What exactly is a “martyrdom video”?

haramain 1On the terrorism beat, the big news of the day is that the phrase “martyrdom videos” is showing up in almost all of the leads written about the developments in London.

Click here for the New York Times take on this and here for the Los Angeles Times’ story, written by Kim Murphy. That story begins this way:

LONDON — In the first unveiling of evidence in the alleged plot to down U.S.-bound airliners, British authorities said Monday that their searches had turned up “martyrdom videos,” suicide notes, bomb-making equipment and maps.

The evidence, offered to bolster charges filed Monday against 11 suspects, hinted at a trove of material and leads yet to be examined. … But less than two weeks after arresting two dozen suspects, British authorities have faced increased skepticism from the public. In particular, many of Britain’s estimated 1.5 million Muslims have been angered by previous roundups, including two in which suspects were shot, that failed to uncover adequate evidence of terrorism.

I’ve been working my way through some of the coverage and I have a rather basic question. I get the idea that “martyrdom videos” are multimedia suicide notes, meant to played on television after a bombing so that the bombers can explain why they did what they did.

That’s well and good. But what is in these videos? What are some of the doctrinal points made by the bombers, in order to justify their actions? Do they quote the Koran? What passages?

I ask this for a simple reason. The concept of “martyrdom” seems to be a point of debate among Muslims — with serious questions being asked about the moral status of those who kill the innocent. In Christian tradition, a martyr is someone who dies rather than deny their faith. I am not aware of any cases in which a Christian was declared a martyr for an act in which he or she died and, in that death, killed other people. In other words, one does not become a martyr by setting out to kill other people.

But if you do a basic search online, you’ll find all kinds of conflicting materials about this basic question in Islam. This makes me think that this would be a valid issue to explore in a news story or two, especially if newspapers around the world are going to toss this term around in their leads.

By the way, Muslim leaders in Britain are raising questions about these videos and some of the “bomb-making materials.” Note this section of the Murphy report, quoting Mohammed Khaliel, identified as “a spokesman for a mosque in the town of High Wycombe, which several of the suspects attended.”

“Hydrogen peroxide you can easily buy anywhere; you can buy it across the counter without any documentation,” he said. “And if you were going to actually make something that could damage things, you would need a huge quantity,” he added. “It would be unlikely someone would be carrying a drum of it onto a plane.”

He also said he believed some of the evidence attributed to the alleged bomb plot may have included material that suspects allegedly downloaded from the Internet. “These young people may very well have downloaded videos off the Internet. That’s not necessarily what it’s portrayed to be,” he said.

Once again, this is interesting. So the people who are part of this alleged plot were downloading “martyrdom videos” for some inspirational purpose? Was that part of an educational effort linked to a mosque? Martyrdom 101?

Lots of questions. I hope we get to read some fair-minded and accurate debates that point us toward some answers.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Larry Rasczak

    Don’t want to hijack the thread, just a quick technical point.

    I studied improvised demoltions at one point in my life, (yes I have had a very odd life). Mohammed Khaliel’s statment about hydrogen peroxide (that “…if you were going to actually make something that could damage things, you would need a huge quantity,” ) is simply not factually or chemically accurate.

  • Bob

    I think the best way to explain the difference between Christians and Moslems is to compare the idea of “martyrdom”. If I am a Christian martyr, I die. If a Moslem is a martyr, I die. Any questions?

  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    The word martyr has an interesting history that sees the evolution of a word. The Greek word martyrios originally meant a “witness”–the replacement for Judas in the NT book of Acts was a martyrios of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and a martyrios of the teachings and ministry of Christ. The word takes on a new meaning, it seems, when Stephen was the first martyrios to die for the name of Christ.

    I would want the question answered whether there is a comparable concept in Islam–or is this again laziness on the part of journalists to accept passively what others pass on and not look too much deeper?

    A question for Larry Rasczak: Could you please elaborate why the imam’s assertions are incorrect?

    As for usage of the Koran in sermons and such, when I attended seminary we were taught that proper homiletical style dicatated citing Bible proof passages in the sermon. I havn’t seen anyone report the details of any Imam’s sermon or declarations, much less whether they actually cite the Koran or not.

  • Larry Rasczak

    A question for Larry Rasczak: Could you please elaborate why the imam’s assertions are incorrect?

    Well, I’m not going to do a “bomb building 101″ lesson here. I can say this.

    Hydrogen Peroxide is very chemically active. How active? Well for one thing it is used as a rocket fuel. Specifically a hypergolic rocket fuel, and as we all know, chemically intert stuff does not a good rocket fuel make.

    For the sake of you that actually had dates in High School I will continue. A hypergolic is a fuel that spontaneously ignites when two components come into contact with each other. This means that you don’t need a starter or a spark to make the stuff ignite, you have an absolute guarantee of ignition, even in the cold vaccum of space. This has obvious advantages if you are on the moon and 250,000 miles from the nearest repar shop.

    I know off the top of my head that Hydrogen Peroxide is used in a couple of thruster designs. I think there is one that involves silver in some form, and (I could be wrong about this) I think it may have been used in the Apollo program. Not the Saturn V (that was LOX- Kerosene for the F-1 engines in the first stage and LOX Hydrogen for the J-2 engines in the second and third stages) but I think it might have been used in ascent engine of the LEM. (Why you would want a hypergolic engine when doing your burn to lift off the Moon is obvious… but I can’t lay my hands on my source material right now to confirm this, so I could be remembering this wrong.)

    I think it is used in the RCS thrusters of the shuttle too… but I am off topic.

    (Yes, I ate WAY to many “Space Food Sticks” as a child, and I CAN name the Orignal 7 astronauts from memory….)

    In any case, I know specifically that you can use a mix of Hydrogen peroxide and aniline as a hypergolic rocket fuel. (Analine is a colorless, oily, poisonous benzene derivative, used in the manufacture of rubber, dyes, resins, pharmaceuticals, and varnishes.)

    Now, if you were to… say go into the lav of a 747 and pour two hypergolic rocket fuels down the sink, causing them to ignite within the plumbing of the plane and the restroom…you would not need “a drum of it” to “damage things”.

  • Larry Rasczak
  • Judy Harrow

    As I understand the current Muslim use of the word “martyr,” it means somebody who does some action that will surely lead to his or her own death because it will also cause the death of some number of the designated enemy.

    OK, this is not a Christian example, but the earliest such story that comes to my mind is in the Hebrew Bible, which is antecedent to, and usually considered part of, Christianity. I am thinking of Samson pulling down the Philistine temple on his own, and other people’s, head.

    I was taught as a child that Samson’s action was praiseworthy.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    I heard a broadcast from the Pakistani overseas news service (apparently), which, after relating how “civilians were martyred” by Indian fire over the Line of Control, reported that a Pakistant military helicopter had been destroyed by an ACCIDENTAL crash, and then recited the list of the crew who had “accepted martyrdom”. (shahddat). I feel that I was missing something there.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    That should have been shahaddat.

    Oh, and there are Walter Martin’s polemics questioning whether Joseph Smith could be a “martyr”, on the ground that he shot back.

  • Lamar

    The Arabic word for martyr, shaheed, also means “witness.” This could be someone who bears witness in a court. The word is also overused for any Muslim who dies in any war, as well as accident victims of almost any sort. So, it is a word and concept that is much more common in their lives than our word martyr in English.

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