The high cost of three bullets: how to create martyrs


Indonesia today is celebrating the election of Barack Hussein Obama as President of the United States because of his youthful links with the country. Some other people, in Australia, are waiting to celebrate the execution of the infamous Bali bombers, responsible for the carnage in Bali while others, as the Majority of British relatives of the victims, are still trying to stop the execution and commute it to a life-sentence. I do not want to discuss here whether the death penalty is a just punishment, or efficient, or if, as it actually seems to me, shooting them (instead of using lethal injection) is equivalent to an act of torture. Certainly, to be killed, mutilated, or left to die slowly with metal shrapnel in your body by a terrorist bomb is no less a torture – but eye-for-eye justice is often debatable


The masterminds of the Bali terrorist attack are members of the Jemaah Islamiah (for a more academic article on JI see here), an organisation which the Indonesian authorities think has lost much of its strength, but which actually has still a network in place and may be extremely dangerous. One of the reasons for which JI has lost appeal among extremists and alienated young Muslims in Asia is very much to do with its structure (which appears to be very similar to a ‘mafia’ or ‘masonic’ network). It is not easy to become part of it, and there is a general distrust among the still active members of those JI activists who have spent time in prison. The fact that they are not ready to take risks slow down their actions or actually produce what I call a wave effect. Indeed, the fact that they are not so active now does not mean that the organisation is in disarray, but that their operations tend to need time to produce the maximum impact, like for example what we have seen in Bali. The JI operates in several parts of Asia – like Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia.  

Like many other of these types of organisations, they are very much fascinated with a certain ‘kabalistic’ idea of terror: the attacks should not only be horrific, but carry also a symbolic meaning (particularly the celebration of 9/11 or other meaningful occasions for the members). We have also to understand that the members of this organisation, like those of many others, do not fear death; they look for it. They are not forced, like many soldiers, to reluctantly face eventual death.  They are instead fighting specifically for death. In other words, they love death (not pain of course) because this marks their passage from ordinary men to martyrs. Of course, it would be reductive and quite stupid to think that they ‘love death’ because of the eventual paradisiacal Kamasutra they may be rewarded with, as some commentators seem strongly to believe.  Rather, they love it because to be made a ‘martyr’ means to achieve victory over those whom have tried to defeat you. For a cultural context that I will discuss in another post, death makes you win, to remain alive, lose. The prison is the grave, death is paradise. 

Now we might ask what kind of effects the execution of the Bali bombers may have. I fully understand why the Indonesian government is taking its time. Whomever knows something of JI knows that the execution will have serious side effects, including the fact that they will create three powerful symbols, a powerful date, and revitalise support for JI (and the ensuing recruitment), so that the wave becomes stronger and in future will strike again – but perhaps this time as a tsunami. Yet the international, and particularly Australian pressure, has forced the Indonesian government towards a very difficult decision which will have consequences not only for Indonesia. 

Hence, going back to the main question: does execution work with terrorists and extremists who use Islam (or what I call in my last book emotional Islam)? The answer is clearly ‘no it does not’. Actually putting them to death means to follow their own discourse of symbols and provide them with the reassurance that they will be remembered as the ‘martyrs’ instead of the ‘felons’ they are. Memory can indeed easily become myth, and myths are very hard to deconstruct. Similarly to ghouls in a horror movie, the more they are killed, the more they will reproduce and the more they will believe to be divinely inspired warriors, new (untold) prophets of a future which, in their hands, could be only a nightmare. Indeed JI, like many other extremist violent organisations, is created to destroy rather than to build. They praise violence, killing and death.  Indeed, they love death because in reality they fear life. So, let them live, let them pass their time within prisons and let them become old (and possibly repent for what they have done and feel rightly guilty): the torment of the grave (and prison is often nothing more than a grave) is stronger than the pain of death and surely, in this case, less honourable than a firing squad.

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