Ideologies and Blood Sacrifice
In his lecture, “Martyrs: The Building Block of Nations,” Sheikh Abdullah Azzam—a revolutionary Islamic leader who influenced Bin Laden—presents a theory of history. History, Azzam explains, “does not write its lines except with blood.” Glory does not build its lofty edifice “except with skulls.” Honor and respect cannot be established “except on a foundation of cripples and corpses.” The Muslim Ummah continues to exist, Azzam says, by virtue of the “blood which flows as a result of spreading this divine ideology.”
Similarly, Ali Benhadj—leader of the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front—states that a faith becomes real to the extent that one’s belief is “watered and irrigated by blood.” Principles must be reinforced by “sacrifices, suicide operations and martyrdom.” A faith is propagated by “counting up deaths every day—adding up massacres and charnel houses.” Since the purpose of death and martyrdom is to confer truth upon one’s ideology, it “hardly matters if the person who has been sacrificed is no longer there.”
According to the theory of history presented by these Islamic radicals, ideologies come alive to the extent that people are willing to kill and to die for them. The “truth” of a faith or belief system is founded on the blood that flows in the name of that ideology or belief system.
These ideas relating ideology and the flow of blood echo the theory of Carolyn Marvin, who states that “blood sacrifice creates the nation.” What is really true in any society, Marvin says, is what is “worth killing for, and what citizens may be compelled to sacrifice their lives for.” In the West, people “die for the country.” Azzam and Benhadj advocate martyrdom for the sake of the Ummah—the Islamic community.
Marvin’s theory grows out of her study of American politics and history. Yet her understanding of the relationship between ideology and sacrificial death is identical to Azzam’s theory, which claims that “history does not write its lines except with blood,” and that of Benhadj, who states that a belief becomes established only to the extent that it is “watered and irrigated by blood.”
We may broaden this theory. Perhaps—in the domain of politics—sacrificial death functions as a mode of validation. Ideas come to be believed as true to the extent that human beings in societal groups are willing to die and kill for them. As Franco Fornari puts it: “The ideas for which we die must be true—because death becomes a demonstrative process.”
Recent issues of this Newsletter have interrogated the meaning of that episode of societal mass slaughter we call “The First World War.” What was going on? Why would political leaders ask young men to get out of trenches and run into machine gun fire and artillery shelling for four years (1914-1918)—resulting in 9 million dead and 21 million wounded? Perhaps the theories of these Islamic radicals provide a clue.
As Azzam and Benhadj were enamored with the idea of sacrificial slaughter, so did a number of Western political commentators look favorably upon the deaths of soldiers during the First World War. P. H. Pearse—founder of the Irish Revolutionary movement—was thrilled to observe the carnage (cited in Kamenka, 1976):
The last sixteen months have been the most glorious in the history of Europe. Heroism has come back to the earth. It is good for the world to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefield. Such august homage was never before offered to God as this—the homage of millions of lives given gladly for love of country.
As Benhadj states that a belief must be “watered and irrigated by blood,” so Pearse claims that it is good for the world to be “warmed with the red wine of the battlefield.” Benhadj says that faith in Allah is propagated by “adding up massacres” and “counting up deaths every day;” Pearse understands the death of millions of soldiers as a form of “august homage”—an offering to God and country.
Sacrificial death (slaughter), in short, functions as a form of validation or verification. The production of blood—of cripples and corpses–brings an ideology into being—brings it alive. One may call the sacred ideal—in whose name dying and killing occur—Allah, or the Muslim Ummah, or (the Christian) God, or the country. Regardless of the entity for which people die and kill, in our hearts, the dream remains the same.
In a similar vein, French nationalist Maurice Barrès had this to say (in The Undying Spirit of France, 1917/2009) about his nation’s soldiers who were dying daily during the First World War:
Oh you young men whose value is so much greater than ours! They love life, but even were they dead, France will be rebuilt from their souls which are like living stones. The sublime sun of youth sinks into the sea and becomes the dawn which will hereafter rise again.
Barrès gushes over the deaths of French soldiers. The fact that they have given their lives for France means that their value is greater than the value of ordinary citizens. Based on the souls of these young men, “France will be rebuilt”: blood sacrifices create the nation. Sounding like an Aztec priest, Barrès claims that the “sublime sun of youth” sinks into the sea and becomes the “dawn which will hereafter rise again.”
The “stones” mentioned by Barrès evoke headstones—the memorials of the First World War—that served to commemorate soldiers who had died in battle. Even before the war ended, the French government (as well as governments of many other nations) began creating enormous, elaborate cemeteries. The French lavished meticulous care upon these cemeteries—showing much more concern for the lawns with their elaborate rows of crosses—than they showed for the young men whom they carelessly and promiscuously threw into battle.