The End of Martyrdom

Signs of a different kind of promise -- of the birth of self, the will to live


The End of Martyrdom
by Roya Hakakian

February 11, 2010 did not turn out to be the end of the regime in Tehran. But in time, it may prove to have been the end of something even more important for Iranians, and perhaps, for the Shiite culture. It was the end of an ancient love affair with death. It was the end of blind sacrifice -- of martyrdom.

We Iranians have always cherished blood. If there were no fresh supplies to stir us, the old were reliably in our memory. Year after year, the Ashura mourners, grieving the martyrdom of Imam Hussein in 680 AD, passed through the streets, beating their chests -- the clinking of their chains ominously echoing in the air. The few euphoric among them would strike their own heads with daggers. Anyone who drew blood was applauded. The view of the sacred crimson shade dared and inspired others to follow suit. The emergency rooms were always flooded during the holiday.

In 1978, red handprints dotted the walls of Tehran. And what it conveyed to a nation that was on the verge of erupting was far more powerful than any words or slogans. That year, every shirt imbrued with blood was held above the heads of the demonstrating crowds not simply as a flag, but a talisman. We have always worshipped blood.

It was this quality that Ayatollah Khomeini exploited to drag on the war with Iraq, long after Iran had driven Saddam’s army from the territories it had initially captured. “Our leader is that thirteen-year-old boy who straps grenades around his waist and throws himself in the way of the Iraqi tanks,” he declared before the audience that was always weeping in his presence. The leader’s endorsement, and a plastic key to open the gates of paradise, was all that droves of young men needed to step on their own death by rushing headlong into the Iraqi minefields.

Even secular and Marxist groups were bent on this kind of blind sacrifice. In the early 1980s, several of them, a Maoist group named Sarbedaran among them, staged doomed uprisings throughout Iran that could only lead to their imminent deaths and executions, as they did. In busy bazaars and bus terminals in those early years, members of the Islamic opposition group, the People’s Mujahideen of Iran, also staged random, singular acts of protest by shouting anti-ayatollah slogans, then followed with swallowing cyanide pills and dying before the stunned public. Freud must have been looking down upon Iran, pointing to us as “Exhibit A” in his defense of Thanatos.

The national drive for death is a tradition that predates Ayatollah Khomeini. Sacrifice is that primordial mud in which the Iranian psyche was cast. It has been the cornerstone of our literature. The self, the material body, have always been shunned. To annihilate them is, what our best poets suggest, the way to reach the light, the beloved, and, according to some, God. It’s the untranslatable in our celebrated poetry. It’s only the grains of love, not the death that flow through the strainer of translation. It’s that filtered verse with which English speakers are so enamored.

I’ve long contended that Persian, with its hundred ways of expressing the tired Anglo-Saxon I love you, is the language of affection. But what goes unsaid is that 99 of those ways either meander or cut through the idea of death -- of dying for the sake of the beloved. This comingling is why the Persian brand of love is so intense, so rife with all the enchanting marks of legends and fairytales. The sheer focus on the other, the readiness to deny the self for the sake of the other, accounts for some of what makes Iranians so lovable, yet so unprepared for the 21st century.

What is ingrained in the American psyche, the a priori of this culture, was something I finally grasped 10 years after coming to America –that to live life required one to embrace life, not death; that one’s material existence as manifested in one’s body was to be celebrated; that the self was not something to be ashamed of; that the pronoun “I” had a rightful place in one’s prose. On the eleventh year, I applied for U.S. citizenship. On the twelfth, I began to vote. To extend the Descartesian principle: I arrived at self, therefore I arrived at democracy.

On February 11, the regime had armed itself to the teeth, unleashed its thugs onto the streets, and bused in thousands more protesting day-laborers from the far-flung corners of the country into the capital. Tehran was under siege by strangers. They outnumbered and out-powered the peaceful activists. Instead of coming out and protesting, and clearly rushing to their own death as their national inner circuitry would have charged them to, the Green demonstrators kept inert. After all, the migrants would have to return home. And between the births and deaths of the 12 imams -- which Iranians celebrate as steadfastly as the pagan events on the calendar -- there were numerous reasons to take to the streets again in the near future.

When it comes to the Green Movement, there are the grand signs –a million people’s march on the street -- that need no interpreting. But there are also the subtler, the subterranean ones that do. What’s most promising about the Green Movement is its desire to be bloodless, to self-preserve, and its wish to live for a cause, not die for it. This isn’t to say that the movement isn’t facing obstacles -- the greatest being its inability to communicate with its leaders and foot soldiers. Yet despite all the odds, the restraint, the composure by which the Green activists have conducted themselves thus far is both admirable and unprecedented. This surely is no consolation to those who are consumed by the more immediate threats of Iran’s regime. But for those less intoxicated by “yellowcake,” February 11 revealed signs of a different kind of promise -- of the birth of self, the will to live, the longstanding morbid drive disappearing -- the stuff that enduring peace is made of.

From Roya Hakakian's blog on World Affairs Journal.


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more from Roya Hakakian

I have had my problems with

by mullah-kosh on

I have had my share of problems with the editor in chief of this website regarding censorship. I myself am a libertarian when it comes to the 1st amendment. I see speech as totally harmless. This blog has proven I am completely right. I hope somebody sue JJ's pants off. One of these days it will happen. Not because he allows the IR thugs to throw out some of the most offensive terms such as "zio-nazis", and all the trash anti semitic stuff including this shameful threat attacking someone's Iranian-ness because she is jewish; but because if you throw a four letter word that attacks the IR supporters, JJ's little zeinabi sisters come out and exercise their "power". I am waiting for some really strong jewish person to come after this website for its hypocracy.


Lyrical writing, just like

by vildemose on

Lyrical writing, just like your father. I'm a big fan. Please disregard the shameless bigotry of IRI's lackeys.

Far News Reported a few years ago that “In order to extend the culture of self-abnegation and martyrdom, the message of martyrdom will be appended to the school books starting next year” said the deputy of martyrs’ [children’s] affairs in the ministry of education link.

A look at the kind of ideological trigger required to ignite the radical loser - whether amok killer, murderer or terrorist - and make him explode





Fascinating article

by Monda on

Thanks Ms. Hakakian.


End of Martyrdom ??? who are you ??

by tabriz_balasi on

Martyrdom and self sacrifise is values in every culture, you think we can ever defeat IR peacefuly??? do u think they are just going to leave??? you must be kidding me.  unless more people from our side believe in sacrificing themselves for freedom, we will not succeed.  who brought the most attention to the green movement, for you information it was Neda.....Neda is our Martyr, our everything, our love, our passion, an example for us.  just like emam hossein was an example for those who fight agaist oppression.  some of you guys are so many wishful thinkings in you head, but you don't know what you're talking about.

be an act at all times in the name of Allah.


Dying is Easy, Living is Hard

by jigsawnovich on

you told me if you die

you will be a hero.

no, you'll be a number.

dying is easy, living is hard.


respect freedom martyrs.

honor them by living.

carry their demands.

living is easy. struggle is hard.


if you are free/d,

bear witness to struggles.

remember how hard

getting freedom was.


when we become complacent

the subtle crushing starts.

chains that are mental

make freedom hard.


Veiled Prophet of Khorasan


by Veiled Prophet of Khorasan on


I agree with you about the Shah. History has vindicated his actions. But you are being too pessimistic. History has lots of ups and downs. One side effect of IRR is people have opened their mindes. Was it worth it: No I would rather have kept the Shah. But now many Iranians openly seeing Islamists for what they are.

Just read the comments here. For one Islamist idiot there are many more good people. These people are not going away. They are going to be around and will win.


In its dying days, the green movement was exposed for what it is

by amgw4 on

It's really interesting to see things develop. As the 22 bahman protests failed, the true face of the opposition movement emerges:

1. Monarchists like Reza Pahlavi, who demand power for no reason other than their birth.

2. MKO cultists types.

3. People like Ms. Ebadi, Ms. Hakakian and their hyper selfishness philosophies. To give her credit, at least Ms. Hakakian admits she would never sacrifice for others, I only wish Ms. Ebadi and other green leaders would make the same admission.

I wonder what the protesters think when they see what they fought for? You lost personal property, health and posibly your life and for what? A "prince," radical communists and people who are now mocking you for making that sacrifice. khak bar sareh toon.

Ali Najafi

A Reflection on Martyrdom

by Ali Najafi on

Roya, thank you for your piece. I have read it several times and it has caused me to reflect on the concept of martyrdom. When a writer can have such an impact on a reader, it says a lot about her abilities and skills.

I think that the concept of martyrdom has been grossly misused and misunderstood. We frequently hear about it in context of the self-inflicted beatings during Ashura or suicide bombers seeking a martyrs reward. It is often used as an emotional trigger by the clerical establishment and governments. The result is that it has become a competition among the faithful of who can bleed more or die faster.

For me martyrdom is a profound concept. A martyr is someone who stands firm in their convictions and ideals despite the opposition from the society around her or him. These individuals show that regardless of what comes in their path that they are immovable in their beliefs. Individuals with such moral strength have served as an inspiration for mulititudes of people. In some cases these individuals are "living martyrs" and in other cases they rather die than deny their identity and beliefs.

There are two examples that come to mind -- Nelson Mandela and Sir Thomas More. Nelson Mandela endured great trials and imprisonment and rose to be an incredible leader for South Africa (and the rest of the world). Sir Thomas More in the 16th century stayed firm in his belief in the Catholic Church and was killed by King Henry VIII.

Life is a wonderful gift and no one should seek physical mutilation or a pre-mature death. Life is about personal growth. It is through challenges and trials, that we become firmer in our identity, self enlightened, and stronger in our character. In my mind, the most noble individuals are those people that can stay so strong in their beliefs that not even societal abuse or death can sway them. (Examples of Nelson Mandela, Sir Thomas More, and countless others)

As I mentioned, earlier, both "living martyrs" and those that are killed for their beliefs always stand as examples for the rest of humanity, inspiring within us perseverance, strength, and nobility.

Thanks again for a thoughtful article.


Ms. Hakakian is more Iranian than All of the Apologists combined

by mehdi2009 on

Debating with the apologists of the Mullah's Muderous Reigme is a pointless exercise. They have neither the intelligence nor the tolerance to engage in a Civilized debate.

To question someone's patriotism just because they have a different religion than yours is not only bigoted but also asinine, and it shows utter lack of understanding and compassion for ALL Iranians.

As for Martyrdom and dying for a cause, enough innocent Iranian youth died in that idiotic 8 year war to last many of us few life times, and some of us still have nightmares about that.

I would suggest to All of the Apologists of the Mullah's Murderous Regime to board a plane and join their other Lunatic Brothers in Arm in IRGC and Bassij and walk all the minefields in the Iran, Iraq border and clean up that area while clutching their plastic heavenly keys. Talk is cheap, action speaks louder.

We have witnessed enough death and it is time to talk about life.

Salutations to ALL the TRUE Sons and Daughters of Iran.



Iran will be the new Saudi Arabia

by lombriga on

I know that many iranians hate the shah, but he was a necessary evil, he was fighting against the people who are in power in Iran today.

For the Shah Iran was bigger than everything, for Khomeini Islam is bigger than everything.

But the iranians killed their own history when supported the theocracy against 2,500 years of monarchy. OK, the Shah had his mistakes, but if he had continued Iran today would be better than most eastern european countries.

When Shah left Iran he cried because he knew that he would not return to Iran anymore. When Khomeini arrived in Iran and was asked about his feelings he said "Nothing".

The whole world would like to see Iran free again but is too late, Iran will be the new Saudi Arabia.


she is simply a great writer and thinker

by Fatollah on

and I am very proud of her and she makes me proud to be an Iranian. 


Roya Hakakian and Jewish people!

by Arthimis on

To the moron/s who is/are acussing and labeling Roya Hakakian and her likes,

Roya Hakakian and Jewish people in Iran through out their 2500 years of history, I repeat 2500 years!!! are more Iranian and have more Iranian History and Respect for our glorious Persian/Iranian Culture, language and civilization than all the disrespectful Shia's with less than 900 years history of the 1400 years of their unfortunate Islamic ruling in Iran... All the muslims in Iran put together!!! That's a fact and NOT just an opinion!

Now, Take that from an Iranian who was a Shia Muslim once upon a time and of course, by force and NOT by choice...

Free Iran and Iranians.


I appologize to Ms. Hakkakian and all religious minorities

by pas-e-pardeh on

For the despicable comments of amgw4.  Hopefully soon, his mentality will be foreign in Iran.  

At a time when we are crystal clear about what heinous monsters the Islamists are, we should be apologizing to Iranian religious minorities for what they have been through at the hands of these animals.  

Iran is all Iranians' country.  I apologize that we let minorities feel like foreigners in their own ancestral homeland.  I promise to be aware of it and work hard to make sure it never happens. 

Meanwhile, either out of class, or pure love of Iran, she still thinks and worries and writes about Iran.  You are too good for amgw4's Iran.   


Almost every culture has martyrdom in it

by amgw4 on

American culture, Iranian culture, Chinese culture, Russian culture . . . The only culture that believes in absolute selfishness above all else is the immature postmodern Ayn Rand style Jewish culture that Ms. Hakakian seemingly follows.

She grossly misunderstands what happened in Iran. She thinks Iranians refused to fight for the reform movement because they have abandoned their Shiite culture in favor of her selfish philosophy. In fact, they saw that they were being used by selfish people like Ms. Hakakian. They realized they were being used and manipulated by people who were hungry for power, and they abandoned the movement. She also completely misreads American culture when she taints it with her immature viewpoint. She thinks all Americans are as selfish as her, but in fact Americans expect their fellow citizens to sacrifice for their country.

So again - if she does not understand Iranian culture, American culture or anything outside her narrow and childish perception, then why is she writing about it? And again - if pro-Israelis, monarchists, MKOs and gays are a tiny % of Iranians, then why are they 100% of the viewpoints expressed on "Iranian" dot com?

Mohammad Alireza


by Mohammad Alireza on


Wow! I just Googled and discovered what an accomplished women you are! Bravo.

Ever since being back in Iran after years in America I am ashamed to say that anti-Zionism has poisoned Iranian culture and sometimes resembles racism.

Misogyny is rampant and unmarried young women are living in a prison of the mind as well as the body.

Your achievements give hope and courage to all Iranian women.


Mer30 Khanom Hakakian

by Golinedairani on

"چون ايران نباشد تن من مباد" My god I can not believe you can not allow a non muslim to critisize Islam yet you scream about Democracy? Thats where all this attack on Roya Hakakian is coming from, none of you have been able to refute anything she is saying..yet you have an issue with her being Jewish.. no wonder Jews and not Mrs. Hakakian believe we hate them, we disect the author ohhhh shes Jewish well of course it is a negative PLEASE ONE OF YOU REFUTE WHAT SHE HAS SAID ABOUT OUR GLORIOUS RELIGION?  You know what about you generation who has been out of Iran for the last 30 years you have too much freedom but not true democratic understanding, Mrs. Hakakian was raised in Iran and lived in the revolution bacheyeh enghelab bud she saw the things she wrote, and Iranian Jews lived in Iran and experienced everything we experienced yet what they can not critisize.. Khub kardi kardi khanom Hakakian nazar mellate fascist ma ziad asar bezaran rooye neveshtat I used to think we were antisemitic but we are just not evolved.. this the reality, we can never be completely fair if we hate hezbolla in Iran we don't mind it in Lebannon if we hate Islam we can yell about it but one second a non muslim albeit Iranian does we have an Issue ein harfash gerye manteghiye??? its not hamash ba mantegh neveshte.. Ein neshuneye moshkelate ein naslee ke kharej az iranan,, an example they destroyed every green demonstration on purpose in US with their belief they have to have the sheer Korshid flag.... it is my way or not... ENOUGH.. dast vardarin eingadar khod bin nabashin... What is even more rich is that this same generation interprets what my generation wants they interpret your experience haq be kasi be nemidan,,  Yet they  deem what democracy is Yes the green movement is peaceful and yes this is new your are right and this generation will keep it this way, they rape my sisters and brothers, they beat them.. etc even here in US when the green movement was having demonstrations we were always attacked but rarely did they respond non violently and if they did it was after hours of verbal abuse and hours of toheeno tohmat..  You are right our religion is full of blood and martyrdom we unfortunately even call our brothers and sisters who died Shaheed.. with glory yes what they did is glorious but the way they died was not and this should be called the murdered ,,, not the glorious death ,,, Harchi khanom neveshtin sehat dasht.. Mardome ma Jambasho nadaran ke kasi chizi benvise ke eina khodi nadunan


It is absolutely tragic

by Onlyiran on

that our fellow Iranians are depicted as non Iranians simply because of their religion by the likes of this amwg guy.  When are we going to draw the line?  Are we going to tell our Armenian countrymen to move to Yerevan?

What a bunch of racists and / or religious bigots.  These people are like a disease that is eating away at the fabric of our nation.   


Just for the record

by Asghar_Massombagi on

Roya Hakkakian is as Iranian as I am or anyone else who has left Iran and lives outside of Iran.  Jewish Iranians have lived in Iran for more than two millennia, way before Arab conquest and definitely way before the Saffavids adopted Twelver Shi'a.  Only narrow minded people equate Iranian-ness with being a Shi'a; there are millions of Sunnis in Iran, never mind the Jews and the others.  She is not questioning Iran's Shi'a heritage per se; she is questioning whether or not one of its core tenants, martyrdom, should be challenged or abandoned, or whatever.  Superficial, mediocre and CNNish, yes, but don't make a case of her Jewishness.  There are other ex-pats, none Jews, who also make the same arguments.  People who make personal attacks like this, aren't any better than the bigots on this site who call others they don’t like tokhme arab. Never mind that they themselves aren't exactly 100% tokhme Irani but I guess being tokhme fransavi or tokhme englisi is better than arabe malakh-khor .


That's Spicey....amg

by Cost-of-Progress on

amg...this is priceless:

"Iran is a Shiite country, and if you don't like it then that's tough because majority rules in a democracy. And if you aren't Shiite and don't understand Shiite culture then don't write nonsense about it."

Democracy? as in islamic democracy? No such thing.

I'll spare you all the comments of the past 30 years, but islam and democracy do not mix, they can't. Besides...if a democracy, then what's with the VF setup?

Iran is Irani first and foremost.




hamsade ghadimi

now that i know where you

by hamsade ghadimi on

now that i know where you stand, stop talking about israel and gaza on this site and tell your fellow mozdoors to do the same.  you know who they are.  as for my comment about "we", you took it out of context.  in no way, do i think that i have more rights than other iranians based on their religious background or ethnicity.  there are shiites who think differently from each other, same goes for armenians, jews, kurds, .... what i meant was that not all iranians (regardless of their background) go out ghamezani or approve of it.  capiche?


No but keep your beliefs to yourself and speak for your own grou

by amgw4 on

Iran is a Shiite country, and if you don't like it then that's tough because majority rules in a democracy. And if you aren't Shiite and don't understand Shiite culture then don't write nonsense about it. Go write about your own culture.

As I describe below, Ms. Hakakian can best be described as a postmodern selfishness philosophy Jew of the Ayn Rand clique, and that mindset has absolutely nothing to do with today's Iran. Do I go onto and publish Shiite mentality explanations for things Israelis do? No, because I know Israelis don't think like Shiites (and mainly because I don't give a crap about Jewish or Israeli culture and wouldn't read if you paid me.) If only they could do the same regarding Iranian culture.

And if represents only pro-Israeli, monarchist, MKO and other fringe Iranians then it should do the right thing and give up the domain name, because you are presenting a very warped and misleading view of Iranians.

hamsade ghadimi


by hamsade ghadimi on

so you agreed with me on the first sentence.  why stop there?  were you able to read the rest of the post or your brain overheated?  you see most of the mozakhrafs and delusions that you mentioned on your earlier comment comes from you and people like you.  your ad hominem attacks are an obvious sign that you cannot read someone's argument and objectively critique it.  so what if this person is jewish?  are you intolerant to those who have different religious beliefs than you? 


I too dislike misleading uses of the term "we"

by amgw4 on

"i don't agree with many points in the article especially the dramatic generalizations made to make a point (e.g. "we iranians")."

She is not Iranian. She is also not American as she thinks Americans are not willing to die for a cause. "Give me liberty or give me death" is a very famous American quote. The only group which can be argued to have the selfish philosophy she aspires to are postmodern Jews of the Ayn Rand clique.

So why is someone who isn't Iranian, who doesn't represent Iranians and doesn't understand Iranians publishing postmodern Jewish selfishness philosophy as an explanation for what's going on in Iran?

Veiled Prophet of Khorasan


by Veiled Prophet of Khorasan on

Whatever. You and your friends can go masturbate each other's fantasies to your heart's desire.

Why are you so obessed with peoples "payyin taneh". Maybe if you spent more time doing useful things it would help. At least keep your mind off the private stuff.  Ze paybandeh shahvat bedar ay! 


Roya Khanoom

by Cost-of-Progress on

Thank you for this blog. The culture of "Morde Parasti" and the need-to-bleed for Arabs long gone is one of our main problems.

The Islamic thugs and sympathizers need to know that this has NOTHING to do with jews or israel. Stop bringing Israel into everything we talk about.

Also for those who compare - more like confuse - sacrifice for your nation with "sacrifice" for religion....that what I mean when I say: Iran First!




hamsade ghadimi

i don't agree with many

by hamsade ghadimi on

i don't agree with many points in the article especially the dramatic generalizations made to make a point (e.g. "we iranians").  i also believe that the cause and effect of islamic radicalism and khomeini's use of the power of radicalism are confused.  did religious leaders such as khomeini and the ones before him propagated these types of rituals as to maintain a power base and be able to tap into it, or was khomeini the accidental tourist who benefitted from the rituals of iranians who belong to the culture of blood?

the "blind sacrifice" is not unique to iranians and one can readily find examples of defiance, terror, heorism and demogoguery in any nation whether it's the radical christian bombing abortion clinics in the u.s. or the vasque separatists in spain.

ms. hakakian, february 11th was not end of anything other than end of naive hopes of those who thought the entire iri regime will collapse overnight.  just because they wished it.  it's not the end of martyrdom, acts of heroism, or any notion that one puts forth.  february 11th was a continuation of a struggle.  february 11th made a mockery of iri's "independence day" complete with anti-riot vehicles, tear gases, beatings, basijee teenagers and their mentors roaming the street with clubs, bused crowds climbing over each other to get a petty present and food, the epicenter of the iri demonstration so tightly controlled that was not even filled to 30% capacity, people chanting anti russian slogans when the loudspeakers alongside of the streets were hoping to lead the chant "death to america", an effigy (and eventual burning) contest of the u.s. president..... that's what february 11th was.  today is february 23rd and the struggle continues.

needless to say, one need not even read the comments of the pro-iri posters who would not even listen to one's argument.

Veiled Prophet of Khorasan

Iran is 95% Shiite if I

by Veiled Prophet of Khorasan on

Iran is 95% Shiite if I recall correctly.

First of all just because someone was born to a Shitte family does not make them so. I know if they deny being Shiite they get executed. So they pretend to be. You are grossly overestimating the Muslim and Shiite population of Iran. The IRR drove my whole family away from Islam. They have done the same to many others.

My only point is that all these Jewish commentators with an axe to grind should keep their envious and vindictive eyes off of other religions and go attend to their own religion's affairs.

Second: Iranian Jews are as Iranian as anyone. In fact I would say they are more Iranian than Mullah zadehs and trace their lineage much further back. If Islamist minded their own business then other would leave them alone. But since you insist on pushing your religion on other people they have a right to react. And this is just the beginning. Get used to it. You made Islam all our affair. So now we will do a lot more than comment on your brand of Islam.

Darius Kadivar

FYI/Esther's Children: A Portrait of Iranian Jews Houman SARSHAR

by Darius Kadivar on

Veiled Prophet of Khorasan

Re: Roya Hakakian

by Veiled Prophet of Khorasan on


Here goes the voice of Islamist tolerance out of the mouth of amgw4: Oh no. She may be Jewish! 

It is funny how Islamists are always accusing others of being racist or intolerant. But they are not even willing to read a post by someone because she may be jewish. 

Roya jan: please post to your hearts content and you are most welcome. If some bigot Islamist does not like it then that much the better. More power to you.


No she isn't

by amgw4 on

Iran is 95% Shiite if I recall correctly. My only point is that all these Jewish commentators with an axe to grind should keep their envious and vindictive eyes off of other religions and go attend to their own religion's affairs.