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Martyrdom Disputed: Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism (2/2): Contemporary Martyrs - Discourses and Performances

Panel Chair: Hans G. Kippenberg | Friday, August 28, 3:30-5:30 p.m. | Venue

The second panel on martyrdom will concentrate on the mediatisation of martyrdom in four case studies. The first focuses on jihad propaganda videos and narratives distributed by the media department of al-Qaeda al-Sahab. It is especially the visual media and its flexibility that makes martyrdom attractive for jihadists in different regions of the world. The second paper puts the issues of gender and martyrdom into a broader conceptual frame. Our third case study will explore how the so called “Islamic State” (IS) constructs religious enemies by using the internet as platform to communicate a powerful discourse on martyrdom. By the same token the discourse is reinforced again and again by violent attacks. The last case shows how Tibetan Buddhism develops it own martyrdom discourse, and compares it with Islamic and Christian examples. The panel aims to disentangle these discursive strategies by concentrating on the issues of mediatisation and performance of martyrdom.

Pieter G.T. Nanninga

The Culture of Jihadist Martyrdom Operations: al-Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra

This paper explores the dynamics of the culture of jihadist martyrdom operations. For this purpose, it studies martyrdom videos that have been released by al-Qaeda (Central) in the 2000s and by its Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra since 2012. The paper argues that the meanings attributed to martyrdom operations in both cases show many resemblances. Several themes can be identified that are frequently associated with the violence, prominent among which are world rejection, honour, dignity, sacrifice and purity. In the meantime, the paper shows that the meanings of martyrdom are reconstructed in their specific contexts, i.e. al-Qaeda’s global jihad and the more localised struggles of Jabhat al-Nusra. Hence, it concludes, the meanings of jihadist martyrdom operations for the actors involved are produced by both global, virtual and local contexts. It is this flexibility of the concept of martyrdom that makes martyrs powerful symbols for jihadists in different regions of the world.

Mariella Ourghi

Female Jihadist Martyrs: Mediatisation and Aspects of Gender Equality

This paper examines in which respects female martyrdom in contemporary jihad is part of mediatisation and how aspects of gender equality are brought forward by transnationally operating jihadist organisations or by women themselves who claim to act in their name. For this purpose, the paper studies a number of recent documents published in form of videos, written accounts or as propaganda narratives that especially address to women. Whereas women carrying out martyrdom operations for national organisations have been known for more than two decades, their role in transnational jihadism has only augmented in the past few years. In contrast to female martyrs acting in local contexts, the motivations and justifications of this newer generation of women joining transnational jihad seem to differ profoundly. In the light of these facts, it is indispensable to take theories from the field of gender studies into account which will embed the selected cases into a broader conceptual frame.

Rüdiger Lohlker

Constructing Religious Enemies: The Case of Syria and Iraq

The construction of religious enemies (Alawi, Shiite, Sunni, non-Muslim) of the new 'Islamic State' (IS) will be analyzed using visual and textual online material.

John Soboslai

Performing ‘Tibet’: The Martyrdom of Tibetan Self-Immolators

In their last testaments before incinerating themselves, many Tibetan self-immolators dedicated their act to the Tibetan people, Buddhadharma, and the Dalai Lama. Condemned as rebels or suicides by the People’s Republic of China, they are celebrated in Tibetan circles as pawo (W: dpa’bo), a term connoting heroism or courage. Many interpreters translate pawo as ‘martyr’ due to their connection with a sacred community, while others condemn such translations as imposing non-indigenous theological categories. This paper takes this dispute as an opportunity to probe the religious and political attributes implicated in discourses of martyrdom. Interrogating the links between Tibetan self-sacrificial traditions and Buddhist doctrine in the 21st century context of the self-immolations, I argue that these acts are framed as ‘witnessing’ in ways comparable to the martyrdom traditions of Christianity and Islam. These self-immolations, I contend, ‘prove’ an existential truth through the spectacle of the body’s voluntary submission and destruction.


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