October 20, 2014

Commentary | April 10, 2014
Making martyrs
The dead tell no tales
Written by | Visual by

On December 27, 2013, former Lebanese finance minister and ambassador to the U.S. Mohamad Chatah was killed when a car bomb exploded and struck his convoy. Chatah was not the first political figure to be assassinated in Lebanon. What makes his case special is that 16-year-old Mohammad Chaar, who was also killed in the same bombing, received much wider coverage than the former minister. Almost immediately, the innocent bystander was appropriated and made into a martyr by an overly enthusiastic media, without consideration of the impact this could have on Chaar’s family and friends.

Earlier, in June 2013, a 15-year-old Turkish boy, Berkin Elvan, left his home to buy bread for breakfast. That summer was chaotic in Turkey, marked by the Gezi Park Protests and constant clashes between demonstrators and the police force,. Gülsüm Elvan, Elvan’s mother, later said that her son had insisted that he was going to buy bread, worrying that it would be too dangerous to leave the house later if the situation escalated.

Soon after he left home, Elvan was caught in the middle of a heated and violent demonstration, and was shot in the head with a gas canister. 269 days later, and after withering away to just 16 kilos, Elvan died on March 11.

The symbolism of martyrdom points to the futility of trying to repress dissenting opinions; in the eyes of many, the dead are immortal, and their voice lives on.

Massive demonstrations against the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his government emerged that very day. People took to the streets chanting “Berkin Elvan is immortal!” Just like Chaar, he too had become a martyr.

It is a generally accepted practice around the world to take up the names of those who have died and appropriate them for a cause. It is an extremely powerful tool against a stubborn regime that tries to crush the spirit of its opposition. The symbolism of martyrdom points to the futility of trying to repress dissenting opinions; in the eyes of many, the dead are immortal, and their voice lives on.

But, how much of that voice actually belongs to the dead? In all honesty, very little. One could always argue, posthumously, that the martyr was always a supporter of the cause, and that they would have been proud to have been killed for what they believed was right. But there is no way to be sure about this. In addition, the families of the dead are even denied their right to closure regarding their passed away relative, because the name of the martyr is heard everywhere and repeated constantly.

People, especially young people, do not want to be martyrs, but this does not mean that they are politically or socially apathetic.

Perhaps this was one of the reasons why the Lebanese decided to launch the #notamartyr campaign. Mostly carried out over Twitter, the campaign involved users posting pictures of themselves holding pieces of paper, describing why they do not want to be a martyr. Some of the more popular tweets include “God, do something. I’m giving up on you,” and “I don’t want to be afraid to wander in my own country.” People, especially young people, do not want to be martyrs, but this does not mean that they are politically or socially apathetic. The #notamartyr campaign is not about people simply stating that they are afraid of dying, but also that they do not want to die for a battle or a cause they do not think is necessary or valid. Chaar was killed as a result of the heavy sectarian disputes within Lebanon, and the #notamartyr campaign tries to show that the fighting is pointless.

Chaar was an innocent bystander who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but his death was appropriated by media as a tool to lend momentum to the sectarian conflict in Lebanon. Elvan’s death was as well; though there are other people who were killed by disproportional use of police force in the context of the Gezi Park Protests in Turkey, such as Ali Ismail Korkmaz, Ethem Sarısülük, and Abdullah Cömert. One could argue that the one uniting factor among these people, which also distinguishes their cases from those of Chaar and Elvan, was that they were actively protesting against the government. Regardless, they all have become national symbols of the Turkish struggle against the oppressive government; but nobody had asked them, nor their families, whether they wanted any of this.

Martyrdom is a heavy concept that is used too liberally, and too lightly. Understandably, people want heroes and symbols for their cause, and reasons to fight on.

Appropriating someone who has been killed in a political context is often done spontaneously and unconsciously. The collective hive mind that emerges in such situations usually disregards the emotional and psychological demands that such appropriation might exert on the families and friends of the newly canonized martyrs. For instance, Elvan’s parents try to show themselves as standing strong against Erdogan, who also politicized Elvan’s dead body by calling him a ‘terrorist’ and trying to smear his family’s reputation. As such, Elvan’s parents, and possibly the relatives of all other martyrs, are fighting a war on two fronts. One is psychological, fought in terms of seeking closure and acceptance for a dead relative while constantly being denied. The other is political, fought against a defamatory and aggressive government that is trying its best to justify the death of their dead relative.

Caught in the crossfire, there is not much that can be done. Politically, the families of those who become martyrs cannot simply give in to the oppression. But the socio-cultural context is especially important. In Turkey, where military conscription is mandatory for all males above the age of 18, it is considered a great honour to serve your country – that is, to be ready to die, and become a martyr for your country. I remember seeing news broadcasts about the families of soldiers who have recently been killed in the southeastern border of Turkey. These people were clearly very sad, however, most of them maintained that if they had another son, they would send them to fight and die for the country once again, without hesitation. Situated in such circumstances, how can they possibly say no?

Martyrdom is a heavy concept that is used too liberally, and too lightly. Understandably, people want heroes and symbols for their cause, and reasons to fight on. Nevertheless, the repercussions of appropriating someone as a martyr has to be considered. Do the dead not deserve a chance to rest in peace? Do their families not deserve closure? In the context of social struggles, martyrdom is never a conscious choice.


Cem Ertekin is a U2 Political Science student. He can be reached at acertekin@gmail.com.

Related Articles