Many religions practice self-flagellation rituals. Even today. Catholics in Latin America, the Iberian Peninsula, the Philippines, and ultramontane Roman Catholics of the Opus Dei conviction flagellate themselves on Good Friday in fraternity with the suffering of Jesus. Among Sunnis, it is forbidden. Not so among the Shi'a, where there is no actual uniformity of belief and certainly not in practice. But, in the world of the Shi'a, there is the idea and at least something of a literal imitation of the suffering of Imam Husayn, who was, as Fouad Ajami wrote in The Vanished Imam, "the beloved and revered figure of Shi'a Islam" who supplied "Shi'a history with its pathos and its current martyrology."
The Sunnis, making much of the physical pain self-imposed by the Shi'a, see it as the line where civilized Islam stops. Of course, today's martyrdom of the Shi'a is martyrdom also imposed on them by the Sunnis. Yes, that is what the relentless Sunni bombing of Shi'a pilgrimages during the first ten days of Muharram, the tenth being Ashura, actually means.
Still, the torturing of the self is an ugly reality. And it does harm not only to the body, but to the soul. In Lebanon, where the agony imposed and self-imposed carries over into the politics, there is no imagining of respite. In Iran, at least and at last, there is civil insurrection, although an insurrection in which America has not taken sides. The cruelty of the ayatollahs is another punishment and pain to the faithful.
Below are a couple photographs of the ritual ecstatic self-abasement, odious and mortifying at once. (Images courtesy of Pamela Geller and Andrew Bostom. For more, click here.)