If we use Durkheim’s classic division of suicides into egoistic, altruistic, and anomic (Le Suicide, 1897), martyrdom is an altruistic suicide. According to Durkheim, those who consciously sacrifice their lives for a supreme ideal (religious, political, or moral) demonstrate not only a profound faith in the ideal, but also strong commitment to a group (be it micro or macro). In the martyr’s hierarchy of values, the individual’s life counts for less than the supreme and universal ideal he believes in (the Fatherland, the Nation, God, Religion). The ego places itself (i.e., the individual’s whole life) under the alter, showing how far faith and trust enable the individual to transcend himself, to overcome the instinctive fear of violent death and to prove his supreme coherence with an ideal. Group solidarity pushes him to sacrifice his own life in an altered state of consciousness, a sort of mystical experience that allows him to go beyond human fears and anxieties. The heroic dimension of martyrdom means precisely the lucid awareness that, by acting in a particular way, death is a certainty. Martyrdom is a trial for the individual and for the group he belongs to. So the psychic system of a martyr tends to reduce the social complexity he lives in to a terrifyingly basic binary code, life/death (with the resulting give life/take life), which he believes is the fundamental moral code of every pure militant. After his death, he becomes the emblem of the group. This is why the martyr’s body is so important in the social representation of the altruistic suicide: the members of the group are able to strengthen their conviction by exalting the blood of the martyr and worshipping his body. By commemorating his sacrifice, they transform the narrative of martyrdom into a narration of the cohesive strength of the group itself.

We can distinguish two types of martyrdom: passive and active. The former occurs when an individual is compelled to immolate his life to defend the ideal to which he adheres, because he refuses to repudiate his faith or the group’s solidarity. This kind of martyrdom is frequent in both the religious and political fields. Every day language distinguishes the political or civil hero from the religious martyr, but the formal profile of the martyr appears to be the same. The case of the Christian martyrs under the Roman Empire is a good example of passive martyrdom, as important as the other stories of various religious minorities persecuted by a dominant religion. Another interesting example is represented by the stories of the Buddhist monks who burned themselves in protest against the communist regime.

Active martyrdom, on the other hand, is a suicide attack where the act of self destruction is designed to strike a perceived enemy. In passive martyrdom, the violence is suffered; in active martyrdom, it is used to kill both the martyr and the enemy. This second type of martyrdom has attracted much more attention in the social sciences because of its dramatic spread in contemporary society. The martyrdom of a suicide attack (Hassan 2004) has become a modern method of making war within a war context; in many cases, it covers both the religious and political aspects of modern conflicts (Iannaccone & Introvigne 2004; Pace 2004).

We should not forget the ancient roots of the present phenomenon. In the first century BCE, the Jewish Zealots directed a suicide attack against the Roman army occupying Judaea and Jerusalem, and tried to force the Jews to repudiate their faith. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, an extremist sect appeared in Islam – the Shiite Order of the Assassins (so called probably because they used to take hashish before attacking their enemies) – which came up with the practice of suicide attacks, seen as inner world asceticism, as a desperate method of fighting against a much better equipped and more numerous enemy. One of the best known cases of this kind of suicide is the Japanese kamikaze. The kamikaze (from kami, God, and kaze, wind – the name of the typhoon which saved Japan from the invasion of the Mongol hordes in 1216) was, in fact, a soldier (an aviator, to be precise) willing to carry out an act of war, in the lucid awareness that he would die in the process, and exalting in the fact that one man alone, with a single airplane, would be able to inflict heavy losses on the enemy. As is well known, such attacks were widely used by the Japanese against the United States Navy in World War II. Not by chance, those willing to carry out these acts formed part of a special fighting force, the ko geki tai (divine storm special force units) (Axell & Kase 2002). The story of the kamikaze illustrates the relationship between religion and politics, which was intensified by the war context; the more dramatic the political situation, the more the symbolic resources provided by religion to justify the resort to violent suicide attacks.

The issue disputed in the social sciences concerns the relations between the practice of martyrdom in the form of suicide attacks and the core message of a religion. Many references to the high value assigned to martyrdom may be found in the religious tradition. In the preaching of Jesus of  Nazareth, for example, there are frequent references to the figure of a witness who should fear nothing because the Holy Spirit sustains those who cling to their faith even up to the ultimate sacrifice, up to ”death on the cross.” From the second century on, Christian martyrs are those who continue to publicly affirm, in the face of the power of the Roman Empire, their identity and membership of the Christian community even when it entails sacrificing their own lives. This idea of bloody martyrdom gradually tones down as Christianity becomes a majority religion; the figure of the martyr becomes more spiritual, apart from the modern throwback when Christians, and Catholics in particular, were persecuted by intolerant, totalitarian regimes (as occurred in many former eastern bloc countries, for example). Islam also exalts the figure of witness/martyr to the faith as he who, fighting on God’s path, perishes in battle; the reward which awaits him is immediate entry to heaven. Moreover, the minority Muslim Shiite sect (nowadays concentrated mainly in Iran and Iraq) remembers the first two chiefs (imam), Ali and Husayn (the latter was killed in 680 CE in the battle of Karbala), as martyrs of the faith.

The continuity between the original religious doctrines of martyrdom and its modern use, removed from its historical context, has been disputed. Robert Papp has demonstrated, for instance, that the relationship between religious fundamentalism and radical religious traditions in general, on the one hand, and suicide attacks, on the other, is very weak. In support of his view, Papp quotes the case of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, the extremist faction of the Tamil ethnic minority, which claims independence for the northern part of the island. The Tamil Tigers have frequently made suicide attacks on Sinhalese Buddhist political and religious targets, but they are not very sensitive toward religion despite their Hindu background. In this case, religion is simply a marker of ethnic identity, a symbolic resource among others to consolidate the collective identity. In contrast, the reference to a religious discourse is explicit in the case of the radical Palestinian movements (Jihad, Martyrs of Al Aqsa, ‘Iz al Din al Qasem Brigades), linked to the fundamentalist movement Hamas, because of the final goal of their strategy: first, to achieve independence for Palestine and, second, to build an Islamic republic. The same also applies to Lebanon and Kashmir (Martinez 2003). Analyzing all these cases, Papp argues that the martyrs follow a strategic logic for obtaining political and territorial concessions. In other words, the martyrdom/suicide attacks over the past two decades appear to be a means of shifting political power relations and gaining control of entire areas of the territory.

Some contemporary political scientists argue that martyrdom in a war context mobilizes people who are psychologically deprived, living in a permanent condition of social frustration, in poverty and ignorance. They argue that the socially marginalized are willing to be manipulated and indoctrinated by fanatical religious leaders. This explanation is contested by certain psychologists  and  sociologists  who, having examined the evidence of the psychopathologi cal origins of the phenomenon, found no empirical support for it. In particular, psychologist Scott Atran (2002) has pointed out that the active martyrdom/suicide attack is associated neither with mental or psychological ailments nor with the educational and economic deprivation of the individual who agrees to become a martyr killer. According to Atran, most of those who undertook martyrdom training and then committed suicide, killing innocent victims, were not affected by particular pathologies. The choice they made depended more on political and social factors.

As Riaz Hassan (2004) has noted, in the Middle East, for instance, it is far more important to take into account the ”collective sense of historical injustice and social humiliation in which the majority of people are living.” Therefore, individuals may become martyrs and martyr killers when, in their own consciousness and within that of the group to which they belong, martyrdom appears to be the sole means available for achieving several goals at the same time: empowerment versus powerlessness, salvation (in religious terms) versus damnation, and -very important in certain sociocultural contexts – honor versus a sense of humiliation (Hassan 1983, 1995). A United Nations relief worker in Gaza, Nasra Hassan (2001), has reported the findings of a survey carried out in the Gaza strip, involving 250 interviews with aspirant martyrs. The most interesting evidence to emerge from this empirical investigation is that none of the young Palestinians was uneducated, desperately poor, or psychologically depressed. The only explanation Nasra Hassan found was the desperate social disorder caused by the permanent state of war against Israel, a war that throws everyday life into turmoil, creating a pervasive sense of precariousness and impotence.

The followers’ interiorization of the martyrdom model is the result of a sort of intra world asceticism, a moral discipline (which only later becomes technical and military) based on the principle of sacrifice today for reward in heaven, as well as immediate benefits on earth (killing as many enemies as possible). It is, therefore, an act of symbolic violence on oneself to overcome the fear of death and of the horror of consciously putting to death the innocent and defenseless. However, the problem is to discover what religious suicide represents in an environment such as contemporary Islam. Khosrokhavar (2000) and Jiirgensmeyer (2000) have shed light on this aspect. The body of the martyr becomes a sort of medium of communication to persuade other young boys and girls to lay down their lives for a supreme religious and political ideal. The con texts in which this occurs are those dominated by unresolved national issues (such as Palestine, Chechnya, Kashmir, and Iraq), others involving a crisis in a revolutionary project (such as Iran with Khomeini’s regime in decline, at the time of the first Gulf War between Iraq and Iran, 1980-8), and lastly, the forms of transnational martyrdom used by the al Qaida network. From this viewpoint, al Qaida is a movement com posed of defeated movements, veterans from groups that had lost their battles in their respective countries and who thus placed themselves at the service of an International of terror, in an international environment, that of the network of Bin Laden. By planning suicide actions, the leaders of al Qaida thus reduced, with extreme symbolic as well as physical violence, the internal complexity of a system of beliefs such as Islam.

Martyrdom, in this sense, may be seen as a symptom of cognitive dissonance. Paraphrasing Festinger’s   well known   thesis   outlined in A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957), people who perceive the collapse of the social and everyday life tend to come back to religion to compensate for the frustration arising from the acute crisis they are coping with.


  1. Atran, S. (2002) In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  2. Axell, A. & Kase, H. (2002) Kamikaze: Japan’s Suicide Gods. Longman, New York.
  3. Hassan, N. (2001) Letter from Gaza. An Arsenal of Believers. New Yorker (November): 36 41.
  4. Hassan, R. (1983) A Way of Dying: Suicide in Singa pore. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  5. Hassan, R. (1995) Suicide Explained. Melbourne Uni­versity Press, Melbourne.
  6. Hassan, R. (2004) Suicide Attacks, Life as a Weapon. ISIM Newsletter 14: 8 9.
  7. Iannaccone, L. R. & Introvigne, M. (2004) Il mercato dei martiri. Lindau, Turin. Khosrokhavar, F. (2000) Les Nouveaux Martyrsd’Allah. Fayard, Paris.
  8. Jurgensmeyer, M. (2000) Terror in the Mind of God. Regents of the University of California Press, Berkeley.
  9. Martinez, L. (Ed.) (2003) Violences islamistes. Critique internationale 20: 114 77.
  10. Pace, E. (2004) Perché le religioni scendono in guerra? Laterza, Rome-Bari.

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