Popcorn and icons of conflict

November 7, 2003

Mohammed as Dirrah, Izzidene al Masri, Loula Aboud, Wafa Idris and Mohammed Atta were individuals spanning age, gender, religious commitment, political consciousness and social circumstances. They were united in one thing: their deaths having been represented as acts of martyrdom within the struggle for liberation of the Middle East. The main focus of the journalist Joyce Davis' book is an exploration of the circumstances that have led to such acts and interpretation, and the relevance to them of concepts such as jihad .

Behind the writing lies the incomprehensibility of suicide bombings for many in the West outside the theatre of intense religious and political ferment that is the contemporary Middle East. Davis' most significant achievement is to establish something of the rationality of martyrdom, when the struggle for existence and identity is so real and present. Interviews repeatedly demonstrate how such rationality appropriates a moral narrative of justice, oppression and liberation that is uncannily familiar in the discourse of those supporting "the war on terrorism" in the West.

While the purposeful personal sacrifice of life for a cause is the central experience explored, the claim of martyrdom for those who have died ("as innocents") having been caught up in the acts of others - such as the Palestinian child Mohammed Hamad Daoud and the Jewish Schijveschuurder children featured by Davis- demonstrates how much martyrdom reflects prevailing religious and political context and discourse. You may choose to be a martyr, but the meaning given to your death by others is the dominant force shaping the phenomenon.

The book's analysis is strongest when, following her journalistic instincts, Davis presents the lives of households touched by acts of martyrdom. The accounts of the domestic reality within which extreme political violence was planned and/or its effects accommodated provide an effective background to what may be considered extraordinary acts in the lives of very ordinary people. Knowing that As Dirrah liked popcorn and was returning from a trip with his father to buy a used car when he was caught in crossfire that ended his life assists in the translation of him from a transitory icon of political conflict into a person of feeling and ambiguous complexity.

Martyrs is less successful in unpicking the political, social and theological tensions in the development and defence of such acts. Such exposition is clearly not the author's aim, as her sources and analysis suggest she is targeting a general American audience ("closer to home") that wants things explained and resolved rather than further problematised.

The Newsweek -style prose and lack of critical engagement with major academic sources will irritate many, and renders the book too superficial in its analysis of middle eastern politics to make it a major academic source. Yet, as a vehicle for opening up awareness and reflection on the strands of history, philosophy, politics and theology that shape the current situation in the Middle East, it has a potentially valuable role.

The parallels between the struggle for power of the black population of the US and the sense of marginalisation of many Middle Eastern communities is employed as a useful device to challenge the expectations of a popular western readership. The context provided for the reported interviews covers accounts of the origins of Islam, trends in contemporary Islamic theology, Lebanese and Iranian history of the past 50 years, and the development of a range of organisations such as Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in a similarly useful manner.

The diverse sentiments and forces that shape the perspective of parents in such a context are also explored. The maternal roles of protection and care ("You think I would have let him go if I had known? I would have closed the house with a hundred locks") and pride in self-sacrifice ("She is a hero.

My daughter is a martyr") lie intertwined rather than in opposition. Male perspectives - at least those publicly articulated - stress the instrumental virtue of martyrdom, with little of the female sensitivity to loss.

Dedications seldom provide significant insight into the purposes and preoccupations of an author, but Davis' own "to my darling son. May he always cherish life more than death" captures something of her struggle both to empathise with the characters in her narrated biographies and to retain an externality that makes her account potentially accessible to a post-September 11 2001 western readership.

For Davis, the active choice of martyrdom remains unfathomable for much of the book. She comes closest to explaining it when exploring the daily combination of misery and religious fervour that forms the atmosphere in hundreds of Palestinian homes.

Alastair Ager is director, Centre for International Health Studies, Queen Margaret University College, Edinburgh.

Martyrs: Innocence, Vengeance and Despair in the Middle East

Author - Joyce M. Davis
Publisher - Palgrave Macmillan
Pages - 214
Price - £18.99
ISBN - 0 312 29616 9

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