"Ask Martyrs to Help You with Your Research": Theo-Political Agency of Iran-Iraq War Martyrs

By Mahshid Zandi
Submitted to Session P6514 (Living with the Dead: Cemeteries, Shrines, and Collective Memory in the Middle East, 2021 Annual Meeting
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
Since the Iran- Iraq War (1980-1988), the official state discourse in Iran have viewed Iranian soldiers killed on the battlefield as martyrs who attained the highest degree of sainthood for the sacrifice they made “in the path of Islam and Allah”. Supported by the official government narrative on the war which portrays it as a “Holy Defense,” a narrative promoted by government-backed ’s military and cultural programs, selected martyrs are commemorated as saints who possess supernatural power to intercede in both the divine realm and this-worldly affairs. In this paper, I examine one such program called Rahian-e Noor which has exploded in popularity in recent years, taking hundreds of thousands on tours to the battlefields along the former frontlines of the war in southwestern Iran. I was told in several instances that I can and should “ask martyrs for help to proceed with my doctoral field research” on the commemorative practices of the Iran-Iraq War and that I should “be sure that they will help”, because it is about them! Drawing on field research at the monumental sites of the Iran-Iraq War in south-west Iran and with a focus on the Islamic theological frameworks on the mediating power of the dead, this paper probes the theopolitical significance of Iranian martyrs' mediating power as well as instances where agency is attributed to the dead. Looking into this state-sponsored view on martyrs’ divine power and agency, I ask, first, how and in what personal and political instances martyrs' interventions are materialized, recognized, or even denied, and second, what theo-political work such interventions do in Iran’s contemporary polity.Through a critical analysis on the fluid nature of Iranian martyrs’ agency and its socio-political implications, this paper also provides further insights into the ways in which the Iran-Iraq War battlefields are both transcended as sacred and transgressed as such.