Why young martyrs stir the Arab Spring

The killing of a Syrian boy is the latest catalyst for Middle East protests. From Iran to Tunisia, young martyrs have exposed a regime's brutality.

One lesson of the Arab Spring is that the innocence of youth has real power to expose a regime’s barbarity and its false claim to truth and authority.

The latest example comes from Syria, where security forces have tortured and killed an innocent 13-year-old boy, Hamza Ali al-Khateeb – simply for being at a pro-democracy demonstration in his small town of Jiza. Images of his battered body have circulated widely, bringing once-hesitant Syrians out into the streets in protest.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the boy’s murder symbolizes “the total collapse of any effort by the Syrian government to work with and listen to their own people.” Since mid-March, when the protests began, at least 25 children have been killed, according to a leading dissident group.

The killing of innocent youth has provided an emotional impetus to the recent protests in North Africa and the Middle East. Ordinary youth have seen one of their own forced to suffer and sacrifice at the hands of a corrupt, violent regime. The injustice helps galvanize them to overcome their fears, defy police bullets, and act in unison. Most of the time, they put up their own innocence and it reveals the guilt and errors of ruthless rulers.

Iranians claimed their own martyr two years ago when a young woman, Neda Agha Soltan, was shot while watching a protest. Her killing, shown on YouTube, was perhaps the final blow to any legitimacy for Iran’s unelected ruling clerics.

In Tunisia last December, a 26-year-old vegetable seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire after being humiliated during a police arrest. His sacrifice became the spark for people to protest and oust Tunisia’s dictator, which then ignited the Arab Spring.

In Egypt last June, it was a 28-year-old businessman, Khaled Mohamed Said, who was killed by police and later became the symbol of the Mubarak regime’s brutality. A Facebook page – We Are All Khaled Saeed – was created with the help of Egypt­ian activist Wael Ghonim, a Google executive. During the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, people yelled, “Each one of us can be Khaled.”

Revolutions need a face and shared passions as much as they do principles. Innocent martyrs provide that intense catalyst for a crowd to be brave.

The evil deeds of a regime resonate more if they are committed against those who are seen as pure and innocent. Complex issues are made simple. It is for those reasons that rulers like those in China use extraordinary means to prevent any one dissident from becoming a martyr.

In Syria now, children go to their rooftops in the evening and chant “God is great. Hamza, Hamza.” It is a form of protest and affirms the sacrifice of the “child martyr.”

The Middle East is the most youthful region of the world, and thus may be full of innocent young people ready to lay down their lives for freedom. So far, at least, a few of them have done so, unloosing an unfinished revolution.

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