It is only natural that a journalist would jump at the chance to tell the story behind the colorful, choreographed, and utterly gruesome video showing militants of the Islamic State (or ISIS) beheading twenty-one Christian migrant workers on a beach in Sirte, Libya, on February 15, 2015. The militants posted the video on YouTube and lodged its images in the memory of millions of people—millions of potential readers.
An ambitious author could easily situate the episode in a familiar storyline pitched to appeal to Westerners alarmed by the rise of Islamic terrorism. The militants were Muslim, members of an outfit that has committed terrorist attacks in several major U.S. and European cities and was at war with the United States and its allies in Iraq and Syria until quite recently. They entitled their video, “a message signed with blood to the nation of the cross,” a clear call to arms against Christians. So, we have a ready-to-tell story about a violent religion, Islam, attacking Christians, all but one of them Egyptian Copts, who are in turn supported by a regime that is allied with the West.
Were it published, such a story would predictably meet with criticism that it overgeneralizes about Islam, risks stoking conflict through its binary, polarizing narrative, and plays into the hands of dictators like Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has built his rule upon countering violent Islamist extremism. The author would thus join and fuel a debate that has been going on in the West since the attacks of September 11, 2001. And he or she would likely sell lots of books.
This is not the book that the German writer Martin Mosebach chose to write. He abjures facile storylines and declines to consider the “garish bouquet of hypotheses” that purport to explain the murders and depict their consequences. Nor is this book a work of journalism. While Mosebach does report facts he learned firsthand, his account reads more like the diary of a pilgrimage or perhaps an entry in a martyrology. Even the table of contents is iconic, listing twenty-one chapters, corresponding to the number of martyrs. And each chapter begins with the name and photograph of one of the twenty-one. This focus on the slain, not on the slayings, is what makes Mosebach’s account startlingly innovative.
Who were these martyrs? How did their Christian faith shape their response to their forthcoming martyrdom? These are Mosebach’s questions. But why even assume that their faith shaped their response? Their murderers selected them, after all, merely because they were (except for one) Egyptian Christians, not because they were particularly saintly. Any Egyptian Christian would have done. Mosebach claims, though, that their faith was strong and unwavering, and devotes most of the book to convincing us of this. He spots one of his first clues in the video, whose producers were keen to display the Christians’ faces but surely did not intend to reveal that they were praying, audibly professing their faith in Jesus Christ, and in many instances displaying a look of calm. How did these men—“unremarkable farmers” who had migrated to Libya to find work—succeed in stamping this viral video with a message very different from the one intended by their executioners? Mosebach travels to the village of El-Aour, Egypt, the home of most of the martyrs, in order to find out.
El-Aour is very poor. Villagers live in houses of concrete and exposed rebar, with whole rooms devoted to animals. Heaps of rotting trash are scattered about the village. But here too Mosebach fastidiously avoids predictable and condescending narratives. Over the past couple of centuries, but especially in the mid-twentieth, the prevailing understanding of religion in the university and among Western elites has been the secularization thesis, which holds that religion is irrational, primitive, and destined for extinction. The poor, in this narrative, turn to religion as a salve for their hard lives and because they are too ignorant to know better. Once economic development brings them education, health care, a long life, and bourgeois comforts, they will forget about God. A recent statement of this thesis is the 2011 book Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide, where political scientists Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart offer global evidence that when people achieve material security they become less religious.