What’s with All These Virgins?

What’s with all these virgins?

Islamophobic folk dance giddily around the supposed belief among Muslims that martyrs to the cause of Allah receive, in Paradise, seventy-two young virgins for their pleasure. To what extent this belief actually persists among Muslims, I have no real idea, and neither am I qualified enough to render a judgment on whether the Koranic text should be translated as “virgins” or as “white raisins,” as some have insisted. What’s interesting, in my opinion, is how the constant raising of this afterlife virgin issue touches upon some very American biases.

First off, it reifies the belief that “they” do not value life the way we do. That has long been a trope in American and European discourse about the Orient. In fact, the documentary Hearts and Minds, which won an Academy Award in 1974, features General William Westmoreland saying that very same thing–that the Vietnamese, being Buddhists, didn’t value life like Americans did. (His words are searingly contrasted with video of Vietnamese people grieving over relatives murdered in the latest strike.) Oh, those crazy people in the East, we know, are driven by their beliefs to sacrifice their lives at the drop of a hat.

Second, raising this issue tells us what we already know–that dark-skinned women cannot control their lust. Hell, those seventy-two virgins they are after are probably all white women, eh? The fact that they will throw their lives away in order to slake their bestial desires in some neverworldian harem just confirms our worse opinions about them.

(But someone out there probably believes that dying for the cause will secure him exclusive access to seventy-two virgins in the afterlife, and my question for him is: Why? Seriously, if I were to start a religion and were brainstorming some motivation for people to martyr themselves for this new faith, I would not be offering seventy-two virgins. A man’s got to have a really bad cruel streak–and a really good cleaning service–to find any satisfaction in that. Maybe I’m just an Arkansas boy who took Ronnie McDowell’s song to heart: “Older women are beautiful lovers / Older women, they understa-a-and / I’ve been around some, and I have discovered / That older women know just how to please a man.” Over a decade of marriage has convinced me that things get better with time and experience–not for me is the Lolita, I’m afraid. Join my religion, and I promise you not seventy-two virgins but rather–for the men, anyway–a highly skilled French courtesan whose ministrations will turn those afterlife minutes into afterlife decades of pleasure. True martyrs to my faith will face le petit mort many times in their lives.)

However, I think that the focus upon Muslims and their motivations for martyrdom aids in obscuring our own tropes of heroic self-murder. As Patric Colm Hogan observes in Understanding Nationalism: On Narrative, Cognitive Science, and Identity (2009), the movie Independence Day has its own martyr in the form of Randy Quaid’s character: “Laughing in the face of death and mocking the aliens, he flies into the belly of the beast. Thus, he becomes a suicide bomber–though I suspect that few viewers recognize this fact, in part because our prototype for a suicide bomber is so different. His self-sacrifice destroys the disk. It is a case of pure, selfless devotion to the nation, in a standard heroic tragicomic episode” (p. 239). Moreover, though Hogan doesn’t point this out, his sacrifice is redemptive, for we are, earlier in the story, treated to vignettes of that character’s drunkenness and his general worthlessness as a bread-winner.

And this is the rub of the story. It has been remarked upon quite a bit how capitalism depends upon the breakdown of individual and collective self-worth. If you feel complete and satisfied with life, we’re going to have a hard time selling you something, but if you’re generally subsumed in a cloud of worthlessness, then we can promise you that all your troubles will be ended with the purchase of this particular product, and if that one doesn’t work, try this one. That’s why photographs of models are manipulated so extensively, moving beyond the realm of the healthy and into the physically impossible, so as to keep pushing back the goal posts. We’re constantly barraged with the message that we are not smart enough, attractive enough, worth enough. And as we come to internalize all the crap thrown at us by advertisers, we have to ask ourselves–why bother continuing to exist if we’re such a waste of space? And if you’re going to throw it all away, why not on a chance at redemption, a death that will negate all that worthlessness and make us attractive and loved the way the commercials say we should feel.

Loved enough, perhaps, to get those seventy-two virgins.

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