martyr1 To die for something you believe in. That is perhaps the most noble of all human endeavors.

Seeking martyrdom on the promise of a "get out of hell free" card. That is perhaps the most idiotic of all human endeavors.

Martyrdom is one of those theological Catch-22 situations.

On the one hand, who wants to deny paradise to a believer who has given his or her all to the cause of their particular brand of religion? On the other hand, unless you have some other political agenda at work, you don't want to encourage people to go die either.

The theological quandary is deepened by the fact that there are ALWAYS political agendas at work.

The idea of the martyr has always been around (the word is Greek for "witness," its modern meaning dates to the Christian era). After all, it's a general rule of life that if you find someone minding their own business happily believing whatever, you can quickly find someone else who wants nothing more than to fuck it up.

While in ancient times, people were frequently called on to die for their beliefs, it was generally just referred to as "dying." Heaven and Hell were not advanced concepts in the pre-Christian world, at least not in terms of a potential reward or punishment for your behavior on Earth.

martyr2 Christianity, however, was born in one extremely high-profile act of martyrdom. The religion is predicated around the concept of triumphing over death. And for the first two or three centuries, Christians lived under the constant threat of death by crucifixion, the same method employed against its founder.

It only stands to reason that under such circumstances, the concept of dying for one's religion had better count for something. The problem was that the early Christians were expecting the Apocalypse to come at any moment, with its attendant glorious resurrection of all those who had been killed. When several decades passed without any sign of said ressurection, a new justification for martyrdom had to be developed, and pretty damn quick.

By the fourth century of the Christian era, the original, very simple expectation that one just naturally died on behalf of Jesus Christ had fully metamorphosed into the idea of martyrdom, in which dying for one's faith was not just a duty but an honor and a privilege. At the same time, the martyr club was becoming more exclusive, as the Christians finally overtook their Roman persecutors and laid claim to political power.

For Catholics and many Christians, martyrdom is considered a free ride to heaven under canon law, a stipulation which is increasingly kept under wraps in light of current events. Every religious movement known to man has seen its adherents suffer and die for the cause, but Christianity and Islam are the two major religions that offer this ironclad guarantee of eternal bliss. Martyrdom even wipes the slate clean of previous major sins, including lust, gluttony, sloth, the whole array.

These religions do not extend the benefit of martyrdom to those whose beliefs differ from their own, for instance the Cathars, who were martyred at the hands of the Catholic church, but people have a tendency to die for their beliefs even without a formally sanctioned incentive.

Islam raised the art of martyrdom to a whole new level.

In Islam, there is a built-in theological basis for martyrdom that trumps most previous belief structures. Islam, especially in its fundamentalist branches, includes a dramatic element of struggle. Fundamentalist Islamists believe that they have a moral obligation to jihad, which they define as a war to create Islamic nations and expand the scope of the religion using force. (Moderate Muslims do not see jihad in the same light.)

martyr3 According to the fundamentalist view, martyrdom is the highest privilege of Islam, with its attendant rewards. Charismatic fundamentalist leaders have long recruited soldiers who would fight to the death on the promise of heaven. The view of heaven promulgated in this context is a much more carnal and appealing concept than the Christian harp-playing eternal chastity-fest, including mystical sex toys and an eternity of Allah-sanctioned carnal bliss.

The earliest incarnations of Islamic martyrdom as a weapon for effecting political change came in the form of the Assassin cults of the 11th century, which were mystical offshoots of mainstream Islam. Assassin leaders used hashish and brainwashing techniques to condition their disciples to follow any order given by their spiritual leaders, no matter how insane or suicidal. The Assassins demanded and received the sanction of many Islamic leaders by virtue of these lethal footsoldiers, who were practiced in the arts of deception and assimilation. They could blend in with virtually any culture, even to the point of being formally excused from the usual dietary and moral requirements applied to normal Muslims.

The techniques and theological trickery of these original Assassins is still in use today, most notably by international terrorists such as Osama bin Laden and Hambali, who goad their followers into death with promises of eternal frat parties. The organization and underlying concepts that fuel Suicide Bombers working for groups like al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiah are directly descended from the Assassin cults.

Many people comment derisively about the jet-setting playboy lifestyles of terrorist superstars like Ramzi Yousef, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and the 9/11 hijackers, but when viewed in the context of the Assassin cults, these behaviors are completely understandable. In the interests of infiltration, the Assassins allowed virtually any behavior by its advanced operativcs. And with the promise of instant salvation at the moment of martyrdom, well, let's just say the motivation to live a pure and chaste life drops off considerably.

laden100701 But the most serious flaw in the concept of martyrdom is that it makes you a patsy for unscrupulous and insincere religious leaders who just want to get you to do something really moronic which will somehow advance their agendas. The ancient Assassins were definitely victims of this syndrome; modern-day terrorists are also highly susceptible to this problem, although it's sometimes tricky figuring out whether a guy like bin Laden is sincere or not.

"I have some Florida real estate that you might be interested in. You pay me now, and I promise I will give you the land in the world to come." You see the problem here. If you're convinced that you will be rewarded after death for doing something suicidal in life, you're just begging to be taken advantage of.

The Better Business Bureau has not been able to verify conditions after death. So if you're buying into a line of goods that involves only posthumous rewards, just remember that there will be no opportunity for refunds or exchanges. Not even if you keep your receipts.

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