The Martyrs of Democracy

It is June 20, 2009. In Iran’s capital, a sea of underrepresented students, political activists and bystanders is heard as a single chant: “raye-man kojast?”1; “Where is my vote?” With President Ahmadinejad’s unjust reelection, the crowd expands, and the humming of protest is heightened by dreams of a just democracy. As an ineffable sensation of desired freedom overwhelms the hopefuls, the chorus of unified demonstration is broken: all that’s heard is two shots, utter chaos, and the cries of an untimely death. The victim’s last words were shrieks that seemed to set the Muslim world on fire: “I’m burning! I’m burning!” 2  Her brutal death was captured and posted online for the global community, and thus, an unexpected martyr was born.

Hailed on international news outlets as a mainstream martyr, Neda Agha-Soltan and the viral video of her death has become a symbol of Iranian protest in the 2009 Green Revolution. As the gruesome details of her death became entered the public domain, posting and re-posting Neda’s video gave the movement for political freedom an international platform where global citizens could decipher the details of the uprising for themselves.  Thus, the reach and accessibility of Neda’s passing becomes a testament of a conglomeration of old religious sentiments and modern day democracy dominating the Muslim world. With contemporary digital and broadcast media as their medium, revolutionaries from all corners of the Muslim world have gained access to a global audience of free thinkers, engaging in the interchange of thoughts and ideals while exposing the violent persecution of their protest. The rippling effects of the Arab Spring, people have taken ownership of their political wellbeing by establishing a physical presence in the streets and documenting this gore and glory on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Thus, the refashioning of the ‘holy martyr’ as a symbol of liberalism and democracy has connected global citizens to the cries of the Arab World.

The concept of the Shahid, or the ‘holy martyr’ in Islam can be traced far back as 609 CE, the era of the Prophet Muhammad who is quoted to have said, “By Him in Whose Hands my life is! I would love to be martyred in Allah’s Cause and then get resurrected and then get martyred, and then get resurrected again and then get martyred and then get resurrected again and then get martyred.”3 A virtuous and honorable title, the Shahid is thought to receive entry into heaven and thus, martyr culture in the historic and modern Muslim world stems from a glorification of the act.4 The elevated status of the Shahid in the Qur’an has established a lingering precedent that has shaped the mindsets of generations to come.

With the deaths of non-political people such as Neda, local peoples are given a symbol of their strife and global citizens attain an entity to identify with. The plight of the revolutionary martyr created a kinship, or local and international presence that heightened sympathy, across countries. This capability to sacrifice local appeal to relate on a global level is pinpointed by Thomas Friedman in the term “ . . . glocalizes—that is, the more your culture easily absorbs foreign ideas and global best practices and melds those with its own traditions…”5 Particularly within the Muslim world, where people are bound by religious commonalities, international global citizens are experiencing a heightened awareness of the plight of their fellow man. When historic Muslim texts prompt its reader to “Think not of those who are slain in Allah’s way as dead. Nay, they live, finding their sustenance in the presence of their Lord…,”6 the message is not lost, but reworked into the cultural climate of the moment; in uprisings and revolutions within the Muslim world, the deaths of martyrs are immortalized online; the blood of those commended by the revolution is now dispersed across the internet. Testimonials of the gruesome civilian deaths are revealed to the world, a process that evokes the sympathy of global citizens for a cause not their own. In this light, the martyr becomes a “glocal” activist, keeping the fires of discourse alive in his or her deeds of civil disobedience.

In the first spark to ignite a consciousness in the Arab world a Tunisian fruit vendor traded defiance for democracy keeping the flames of rebellion alive with his martyrdom. On December 17, 2010 Mohamed Bouazizi took the need for a just government into his own hands, setting fire to his body as an act of protest against the injustice and public humiliation endured at the hands of the local officials. Bouazizi’s personal revolt outside a local municipality building set fire to a revolution in Tunisia, a movement protesting the country’s food inflation, high unemployment rates, government corruption and the stifling of free speech allowed by President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.7 The unforgettable protest was captured by an amateur’s camera and then shared with locals and global citizens alike by means of mass media.

As the video of his self-immolation went viral on YouTube, “His friends, anguished by Mohammad’s actions, took to the streets and began a popular uprising…”8 Furthermore, Tunisian onlookers immortalized Bouazizi’s act when they captured it “…by cell phone cameras and shared on the Internet. Within days, protests started popping up across the country, calling upon President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his regime to step down.”9  This call to action via social media not only forced President Ben Ali to flee the country, but gave wind to the revolution, allowing Tunisians and non-Tunisians alike to sympathize with the plight of the people. In this light, Bouazizi’s actions transcended his individual protest because as local citizens project their own deeply felt discontents onto his act. Furthermore, by immortalizing him as a symbol of the people’s desire for justice, the modern-day martyr was welcomed by the by western audiences and praised as a global instigator of public change.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this outcry was the media’s response to the Tunisian martyr’s fiery act, sources like BBC characterizing the revolutionary as a beacon of liberalized society, for “Before in Tunisia there wasn’t any justice or solidarity, fraternity, but now owing to Mohamed all young people can talk freely.”10 Through firsthand interviews with family members, Al Jazeera painted a portrait of the man on fire, his shy 16-year-old sister telling interviewers, “We are like soulless bodies since he left.”11 Bouazizi’s act thus takes on the distinction of martyrdom across cultural boundaries, his plight for freedom coming to life on computer screens and television monitors all around the world. These news outlets’ in-depth reporting on the events in Tunisia and the unfolding of the Arab Spring gave an international platform to the plight of the modern martyrs, furthering their cause by portraying the revolutionaries as freedom fighters and at times, providing borderline religious imagery to describe the victims of unjust regimes. One Al-Jazeera reporter claimed that the Bouazizi’s burial included “a simple grave, surrounded by olive trees, cactuses and blossoming almond trees.”12 Through the humbleness of the subject matter fused with the mentality that the victim died for democracy, the movement inadvertently appeals to the masses on a global and local level.

The sparks of Bouazizi’s flame became a catalyst to a chain of outcries in the Arab world and each revolution was thus stamped by its own martyr. With the Arab Spring events unfolding before a global audience and the links between these Muslim countries strengthening, demonstrations began to grow louder in countries such as Yemen, Iran, and Bahrain. The death of one global citizen thus influences the lives of others, for following this chain of events in January 2011, a month later “In Bahrain . . . protesters photographed the funeral of a demonstrator, and had it on YouTube instantly, inspiring even more to join the call for democracy.”13

Interestingly enough, “In most countries in the Arab world, Facebook is now one of the 10 most-visited Web sites, and in Egypt it ranks third, after Google and Yahoo.”14Thus, for the first time, both victors and victims of the revolution are abiding within two mediums: the physical world and that of the World Wide Web. As the fires of the revolution maintain a glocal height, the emergence of the liberalized martyr is beckoning a call for democracy and pushing peoples from all walks of life to step forward in their protest. Thus by creating an online presence for their martyrs with Facebook pages, internet activists further elevated the plight of protestors on the streets.

In the case of the Egyptian revolution martyr Khaled Mohamed Saeed, the Facebook platform acted as a catalyst to the revolution, for after his violent passing, advocate Wael Ghonim’s Facebook page commemorating his death brought glocal attention the cruelty and totalitarian behavior of the government. On June 6, 2010 Saeed was sitting in a cybercafé when he was interrogated and brutally beaten to death by Egyptian officials.15 In conjunction with the event, Ghonim created the public page titled “We Are All Khaled Said [sic],” an actively running forum on Facebook that has become the country’s most defiantly active group to this day.16 Within months, protestors were parading images of Saeed’s mangled body to the streets, opposing Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year emergency law. Similar to the other martyrs that arose from the Arab Spring, Saeed was not a well known man before his death. Thus, with posts that recorded the plight of protestors, the “We Are All Khaled Said” page conveys that anyone can be victimized by the regime and that without transparent government we are all martyrs.

Since June 20, 2009, Tunisia, Egypt, and Iran have undergone changes in leadership, leading to a calm in the calamity that overtook the Middle East. Though the fires of the Arab Spring and Green Movement have lulled, the spirit of the revolutions lives on. People from all walks of life move forward as global citizens by hearing, watching, and sharing the perils of modern day martyrs. With the Internet at their fingertips, the protestors’ cries for just government in the Muslim world are relayed to a worldwide audience, evoking an international empathy for their activism. By engaging the world on a political and emotional level, movements such as the Arab Spring continued to expand, strengthening the revolutionary’s conquest for democracy. Perhaps it is this kinship that permitted the roaring of Neda’s flame to burn down the regime in Iran.

  1. “http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3730457,00.html.” http://www.ynetnews.com/. Yedioth Internet, 6 June 2012. Web. 18 May 2014. <http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3730457,00.html>. 
  2. Complete Story of Neda’s Murder June 21 2010. Youtube.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 June 2010. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kfodgcK68bw>.
  3. “Fighting for the Cause of Allah (Jihaad).” http://www.usc.edu/org. USC Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement, n.d. Web. 18 May 2014. <http://www.usc.edu/org/cmje/religious-texts/hadith/bukhari/052-sbt.php#004.052.054>.
  4. Musnad Ahmed, Tabrani, at-Targheebwa at-Tarheeb, p.443, vol.2
  5. Friedman, Thomas L. The World is Flat 3.0. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,  2005. Print.
  6. AL-E-IMRAN (THE FAMILY OF ‘IMRAN, THE HOUSE OF ‘IMRAN).” http://www.usc.edu/org. Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement, n.d. Web. 18 May 2014. <http://www.usc.edu/org/cmje/religious-texts/quran/verses/ 003-qmt.php#003.169>.
  7. “A Snapshot of Corruption in Tunisia. “http://www.business-anti-corruption.com/. 2014 Business Anti-Corruption Portal, n.d. Web. 18 May 2014. <http://www.business-anti-corruption.com/country-profiles/middle-east-north-africa/tunisia/snapshot.aspx>.
  8. “Mohamed Bouazizi. A Tunisian Martyr.” Prod. Kathy Davidov. Al Jazeera. Television.
  9. “The Arab Spring: A Year Of Revolution.” Hosted by Arun Rath. All Things Considered. 11 Dec. 2011. Radio.
  10. “Mohamed Bouazizi: memories of a Tunisian martyr.” http://www.bbc.com/. BBC, 22 June 2012. Web. 22 June 2012. <http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-12241082>.
  11. “Mohamed Bouazizi. A Tunisian martyr.” Prod. Kathy Davidov. Al Jazeera. Television.
  12. “Mohamed Bouazizi: memories of a Tunisian martyr.” http://www.bbc.com/. BBC, 22. June 2012. Web. 22 June 2012. <http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-12241082>.
  13. Social Media Fuels Protests in Iran, Bahrain and Yemen.” Hosted by Martha Raddatz. ABC News. Television.
  14. Samantha M. Shapiro. “Revolution, Facebook-Style.” http://www.nytimes.com/. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 May 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/25/magazine/25bloggers-t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0>.
  15. www.aawsat.ne. Asharq Al Awsat, 13 June 2010. Web. 18 May 2014. <http://www.aawsat.net/2010/06/article55250401>.
  16. Jennifer Preston. “Movement Began With Outrage and a Facebook Page That Gave It an Outlet.” www.nytimes.com., 5 Feb. 2011. Web. 18 May 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/06/world/middleeast/06face.html?_r=0>.