Paper: Being a “martyr” (syahîd) in Java today, by Stephen Headley

Being a « martyr” [syahîd] in Java today: a deformation of sacrifice?

Stephen C. Headley (CNRS, EPHE)

Colloque “Martyr(e) et suicide dans l’islam contemporain »

(Paris 6-7 mars 2006, MSH : CNRS, EHESS)

The complete article can be downloaded here: Being a martyr in Java

1 . Introduction.

In central Java on the southern edge of the town of Surakarta (Solo) there in the hamlet of Ngruki is Pondok Pseantren (Koranic school) of Abu Bakar Ba’ashir, the leader of the Jemaah Islamiyah movement, responsible for the four terrorist bombings in Indonesia since 2002. This movement says these bombers are syahîd (martyrs in Arabic and Indonesian). Although in past centuries this term syahîd was used in Malacca, southern Celebes,  Aceh and even in Bali , none of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Javanese anti-colonial holy wars raised in the name of sharia  ever used the term syahîd to describe their fallen warriors . Thus Javanese Islam presents an anomaly . Does the presence in central Java of the Jemaah Islamiyah “benefiting” from the support of al-Quaeda, in anyway explain this important innovation, for instance by the inevitable fragmentation of the umma under the influence of these extremists. If one emerges from the virtual representation of Java in the media, this new use of  the word martyr remains as marginal as ever in Java and there are cultural reasons for this. Such is the position this paper defends.

Outside of one short visit  in 2003 to al-Munir, the Ba’ashir’s madrasah – pesantèn, I had little occasion and even less desire to speak to the young students there. My reticence was  principled. I did not want to give them more important than the media had already managed to do. A subject like the legitimacy of naming a suicide bomber a martyr is ambiguous and is better treated by cultural history and Islamic jurisprudence than with one off interviews with immature students. In a region as exocentric as Indonesia to the historical centres of the Islamic world, comparison must be made not only with the Middle East, but also within Indonesia itself given its demographic importance. Despite formal prohibitions against such terrorist violence by the local Muslim authorities, the local differences in the use of the terms martyr prove to be of first importance. The use of the term in the nineteen-sixties by the Tamil Tigers in Sri Langka, or the Buddhist monks in South Vietnam also show that in each society a certain political “claustrophobia” gives the term martyr its new semantic content.

I am not arguing that we ignore the predicament of the extremists only that anthropological observation of contemporary politicised events is haphazard at best. When an author as competent as Robert Hefner published his book, Civil Islam. Muslims and Democritasation in Indonesia (2000) less than two years after Soeharto’s dictatorship’s collapse, it was the bearer of an immense hope, immediately shattered by the failure of the reformasi movement during the following two years. Rather than exploring these troubled political waters, I believe anthropologists are better equipped to ask questions such as whether Javanese values today are still structured by its socio-cosmology. In other words is Java then a post-traditional society or a quasi holistic one or even a pseudo-holism?

To permit us answer this question, we will focus on the role of sacrifice in the accomplishment of martyrdom. How and what does martyrdom purify? In Java the value of purification historically precedes and encompasses that of sacrifice for the former is both individual and social. Individual by its agent and social by the benefits is brings.

The complete article can be downloaded here: Being a martyr in Java