Middleton asserts that the main points of controversy in deciding who is a martyr are the question of 1) whether or not suicide still qualifies an individual for martyrdom and 2) whether or not one can be martyred while killing (or attempting to kill) others. As both Middleton and the Rick Steves video point out, it’s not even simply a matter of yes or no, but rather based entirely on the context of the death and the interpreting audience. Rick Stevens mentions a number of American heroes who are idolised for laying down their lives for their country and points out the parallel with Iranian-sponsored suicide attacks in which the bombers do very much give their lives for their cause. In fact, Middleton argues that what makes a martyr is more dependent on those who retell their stories as oppose to the actual subjects themselves, as is the case with Matthew Shepherd, whose actual life is little-known, yet many present him and his story as a markedly religious-styled martyrdom echoing the crucifixion.
The image depicting the Martyr Video of Reem Riyashi strikes me in particular, for it depicts not a soul save for the martyr herself. The context of her martyrdom—the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—is familiar to me: her enemy is Israel, her faith is Islam (with her book presumably being the Qur’an), and her cause Palestinian freedom (likely mixed with a fair amount of Islamism). However, if I were an uninformed, utterly ignorant viewer of the image the cameraman would tell me a very striking story that nigh every culture could identify with and idealise. Riyashi stands as a soldier; a warrior-woman geared up with firearm and grenade to fight an enemy—who is this enemy? Well, the utterly ignorant viewer cannot tell, and that is the beauty of the image. Taken just as itself she could be fighting any number of adversaries—Americans, Israelis, Soviets, bandits, renegade robots, aliens or whatever suitable vile thing the viewer’s mind conjures as something so oppressive and horrible that this mysterious, uniformed woman feels the need to wage war against. In one hand she holds a book. Which book? The unknowing viewer (naturally) does not know: but clearly it’s important to her; somehow it’s related to her fight. Somehow it’s worth dying for. Just as her enemies are absent so are her allies: Riyashi seems to stand alone. There is a solemn, fatalistic feel to the image that evokes a very popular story trope in the West: the last stand. It is only the minor details of the image that provide the specific context and that will drive most opinions: replace the Arabic slogans with ‘Liberty and Justice For All,’ the Qur’an (again, this is presumed on my part) with an American flag or bible, and remove her headscarf and suddenly the picture applies to an entirely different audience—one that would have probably been horrified of it as-is.