Caught between Heroization and Victimization. Idealized Masculinities in Modern Iran

A seminar with Dr. Olmo Gölz.

Since the Islamic Revolution of 1978/79 and the subsequent Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), the cult of martyrdom has been established as an integral part of the ideological core of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Certainly the male martyr who died fighting for Islam and Iran stands at the top of an imagined scale of heroism, and as a prototype hero, he has a huge impact on the gender order in contemporary Iran. At first glance, this seems to be sufficiently explained by the Shiite orientation of the system since the mythological reference point for Shiite Islam is to be found in the concept of martyrdom itself. However, the concept of the martyr not only hints in direction of heroism but also to the notion of the victim. Essentially, the invocation of martyrdom discourses leads to the reinterpretation of a victim as a winner and hero. Although it is a central aspect of all conceptions of martyrdom that the martyr dies willingly and consciously, the narrative encompassing that message must also always insist that things could have gone differently and that in a better world, the martyr would have survived. Hence, in reference to the ambiguous dimensions of martyrdom, the martyr is always framed in a discourse in which they are on the one hand granted agency (the ‘counter-power’ of letting oneself be killed) and that simultaneously underlines their victimhood. This in turn raises questions about the self-perceptions of those societies that make active use of the concept of martyrdom. Against these theoretical reflections, my lecture aims at rethinking the positivistic statement that the persistent cult of the martyr in Iran is sufficiently explained by references to the Shiite essence of the Islamic Republic. In discussing the emergence of discourses on the common man (or lutis) in Iranian politics during crucial episodes of 20th century Iran as well as the heroization of the downtrodden man (mostazafin), I will show the interdependencies between (self-)victimization and heroization and how the exaltation of both individual sacrifice and victimhood had been transformed into the cult of martyrdom as collective heroism. Accordingly, not only the full social impact of the concept of martyrdom but also the formation of the concept itself can be understood against the backdrop of idealized masculinities in 20th century Iran.

Dr. Olmo Gölz completed his PhD at the University of Freiburg in 2017, discussing urban violence and configurations of masculinities in his thesis “Racketeers in Pahlavi-Iran – Violent Entrepreneurs and the Gendered Meaning of Protection”. He lectures in Islamic and Iranian Studies at the University of Freiburg and is a principal investigator in the group "Masculinities" within the collaborative research center on "Heroes – Heroizations – Heroisms". Currently, he is working on dynamics of the heroic in the Iran-Iraq war and the topic of martyrdom in Muslim societies.

Published May 15, 2021 11:55 PM - Last modified Aug. 2, 2022 2:02 PM