By Professor Aslam Fataar
And say not of those who are slain in the path of God’s cause. “They are dead”. Nay, they are alive though you perceive it not. (Q2: 154)
This Quranic verse provides one very important way to productively work with the personal, social and political meanings of martyrdom. We should ask how is the martyr alive today?
First, we need to ask permission from the families to speak about their martyred sons and daughters who are burdened by their on – going search for justice.
The answer we give about the living martyrs among us, as the verse exhorts, is the suggestion that they live among us in the ethical sense, in the idea that their death gives life to the higher values and purposes of life: hurriyah (freedom), ‘adl (justice), dignity (karama), and salam, which is the existential condition of peace.
The martyr is alive in the ethical content that we give to our human endeavours. Shuhada or witness bearing forces a productive conversation between the ethical, our commitment to justice, freedom and dignity on the one hand, and our political behaviour in everyday on the other.
The imperative to bear witness impels us to establish a political path towards justice. The political, legal and juridical are democracy’s instruments available for use towards establishing justice in the service of the greater good.
The political engages the contingencies of the here and the now – corruption, state capture, inequality and underdevelopment, and human indignities suffered in the context of large -scale poverty.
The political is the art of the possible, currently given expression in the fight over the vote, and considerations over which party to vote for. Voting is a necessary condition in a democracy, a way of calling in people’s hopes and desires, and thereby giving them a stake in our shared public futures and co-existence.
Politics, however, are always educated by the ethical demands made on it by the figure of the martyr who lives among us and comes alive, even more, in conditions of depravation.
Martyrdom forces our collective imaginary to search for and connect the political to a productive ethical path. The blood of the martyr nourishes such a path and ties us firmly to our search for freedom and peace. This is the litmus test posed by the martyr; the blood of the martyr keeps our feet firmly to the fire. It is only those political expressions that can tie the political firmly, confidently and courageously to the ethical purposes of life, that deserves our vote.
The deathly life of the martyr among us would be wasted on a politics tied to spatial injustice in this city and our country. This is particularly so in the context of this Castle from where colonialism and its malcontents were spread, creating what was yesterday referred to by Ebrahim Rasool as a ‘dar-al-la’na’, an accursed abode.
The blood of the martyr would be wasted on those who support the Zionist state of Israel in its persecution of the Palestinians, on those who trample on the sovereignty of Venezuela, on those who fail to be hospitable to the refugee, on those who fail to challenge gender and all forms of discrimination, and on those who violate the dignity and human rights of the farm worker, the factory worker, and the township dweller.
’Adl or justice comes to fruition only when the political pathway is imbued with the crystal clarity of the martyr who is alive among us, though we perceive it not.
Professor Fataar is a distinguished Professor in the Faculty of Education at Stellenbosch University. He made these comments at the Freedom Symposium, Spice Mecca Ramadan Expo at the Castle, Cape Town, 27 April 2019. His comments came after presentations of family members of martyred heroes of our struggle. They included the families of Imam Abdullah Haron, Steve Biko, Ahmed Timol and Fort Calata. On May 28th, the Imam Haron family will start commemorating 50 years of their father’s death and others who died in 1969. The campaign will stretch from 28 May when the Imam was arrested to 29th September, the day the Imam was buried.