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Sacralising Bodies On Martyrdom, Government and Accident in Iran1



In post-revolution Iran, the sacred notion of martyrdom has been transformed into a routine act of government – a moral sign of order and state sovereignty. Moving beyond the debates of the secularisation of the sacred and the making sacred of the secular, this article argues that the moment of sacralisation is realised through co-production within a social setting when the object of sacralisation is recognised as such by others. In contemporary Iran, however, the moment of sacralising bodies by the state is also the moment of its own subversion as the political-theological field of martyrdom is contested and challenged from within. This article traces the genealogy of martyrdom in contemporary Iran in order to explore its institutionalised forms and governmental practices. During the revolution, the Shi'a tradition of martyrdom and its dramatic performances of ritual mourning and self-sacrifice became central to the mass mobilisation against the monarchy. Once the revolutionary government came into existence, this sacred tradition was regulated to create ‘martyrs’ as a fixed category, in order to consolidate the legacy of the revolution. In this political theatre, the dead body is a site of transformation and performance upon which the original narrative of martyrdom takes place even as it displaces it and gives new meanings to the act.

A Crash

On the morning of 6 December 2005, an Iranian military plane C-130 carrying journalists and Army officials crashed near Mehrabad airport in Tehran. The plane was attempting an emergency landing when it hit a ten-storey apartment block, setting off a big explosion which set fire to the building. In all, one hundred and sixteen charred bodies were recovered – ninty four passengers and twenty two residents of the building – from the smoke and rubble in this working class area of south-western Tehran. The residents were mostly women and schoolchildren who had stayed home – because of an official anti-pollution drive – to avoid a thick layer of smog that had developed over Tehran skies over the previous few days. Dozens of people were injured on the ground and the riot police had to be called in to clear the area of curious onlookers who were blocking the emergency services.

The plane crash was met with grief, guilt and hints of anger. The Iranian media was most vocal in its expression of rage – seventy eight journalists had lost their lives in an instant. The ‘Iran News Daily’, a leading English language newspaper based in Tehran, two days later devoted a full page to the crash coverage including scathing editorials demanding accountability and answers to “disturbing questions” from the government. The editorial entitled ‘Duty and Responsibility’ stated that “condolences are not enough. People, the near and dear ones of victims in particular, have the right to know. Did the C-130 have technical problems? Was it fit for the passenger service? What would have really happened if the flight was cancelled? Who gave the final permission for the journey to go ahead? Is this another case of human error or engine failure? How can such major loss of innocent life be explained, leave [sic] alone justified?”2 Similarly, Hossein Shariatmadari, influential editor of the conservative Persian daily ‘Kayhan’, called for a full investigation, not because it would bring “the dead back to life but (to) prevent repetition of similar incidents and further disasters”.3

As private and public condolences began pouring in – newspapers had allocated prime space for such purpose – President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent a short message through state media that dramatically altered the narrative of grief and anger against the authorities. The message read as follows: “I learned of the catastrophe and the fact that members of the press have been martyred. I offer my condolences to the Supreme Leader and to the families of the victims”. With this message the dead journalists had been officially pronounced ‘martyrs’ – a moral-political subjectivity that traces its genealogy to the martyrdom of Imam Hussein.4 In a single moment, the burnt corpses were no longer the bodies of ordinary victims of a plane crash, but the corpses of martyrs, and their charred remains sacrificial relics.



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This article is based on eighteen months of fieldwork in Tehran from August 2004 to March 2006 including interviews with martyrs’ families and staff at Behesht-e-Zahra, Martyrs’ Museum as well as the Foundation of Martyrs and Veterans Affairs.



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2 Iran News Daily (Tehran), 8 December 2005.

3 ‘Special Judge Assigned to Investigate Iran's C-130 Plane Crash’, Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) Report. (accessed 12 December 2005).

4 Imam Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Mohammad, is considered the rightful heir to the spiritual legacy of the Prophet in the Shi'a tradition. In 682 AD, he was killed by the Sunni Caliph Yazid, along with his 72 followers in the battle of Karbala.

5 During the revolution, the student activists from the Tehran University occupied the American embassy – popularly called the ‘den of spies’ – after Muhammad Reza Shah fled Iran. American (and British) support was seen as a crucial factor in providing support to the corrupt Shah regime. The embassy was occupied and the 52 diplomats kept hostage for 444 days. Since then, Iran-US relations have remained strained.

6 The cynics were not always the opponents of the regime as they often included Ahmadinejad's electoral constituency as well. This suggests a viewpoint that is shared among a much wider demography.

7 Many private walls are donated voluntarily to the Foundation of Martyrs and Veterans Affairs as a way of ingratiating oneself with the regime, or are obtained through coercion.

8 See Verdery, Katherine, The Political Lives of Dead Bodies: Reburial and Postsocialist Change (New York, 1999).

9 Taylor, Charles, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA, 2007), p. 5.

10 See Douglas, Mary, Purity and Danger (London, 2002) [first published 1966]. The maintenance of, for example, caste based taboos on consumption of certain foods, restrictions on marriage contracts, and even travel are everyday practices that separate the upper castes in Hinduism from the lower ones. The adornment of caste marks on one's body and style of clothing visibly set these bounded social spaces apart.

11 Clearly, martyrdom, or shahadat, is not a static concept but has been transformed in different historical settings. See Lewinstein, Keith, ‘Revaluation of martyrdom in early Islam’, in Sacrificing the Self: Perspectives on Martyrdom and Religion, ed. Cormack, Margaret (Oxford, 2001), pp 7891.

12 Ibid.

13 DeSoucey, Michaela, Pozner, Jo-Ellen, Fields, Corey, Dobransky, Kerry and Fine, Gary Alan, ‘Memory and Sacrifice: An Embodied Theory of Martyrdom’, Cultural Sociology, Vol. 2, No. 1 (2008), pp. 99121.

14 Imam Hussein's martyrdom was preceded by the martyrdom of his father Ali, the cousin and son-in law of Prophet Mohammad.

15 The following verse gives a sense of this meaning: And strive for Allah as you ought to strive. He elected you, and you did not impose on you any hardship in religion – the faith of your father Abraham. He called you Muslims before and in this (Qur'an) that the Apostle may bear witness against you and you may be witnesses against mankind. So, perform the payer, give the alms and hold fast to Allah. He is your master; and what a blessed Master and a blessed Master and a blessed supporter! (22:78), cited in Cook, David, Martyrdom in Islam (Cambridge, 2007), p. 16.

16 A number of both Shia and Sunni traditions regard fulfillment of religious duties in life, and not alone in death, as equivalents of martyrdom. One tradition draws upon Prophet Mohammad's explanation as to why a believer who died in bed in contrast to two who died in Jihad was given priority in Paradise: “No one is more virtuous in God's eyes that the believer who lives long in Islam, and is able to go on praising and glorifying God, and making the profession of faith”. Therefore, those who recite Qur'an or call for prayer are to receive the reward of 40,000 martyrs who die in the battlefield. This tradition is described in Ahmad ibn Hanbal, ‘Musnad’ (6 volumes, Beirut), I, 163, cited in Lewinstein, ‘Revaluation of martyrdom in early Islam’, p. 83. Similarly Fischer draws our attention to the Karabala paradigm in the Shi'a tradition wherein “believers are witnesses through their act of worship to the metaphysical reality that is hidden”. See Fischer, Michael M. J., Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution (Madison, 2003) [first published in 1980], p. 25.

17 Ibid., p. 25.

18 Chelkowski, Peter J. (ed.), Ta'ziyeh, ritual and drama in Iran (New York, 1979); Dabashi, Hamid, ‘Tazi'yeh as theatre of protest’, The Drama Review, Vol. 49, No. 4 (2005), pp. 9199.

19 Abu Jafar At-Tabari ‘Tarikh ar-Rasul wal-Mulak’ (1879–1901: 216–95), cited in Jafri, S. M. H., The Origins and Early Development of Shi'a Islam (Qum, 1976), p. 200.

20 Fischer, Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution, p. 183.

21 Khomeini (Imam), The Ashura Uprising (Tehran, 2000), p. 7.

22 Fischer, Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution, p. 183.

23 Bayat, Assef, “Shariati and Marx: A critique of an ‘Islamic’ critique of Marxism”, Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, No.10 (1990), pp. 1941.

24 See Dabashi, Hamid, Theology of Discontent: The Ideological Foundation of the Islamic Revolution (New York, 1993), and Abrahamian, Ervand, The Iranian Mujahedin (New Haven, 1989).

25 Shariati, Ali, ‘Shahadat’, in Abedi, Mehdi and Legenhausen, Gary (eds), Jihad and Shahadat: Struggle and Martyrdom in Islam (Houston, 1986), pp. 153229; Varzi, Roxanne, Warring Souls: Youth, Media, and Martyrdom in Post-Revolution Iran (Durham and London, 2006).

26 Shariati, ‘Shahadat’, p. 179.

27 Ibid., p. 194.

28 Ibid., p. 214.

29 For an in-depth discussion on the competing narratives of the battle of Karbala in Iran historically and during the revolution, see Aghaie, Kamran Scott, Martyrs of Karbala: Shi'a Symbols and Rituals in Modern Iran (Seattle and London, 2004).

30 Khomeini, The Ashura Uprising, p. 7.

31 Fischer, Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution, pp. 204–205.

32 Ibid., p. 213.

33 Ibid., p. 214

34 Interview with Reza, Tehran, 20 April 2006.

35 Interview with Ashraf Ahmadi, Tehran, 2 May 2006.

36 The 15–24 years old youth population is estimated at 25.2% of a total of roughly 70 million. The under-15 year population was estimated in 2005 at 28.8%, a sizeable proportion that is set to add to the rapidly growing youth population. See UN Human Development Report 2007–8, (accessed 23 March 2010).

37 ‘Remains of 3 Martyrs Buried in ITU’, Iran News Daily (Tehran), 26 October 2008.

38 ‘MPs try to impeach Defence Minister over Plane Crash’, Iran News Daily (Tehran), 12 January 2006.

39 Ibid.

40 Special Judge Assigned to Investigate Iran's C-130 Plane Crash’, Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) Report. (accessed 12 December 2005).

41 ‘Protest over C-130 Verdict’, Iran News Daily (Tehran), 31 July 2007.

42 ‘No Evidence of C-130 Crash Culpability’, Iran News Daily (Tehran), 6 September 2007.

43 Dabashi, ‘Tazi'yeh as theatre of protest’, p. 91.

44 Khomeini (Imam) Islamic Government: Governance of the Jurist (Tehran, 2002).

45 Fischer, Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution; Ansari, Ali, The History of Modern Iran since 1921: Pahlavis and After (London, 2003); Arjomand, Said Amir, The Turban for the Crown: The Islamic Revolution in Iran (New York, 1988).

46 Said Amir Arjomand in his seminal work reproduced an interview with Imam Khomeini where he described the ‘executive affairs like urban planning and traffic regulations’ as beneath the dignity of Islam. The government of the jurists was to concern itself with structures of governance rather than the specific day-to-day details of governance. See ibid., pp. 148–149.

47 See Cole, Juan, Sacred Space and Holy War: The Politics, Culture and History of Shi'ite Islam (New York, 2005); and Abrahamian, The Iranian Mujahedin.

48 The contradiction stems from the debate over sovereignty in post–revolution Iran. The idea of ‘Islamic republic’ is contradictory because Islam posits God as the ultimate sovereign, while republic invests sovereignty in people. These two sources of sovereignty somehow shape the way the Iranian state works. A favourite expression used in Tehran to understand this is ‘experiment’, that is that Iran is the pioneer among Muslim states to attempt a modern state based on Islamic principles. Thus contradictions are accepted as part of the governmental framework, just as trial and error is part of the policy making and practice. This was emphasised during a series of interviews that I had in 2005–6 with Dr Abbas Aragchi, School of International Relations, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Tehran.

49 Mbembe, Achille, ‘Necropolitics’, Public Culture, Vol. 15, No. 1 (2003), pp. 1140.

1 This article is based on eighteen months of fieldwork in Tehran from August 2004 to March 2006 including interviews with martyrs’ families and staff at Behesht-e-Zahra, Martyrs’ Museum as well as the Foundation of Martyrs and Veterans Affairs.

Sacralising Bodies On Martyrdom, Government and Accident in Iran1



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