“Martyrdom” is a strictly religious concept, but it can also be used figuratively. The victims of the Mumbai 2008 terrorist attacks were, in their own way, “martyrs.”
by Marco Respinti*
*The original Italian version of the following remarks was presented on November 26, 2021, at the Martyr’s Day event in Milan, Italy, to celebrate the memory of the victims of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, in 2008. The celebration was organized by the Indian Association of Northern Italy, and was streamed live through Facebook.
“Martyr” is an English word, and in fact almost identical in several other languages, derived from the Greek “μάρτυς.” It means “witness.” It indicates those who testify to a factual reality, a truth. Undoubtedly, the Judeo-Christian tradition has loaded the term with a characteristic value, making it a universal heritage. The martyr is the person who bears witness to the truth in adversity and hostility, regardless of the possible outcome and suffering. Martyrs offer themselves and are willing to do so, voluntarily, freely, genuinely, even to the point of death.
Let me underline a point here: in Christian theology martyrs do not positively seek death through an act of vanity and self-aggrandizement, no matter how good the cause for which they immolate themselves. These are superhero-like whims and aesthetic vices, which belong to conceptions that are ultimately nihilistic and deviant. The martyrs are rather those who, precisely without seeking it, put themselves at disposal, even to the point of death. They offer themselves, if it is needed, and do not ask for recognition, conceiving themselves just as “unworthy servants” of the divine Master (see Luke 17:10).
Undoubtedly, it is the strictly religious dimension that makes a martyr a martyr. Only because they place their health and life in the hands of another, i.e. God, entrusting themselves totally to Him, are the martyrs ready to sacrifice themselves. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the perfect example of the martyr is Jesus, who, on the eve of His death on the Cross, in the Garden of Gethsemane, prayed: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). Not even Christ seeks the supreme sacrifice. He even tries to avoid it. But in the end, he meekly entrusts Himself to a greater and certainly good plan that lays beyond human comprehension.
This depth of the sense of martyrdom has been–as I mentioned earlier–certainly universalized. It transcends the Judeo-Christian sphere, and rightly so since it shifts the focus from the subject (the martyr) to the object (the cause of martyrdom). It is in fact the cause of martyrdom that is holy, and it is only the holiness of the cause that makes the martyr holy.
Therefore, there is no martyrdom if the cause is not holy. And martyrs are not real martyrs, if the cause for which they are prepared even to immolate themselves is not holy. Ultimately, it is God who decides who will become a martyr.
Any profane use of the terms “martyrdom” and “martyr,” disassociated from the sphere of the sacred, is thus improper, and even incorrect.
Life, family and homeland
But there is a broad and figurative use of those terms that is certainly licit and even blessed, even though referring to a cause that is not “holy” on the theological level. This happens when “martyrdom” is used for a cause which, if not holy, is nonetheless sacral, that is, it reveals and shows an indirect, functional connection with the religious dimension.
The most typical case is the sanctity of human life: a life is always sacred (because of its origin and destiny), even if it is not always automatically holy. The sanctity of human life first, then that of the family and that of the homeland.
No one adores human life, the family and the homeland per se, as deities; it would be a theological heresy. Not even our Latin forefathers did it while worshipping the Lares and the Penates, or giving a sacral meaning to the paterfamilias and the patria (domus), hence to the limes. In fact, for our Latin forefathers, the ancestors, the forebears, the family members, and the materiality of a physical border were not the object of worship. They evoked and reified a space-time, and brought it closer to the human dimension. The appropriate term here is precisely religio, “to bind oneself to the divine.” This can only happens through the manifestations of the divine, given that humans cannot see God, latens deitas. Lares, Penates, familia and limes were among such manifestations.
Therefore, it has a mediated, and noble, meaning to use “martyrdom” and “martyr” also in relation to the self-sacrifice of the human person, of the family, and of those who want to protect the homeland, or to the individual sacrifice on behalf of the human person, the family, and the homeland.
This is what our Latin forefathers meant when, through the poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65–8 B.C.), they said that “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” “it is sweet and noble to die for the homeland” (Odes, III, 2, 13).
In the ancient classical world, the pivot of all this was pietas, a concept much broader and deeper than its simple component, piety. Pietas is in fact the reverence and deference that is sacral, and therefore religious, but also civic, for everything that is the historical form of the ineliminable social dimension of humans. In hierarchical order, the sanctity of life, the sanctity of the family and the sanctity of the homeland, even to the point, in the ancient, religious world, to also conceive the state as sacred. Today, in our contemporary world it would be absurd to think of the secular state as sacred, not because the concept that the ancients nurtured was wrong in itself, but because the state of today is not the state of the ancients—having been deprived of its religious function, to mention just one of its characteristics. In passing, I would refer here to the office of the pontifex in the Roman world, or “the person who builds bridges between the human world and the divine world”: a priest, holding also important juridical powers, which in Christianity became another name of the Pope.
But considering the state as sacred today is mere nationalism, and quite often nationalism is only the corruption and cheap imitation of patriotism.
Let us then stick to the concept of homeland. Those who are ready to offer even their own lives so that customs, traditions, and the rights of the ancestors may not be vilified and trampled upon, insulted and demolished by those who pose as enemies because conceiving themselves as dialectical foreigners, is a martyr, not in the strict theological sense of the expression, but in the figurative, yet acceptable sacral sense of the word.
In his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), a crucial book of the Western political tradition, the Irish philosopher and politician Edmund Burke (1729–1797) writes: “[…] to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections,” using these words in the same sense implied by our Latin forefathers’ use of the expression res publica.
Now, the extent of that “little platoon” may vary: be it one’s family or one’s whole country, it always remains a “little” dimension in the protective and affective, even consolatory sense of the term.
Burke’s is a horizontal description. It corresponds to a second, vertical description, offered by the English writer Gilbert K. Chesterton (1874–1936) in his Orthodoxy (1932): “Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead…” If you allow me, the intersection between these two definitions, one horizontal and the other vertical, in time and space draws a cross, a symbol to which as a Christian I am myself obviously devoted.
For India, for the Indian people, for the Indian homeland, today’s date marks a sad memory. It is the memory of the coward aggressions of November 26, 2008, in Mumbai, when ten simultaneously perpetrated attacks by Islamists devastated that great, famous, mysterious city, center and symbol of our imagination which, when we distant Westerners rode the white steed of our fantasy, we still call Bombay, the magical capital of the Maharashtra state.
Those attacks killed 174 people and injured 280. Mostly Indians, but not solely: among them there were also foreign citizens, martyrs of other homelands, a total of 29. One of them was a fellow countryman of mine, an Italian national, Antonio di Lorenzo (1945–2008).
Later, Pakistani terrorist Mohammed Ajmal Amir Kasab (1987-2012), the only killer that survived on that bloody day, revealed that among the attackers there were also members of the terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Taiba.
“Lashkar-e-Taiba” means “Army of God.” It is a jihadist network operating from Pakistan expressly against India. It has also strong historical and strategic ties to al-Qa’ida. I leave it to the experts to document and clarify all this, but it appears that Lashkar-e-Taiba has been funded and trained by the Pakistan Army and Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s main and well-known intelligence agency.
The primary theater of Lashkar-e-Taiba’s operations is the Valley of Kashmir and the first, though not the last, aim of its actions is to demolish India’s sovereignty over the territories of Jammu-and-Kashmir and Ladakh.
As a matter fact, today Lashkar-e-Taiba is the core of a web connecting numerous local realities, including Jaish-e-Mohammed, the group that claimed to be the author of the February 14, 2019, attack in Pulwama, south of Srinagar, along the Valleys of Kashmir, India, when 40 Indian paramilitaries were killed. The Pakistani government has repeatedly said to have banned Jaish-e-Mohammed, but both Laskar-e-Taiba leader, Mohammed Hafiz Saeed (1950-), and Jaish-e-Mohammed leader, Mohammad Masood Azhar Alvi (1968-), who are responsible for many crimes, have long lived in Pakistan as free and undisturbed men. And if the former is now under house arrest, the latter is still free. And while India has repeatedly called for Azhar to be listed as an international terrorist, China’s veto has long delayed this initiative.
China has in fact a fundamental role in the instability of the area, playing heavy-handedly both in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Tonight, I just need to remember how the Chinese regime, guilty of numerous proven crimes, wages a cultural genocide against Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic groups living in East Turkestan (a genocide now recognized by the U.S. State Department and several parliaments of the world), while subsidizing and supporting Islamist terrorism against India.
Coincidentally, today the Lahore High Court decided to release six prominent terrorists of Lashakr-e-Tayyeba as part of the Pakistani government’s benevolent policy toward Islamist terrorism.
Finally freeing God
I return to the reality of martyrdom. Dozens of Indian citizens and of other countries’ citizens died on November 26, 2008, at the hands of people who hold human life in contempt. Dozens of people died in Mumbai not knowing why, and unknowingly they bore witness to the inalienable and non-negotiable value of human life. They were part of communities they called homeland, and all together they were part of the human community. Others, on the other hand, hate those peculiar communities we call our homeland and the entire human community, so much as to attack them with violence. Yes, those innocent dead who have been killed are martyrs, in the sacral sense of the term.
They are also heroes, the second word we are using tonight.
The concept of “hero,” which we universally use, owes to its Greek conception. In the Greek world, heroes are those who, on their own initiative and free from any constraint, perform acts of extraordinary courage and generosity, involving or possibly involving the conscious sacrifice of themselves, to protect the good of others. Often the hero of the Greeks is a demigod or is associated with the gods, still not for a voluntaristic superman-like whim, but because the hero exemplifies characteristics that, being in themselves divine, make humans similar to God. Heroes perform this role in a more than human way. In Catholic theology, are proclaimed saints those who exercised virtues in a heroic way, making themselves perfect imitators of God.
The heroes of Mumbai 2008, a day that is India’s 9/11, are heroes because, in an imperceptible moment of their lives, in the exact instant before they abandoned their lives, they looked at the face of divine virtue. It definitely happened. How do we know this? We know it because the manifestation of those divine virtues in the eyes of those who die as the ultimate possibility is not a human initiative. Rather, it is a divine initiative, and God neither betrays nor leaves heroes alone, even if humans do.
The dead of Mumbai are heroes who protected the common good, calling our attention to the horror of those who strike at the sanctity of life, family and homeland. They did so unconsciously, but the other name for unconsciousness is gratuitousness.
I called “Islamist” those who violated the sanctity of those martyrs and heroes. In fact, the murderous group that shot them down refers not to Islam, but to an aberrant interpretation of Islam, which betrays the authentic spirit of religion.
Those terrorists have no right, no right at all to invoke the name of God for their massacres. We heard this concept repeated time and again in recent years but let me conclude tonight by trying to color it in an original and hopefully intriguing way.
One day it will be worth investigating in depth the relationship between religion and violence, between faith and terrorism, to accurately understand, firstly how much violence and terrorism are due to the distorted and perverse way in which some people understand religion, secondly, and more importantly, how much violence can be truly attributed to religion, and thirdly and finally how to free God from the wrongdoings of some of his self-styled devotees. These people alone are responsible for their own atrocities, not God.