete word on anything. That conceit is expressed in the desire for martyrdom, which requires complete submission to a message from an authority figure.
The second way to Jihad is designed to “solidify your determination to Jihad.” According to 39 Ways, whoever seeks martyrdom, will be a martyr “even if he dies in his bed.” In that case the word martyrdom means something different in English.
The second of the 39 Ways follows up on the happy thought of dying in old age of sickness, like the Prophet himself, with a threat to its reader: a man points to his throat and says, “Shall I follow you and be stricken here?” Indeed, God later strikes the man down with a wound in the throat. Damn you if you don’t believe me.
Your fate is in Allah or Yahweh’s hands either way. Fatalistic thinking, that a higher power can manipulate morality or physics in favor of certain people, is irresponsible and lazy. Every action has a reaction. We are each responsible for how we direct our actions in the court of public opinion, even after we’re dead.
Al Qaeda created quite a few secular martyrs over the past two decades, and as Islamists continue killing people in these fantastic ways their messages become increasingly shrill and contradictory. If the end of the world is coming, if this is their prophesy, let’s nail it down, observe what they say, and hold them to it. That goes for Islamists and Evangelicals alike. Their supposed martyrs will be useful to future generations to deconstruct similar apocalyptic ideologies.
The world did not end in 1988, nor in 2000, nor in 2012. When the world does not end in 2076, as some suggest (New Republic), after many of us have passed from this earth, newspapers will provide solid documentation of at least this one failed apocalyptic prophesy on a grand scale. Maybe this information can help prevent a repeat of the vile situation we face today in our sites of cultural conflict.
Braggadocios veterans of foreign wars like Khalid Sheik Mohammed (KSM) who fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s cycle violent traditions on to future generations.
Remember Daniel Pearl, the journalist pictured in the banner up top? KSM decapitated him in 2002 (Washingtonian), and now stands trial in Guantanamo not for that propagandistic murder, but for masterminding 9/11.
His trial continues to drag out, and he exerts some psychological power over the process by claiming martyrdom (Washington Post). He makes endless requests for cultural sensitivity and respect, and even wears a camouflage jacket to the stand to remind us of his service to U.S. interests in Afghanistan (NY Post).
How do we deal with the idea that when you die you lose everything?
What makes a martyr? KSM stands trial for arranging a real life reenactment of the Tower of Babel myth on 9/11 (NPR). His propaganda represents a basic fear of multiculturalism and the quest for knowledge.
Daniel Pearl traveled to Pakistan as a reporter looking for a story. KSM lured him into a fake interview, and slit his throat for propaganda purposes, thus frightening away journalists and photographers who might uncover uncomfortable truths.
Let’s send KSM off to his martyrdom, like the marathon bomber, like the Denver shooter. Wait. That Joker, the white face got psychiatric care. If we’re going to do the death penalty, why do we hesitate on a white man? Maybe the death penalty is cruel, even when it is usual.
In the three years between 9/11 and when I joined the Navy, while in high school, I was impressed by stories in the news about American military martyrs, those soldiers that jump onto grenades and so forth. I felt the heady rush of admiration for these men whose bootcamp photos I would see associated with “local hero” headlines, and I had dreams in which I emulated their actions.
Something about the intention to die is intriguing. The sentiment is packaged by Christianity: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Answering-christianity.com, an Islamic apologist website, points out that there is a greater love, the love of one who dies for an enemy.
But flagrant selflessness is dangerous, especially when the ends only exist in our imaginations. When we’re all dead, that’s it, the end of a species.
One cannot reasonably expect more experience than a lifetime, and our influence will be whatever we can accomplish within this period of time. The nineteen, some odd, men who enlisted to die on 9/11 dreamed of eternity. They were deranged in their imagination by a few self-obsessed preachers with a knack for guiding youths to certain deaths.
Some elements of these religious texts have the coercive power to quiet our fear of death. This principle of martyrdom has power. As Paul said to the Philippians, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain.” It’s a melodramatic concept that had appeal in response to Roman occupation and persecution, but as this Age of Empires ends, maybe around 2150, we will have enough records of real martyrs to end wars.
There’s this idea of turning the other cheek, exaggerating an affront and thereby humiliating one’s humiliator, done right by Rosa Parks and all those before her who refused to move to the back of a bus on command (PBS). The civil rights movement offers an example of how the concept of martyrdom might play out in a positive way.
The call to martyrdom is a call to action. The second chapter in 39 Ways courts impulsive behavior: “The true pursuit of martyrdom is that which causes one to fly towards any sound of commotion or action, as opposed to being one who delays and is slow to aid this Dīn.” The Din in this case is a holy war, as in the compound word Mujihadin (those who struggle in the holy war). But in a peaceful context it refers to a way of life that complies with Sharia (divine law) and submission to Allah.
Din in Arabic is essentially synonymous to ideology (Imam Mohamed Baianonie). Defining Din as holy war, as Al Qaeda does, is sacrilegious and hijacks the Islamic faith to political ends, tricking well meaning young people into violent deaths.
I use the word Islamists as a corollary to Evangelicalism, with the same intent as Maajid Nawaz, founder of the Quilliam Foundation think tank. Nawaz calls people who think that a Din is physical warfare “Islamists” (You Tube), effectively stripping them of their assumed title of Mujahidin.
Some say these western terms for for Muslim theology, Wahabbi and so forth, can be kind of paternalistic and dismissive, but I think Islamists, like Evangelicals, have many different faces. Wahabism is a corollary to the militant Evangelicalism personified by Bush II, who coerced Americans into a crusade. They are not defenders of faith, but destroyers.
39 Ways responds to Western aggression with a cadence that asks Allah for death, and thereby to be rid of sin: “My Lord, with Your help, the souls are in Gardens * So spill, my Deity, my blood in Jihād. / As my sins have overpowered me and they have none * Other than martyrdom to wipe them out.” Reading these verses you get the sense that this martyrdom fantasy is about some material rewards in a hypothetical afterlife. It’s selfish to die, if you know you’ll live forever. Death is a paradox for the concept of existential sins. Why do good things happen to bad people?
Sin is a handy concept for imperialists. The Christian and Islamic faiths both clamp chains of guilt around the brains of their supplicants with complex and tribal visions of goodness, in which anyone outside of a certain privileged group is already damned. But knowledge of sin is not fulfilling. There’s nothing you can do to escape sin, except prayer and fasting, and one cannot pray and fast forever.
Ancient religious practices are mind altering. They exploit phenomena like ASMR and the highs people get from camaraderie and worship. Try staring at the floor and repeating a phrase, or clearing your head of all material thoughts. With practice, meditation provides some physical calm, and you can see the positive results of the practice in brain scans (BBC). Add fasting to meditation, and hallucinations seem inevitable.
We might use sin to refer to things that we really know are bad, like eating a lot of sugar. Maybe it is a sin to eat too much cake, but has guilt even been the best motivator? In the past, governments have used theology to explain what society should tolerate.
The American Constitution specifically negates theology, forcing us to tolerate things that a majority of us will never experience, like abortion and homosexuality. You might disapprove of something someone else does, but unless you can prove it harms you, you have no ethical basis for complaint.
We may not agree on morality, but we can agree on ethics. The Grammarist offers a useful distinction: “The main difference is that morals are more abstract, subjective, and often personal or religion-based, while ethics are more practical, conceived as shared principles promoting fairness in social and business interactions” (Grammarist).
Morality implies hellfire, sin and a sense of superiority among those who believe in ordained moral codes. Morals include principles concerning adultery, drug use, and even head coverings as in a text attributed to Paul in the Bible, “If a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off“ (1 Corinthians 11:6), a reference to prostitution or slavery. I’ve also heard the passage defended in Bible studies as some practical guidance preventing the proliferation of head lice. But is a woman who covers her head in company morally superior? No. She is just keeping alive the memory of an ancient Middle Eastern custom.
Morals go as far as to impose rituals like communion, which recalls the grim memory of cannibalism in Europe (Smithsonian), or self flagellation which is really no longer advised even psychologically. Ethics on the other hand are bare minimum requirements within a society, and they allow multicultural societies to function. This is why Christians cannot force kids to pray to Jesus or his saints in a public school.
Ethics are bare minimum social expectations, and they can get technical. Most societies have several different degrees of murder, for example. We would not punish a child that lashed out to kill an abusive parent in the same way as an abusive parent that kills a child for convenience. Ethics are man made social agreements that are at the basis of secular laws. Our ethics help us to decide what we tolerate.
The religious have a different take on tolerance, often demanding that their intolerance be tolerated. The bombastic British lecturer on sharia Anjem Chaudary said, “If something is in accordance with the sharia we tolerate it” (You Tube). Thus he cannot tolerate adultery, fornication or apostasy. Those sins are twice damned, on earth and again in the hereafter. The problem for this idea, and the Islamists that revere the text of 39 Ways, is ancient Persian morals will never be universally accepted.
Fundamentalists often frame tolerance as a hypocritical. They chide, “Will you tolerate intolerance?” The religious imagine they have an uncompromising code of ethics, morality, principles of action. Whatever we call it, Christians cite the ten commandments as their basis of law and order. They have divine mandates on what to do, what not to do, and those are supposed to be universal. There are actually 613 Jewish laws (Jew FAQ) foundational to all Abrahamic faiths, but it turns out that given the invention of the automobile for one, society needs much more nuanced ethical guidance. Must we all buy insurance?
Religious people go to great lengths to moralize murder in the context of warfare. All ancient gods promote warfare in their texts. The justifications for war are simple, and can be boiled down to something that Jeb Bush said recently on his campaign trail, “Stuff happens.” Moral principles are flexible, and often involve submission to authority. Ethical principles are not flexible at all.
The actual content of our ethics evolves as we consider the ways in which we treat each other. Can you steal something that was stolen from you? Should you honor your father if he beats you? Morality is the realm of good and evil, whereas ethics are the serviceable agreements between us.
We temper tolerance with reason. This principle was summed up in a Harvard Law Review article published in 1919 by Zechariah Chafee, “Your right to swing your arms ends just were the other man’s nose begins” (Quote Investigator). My rights end at your nose. Rights are the things government is constitutionally bound to protect. Rights define our shared ideas of justice, of what is right and what is wrong in our material treatment of each other.
Growing up as a Christian, martyrdom meant dying for the cause of Yahweh and his son, Jesus. Everybody in church seemed to want it. Christ was a martyr, and I was told to emulate him.
My parents told me stories about William Tyndale, burned at the stake by the Catholic church for translating the Bible into English, which spawned Protestantism. But Tyndale’s death had about as much to do with his translation efforts as the political turmoil surrounding Henry VIII divorce and the creation of the Church of England. Each of our martyrdom tales are small parts of larger narratives.
As a teenager I subscribed to a magazine called Voice of the Martyrs, which is now available at persecution.com. Religious congregations enjoy stories about persecution, and everyone’s got them.
We can easily identify with someone like Martin Luther King Jr. because he was murdered for his gospel of peace and equal prosperity. It’s quite a thrilling story, again the dictum, “turn the other cheek,” personified. But King’s movement included secular voices of equal relevance like Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph, though they died essentially of old age, much like the prophet Muhammad.
If you ask to be a martyr, you ask to suffer for notoriety. Martyrs suffer to create a story, an object lesson for the rest of humanity. Martyrs create stories that will be told and spread. Martyrs are those that suffer to publicize a cause, like the cigarette vendor from Tunisia, Adel Khadri, who ignited himself along with the most successful revolution of the Arab Spring (Al Jazeera). A martyr dies for a greater cause.
Martyrdom stories are often far flung and anecdotal. Often we need to accept an individual’s word, or we get some third hand reference in a poem. The claim that someone died, any story about an individual designed to pull on our heart strings, must be taken with a grain of salt. Remember the story of Lot’s wife in the Jewish scriptures, who looked back, and became a pillar of salt? We know that even first hand witnesses are unreliable (Scientific American), and witnessing a tragedy is not a qualification for anything other than a first hand account, aka oral history.
Sometimes all we have are plausible assertions. I heard a story from someone in the National Guard who served in Iraq for a few months. He said a boy in Baghdad accepted a candy bar from a soldier on a patrol, and then the boy’s father beat him to death for eating it. He heard the story from someone in his command. This story could easily be true, even though he got it second hand. It sounds plausible.
This past summer in Boston, Massachusetts, America, a baby was beaten to death and thrown in the harbor by a pair of ne’er-do-wells (Sound Cloud). We do not need to look for stories from the other side of the globe to be horrified.
A story that may have initially inspired Tarek Mehanna to visit Yeman appears in his poetic protest against drone strikes, now published ubiquitously online by Islamist apologists (Kalah Mullah). Mehanna wrote:
He laid siege to Qaynuqa’ for one woman’s fear,
So what would he say to those who gang-raped ‘Abeer?
Muffled ‘Aafia’s screams as she shed tear after tear?
And occupy Muslim countries year after year?
You could do calisthenics to these verses.
Mehanna’s mom said he cried when he read the story of Abeer Al-Janabi online (Latitude News). DOA Muslim’s account of the Abeer story seems fair and true (DOAM). One guy involved in the rape hung himself in prison last year (Al Jazeera). I heard a rape story once from within my squadron, but it could easily have been a rumor, or as it turned out, fraternization.
In the navy rumors are vicious. A whole boat of people can come to believe that we’re going to be pulling into Singapore against all odds, instead of taking another inevitable round through the sandbox, to feast on shawarma, light beers and wine.
Rape and suicide are pretty common themes in military discourse. I remember being subjected to Power Points about date rape drugs. Certainly guys found prostitutes online, sometimes accidentally by exploring social media tools like Adult Friend Finder. War attracts people with dubious moral standards, who are selfish and rude, and it creates a hinterland in which ethics might be ignored. Rape happens among soldiers, sailors and airmen, and it is a consequence of gathering a few bloodthirsty young folks.
DOA Muslims also documented the recent case of the woman in Afghanistan beaten to death by a mob of Muslim men for burning a Qur’an, which she did not (DOAM). Strange passionate reactions to events catch us up in moments of emotion. Something that would be completely wrong in another context (like mob justice, or the invasion of a foreign land) might seem completely right for an instant, or even a decade.
I wonder why so many Christians overlook martyrs abroad like Meriam Ibrahim who was on death row in Sudan for marrying a Muslim man (The Guardian) in favor of less violently opposed “martyrs” here in America like Kim Davis.
What’s with all of the Christian conspiracies around social issues like abortion and gay marriage? Abortion clinics still get bombed by self-righteous young people here in America (Associated Press). And Christian activists like Sandy Rios who write, “You must prepare for martyrdom” (Right Wing Watch). Martyrs of “the faith” pop up periodically, but most can be overlooked as footnotes in a much longer and more substantial narrative.
One problem for these blowhards is in order to be a martyr, you need to be someone that is generally liked and remembered by people outside of your own faith.
Both the power and the weakness of text lies in its timelessness and malleability. If I tell you God told me X in a dream, you might tell a friend that God said X and Y, and maybe eventually somebody writes down that story. Records of that text, at best a transcribed oral history, might pass from generation to generation and get edited to include X, Y, and Z for completeness.
Textual claims are only more reliable than verbal claims because they can be cross referenced. Text just exists for longer periods of time without the help of strong intellects and memorization. We cannot forgo reason in favor of words written down on ancient papers. It seems to me, if a god existed with a message for all humanity, it would be written in the sky, in a language everyone understands. What astronomers actually find is a vast universe in which our individual existences are irrelevant.
Apostasy is lonely. It comes over you slowly, as you realize that you no longer believe the assertions of your cohort. Their stances on hell and justice might begin to offend your humanity, considering that all ancient books offer ambiguous and conflicting guidance on those points. As your brothers and sisters make unbelievable claims that you are compelled to question, you must either exclude yourself from the tribe or lie for the sake of community.
The worst thing about being an apostate is losing that community, that sense of unconditional camaraderie. Maybe it is a tribal impulse that keeps us fighting or defending ideas we barely believe. There’s no community in apostasy. It is the rejection of a community, of a team. On the up side, other teams are available elsewhere. Wherever there is work to do, and hearts willing to labor, teams can develop in the interest of peace and prosperity. Life may not have inherent purpose, but we give it purpose.
Martyrs do not often have an opportunity to ask. Most martyrs are used only briefly to infuse emotion into politics and are forgotten. Some are lucky enough to get their names carved in stone on war memorials, but after thousands of years of warfare the martyrs are piling up. Maybe by the end of this age of imperialism, by 2150 C.E., humanity will have enough evidence to dismiss our earth bound grievances about who owns what and where the borders are, and we can start a new calendar in which we work together to share with everyone in our communities.
In response to Al Qaeda’s ideology, as expressed in the infamous 2013 issue of their magazine Inspire “a resource manual for those who loath the tyrants” (Inspire, issue 11), with its hit list for lone wolf assassins that included the editor of Charlie Hebdo, maybe apostates need a simple and unifying message. Al Qaeda followers have latched onto a narrative that celebrates Guy Fawkes, “Remember, remember the 5th of November” (Inspire, issue 12) style terrorism. Religious ideologues have yet to comprehend the nature of fiction, that even true events become fictional after they get retold enough, when they enter the realm of legend.
For those of us who do understand how fictions inspire, let’s remember the last and most frail escapee from Pandora’s box, hope. We have knowledge of good and evil, and we know that we will all die, but what do we do with that information? We can hope for better things in the future and that hope can inspire positive action. The hopeless lash out in fear and anger, while the hopeful live simply for tomorrow, planning for seasonal growth and destruction.
Luckily only a few people get caught up in the emotion of Al Qaeda’s media, but there are enough to make life unpleasant. Life is miraculous and fascinating, so to spurn it, to ask for martyrdom seems just evil. So how can we use these concepts of martyrdom and jihad to encourage well meaning people deluded in their imagination that America represents anything more than a 250 year long experiment in democracy? There’s no grand puppet master here, just a bunch of individuals trying to be good.
If we believe Islamists, the earth has seen 1400 years of violent Jihad, so changing the meaning of the word seems absurd. It is deeply woven into the fabric of a foreign culture, and cultural appropriation is a little rude, but I recognize this urge to jihad in myself. I want to be a part of a struggle for something greater, and I wonder if we’re ready to dismiss drone attack techniques as immoral. The ethics are certainly questionable.
Holy warfare does not need to be physical. A Qur’anic study on the meaning and substance of martyrdom might be in order to expel the Islamist illusion that an arrangement of words can solve all the physical problems on earth, but I’ll leave that to the apologists (NPR). It might be that we need some alternative to religion to develop out of the arts and sciences.
Fictions offer inspiration. If we diagram life on a plain of potential narratives stretching back from this moment to trace the creation of everything, because everything here on earth came out of something else as far as we know, if we can trace back all of the stories still written as close to the origins of languages as possible, maybe we can better understand ourselves. Fiction is a catalyst through which our imaginations tend to develop.
Asia is a hotbed of tales and mythologies, with some probably still undiscovered in the sands, America too, and Africa, and Europe, and the Pacific Islands. What’s up with those magnificent stones on Easter Island (NPR)?
As members of this generation from every landmass on earth begin to compile the narratives of humanity into massive searchable databases online, as people slowly become aware of folly, and actually study our collective knowledge of good and evil, the language of ethics, maybe we can hope for a future, a new age. We have a celestial clock. After 2150 years of splitting fish, we might move into the new age of the goat (to use Christian imagery).
Everyone is predicting the end of an age, so let’s make it happen. Let’s set a date, a point in time when we can all agree, being certainly dead, that everyone making predictions succeeded only by generalizing. Let’s make this date clear. When it turns out that people still exist in 135 years, in 2150, our great grandchildren can place judgement day mythologies and hopefully warfare firmly in the past.
Warfare is only fun for the rich and strong. By playing Risk we realize that for as long as warfare is necessary to advancement, empires collide. Every victory in Risk is shallow, because everyone looses pieces. Nobody wins in Risk. So maybe it’s time to quit our shallow war games and think about practical ways of making life more fulfilling and productive for everyone on earth.
Peace and prosperity can be our Din, and our jihad (our struggle) can be to define justice. Anyone in fear of becoming the next Ananta Bijoy Das, can hide behind an avatar, maybe a goat, and thoughtfully chid religious fundamentalists into peace. We can end ad hominem attacks by pointing out the many verifiable stories of martyrs for secularism and false religious ideals, until martyrdom is no longer appealing.
Though ISIL’s voice is the loudest, they do not represent a majority, or even a large minority of Muslims. They survive on the backs of young ideological recruits, many of whom are not from the region and none of whom have constructed a rational explanation of how the Qur’an was written. Many people attracted by the ideology of Al Qaeda are just like I was in 2004, in the midst of a youthful effort to trace my roots to places my grandparents admired.
Let’s not underestimate the power of a passionate ideology, especially when combined with weaponry and violence. The American crusade to democratize the Middle East was carried out by less than 1% of the American population (NY Times).
If people want to die as martyrs, we can’t stop them, but we can make martyrdom less appealing. Let’s show self-inflicted martyrdom for what it is, dumb and ineffective. After the towers in New York City fell, new taller towers sprung up all over the world, triumphs of industry and engineering. The martyrs themselves are already forgotten, even in most history texts only one or two are footnotes.
Religious people know the emotional power of a supposedly ‘true’ story, taken on faith. Everyone becomes implicated in the fantasy. But there are now secular alternatives — Star Wars, The Hobbit, Harry Potter, the Chronicles of Narnia. The truth is that stories become different once they are told and they get interpreted differently dependent on belief. The persecution of a Muslim woman who married a Christian man, can be construed in a few conflicting ways.
Daniel Pearl’s murder might be cause for KSM’s execution in Pakistan. There are witness of the deed, and they’ve matched his hand in the video. What if KSM is extradited to Pakistan, tried in an Islamic court, and hung for that one propagandized murder? Would he still be a martyr then? We might also let him go and then quietly hit him with a drone. American courts might just be incapable of handling his case.
Truthfully asking for martyrdom means to ask for a fantastical death. It is perhaps following in the path of the prophet of Islam, though according to the legend Muhammad died of a fever, in the arms of a girl, after living to a relatively ripe old age.
Fundamentalist hatred of science and artwork—preached from Mecca, where an ancient meteor became one of the world’s oldest tourist destinations, to Atlanta, where bars stay open until 4am and they don’t tax cigarettes, by the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia and the Baptists of Georgia alike—allows for an unnecessary and destructive class system.
The only reason everyone cannot be free at this moment, the reason slavery continues, is that we are not sharing well. We have massive distribution problems on earth, which are all realizable and fixable with time and attention from many curious eyes and ears. Instead slaves work in Dubai, prostituting themselves for a few dollars of oil wealth (Vice), to build penthouses for playboys, and to entertain playboys. I saw them myself on liberty while in the navy. The living conditions everywhere can go up if we put our energy into fixing things, into harnessing art and science in our communities instead of fear and anger.
Let crush this narrative that Al Qaeda wants to create, about an ambiguous “West” at war with an increasingly ambiguous variety of Islam. Mehanna’s poem expresses the confused anger of an intellect trapped by a religious identity:
Like the rest of us who have committed no crime
But to be a proud Muslim at this point in time
As the war on his message has reached its full prime
Giving those who live by it more mountains to climb
There may be truth in everyone’s story. Maybe a group of Americans raped a woman. Maybe a child was beaten to death by a father for eating a candy bar in Iraq. Those anecdotes do not explain culpability. We have here civic tragedies that would not have happened without a U.S. invasion, on the both hands men acting out of passion to harm women and children. These are the kinds of stories military leaders share in order to pump up the moral resolve of troops.
We like to assign culpability to whole groups of people instead of individuals. Did 9/11 have anything to do with Saddam Hussein? Maybe in an abstract psychological sense U.S. support for dictatorships like Hussein’s made America into a target. The message then, when we took down Hussein, tore down his statue with a noose, and later hung him, was that his government does not represent us. We are sorry about the stupidity caused by that man, and want to make things better. That’s how I felt, participating in the navy.
I went into the military thinking that I could be helpful, believing this narrative about American responsibility for nuclear weapons (or WMDs) in the Middle East. In a way I still believe that narrative. Since Western cultures invented a technology that could destroy our planet, and America is the only country to have ever used it in warfare, I think we are in part responsible for dispelling its evil potential. But anyone else that bite the apple of the knowledge of nuclear arms is now implicated as well. We must all pay with our innocence. Cultures that hold a nuclear bomb must forfeit religion, because this is not a technology that is safe in the hands of delusional theocrats who might think they have a divine mandate to demolish a city.
Now we must live with nuclear technology, and we are not going to be able to get rid of it with force. The nuclear secret is out, and even high schoolers can understand the atom (Wired). We need some mutual respect for everyone’s sense of ethics, and also our unique intellects.
Religious ideologues love witch hunts and martyrs. They like to assign blame and credit to individuals like Jesus and Muammar Gaddafi for complex social phenomena. But on a micro scale, within our communities, we all understand the ethics of returning a library book (for example) and of not reading other peoples’ mail. Understanding how our ethics work on a small scale, maybe we can come up with more complex ethics to mediate our inter-cultural dealings.
For the time being, while this anxiety about death plays out in religious debates, as it becomes increasingly clear that fictions are spring boards, a few existential truths packaged in story form, how can we direct people away from senseless acts of martyrdom?
Martyrdom is a fruitless reason to be remembered. Stories of martyrs initiate depression, sadness, fear, and even anger. Martyrdom stories bring out the worst in us, and wanting martyrdom is just one extreme expression of depression.
This blog is about freedom from want and fear, freedom to take action and to stop obsessing on death as anything more than a tragic instance of life, a part of every day nature, something without which we could not exist.
Maybe our second principle of jihad, of how to struggle righteously, is to discover our principles, to figure out in what acts we are willing to die, because we all die, and are remembered for a time. So what is our purpose?
I did not fear death watching the towers collapse on 9/11, sitting on my couch a few hundred miles away, but that event did initiate an existential fear that my consciousness is brief, and it reenforced the realization that everyone dies. That image of towers collapsing resonates from the story of Babel, language being our only mechanism for connecting our consciousnesses and understanding of the world. Its tough to absorb the knowledge that language is insufficient to describe what is really going on here. All these whys and hows produced by our emotional reactions to events, and the events themselves can only vaguely be replicated in language and imagery. We all live on earth together, but as individuals. There is no divine guidance, but a continuing interaction between us creatures and this earth.
Truthfully asking for martyrdom is a callous and shallow response to the fear of death. It turns a life into a piece of propaganda.
The impulse to die for a group, even the desire to die for something larger, like a fatwa, like peace in the Middle East, causes us to seek a narrative. We want to know what happened, and when we cannot know, we sometimes look to a deity for control to trick our imaginations into action. God is just the name we give to the limit of our imagination. We may need to challenge that limit to come to a decision on the ethics of drone strikes.
The ethical question presented by drones is that of assassination.
I would not have volunteered, or voted for a fight in the Middle East, if a few deluded Wahhabis hadn’t camped out in the Afghan mountains for militia training. I have a friend who went to work for a contractor after four years in the navy to fix and maintain drones in Afghanistan. The work of the American military is almost entirely contracted out these days. He could go back out there and make another hundred grand or so in 18 months. I almost want to try the job myself, for selfish reasons. It would be exciting in a way, certainly an experience worth writing about.
Ethically drones are dubious because the shoe does not fit on the other foot. I’d be unsettled if I heard that the Afghani government executed a bunch of KKK members in the hills of Appalachia, and I might get annoyed. I would worry that many of those KKK members were deluded kids in need of an education, not a machine gun and an enemy to fight.
If a foreign government continually flew war machines over West Virginia loaded with ordinance (missiles, etc.) even though it really doesn’t have anything to do with me, if I had a friend die in a drone strike, I might be tempted to join a militia to drive out invaders. Invasion offends the identity and dignity a society. The presence of foreign drones alone is an insult. Imagine if Russia flew armored planes and cameras through our neighborhoods under the pretext of destroying terrorist punks with connections to Pussy Riot.
Mehanna presents a profound moral question with his poem: is it ethical to exterminate someone without a public trial? What if s/he’s propagating a hateful message that encourages people to exterminate others?
The argument in favor of drone strikes is essentially an argument for the death penalty, as appears in Deuteronomy, “You must purge the evil from among you” (21:21). But as an ethical principle, eye for an eye has been only marginally successful, as Gandhi pointed out “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” No culture is innocent.
Mehanna’s poem ends on a soaring jab at America’s ethical credibility:
Imagine if the Prophet was with us today,
If he spoke the same words, and lived the same way,
If he returns with the same message to relay,
They’d reserve him a cell in Guantanamo Bay.
Guantanamo Bay is apparently pretty terrible, a last bastion of the American torture program and forced feedings. It houses KSM, along with others with much more dubious cases against them. In a war, anyone can become a prisoner, and evidence is scarce. Soldiers don’t often turn battle zones into crime scenes.
The fact that this poem was published (even accidentally) on the same day news broke about US fighters hitting the ISIL strong man, Mutazz, pulls on my heart strings cruelly. The ethics of drone strikes is debatable, but I think both bin Ladin and Mutazz would agree that you can do things that forfeit your right to life. They both had grievances that they felt warranted murder.
Religious people bask in grievances. A Protestant will rail against a Catholic, and condemn her to hell, and visa versa. However, if that same Protestant hears about a Catholic getting murdered for professing faith in Jesus, the Catholic becomes the Protestant’s martyr.
War rages on in Afghanistan. Our air strikes hit a hospital in Kabul (The Washington Post). We call this collateral damage. The actual targets of U.S. drone strikes, the Taliban, already asked for martyrdom. They contributed to violence, and there are only a few ways of neutralizing violent people. Of more pressing moral concern is our collateral damage.
Maybe with a little reflection we can all settle down and submit to the complex reality of life in a multicultural world in which we tolerate other people’s beliefs. There are a lot of people on earth named for the prophet of Islam, probably about as many as are named for Jesus. Religions are not going anywhere for the foreseeable future, but a rational responses to violent religious words provide object lessons.
In an interview on Vice News in September of 2014, ISIL’s late sweetheart Farah Mohammad Shirdon threatened New York City with the rational, “We’re tired of oppression” (Vice News). The oppression narrative is popular among those that feel the urge to get involved in something dangerous and life changing.
“No one likes fighting. Nobody wants to live in this lifestyle,” Mohammad says unconvincingly, camped out with his brothers echoing ancient war rhetoric from from a book.
In the video he appears on a large screen on a wall in the Vice News studio. Shane Smith, standing before the screen, asks why ISIL fights.
“Give us our freedoms,” Mohammad says. “If we want Sharia, Allah, leave us alone.”
Farah Mohammad traveled from Canada, wearing silk scarves and designer glasses to join in a fight he vaguely understands, convinced that he is on a pilgrimage of jihad, the ultimate hadge to the end of his life. But his actions contribute to bloodshed.
We see the fruits of his labor in the mass migration from Syria, in the pillaging of destruction of historical artifacts and oil, things future generations will miss, in videos now captured online.
For most people on earth, ISIL will only ever be a document of something that happened, and the people involved will have to deal with some public interest in the narrative they started when they burned their passports. Toward the end of the Vice video, Smith asks about the philosophy behind cutting off people’s heads.
“Attack one of us. We will attack one of you,” Mohammad says.
The idea that these are simple responses to our drone attacks seems convenient. Some deep psychological hiccup happened in this man. Maybe there is something more terrible to this guy’s mind at the moment than being attacked by any earthly foe. Maybe he’s scared by the knowledge of death.
He’s doing this interview knowing that his signal to Vice could be picked up and initiate a drone attack. Smith makes him nervy about the idea. “Are you under attack now?”
Just before cutting himself off with a vow to fly the ISIL flag over the White House, Mohammad insults the CIC. “I swear you infidel, I swear to Almighty God,” he says to Barak Obama in Arabic and then switches gracefully into English, “We will fight you until the end, and even afterward we will keep fighting you.”
I wonder about the identity of that German who shows his gruff halfway through the video, sitting next to Mohammad Shirdon brandishing an oozie. What’s his name and story? Will he die with regrets, or will he leave those to his family? Who are the victims of his angst, and where did that angst come from? Why did he ask to be a martyr?
Maybe like me at his age, seduced by right wing bravado, he feels under attack. He wants to be aggrieved. He wants to free a land from oppression, but he’s only been physically fighting with American drones and Peshmirga fighters in a country that is foreign to him, while trying to learn Arabic. He’s subscribed to a utopian doctrine in its death throws. These divine doctrines might survive another century, but I think spreading information can end this particular strain of Wahabbi cult practice within a lifetime.