Neda’s martyrdom is fueled by Western media for all the wrong reasons
by Sabria Jawhar
Neda Agha-Soltani deserves to be a martyr.
She was fatally shot on June 20 during the Tehran street demonstrations protesting the outcome of the presidential election. Her death could galvanize reformists who at the moment are quickly losing steam in their bid to have the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad thrown out.
But the Western media’s fascination with her death is troubling on several different levels. The American media has no problem replaying the brief YouTube clip of Ned’s horrific death on television or providing a link to it. Yet they would never think of airing similar graphic images of an American woman. American newspapers publish no photos and the networks air no footage of dead or dying U.S. soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan. Yet Neda is fair game.
Neda was Iranian who lived and died more than 8,000 miles from the United States, giving readers and viewers some distance from her death. Perhaps somehow this makes her very public death easier to digest.
But even more curious is the West’s treatment of martyrdom and how Neda has become a symbol for the Iranian cause. For probably the first time, Western media is attempting to explain the importance of martyrdom among Shi’a Muslims. Once scorned and ridiculed by Western conservatives as backward, it has morphed into something noble when a beautiful young woman’s tragic death is attached to it.
The West frames this martyrdom in the context that Iranian protesters are dying for the noble cause of rejecting Adhmadinijad’s election, as if the demonstrators are seeking democracy by demanding the overthrow of a despot. Nothing could be further from reality. Opposition candidate Hossein Mousavi is not a reformist candidate seeking to install Western-style democracy. I am not suggesting that I support either Mousavi or Adhmadinijad. The fact is Mousavi’s policies do not differ much from Ahmadinejad. But to the Western media anything that is anti- Ahmadinejad, and that includes the martyrdom of Neda, is useful. The niggling little details of democracy versus theocracy only muddy the message of the Western media’s message that anything is better than Ahmadinejad. They should be careful what they wish for.
What is glaringly obvious, though, is the hypocrisy of the West’s treatment of Neda and the overall issue of martyrdom. The West eagerly portrays the events in Tehran as Iran’s Tienniman Square. It makes martyrdom acceptable. The cause of the Palestinians’ struggle against an oppressive government that has resulted in thousands of more deaths than in Tehran does not get the same consideration.
More than 6,300 Palestinians have been killed since September 2000 at the hands of the Israeli Defense Forces. An estimated 1,200 died over a three-week period during the siege of Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009. Twenty-four Palestinian children were killed in a single day last January. Not one of these people has been afforded martyr status in the eyes of the West. Invariably dead Palestinians attempting to shed the yoke of an occupational force are not identified as martyrs or defenders of freedom, but as terrorists.
Iranian anti-government protesters win the West’s popularity contest because they oppose a bombastic hard-line anti-Israeli president and have a seemingly moderate non-threatening alternative ready to assume office in the form of Mousavi. They also now have a non-threatening beautiful martyr that doesn’t fit the image of a burqa-clad bomb thrower. She’s a martyr, by the way, who wasn’t so much active in anti-government street demonstrations but just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Neda didn’t deserve to die, but if her death furthers the cause of Iranians seeking freedom and fair elections then all the more power to them. Her image can serve them well. But her death isn’t any more exceptional than those 24 dead Palestinian children or the hundreds of other civilians who died in their homes during the Gaza siege.