A book about the story of the 21 Egyptians killed by ISIS and become martyrs. A focus to reconsider religious aspects in geopolitical dynamics

Observations from the reading of The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs (by Martin Mosebach, Alta L. Price, Plough Publishing House, 2019, 272 pages)

A book about the story of the 21 Egyptians killed by ISIS and become martyrs. A focus to reconsider religious aspects in geopolitical dynamics - GEOPOLITICA.info Globalist.it

The Libyan beach West of Sirte is the scenery. The Mediterranean Sea is in the background, it is possible to hear the sound of waves and a tragic event is about to happen: a slaughter perpetrated in the name of the Islamic State against «the nation of the cross». What leads the murderers’ hands is the utopian ideal of reorganizing a global Caliphate, without national borders and able to draw up on the imperialist basis that determines its action, following principles not instructed by a geographical order but imposed by matters first and foremost related to religious membership and capable of establishing themselves in political terms.

There are forty-two protagonists of the scene: twenty-one executioners – jihadists with their faces covered and wearing black tunics – and likewise are the prisoners, Egyptian Copts, forced to wear an orange coverall in order to emphasize the overturning of roles of Guantanamo and U.S. prisons in the global war on terror.

The episode not only concerns Islamic terrorism and the political and communicative strategy of ISIS, it is also part of another religious field: the Christian one, since the twenty-one prisoners were included in the Synaxarion and considered martyrs of the Egyptian Coptic church. The book The 21: A Journey Into the Land of Coptic Martyrs also debates this perspective, starting from the life of each of the twenty-one and defining a profile of the new saints of Coptic Church.

In the video reporting the wicked homicide – edited and broadcast by ISIS through its media centers – nothing is left to chance. The title speaks for itself: “A Message Signed with blood to the Nation of the Cross” and everything follows a meticulous communicative logic that appeals to strongly metaphorical aspects, capable of hitting the observer’s eye both politically and individually. As much of the multimedia production of the Caliphate and its media centers, the video obtained enormous media resonance, first of all addressing potential adherents of the Caliphate and simultaneously its opponents. This is demonstrated by the use of language: the excellent English of the jihadists’ spokesperson and subtitles both in English and Arabic.

The shooting starts: the torturers’ procession escorts the prisoners to the center of the scene, where the tormenters stop and their leader will pass the death sentence, approaching menacingly directly towards the lens; the gaze passes through the bandage that covers his face and the knife he is holding in hand is pointed right against the lens, to disrupt any video camera intermediation between killer and observer, even going beyond any cinematographic logic and in order to represent a threat.

The video is well-finished from a technical point of view, various video cameras are used, and at the end it offers a view that geographically wants to draw attention well beyond the filmed beach, taking the observer’s imagination towards the European context – and the Italian one in particular – and closing with the Mediterranean itself turning blood red. In the spokesperson’s words and in the scene shown there is the verdict of death for the prisoners and Rome is directly threatened, in a war not so much against the Western world as such, but against the Christian world in particular. This is the meaning of the video and its deepest metaphorical message.

What comes next is the cutting of prisoners’ throats, forced to kneel and filmed through a video camera coming closer while they whisper their last prayers. Starting from this scene, the book illustrates the awareness they had in facing death because of their religious affiliation (to demonstrate it, if needed, in the video there is a writing that describes them as “the followers of the hostile Coptic Church”), and it also focuses on the personal story of the Egyptian martyrs. It does it by combining the more truly subjective aspects placing them in a really particular context, the Egyptian one, where the Christian Copts constitute a clear minority. The author, Martin Mosebach, intrigued by the event, therefore decided to get to know it closely, gathering the lively testimonies of relatives and those who knew the twenty-one martyrs.

As a matter of fact the book is a sort of tale, mainly divided into chapters that tell the stories of the protagonists starting from the interviews collected during the journey in the Egyptian village of El-Aour, from which came most of the martyrs, who were migrant workers heading to Libya. The author highlights that, while meeting the martyrs’ families, a word of contempt for the murderers can never be inferred, but much more: a strong sense of belonging and even more a sense of pride of having a saint among family members.

It is worth reporting the story of one of them, since it reveals a heroism hardly conceivable by us, part of another field, and the comment of which here would risk to diminish its scope or, at most, to appear really unnecessary: that is what happened to Matthew Ayariga from Ghana, also a migrant worker and not a member of the Coptic church, who consciously decided to face the martyrdom, wanting to stay close to his companions and witnessing with blood the acquired faith in Jesus, as reported by the author. For this reason, considered the act of heroic testimony with which his earthly experience ended, he has been included in the Synaxarion too.

The effort made in the book is really praiseworthy, most of all to do justice to each one of the protagonists, emphasizing the normality of their lives and even more well contextualizing the entire event in the Egyptian world, where the expression of faith is not a secondary element but rather a decisive, distinctive existential factor, able to create a very strong personal and collective identity. In the Western world, the same martyrdom generally appears to be scarcely understandable, yet it turns out to be an essential element also to better understand the more strictly geopolitical dynamics.

Unlimited – and useless – efforts were made to demonstrate the lack of truthfulness of the video, even trying to question the actual killing of the twenty-one. On the Internet one can find attempts to prove that there is no correspondence between the footprints left on the beach and the martyrs’ feet, that the killings took place elsewhere, that the red of the blood of which the sea is tinged at the end of the video is not true or that the victims’ calm is unrealistic, since they do not rebel against their executioners. Some have supposed that the prisoners were drugged, others hypothesized that the repetition of the scene had induced them not to understand if their time had really come.

Even if it was a main factor in their lives, hardly anyone has instead connected their calm in facing death – martyrdom – with a religious logic: as hagiography reports, martyrdom – to be killed in the name of a faith – is historically lived as a moment of sanctification of one’s existence, as the – unparalleled, if you want – possibility to make one’s life virtuous in an otherworldly and Christian sense. It is therefore only in the light of this indestructible faith that one can fully explain the extreme calm with which they listen to the death sentence – the spokesperson’s words leave no doubt about it – and prepare to die.

Also in this case, there seems to be a kind of underlying short-sightedness on the part of Western media channels, that the book contributes to break down. In the martyrdom of the twenty-one, it makes little sense not to take into account the factor of religious membership and want to demonstrate the fabrication of the killings, moreover considering the level of brutality to which the Caliphate itself has accustomed us, on European soil and in other geographical contexts even using its own media channels: many other heads have been cut off, other prisoners have been executed by burning, and others were killed with firearms and so on.

Having watched the video in its full version, there is no doubt about the violence perpetrated against the twenty-one, entirely and forthright shown. Unfortunately, in this as in other cases, there are no middle ways: killings really happened, based on very clear political-religious categories and on a contrast to the Western world and, as in the point at issue, to the Christian one in particular. It is a persecution that in some parts of the world is perpetrated in a practically systematic way and little, too little, described by national and international media.

Therefore, Mosebach’s work gives us a vivid portrait of an experience and an event that the Western world struggles to fully understand. Anyway, it is possible to understand it just in the light of the journey undertaken by the author, in a place where religious belonging shapes people from their birth, where being a minority means facing a daily struggle, even at the cost of extreme sacrifice, as is well proved by the twenty-one protagonists of the video. This good book has the strong point of taking into account those aspects of religious affiliation that would deserve to be better considered in an all-inclusive analysis of geopolitical issues: as a matter of fact, it would help to better understand the reasons that drove the twenty-one terrorists to kill and the other twenty-one to face, as they actually did, that kind of death, refusing to convert to Islam and to join the Caliphate.

Alessandro Ricci
(Traduzione di Stefano Contini)