How Different Are Lebanon's Martyrs From Our Own?


It’s the eleventh of the eleventh. A few thousand people are gathered in an auditorium to remember those lost in battle. The front few rows are reserved for veterans, a small roped-off section for journalists tucked behind them, followed by row upon row of ordinary people who have come to pay their respects. Behind the stage are pictures of the fallen, leaders and ordinary fighters, one of them has such young features — he couldn’t have been more than a teenager. Alongside the pictures of the fallen are some doves in flight and the image of a nameless fighter, a rifle hanging from his shoulders and a floppy hat upon his head, silhouetted against a blue sky with a scattering of puffy white clouds.

A prayer is read. A commander barks orders and the band starts up (it does not play Waltzing Matilda). They march their way to the front to the rhythm of a boisterous military tune. The music stops long enough for a wreath to be laid. Every one stands for the national anthem, then sits down and readies themselves for the over-long speeches praising the courage of those who made the ultimate sacrifice so that we may live in peace.

The scene is Martyrs’ Day, held yearly in Lebanon on 11 November to mark the anniversary of the 1982 suicide mission of Ahmad Jaafar Qassir, the baby-faced killer who was pictured behind the stage. At 10 minutes to seven in the morning, as Israeli soldiers were returning from night patrols, the 19-year-old Qassir drove a Peugeot loaded with explosives to the Tyre headquarters of the Israeli military’s occupation force in south Lebanon, killing 75 soldiers, border policemen, and Shin Bet agents as well as an unconfirmed number of Lebanese (probably between 14-27) being held prisoner within. It was the first of a long string of suicide attacks, that along with conventional guerrilla war tactics and international and internal pressure on the Israeli government, lead to the withdrawal of Israeli forces from almost all Lebanese territory in 2000.

It can be assumed that the date of the attack was not chosen to coincide with the "Remembrance Day" that we celebrate, and so the timing of the ceremony can be thought of as a coincidence. However the other similarities — the flowers, the marching band, the elevation of sacrifice — cannot be so easily dismissed.

Many so-called experts on the Middle East like to go on at length about an obsession with martyrdom that they say is unique to Islam. Once they’ve finished denouncing the depravity of this position, they generally use it as a reason why negotiation is impossible: You can’t talk to these people — they’re crazy. You can read such rants, here and here. These accounts usually fail to mention the fact that suicide bombing was a tactic pioneered by the primarily Hindu Tamil Tigers. They also fail to mention the culture of celebrating martyrs present in all societies, and indeed their own.

There is nothing foreign or incomprehensible about honouring those who died for their country. It’s what we in Australia do as a nation twice a year. On ANZAC Day, in which I have marched many times wearing my grandfather’s medals, remembrance of the dead is only part of the ceremony — the part where we lower the flags as the march passes the cenotaph — but on Remembrance Day it is the main event.

Some may object to this comparison, saying that the promises of paradise and virgins fed to the young Muslim men and women who choose to become human delivery systems for rudimentary but powerful bombs rob their actions of the respectability of those who died for the secular cause of their nation. Why then does it say on my grandfather’s Military Cross "for God and Empire"? And, if martyrdom is such a Muslim thing, why, when he spoke to the Martyr’s Day crowd, did Hezbollah’s secretary general Hassan Nasrallah take time to point out that they honoured that day not just their fighters, but all who had died defending the Lebanese nation, thereby including the Christians, communists and other fighters that participated in the struggle?

The truth is that in both cases there is a mix of nationalist and religious symbolism used to justify these sacrifices. Hezbollah and their supporters may emphasise the religious element more than we do, but existing as they do in a much more religious society, it would be strange if they did not. That greater emphasis seems to me, however, to be more a difference in symbolism and rhetoric than one of emotional content, which fundamentally celebrates the same thing.

People who would cling to the idea that our martyrs are different from theirs may argue that suicide bombers do not, as such, die fighting — rather they fight by dying. But in Lebanon the term martyr is not reserved for suicide bombers, it applies to all who die for the cause. Besides, does choosing to fight with little or no chance of personal survival make your act less heroic? The number of Victoria Crosses awarded posthumously suggests Australians don’t think so.

Of course it is not just Australia and Hezbollah who dedicate a day each year to their fallen. There are martyrs days in India, Burma, Panama, Uganda, Tibet, Kashmir, Azerbaijan and other places. As Baruch Kimmerling writes in his article on Israel’s own culture of martyrdom "Nations like to imagine themselves as unique, but one belief they have in common is that it is noble to die in their name."

To be fair, however, I must admit I have been focusing so far on the similarities rather than the differences between these two traditions, and there were differences. There was no one minute’s silence for the fallen — on the contrary there were times when the crowd rose to its feet and began chanting slogans. The wreath, rather tackily, was a Hezbollah flag composed of yellow flowers and green plastic. Nasrallah’s speech was far longer and more overtly political than would have been acceptable at an Australian Remembrance Day ceremony. And the marching band wasn’t that good.

The difference that struck me most, however, was the absence of a reference to "our brave young men and women" fighting today on the battlefields of some far-off country. This difference, of course, can be attributed to the fact that Hezbollah’s fighters, unlike Australia’s soldiers, are not, at time of writing at least, waging war against anyone.

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