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There was another wave of spikes in cases and deaths due to COVID-19. Was it the second one? The third? I cannot remember. But I do remember that the daily death numbers were in triple digits and that the map of Iran–my nation–was drenched in bloodlike crimson. 

We were physically present in my place of employment, arguing with our superiors and insisting that we must be allowed to work from home. We are risking death by commuting, then working close together in a small, crowded space. Our job didn’t even benefit from physical presence: remote work would have been perfectly fine.

This was our CEO’s reply:

It’s true that you’re taking a risk by coming to work in person, but remember, our brave soldiers continue to fight and didn’t fall back even though they knew that Saddam had used chemical weapons. You must be prepared to make sacrifices for your country.

Now, you might imagine that this person was callous and indifferent to our well-being, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. He was one of the most caring men I’ve ever known, always happy to go out of his way to help people. He wasn’t the type of person who’d value profit over his employees or be motivated by a desire for control. If the company wasn’t profiting, he’d happily forgo his own salary to make sure we were paid on time. 

So where did this common mindset come from? This belief that in times of crisis, one makes sacrifices? He was simply religious, conservative, and a passionate supporter of the Islamic regime. This mentality was not a personal flaw, but a result of the cultural context he inhabited.

Martyrdom is a major signifier in Shi’a political discourses. It’s certainly not an absent or minor concept in Sunni political discourses either, but it is much more central in Shi’a Islamism. As a result, it has been omnipresent in my life, a person living under the dominance of one particularly theocratic strain of Shi’a Islamism. 

Martyrdom propaganda is present in every form of media we consume. It shapes the politics of our nation. It has determined the path of our history and has even changed the shape of our cities. And I, a liberal atheist, believe that it has poisoned our culture.

A war, 1400 years ago

It is believed that Hussein ibn Ali, Prophet Mohammad’s grandson, was killed at the hands of the soldiers of the Muslim ruler (caliph) Yazid, on the 10th of the Islamic month of Muharram, a day known as “Ashoura.”

Hussein is the third Imam of the particular sect of Shi’a Islam that’s dominant in Iran. In Sunni Islam, imam is just a title for the clergy, but in Shi’a Islam, they’re twelve infallible people whose every pronouncement is automatically scripture and they are basically the embodiments of God’s light, and also the legitimate caliphs of all Muslims—although only two have actually been in power.

Imam Hussein went to war against the caliph on the throne at the time, Yazid I. According to the narrative—which may or may not be historically accurate, but has an outsized effect on our current times—Hussein considered Yazid to be illegitimate because he wasn’t the Prophet’s grandson, and wasn’t very religious: he drank wine and owned dogs and monkeys as pets. He took up arms against Yazid, failed to garner the support of the populace, and faced down an army of tens of thousands with only 72 men. Given a chance to surrender, he refused, and he and all of his men were killed. Martyred.

Iranians begin mourning the death of Hussein on the first of Muharram. Each night, people sing ritualistic songs dedicated to him. They cry, and beat their chests. They march in the streets and bang on drums. They give out free food. The mourning reaches its apex on the 9th and the 10th, and while it subsides a bit afterward, it doesn’t stop until the 30th. People mourn Hussein all over again 40 days after Ashoura as well.

Not surprisingly, these mourning activities are sanctioned and encouraged by the regime. Three days are official holidays: the day before his killing, the day of Ashoura, and then 40 days after Ashoura. During the entire month of Muharram, the official media barely broadcasts any unrelated programming. The hosts do not display happy emotions, and movie theaters and TV channels don’t show comedies. All governmental institutions and employees which represent a third of Iran’s workforce will be roped into these rituals.

But it would be a mistake to assume that these rituals are manufactured by the regime. In fact, the regime tries to rein in some of the more extreme and barbaric rituals. The Iranian people participate willingly and enthusiastically. They wear black, paint blood-spattered images on their cars, and display green flags, the color of the martyr Hussein.

Isn’t it the tragic and unbearable paradox of martyrdom that it simultaneously elevates the dead into the sacred and transcendental place in the heavens, but reduces the living to expendable, worthless animals.

Some people stab themselves, and even their children, with machetes on the scalps, causing blood to flow down and drench their faces. Others viciously beat themselves with chains. Even though these practices are banned by the government, and the regime-sponsored clergy have decreed that no bodily harm must happen, they are so widespread among religious people that they haven’t managed to curtail them. And, independent conservative clergy who are more influential but also more reactionary than the theocratic government encourages them.

I have always found these rituals revolting. And while I can understand atheists secularizing Christmas or other formerly religious holidays, I can’t imagine Ashoura, a straightforward celebration of death and suffering, being redeemed. The month-long celebration, even including those who are not typically religious, makes it the most mentally exhausting time to be an atheist in Iran. It’s close to impossible to get smugglers and dealers to sell you illegal drugs or alcohol because they close shop during this month-long festival of death. Life becomes Hell.

But even during the rest of the year, you can’t completely escape Ashoura. Schools, universities, the media, and governmental statements are filled to the brim with religious propaganda. They consider their duty to repeatedly allude to Hussein. It’s impossible to live under a Shi’a theocracy and not constantly be reminded that Ashoura is the most important narrative to the political discourse of Shi’ism. Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of this regime, has said: “Without Ashoura, there would be no Islam.”

Hussein represents the ideal of martyrdom in Shi’a political discourse,  choosing death instead of giving up on his beliefs and bending the knee to an illegitimate ruler. He welcomes death, arguing with his actions that his death proves him right.  In the “victory of blood over the sword,” his story becomes the heart of the Shi’a political discourse—the ultimate example of martyrdom.

For most of their history, the Shi’as were a persecuted minority. The first openly Shi’a government, the Safavid regime, came to power in Iran in 1501. Before that, being Shi’a was very dangerous and could easily get you killed in many periods. There have been many mass murders of Shi’as throughout history. So it’s not strange to see why the Shi’as chose to elevate Hussein’s story over, for example, the story of his older brother Hassan, the 2nd Imam, who chose to compromise and make peace instead of fighting to the death. For a persecuted minority repeatedly faced with the choice between being wiped out or giving up its faith, having a story that glorified being wiped out helped inspire a population that was more than happy to risk death. It helped the Shi’a religion survive. 

Many religions and sects have been destroyed, but embracing martyrdom helped make Shi’ism much more resilient.

Another war, 30 years ago

My mother was pregnant with me when the Iran-Iraq War ended. I was born into the world that that terrible war created. Most streets are named after those who were slain. The faces of the dead stare down from murals on many tall buildings. More than thirty years later, many of the war’s ruins have not yet been rebuilt. Veterans still suffer from the physical and mental echoes of the war, many forgotten by those who use them as propaganda. And the martyrs of the “holy resistance” are another common fixture in our education and media propaganda. 

Again, a war continues to shape our politics. Even though I might have been too non-existent to witness the war personally, my life, and any other Iranian of my generation, was nevertheless defined by it.

The story of the Iran-Iraq War is a complicated one. It’s true that Iran did not begin the war, and it’s true that Iraq’s Baathist regime was a much more repressive and violent authoritarian government than Iran’s Islamic Republic, so it’s hard to not be grateful for the sacrifices of the ordinary Iranians who enlisted and in the end managed to defeat Iraq, in the sense that not an inch of Iran’s soil was lost. 

It was a victory despite extreme disadvantages. Iran had just had a revolution, had (foolishly) dismantled its army, and had no weapons or military technology of any kind, while Iraq was at the height of its military might and was supported by almost all-powerful states in the world. So I cannot help but admire and salute the veterans of that war.

But the story is not simple. Although Iran did not start the war, it also refused to end it for at least three years after a ceasefire was completely feasible. After the Iraqi army was kicked out, Iran would have been perfectly able to accept the UN’s offer for a ceasefire and be known as the ultimate victor. 

But the war continued.

Not every motivation for continuing the war was religious. Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the chairman of the parliament and basically the commander in chief, wanted Iran to achieve a strategic victory inside Iraq’s borders by conquering one major Iraqi city so that Iran could enter peace negotiations from a position of power.

But many were religiously motivated. Khomeini, the Supreme Leader, said victory was promised by Allah, on the condition that the true Muslims didn’t stop fighting. And victory was defined not when Iraq was defeated, but when Israel was. 

Khomeini had defined an impossible goal.

Martyrdom was the entire ideology behind this war. Almost all brigade names or operations alluded to Hussein’s story. 

There’s no other way of putting it: Iraq failed to conquer Iran only because the Iranian people were fully willing to die. Only by incurring very high casualties was Iran able to keep Iraq out.

Stories from that era are mind-boggling. The soldiers who had enlisted wanted to die. Getting killed was the highest possible honor, and a straight ticket to the best parts of Paradise. (No, not 72 virgins. That is western misinformation, although the Qur’an has promised angels shaped like beautiful women with ample bosoms and young boys to those who go to Heaven for sexual purposes). It was considered a sign of Allah’s disfavor if they were not killed. There are actually verified accounts of survivors crying out of sadness for having survived. 

People would willingly walk on mines to clear them for the rest of the soldiers. One of the most famous “martyrs” of the war was a 14-year-old teenager who blew himself up with a grenade to take an Iraqi tank with him.

Any death can be justified as long as you call it martyrdom.

Whenever someone’s son was killed in the war, the news was delivered by an army representative saying, “Please accept my condolences and congratulations upon the death of your son.” People would likewise offer condolences and congratulations to the grieving families. And many of those grieving mothers and fathers would go on to honestly say that despite the loss of their child, they were happy that he was martyred.

Some might be tempted to see some justification in the concept of martyrdom. Am I not acknowledging martyrdom was the concept that helped both Shi’ism and the Islamic Republic survive?

Perhaps. But the toxic aspects of martyrdom overwhelm any cultural benefit. 

You can justify people sacrificing their lives resisting the invading army of a bloodthirsty authoritarian regime. But you cannot justify continuing the war after it’s no longer necessary, especially since more people were killed in the final three years than the previous five. You most certainly cannot justify many of the decisions made by the commanders, which led to many unnecessary deaths, including a “secret” mission that was notoriously continued despite having full knowledge that it had been discovered by the Iraqis. 

And you definitely cannot justify recruiting child soldiers, more than 33,000 of whom were killed.

Every decision made by Iran in these eight years of war reveals callousness, negligence, and indifference to human lives. And this indifference and negligence are the consequence of believing in martyrdom, in thinking that death is not such a tragedy. Because, ultimately, dying while fighting for Allah is even better than living.

Khomeini was finally convinced—by his pragmatic and realist right-hand man, Hashemi Rafsanjani—to accept the UN’s ceasefire after it was demonstrated to him that it was impossible to continue. Iran’s economy was in a state of absolute ruin, the military had run out of ammunition, and soldiers were fleeing the frontlines. Hashemi Rafsanjani knew that it was very difficult for Khomeini to accept peace despite equating its proponents to infidels a mere two weeks earlier. So he offered himself to be thrown under the bus: “let me be the one who accepts the ceasefire, and then have me executed”, he offered. But Khomeini decided to take responsibility for his final decision to accept the ceasefire. In his statement announcing his intention, he said that accepting peace was more bitter to him than “drinking a chalice of poison.”

Our chalice of poison

Wars of the past echo into the present and shape the lives of those who were born after the final arrows were shot, or bullets were fired. It is bizarre to live with the trauma of those who died before you, those who didn’t value life much, but then their horrific experiences became a component of your identity, like a demented reincarnation.

When Donald Trump ordered the assassination of Ghassem Soleimani, I was sick to my stomach. I have always said that if Hell were real and there was only one – only one – Iranian in the past 100 years who deserved to be sent there, it was Soleimani. It was he who extended the tentacles of martyrdom across the region, he who advised Bashar Al-Assad to destroy his country so that he could rule over the ruins. 

And yet, here I was, scared for my own life. Scared that war might begin.

But in the end, we ourselves attacked ordinary Iranians, not the United States. In response to the spiraling geopolitical tension, the Revolutionary Guards shot UIA Flight 752 out of the sky and killed nearly 200 people, most of them young, most of them looking toward very bright futures.

While the attack was not intentional, it was the result of the same subconscious negligence and indifference toward human life that echoes through our history and culture. The tragedy didn’t happen when the debris of the plane fell into the ground. It happened when the military leaders refused to cancel all flights despite the situation because doing so would make Iran appear “weak” and “scared” of the U.S. 

And in a twisted display of hollow remorse, the passengers of that plane were dubbed martyrs by the regime.

Isn’t it the tragic and unbearable paradox of martyrdom that it simultaneously elevates the dead into this sacred and transcendental place in the heavens, but reduces the living to expendable and worthless animals?

It is acceptable to send young Iranians to Syria to kill Syrians in order to preserve an ally who’s also an enemy of Israel and will “resist” imperialism because those Iranians are martyrs. It is acceptable to allow draconian sanctions to kill people if it means not “surrendering” to the “enemy,” because those who die as a result of sanctions are martyrs. And it is acceptable to refuse American and British-made vaccines, and demand people to work in person because those who die of COVID-19 are martyrs. 

Any death can be justified as long as you call it “martyrdom.”

Sadegh Khalkhali, the most famous butcher of the Islamic Republic, was a judge who ordered the deaths of thousands of people in summary sham trials right after the 1979 revolution. He indiscriminately killed officials of the Shah’s regime, including people who were completely innocent—people in charge of sports or education, or apolitical technocrats, as well as minority rights activists and separatists, and drug traffickers and users. No one knows the exact number of people this man is directly responsible for killing, but about 5000 had their execution orders reversed by his successor after he fell out of favor and was removed from his job.

Khalkhali was interviewed by BBC Persian before his death. The interviewer mentioned that his trials usually didn’t last more than five minutes, and he’d sometimes order the execution of a group of people without knowing who was included. Or sometimes, he would line up people, then hand amnesties to every person with an even number, and execute every person with an odd number. 

After mentioning these facts, the interviewer asked if he felt any remorse, because his process has inevitably ended up killing many innocent people. He said: “No. Either they were guilty and deserved to die, or they were innocent, so they’re martyrs, and went to Paradise, so I did them a favor.”

This is the most ridiculous and extreme version of martyrdom anyone can believe in. I’m not saying that Khalkhali is a typical example, he was certainly a person who enjoyed killing on a personal level and went beyond the vast majority of Iranian judges in terms of barbarity. But at the same time, he was in charge of people’s lives and deaths for close to a decade. A culture of martyrdom not only tolerates people like him but cultivates them. And at the very least, it helps devalue human life.

For Khomeini, peace was his “chalice of poison.” But for the people and the culture of Iran, the chalice of poison is not peace, but the wretched concept of martyrdom.

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An Iranian researcher, writer, and teacher who is an ex-Muslim atheist currently living in one of the theocracies in the world, Iran. Interested in literature, philosophy, and political sciences, especially...