Martyrdom was part of the founding of the Shi‘ite branch of Islam, which presently dominates Iranian life. Following that tradition, children as young as 12 were sent to the front lines during the war with Iraq in the 1980s to clear minefields with their bodies. Thousands of these young soldiers, recruited by religious leaders as part of the Basiji movement, marched to their deaths, eager to die as directed for the glory of God and in expectation of a heavenly reward.
The cult of religious martyrdom remains strong in Iran, and one of its most ardent promoters is President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. A member of the Basiji movement himself and a former soldier in the Revolutionary Guard, he is an apocalyptic thinker who looks for the eschatological coming of the Mahdi, the “hidden imam,” who according to Shi‘ite tradition will return to establish justice in the world.