David Edwards analyzes transformation of martyrdom in new book

Professor of Anthropology David Edwards’ office on the third floor of Hollander Hall is adorned with artifacts from his travels over the last 40 years to the Middle East and South Asia, his areas of expertise. His latest book, Caravan of Martyrs: Sacrifice and Suicide Bombing in Afghanistan, studies the culture and history of sacrifice in the region.

“The point of this book is to show the historical evolution of this phenomenon of sacrifice in a culture that I know very well and have spent a lot of time in,” Edwards said. “It’s a culture where, when I first went there some forty or so years ago, the notion that people would blow themselves up would be unimaginable. How did we get from there to here? That is the genesis of my inspiration.”

Caravan of Martyrs begins with a feud story that Edwards recorded in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1984, told by an old Afghan refugee. The man tells Edwards of a bloody feud between two rival clans. In the midst of this feud, one of the sides decided to sue for peace and brought a sheep to the offending side as an offer of sacrifice. Here, Edwards points out, is a situation where sacrifice was used as a mediator and a peacemaker. Edwards said that sacrifice in Afghanistan is traditionally used as a way to express gratitude to God. The book then explores how this notion of sacrifice has been so disfigured into the suicide bombings of today.

Edwards said that he has already used the research conducted for Caravan of Martyrs in both of his classes this semester. He also points out that many of the anthropology classes he has taught in the past dozen or so years have actually informed this book.

According to Edwards, some of the readings that he refers to in Caravan of Martyrs are ones that he originally encountered when preparing for classes at the College that dealt with topics such as violence and ritual transgression.

He points out that this book embodies his efforts to write something that would be accessible not only to scholars of his field, but also to the undergraduate demographic, and even had certain undergraduate students in mind when writing his book. However, the book is also intended to be understandable for the general public: “I figure that a smart undergraduate is the same thing as a smart adult, so if the book is accessible to an undergraduate student, it’ll be accessible to a general reader as well.”

Edwards pointed out what he believes is one of the most important underlying messages of his book, one that he hopes his readers pay attention to: “In danger of sounding morally relativistic or somehow denying its reality,” he said, “the tendency in dealing with suicide bombing is to ignore the fact that these are human beings that are doing this … For the purpose of making sense and dealing with these problems, you have to understand these people not as fanatics, but as blood-and-bone human beings. So, I guess one thing is almost this methodological point that we have to be very careful in the language that we use in dealing with people, before we actually make judgements about what we need to do about them.”

Edwards also touched on his personal connection to his work in Afghanistan: “I wanted to take people into this journey and into this culture. I have spent a lot of time with the Afghan people – they are a people that I deeply care about,” he said.

“So, when people are blowing them up, I care about that … I want to understand them. I want to understand how it got to this place. So, in that sense this book is really a journey of understanding; it’s a journey to make sense of something that once seemed so incomprehensible,” he said. “There are ways in which you can do that, approach a subject like this, without dehumanizing. I mean the whole process is dehumanizing, so I think in a way you have to work against that.”