ISIS Doesn’t ‘Get’ Martyrdom

Just as the examples of the early Christian martyrs proved inspiring, the group’s brutal killings of its hostages are steeling the backs of its enemies.

02.08.15 11:45 AM ET

This week Jordanian pilot Muadh al Kasasbeh was brutally executed by ISIS. A highly produced video released by the group on Tuesday showed al Kasasbeh dressed in orange and held in a cage. His clothes appeared to be doused in accelerant. A man is shown setting a stream of liquid alight and the fire travels to the cage.

The response to this act of pure barbarism was immediate. Jordan immediately announced that there would be a “strong, earth-shaking, and decisive response” to the act. The King of Jordan has called al Kasasbeh a martyr—a particularly strong statement coming from a man believed to be a direct descendent of Mohammed himself.

ISIS makes a point of publicly advertising their appetite and enthusiasm for extreme cruelty. In addition to the horrifying beheadings of kidnapped foreigners, the mass executions of captured soldiers, and the stoning of adulterous women, ISIS has added showy spectacles of throwing gay men off of buildings. All of these activities have been carefully documented and played to the world. The message is clear: ISIS gives no quarter and eschews human rights. Their tactic is a display of power and an attempt to intimidate their audience.

In the case of al Kasasbeh, however, it seems that ISIS has gone much too far. The group was trying to apply pressure on the Jordanian government both to release jihadists and to retreat from military engagement in Iraq, and perhaps they thought they could rely for support on those in Jordan who had already criticized King Abdullah’s military ties to the US. But it is already clear that this tactic was misguided.

Instead of protests for losing a son from an influential tribe, King Abdullah received an unusually warm welcome in Jordan when he returned from his visit to the U.S. on Wednesday. In Cairo, even more notably, Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand Imam of Al Azhar Mosque, one of the most influential among Sunni Muslims, described the Islamic State as “diabolical” and pointed to verses in the Koran that forbid the burning of enemies in war.

With its cruel immolation of al Kasasbeh, ISIS has not created fear and awe; it has created a martyr in the most historic sense of the word.

ISIS could have learned from the Roman persecution of early Christians that extreme barbarism doesn’t pay. The Romans were enthusiastic believers in the spectacle of cruelty. In the arena, gladiators fought and criminals were killed in a manner that was debasing, dehumanizing, and very public. While spectators sat high up on stone benches, criminals fought wild beasts on the sand. Like burning someone alive in a cage, this was a ritual that was designed to humiliate the condemned and leave an indelible mark in the memory of spectators.

When the Romans turned their attention to the persecution of Christians, although they did not do it constantly or regularly before 250 AD, when they did so it was with great cruelty and greater publicity. But, as it turned out, exposing young girls to wild animals and covering them in burning tar didn’t work. This was in part because the Christians refused to play ball. Rather than fighting the wild beasts, screaming, or begging for their lives, they prayed, sang hymns, and calmly embraced death in the confidence that they were going to heaven. To ancient audiences the nobility with which Christians met their maker was inspiring.

What is true of early Christians is true also of Jews, Reformation-era Protestants and Catholics, Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists. When cruel and unusual treatment meets sincerely held faith, it is the dominant power that comes off worse. Ancient, Medieval, and Reformation Christians did not have videotape, but the widely distributed stories of the martyrs—which frequently included highly graphic descriptions of torture and death—advertised the immorality of the persecutors to the broader public. As Professor Meghan Henning of the University of Dayton told me, “In antiquity vivid description was not just a literary device; it was a powerful rhetorical tool that would inspire people to action by appealing to the emotions.”

Even in the case of the execution of Saddam Hussein, a man almost universally despised, the fact that his executioners jeered at him in his final moments elicited compassion. ISIS has tried to use the modern appetite for visual images to spread their propaganda, but they will learn, as others have, that this will not further their cause. It is for this reason that the U.S. and Jordanian governments are right not to have released pictures of the bodies of Osama bin Laden and the recently executed jihadists, respectively.

But ISIS may be learning. On Friday, the group announced that the last American hostage they were holding, a 26-year-old female aid worker from Arizona, had been killed in a Jordanian air strike. Her death has not been confirmed. It’s possible she was killed as they claim, but it’s also possible that she had been executed earlier. ISIS’s claim that she was killed in a Jordanian “revenge” air strike for al Kasasbeh’s death could be a ploy to win back some sympathy in the wake of the pilot’s murder.

Barbarism horrifies. But making martyrs of one’s opponents never wins the battle for hearts and minds. It only intensifies opposition, polarizes the undecided, and provokes righteous and justified anger. The North African Church father Tertullian proclaimed that “the blood of the martyrs is seed” for the Church. His prediction turned out to be correct. Martyrdom breeds not fear and obedience, but more martyrs. The only contest that ISIS have a chance of winning is the race to be the most ignominious regime in history.