In post-revolution Iran, the sacred notion of martyrdom has been transformed into a routine act of government – a moral sign of order and state sovereignty. Moving beyond the debates of the secularisation of the sacred and the making sacred of the secular, this article argues that the moment of sacralisation is realised through co-production within a social setting when the object of sacralisation is recognised as such by others. In contemporary Iran, however, the moment of sacralising bodies by the state is also the moment of its own subversion as the political-theological field of martyrdom is contested and challenged from within. This article traces the genealogy of martyrdom in contemporary Iran in order to explore its institutionalised forms and governmental practices. During the revolution, the Shi'a tradition of martyrdom and its dramatic performances of ritual mourning and self-sacrifice became central to the mass mobilisation against the monarchy. Once the revolutionary government came into existence, this sacred tradition was regulated to create ‘martyrs’ as a fixed category, in order to consolidate the legacy of the revolution. In this political theatre, the dead body is a site of transformation and performance upon which the original narrative of martyrdom takes place even as it displaces it and gives new meanings to the act.
On the morning of 6 December 2005, an Iranian military plane C-130 carrying journalists and Army officials crashed near Mehrabad airport in Tehran. The plane was attempting an emergency landing when it hit a ten-storey apartment block, setting off a big explosion which set fire to the building. In all, one hundred and sixteen charred bodies were recovered – ninty four passengers and twenty two residents of the building – from the smoke and rubble in this working class area of south-western Tehran. The residents were mostly women and schoolchildren who had stayed home – because of an official anti-pollution drive – to avoid a thick layer of smog that had developed over Tehran skies over the previous few days. Dozens of people were injured on the ground and the riot police had to be called in to clear the area of curious onlookers who were blocking the emergency services.
The plane crash was met with grief, guilt and hints of anger. The Iranian media was most vocal in its expression of rage – seventy eight journalists had lost their lives in an instant. The ‘Iran News Daily’, a leading English language newspaper based in Tehran, two days later devoted a full page to the crash coverage including scathing editorials demanding accountability and answers to “disturbing questions” from the government. The editorial entitled ‘Duty and Responsibility’ stated that “condolences are not enough. People, the near and dear ones of victims in particular, have the right to know. Did the C-130 have technical problems? Was it fit for the passenger service? What would have really happened if the flight was cancelled? Who gave the final permission for the journey to go ahead? Is this another case of human error or engine failure? How can such major loss of innocent life be explained, leave [sic] alone justified?”2 Similarly, Hossein Shariatmadari, influential editor of the conservative Persian daily ‘Kayhan’, called for a full investigation, not because it would bring “the dead back to life but (to) prevent repetition of similar incidents and further disasters”.3
As private and public condolences began pouring in – newspapers had allocated prime space for such purpose – President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent a short message through state media that dramatically altered the narrative of grief and anger against the authorities. The message read as follows: “I learned of the catastrophe and the fact that members of the press have been martyred. I offer my condolences to the Supreme Leader and to the families of the victims”. With this message the dead journalists had been officially pronounced ‘martyrs’ – a moral-political subjectivity that traces its genealogy to the martyrdom of Imam Hussein.4 In a single moment, the burnt corpses were no longer the bodies of ordinary victims of a plane crash, but the corpses of martyrs, and their charred remains sacrificial relics.