Caravan of Martyrs: Sacrifice and Suicide Bombing in Afghanistan

Caravan of Martyrs: Sacrifice and Suicide Bombing in Afghanistan

by David B. Edwards

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What compels a person to strap a vest loaded with explosives onto his body and blow himself up in a crowded street? Scholars have answered this question by focusing on the pathology of the “terrorist mind” or the “brainwashing” practices of terrorist organizations.
In Caravan of Martyrs, David Edwards argues that we need to understand the rise of suicide bombing in relation to the cultural beliefs and ritual practices associated with sacrifice.

Before the war in Afghanistan began, the sacrificial killing of a sheep demonstrated a tribe’s desire for peace. After the Soviet invasion of 1979, as thousands of people were killed, sacrifice took on new meanings. The dead were venerated as martyrs, but this informal conferral of status on the casualties of war soon became the foundation for a cult of martyrs exploited by political leaders for their own advantage. This first repurposing of the machinery of sacrifice set in motion a process of mutation that would lead nineteen Arabs who had received their training in Afghanistan to hijack airplanes on September 11 and that would in time transform what began as a cult of martyrs created by a small group of Afghan jihadis into the transnational scattering of suicide bombers that haunts our world today.

Drawing on years of research in the region, Edwards traces the transformation of sacrifice using a wide range of sources, including the early poetry of jihad, illustrated martyr magazines, school primers and legal handbooks, martyr hagiographies, videos produced by suicide bombers, the manual of ritual instructions used by the 9/11 hijackers, and Facebook posts through which contemporary “Talifans” promote the virtues of self-destruction. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520303461
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 04/02/2019
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

David B. Edwards is Professor of Anthropology at Williams College. He is the author of Heroes of the Age: Moral Fault Lines on the Afghan Frontier and Before Taliban: Genealogies of the Afghan Jihad.

Read an Excerpt

Caravan of Martyrs

Sacrifice and Suicide Bombing in Afghanistan

By David B. Edwards


Copyright © 2017 David B. Edwards
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96782-3




Nuristan, 1976

As I try to reconstruct the trajectory that has led to this book, my mind returns to the night I was stung by a scorpion by the side of the road on my way to Kamdesh. It was the summer of 1976. I was teaching English in Kabul and had taken a few weeks off to trek with two other young Americans with jobs in Kabul. I was living in a hotel down the street from the school, and Wakil, an Afghan who worked at the hotel accompanied us on the trip. He was taking us to his home in a mountain hamlet near the head of the Kamdesh Valley, in the region of Nuristan close to the border with Pakistan. We had hired a car and driver to get us to the town of Kamdesh, which was at the end of the motorable road. By evening, after an early-morning departure from Kabul, we had made it most of the way to our destination, but when the driver noticed storm clouds ahead, we decided to stop for a few hours. I found a smooth spot on the ground, wadded my jacket under my head, and immediately fell into a sound sleep.

It was still dark when the driver woke us. He wanted to drop us off before sunrise so that he could make it back to Kabul by evening. When I sat up, I felt a sudden, stabbing pain in my knee. The lump inside my jeans felt hard at first, but as I pulled my pants down, it popped, leaving a cold smear along the inside of my calf. I felt a burst of sharp stings, like a million tiny splinters piercing every centimeter of skin from ankle to groin. By the driver's flashlight, I saw the pincers and crushed carapace of a large black scorpion, its innards dampening my leg.

My companions helped me into the Land Rover, cramming themselves into the rear compartment with our packs so that I could stretch out on the back seat. After what seemed like an hour but was probably less, the headlights revealed a sign with a large red crescent painted on it — a first-aid clinic. The driver ran to knock on the door. When he returned he was accompanied not by a doctor or medic but by a man in a large black turban. There was no doctor in residence, so the driver had been sent next door to the house of a mullah, who now looked at me blankly through the window of the car. He opened the door and positioned himself so that he could take hold of my injured leg without displacing the mass of black cloth that wound around his head. Then he started quietly chanting phrases that I later realized must have been verses from the Qur'an, blowing jets of cool air onto my leg and gently massaging my knee and thigh.

At first, even the sensation of his breath against my leg felt like more shards of glass being rubbed into the skin, but gradually the pain eased. After a while, he pulled himself out of the car and told the driver that the pain would soon go away. In fact, my upper thigh already felt better. My knee still throbbed, but the pain was now bearable. Maybe this was because of the mullah, but I also vaguely recall that one of my American friends offered me some antihistamine tablets, and I might have taken one of those while we were driving. At the time, it did not really matter why the pain had abated. I was able to walk without too much soreness by the middle of that morning and managed to continue the trip on foot, with only a short layover in a teashop in Kamdesh.

I did not yet know that I wanted to be an anthropologist, but this was my introduction to fieldwork and the start of a career-long effort to get behind the gaze of the man in the black turban. The next year, I was back home starting graduate school. I planned to return to Wakil's village in the high Hindu Kush to conduct my dissertation research. I knew that it would somehow involve Islam. In the event, my plans were never realized. It would be another nineteen years before I returned to that part of the country, and I would have to look elsewhere for the research project that would make me an anthropologist.

As I was finishing my first year in graduate school, on a beautiful spring day in Ann Arbor, Michigan, news came over the radio that military officers in Afghanistan had killed the sitting president and proclaimed a new state dedicated to freeing the peasants and workers from feudal bondage. Over time, the allegiance of the new rulers to the Soviet Union came into focus, but their message of ending oppression and sharing the wealth never took hold. By summer, the country was in open revolt against the new regime. The match that lit the blaze had been struck in the Kamdesh Valley I had visited two years earlier. The first newspaper reports attributed the violence to anticommunist "freedom fighters" intent on defending their country against communist aggression, but gradually it became clear that no matter who had ignited the rebellion, it was mullahs and other religious figures who had taken charge, and I wondered whether the mullah who had treated my leg was involved. The war forced me to reimagine what it meant to be an anthropologist. The prospect of study in a secluded mountain village was looking more and more distant, but, to a young researcher, studying a war of geopolitical consequence had its own appeal.

As you get older and try to make sense of your life, you inevitably read backward to your starting point. You look for telltale signs to confirm that who you have become was who you were meant to be, and what you have done was what you were meant to do. Buud, na buud (it was and it wasn't) is how Afghans say "Once upon a time." At the time, I imagined my trip to Kamdesh leading me toward a traditional anthropological career of fieldwork in a picturesque locale. Instead, it led me into a war zone and a conflict that continues forty years later, a conflict in which my own country became directly involved and sacrificed many of its own young people. One of them, Army Staff Sergeant Eric J. Lindstrom, was killed in combat near the village of Barg-i Matal, where we had spent a peaceful week hiking and swimming in the river thirty-three years earlier.

Remembering the time before the violence and disruption, searching for pathways from then to now, I started to think back to the sacred words the mullah recited over my leg, words that had the power not only of representing a divine truth but also of conveying it materially, the mullah's breath a slipstream carrying sacred energy to heal an affliction. Until I started working on this book, that memory was not something I thought much about. Now I see that encounter as something irretrievably distant, a connection of a sort that is difficult to imagine in the present. Whether or not he was directly involved in what was to come, the mullah was at the epicenter of a conflict that has reshaped our world, a conflict justified, if not inspired by, the words he recited over my leg. At the time, they were words of healing; later they were turned to other purposes.

There were additional lessons to be learned from that night, lessons that it would take me some time to absorb. One had to do with the enormous gap that existed between the boulevards and pizza parlors of Kabul, the hippie hotels and tourist shops selling off the nation's heritage item by item, and the vast expanse of country beyond — a world of villages without electricity or running water, schools, or services. A representative from that world had gazed down at me on the backseat of that borrowed car, and it was that world that reacted with revulsion and outrage when the Marxist cadres announced that they were going to redistribute land and no longer allow the observance of traditional customs that had shaped rural Afghan society for generations. But, more immediately, what the mullah showed me when he sat beside me in that car was that modernity — in the form of medical care — coexisted in this world with the certainty of miracles, that God's presence in human affairs was not an abstract idea to be reflected on but a force to be reckoned with.

Peshawar, 1984

Anthropology found its footing as an academic discipline in the second decade of the twentieth century, when Bronislaw Malinowski stepped ashore on the Trobriand Islands, set up his tent, and started taking notes. The discipline has changed since Malinowski's day. As the people traditionally studied by anthropologists have been displaced by economic, political, and ecological circumstances beyond their control, anthropologists have refined their methods in attempts to understand the diverse adaptations that humans have come up with to thrive when they can and survive when they must. One methodological response has been multi-sited ethnography, which attempts to capture the reality of people's lives in an era of migration and displacement.

The world is also a more violent place now than it was in Malinowski's time. Or maybe it is simply that, in the past, anthropologists were protected by their color and citizenship from the violence that afflicted the people they sought to study. Between roughly 1965 and 1978, a number of anthropologists managed to produce very good field studies in Afghanistan, with few mishaps beyond blisters and sunburns. I first lived in Afghanistan, working as an English teacher, when some of these anthropologists were still in the field. I entered graduate school with the idea of finding my own remote mountain village to study. With the outbreak of war, however, it became obvious that research of the sort I had envisioned was no longer feasible. Instead of working in a mountain village in the Hindu Kush, I found myself doing my dissertation research in the hot, dusty city of Peshawar, Pakistan, which had become the base of operations for many of the mujahidin parties organizing the resistance against the Marxist government and its Soviet sponsors.

Peshawar was utterly different from Kabul. There were restaurants in Kabul where you could order hot dogs and hamburgers. There were two discotheques, where Afghan couples danced next to expatriate couples, and out on the streets you could see Afghan women with hair uncovered, wearing blouses and skirts with sheer stockings. Women who dressed this way were a minority but not remarkable. The school where I taught was filled every day with young students, boys and girls, who were eager to learn English, and it was not a stretch to see Afghanistan as a nation on the move, a nation where the then rarely questioned promises of modernization were on the verge of being fulfilled.

By the time I arrived in Peshawar in 1982, the city was overrun with Afghan refugees. The population had doubled or tripled, and the vast majority of the refugees were from rural villages almost untouched by the modernizing efforts that had seemed so encouraging in Kabul. Most of the people on the streets wore country clothes. They were almost entirely men, and they had the manners of people unused to city life. When women appeared in public, they wore burqas and huddled together or walked a few steps behind their men. One of the most obvious differences between Peshawaris and Afghans was that the Afghans on the street rarely seemed to move very fast or to be traveling anywhere in particular. Most of them seemed unsure where they were going, how long they were likely to be there, or what to do in the meantime.

As it turned out, most of the Afghans were going to be there for a very long time. My own stay would be shorter, just over two years. I did not know at the time how long the Pakistan government would allow me to remain in country. I had been given a permit by one ministry to do research in a refugee camp, but when I arrived I was told that I would have to apply for a second permit from a different ministry. Not getting that second permit right away turned out to be a lucky break, because it allowed me to set my sights on a more interesting question, though vaguely defined and less clearly ethnographic in the Malinowskian sense: figuring out what the hell was going on in Peshawar. There were presumably any number of embassy analysts and undercover operatives trying to do the same thing, but to the best of my knowledge and for quite a long time, I was the only above-board, academically credentialed (or nearly), independent researcher in Peshawar who was interviewing mujahidin commanders and party leaders, visiting party headquarters and mujahidin training camps.

Perhaps because I was intimidated by the complexity of events in the present, I found myself oriented toward the past, specifically toward understanding the origins of the various Islamic political parties that had set up shop in Peshawar. Some were run by madrasa-educated mullahs, some by the heads of Sufi orders, some by former university students. None of these were people I had been aware of during my two years in Kabul. If I had been aware of them, I would not have considered them likely candidates to be running political parties, and I wanted to understand how it had come to pass that these people were now so much in the news and so clearly in charge; how it was that the war going on nearby was being called a jihad and that all the main actors in it were calling themselves mujahidin (though the American government insisted on calling them "freedom fighters"); and how it was that all these previously obscure leaders were claiming legitimacy for their efforts based on religious principles and aspirations that seemed to have little relationship to the democratic ideals espoused by my government, which was the one supplying them with most of their money and guns.

In a city swarming with refugees and in an effort to understand a phenomenon that we are all still trying to make sense of more than thirty years later, I developed my own fieldwork style, one that was part Malinowski, part Jimmy Olsen tracking down stories for the Daily Planet. It was immediately clear that this ethnographic research was not going to fit any model that I had read or heard about in graduate school. There was no "there" there, or, rather, there were so many "theres" that you could not keep all of them straight. There was no village surrounded by fields, no handful of characters who all knew and interacted with one another and whose interactions I could try to parse and explain. It was probably to my advantage that my graduate program did not require or even offer a course on research methodology. (The faculty apparently assumed that, after having read so many ethnographies, students would have absorbed by osmosis how to do field research — and if they did not have the wherewithal to figure it out, they were probably in the wrong line of work.) I can only imagine that if I had had a set idea in my mind about how to do fieldwork, based on the expectation of studying some well-organized community, I probably would have been overwhelmed by the incommensurability between what I had been taught and where I had landed.

One of the great virtues of anthropology is that it allows its practitioners to make it up as they go along. Other disciplines among those referred to as the social sciences try to conform to the model developed in the natural sciences. Anthropology, at least the variety I incline toward, recognizes that whatever theories you start out with will have to be reconceived as you get enmeshed in the research. The idea of testing a hypothesis is simply unrealistic and naive given the disparate and unpredictable nature of experiences you are likely to participate in, people you are likely to encounter, and events you are likely to witness.

In Peshawar, I set out to meet and interview Afghans whose ancestors had been involved in past jihads. My goal was to find out what Islamic politics had been like before in order to see if I could establish some connections to what it had become. History has always mattered to me — not so much the kind traditionally practiced by historians, which is to say accounts of notable people and events, but rather the stories embedded in history and the social realities those stories revealed. I hoped those stories could tell me about the way Afghans conceived of their own past and how it reflected the cultural values they espoused and the moral contradictions they grappled with.

Much of my first year was spent interviewing tribal elders and the sons and grandsons of Sufi mystics and Muslim clerics who had fought in earlier jihads. In the course of these interviews, the words shahid (martyr) and shahadat (martyrdom) kept popping up, but they were always on the fringes of what we were talking about, terms for the quotidian outcomes and local tragedies of historical battles now overshadowed by current struggles. My immediate concern was piecing together the names and affiliations, the events and chronologies, and trying to figure out how Afghans themselves made sense of the relationship of tribes and Islamic leaders and the state, how they knitted it all together into something like a history, and how that history helped them understand current events.


Excerpted from Caravan of Martyrs by David B. Edwards. Copyright © 2017 David B. Edwards. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Preface xi

1 Sacrifice 1

2 Honor 26

3 Martyrdom 47

4 Virtue and Vice 72

5 Fedayeen 94

6 Suicide Bombing 125

7 Selfics 163

8 The Widening Gyre 204

Afghan Chronology (1964-2015) 217

Notes 221

Glossary 239

References 245

Index 255

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