The word ‘martyr’ has different meanings in different cultures. In America we are accustomed to the idea of someone having their life taken from them for nothing more than standing up for their moral, religious, or political principles. In Islam the word ‘martyr’ means something a bit different. The definition is broader and can include anyone killed that doesn’t commit a sin in their action. Therefore, a group of individuals who are attending a funeral and then blown up by a car bomb would be considered martyrs.
The definition of martyr within Islam isn’t always so insubstantial. It is not uncommon for the title to be given to individuals who aren’t killed by their persecutors or who don’t die in innocence. In fact, quite the opposite is true; the title is often given to murderers.
Such was the case with Reem Riyashi, a 22 year old Palestinian mother of two who blew herself up in 2004 in a suicide attack against Israeli soldiers. She was hailed a martyr by Hamas, various newspapers in the region reported her acts as “courageous”, “a source of pride”, “a sacrifice”, and “an offer of hope”. Every newspaper talked about her righteous motherly love that could only be trumped by that which she felt for Allah – hence her decision to abandon her children and “see the face of God”.
Of course, the truth is that she had an affair with a Hamas commander and was given the option of either facing death with shame or facing death through the “righteous act of martyrdom”. She took the later option as well as the lives of two Israeli soldiers, a policeman, and a civilian. There was no mention in those Muslim newspapers of her affair, her ultimatum, or her injuring four Palestinians.
Reem Riyashi was both a murderer and a victim. She chose to take the lives of others, not because she was righteous, but because she was unrighteous. She was a coward who died a cowardly death. She was also a victim of so called religious and political leaders who find worth in using their women as human bombs. Defining her as a martyr is an insult to her victims and every true martyr throughout history. To this day Reem Riyashi and the women who have followed in her footsteps are celebrated.
Unfortunately, true martyrdom isn’t a thing of the past. Shahbaz Bhatti, a 42-year-old Roman Catholic and Pakistani political figure was murdered this week. Al-Qaida and the Taliban claimed responsibility for killing the only Christian member of the Pakistani federal Cabinet. Bhatti was an outspoken figure who was very aware of the dangers that came with his religion and beliefs within the region – that didn’t deter him. He continued to profess his faith and fight against laws that oppressed Christians and minorities in his country.
Bhatti was a real martyr who stands as a stark contrast to the accepted definition within the region. He knew his ill-fate was likely but stood by his principles and opinions in spite of it. His death wasn’t glorious, quite the contrary, but his life was a testament to his faith and his God. This is the true representation of martyrdom.
We all have something to learn from Shahbaz Bhatti. Personally, I find conviction when I read about his life. Whether it is in regards to religion or opinion, we have relatively little to lose here in America for standing up for what we believe, yet few of us do so as boldly as Bhatti. We are living in a time of potentially great peril and yet too many sit quiet for fear of the lightest of persecutions. It isn’t men with guns at the end of our driveway that keep us mute, but the awkward stares of our neighbors, not the bullets and bombs, but words and opinions.
In a land that promises and prides itself on the freedoms of religion and speech, we have too many that hold close to their chest their truest of personal convictions in order to escape the conviction of others. We too shame the martyrs who died for those freedoms and religious beliefs we have available to us due to their persecution.