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Martyrdom and 911

Martyrdom and 911

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Published by Christopher Watt

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Published by: Christopher Watt on Mar 09, 2013
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 Martyrdom and 9/11Christopher WattSeptember 8, 2011
Ten years after September 11
 —and in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s
death and the rise of the Arab Sprin
 — 
what does it mean to be a martyr?
 
 YOU WERE OSAMA BIN LADEN
. Ten years ago, the boldest act of terrorism in the history of the world madeyour name. The poor and weak can visit war on the rich and strong, this act proved. The poor and weak candemolish the symbols of the rich and strong, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and create new ones in their place, likesymbols of absence. Incidentally, your adjuncts praised Allah in their final moments. Mohammad Atta, the lead
hijacker, had a master’s degree from a German university. He wrote a
 dissertation about gentrification in Aleppo, Syria, where grids and towers had replaced the old warrens, overtaking the so-called traditional Islamic homes.It was already an age of superlatives, but those events were extremely loud and incredibly close, as one New York novelist would write: asymmetric warfare that looked like a movie, many said, at the low, low cost of somethinglike $500,000
.The hijackers defined a genre of violence, clarifying terrorism’s
purpose: spectacle and therationalization of civilian death to strike fear in an intended audience. You were Osama bin Laden, but were you amere mortal or a messiah? The question becomes important when we consider the issue of 
istishhad 
, or martyrdom,and when we consider how you died.
The Arabic word for “martyr,”
 
 shahid 
, is a loan-word from Greek, says Charles Häberl, a linguist at Rutgers
University. In the Greek language, “martyr” means “witness.” In the Quran, martyrdom is a reward,
 but
 shahid 
means
witness, too. “I believe that there is ample precedent for this; to be ‘martyred’ in Islam, one neednot even die at the hand of another,” Häberl says. You can be martyred just standing there, witnessing
something
 — 
or, perhaps, recording something with your cellphone and uploading it to YouTube. Never mind, if you were Osama bin Laden, that Muslims also died in lower Manhattan. Or that, in Iraq andAfghanistan during the next ten years, Muslims with car bombs and explosive vests and improvised devicesconsisting of cell phones and 155mm artillery shells generated many American martyrs, and other casualties, too:women and children in markets, on roads, Muslims by accident of geography and history but Muslims nonetheless.Many were as pious as you, but none rated even as collateral damage in your moral universe, for in suicide attacksthe civilian dead are not martyrs but weapons
 — 
severed limbs and splattered viscera no different from the massdisordering of concrete and steel in lower Manhattan that September.If you were Osama bin Laden, therefore, the aughts were a pretty good decade. Alive, though stuck inyour  compound,you had several wives and loyal friends, dedicated to your cause and the preservation of your   peculiar situation. Time, human events and rivals had certainly eroded your status. But you knew this, according torecords gathered later on, and did that not prove the righteousness of your cause, human ego aside?
If you were Osama bin Laden, for most of the past decade, the “far enemy”— 
America
 — 
was flailing away in theMuslim world, killing innocents but not you. As a young, international militant in Afghanistan, you had helpeddestroy the Soviet empire during the 1980s. Then you turned your sights on the American empire. You warned theAmericans in the 1990s to leave your native Saudi Arabia, ease the suffering of the Palestinian people andlift UNsanctions in Iraq, or there would be something like hell to pay. September 11 goaded America into blowback  just as you planned, inducing bankruptcy  just as you predicted,and you achieved all this by sheer charisma alone. Were you more or less at peace?
Barack Hussein Obama is the grandson of a Muslim. By the logic of bin Laden’s extremism, and the
 hysterical politics of the American far right,that makes Obama a Muslim too. That did not stop Obama from determining that bin Laden was living in the Langley, Virginia of Pakistan
 — 
or so of that nation’s flagship military
academy
 — 
and then dispatching American soldiers with instructions to violate the so
vereignty of bin Laden’s patron
 before landing two helicopters inside his compound.  If you were Osama bin Laden, thinking about the achievement of September 11 during your decade of solitude, your real problem may have been that the Prophet Muhammad was also just a man. So what stops you from noting that,
 
 just like a certain merchant from Mecca, your name might too live forever, whether in 67.3 million Google hits or in Paradise? In which case, during those final moments, were you smiling, though your eventual assassins had just shotyour wife in her leg,to disable rather than to kill? We cannot know what Osama bin Laden thought in those moments. How you behaved remains privilegedknowledge. It belongs to those who were there, or those who watched from remote locations. The Navy SEALS thenshot you in the face, erasing your final, ultimate Most Wanted poster, as you rose to meet the occasion.
AMONG MUSLIM MILITANTS,
 
reactions to bin Laden’s demise are impossible to generalize, says McGill
.“Jihadi reactions on the internet forums ran the gamut between those who accept that bin Laden was killed and wish him ‘the highest station in Paradise’ to those who believe it is a ploy by
the US government to legitimate a pull-
out from Afghanistan,” Anzalone writes. “A number of them have also
 pointed out that his death will not stop the transnational jihadi-takfiri trend. Indeed, it fits into their martyrdommythology and
narrative.”
 Anzalone points out how bin Laden was mourned at an Islamist conference in Somalia.One militant in particular, Omar Hammami
 — 
also known as Abu Mansoor al-Amriki, an American-
 born leader of Somalia’s al
-Shabaab whowas radicalized in Toronto, among other places
 —said that Osama bin Laden was “just a
 
man.”
 
In Anzalone’s transcription, at the conference Hammami said the following: “We ar 
e gathered here today to rejoice
in the fact that our beloved sheikh has attained the fate he sought for two decades…despite our tears, because we
firmly recognize that the Ummah of Muhammad is a nation whose destiny is independent of its leaders, no matter 
how great….Whoever turns back on his heels will not harm Allah in the least…The Muslims have proven time and
again that their pool of talent and leadership will never dry up, and that their blood will never be spilled in
vain.”
 We were all Americans after 9/11, joining a ritual of mourning that required recovery through revenge. Meanwhile,sympathetic vigils were reported in M
uslim capitals, and some Americans identified so closely with the horror’sevents that phrases like “if you are just joining us” induced an odd effect, such that future generations may believe
their ancestors had not only witnessed the event through the media, but were present at the scene. And among this
decade’s other ironies, the Somali conference literally proceeded under the banner of a slightly repurposed
American phrase: We Are All Osama.Take comfort in collectivity, it proposes, while honouring life by refraining
from pitying the dead. But to describe the sheikh as a martyr, something that “We Are All Osama” doesn’t quite
capture, may risk labeling you, of all people, a victim.
A VICTIM
looks more like  Neda Agha-Soltani bleeding to deathon a street in Tehran, 2009, while angry Iranians contest disputed elections and the Green Revolution is born. Soltani dies on camera, and then dies again onWikipedia minutes later, without knowing that, when death becomes a symbol, it also risks becoming a cliché. In
classical Persian, Neda means “voice,” and so her death becomes:
,again, but now during the summer of 2011, the politics of martyrdom complicate a funeral. “The event
was allowed after assurances were given that those who spoke would not refer to Saber as a martyr, or even mentionthe fact that he had been imprisoned s
everal times. But when Saber’s son spoke about his father, he did describe himas a martyr. Reports indicate that at least one person was arrested.” So reads a
 Tehran Bureau reporta bout, in part, the funeral of Iranian journalist Reza Hoda Saber ,who died while on hunger strike at Evin Prison, with no sentence
other than indefinite incarceration. Insistence on a single word by security officials overseeing Reza Hoda Saber’s burial, Häberl writes, is “entirely consonant with the Iranian government’s Orwellian attem
 pts to control it, trying to prevent the Green Movement from appropriating a term that they
‘own.’”
 
Most Iranian cities have a martyrs’ cemetery. Its members are qualified by the year they passed away: 1980
-1988.During those years, Iran fought Iraq, child
soldiers innovated the suicide bomb, the country’s contemporary power 
structure was formed, and the current supreme leader, a cleric of sorts, served as a general somewhere far away from

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