Authored by: Paul Middleton

The Routledge Companion to Death and Dying

Print publication date:  May  2017
Online publication date:  May  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138852075
eBook ISBN: 9781315723747
Adobe ISBN:


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Martyrdom is a contested term, difficult to define. Until recently, the martyr was generally perceived to be a figure of outstanding bravery and commitment to his or her cause. Martyrs were commended as the ideal type of believer, who when confronted by powerful adversaries, or the apparatus of a hostile State, choose to lay down their lives rather than compromise their faith. However, since the attack on the Twin Towers in 2001, the martyr is more likely to provoke suspicion and fear than inspire admiration, as martyrdom has become more associated with radicalism than heroism in the modern imagination. While in the past, martyrdom might have convinced even the most hostile observers of the credibility of a cause, since 9/11 and other similar atrocities, people may be more sympathetic to Oscar Wilde’s quip that “a thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it!” (Wilde 1997: 231). While suicide attacks are most commonly associated with strands of contemporary Islam, the mode has been employed throughout much of the twentieth century for both religious and secular causes (Gambetta 2005). But who can be called a martyr?

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