The end of a regime often begins with a catalyst: something out of the ordinary, sufficiently memorable and poignant that can push the waters of public demand beyond the levy. In Tunisia, the catalyst was Mohamed Bouaziz, a young unemployed college graduate and father, whose attempts to support his family were thwarted by needless regulation. On 17 December 2010, Bouaziz set himself on fire in a final act of desperate and anguished protest that sparked the Jasmine Revolution. Since then, there have been eight attempts at self-immolation reported from Algeria. In Egypt, there were three attempts in two days, and on 17 January a Mauritanian man set himself on fire on the Presidential Palace steps to protest the regime.
Self-immolation has a long history in the ancient world, originating with widows who burned themselves alive on their dead husband’s funeral pyre. In some cultures the burning was elective, while in others widows were forcibly burned alive so that society would not be burdened with an unsupported woman.
The practice became increasingly obsolete into the modern era until 1963 when Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk, doused himself in gasoline and lit a match on the street in Saigon in protest of the Ngo Dinh Diem government that heavily discriminated against Buddhist monks in favor of Catholicism. It was all caught on film and the images that flooded through newsrooms shocked, horrified, and garnered sympathy for the monks. Self-immolation became a political act. A nun and four other monks burned themselves alive in 1963 before Diem’s regime ended.
American in involvement in Vietnam in the later 1960s inspired increasing numbers of monks to commit self-immolation. During one single week in the height of protest, thirteen monks burned themselves alive. The tactic even spread to the United States, when Quaker and pacifist Norman Morrison committed self-immolation while holding his child outside the Pentagon in protest of the Vietnam War. The child survived. Norman did not.
Self-immolation became a form of political protest in Eastern Europe and Asia. Incidents were reported during the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, in India in 1990, and Tibet in 1998. There were a number of Kurdish attempts at self-immolation to protest Turkey in 1999 and Chinese officials reported unconfirmed attempts in Tiananmen Square in 2009.
Catching Fire in the Arab World
The self-immolation of Mohamed Bouaziz brought the tactic to the Arab world. The early success of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia seems to have given hope to dissidents under other oppressive North African regimes that similar acts will produce similar results, but it is not clear how self-immolation will be received in the Islamic world.
Suicide is a grievous sin in Islam, as has been preached over most pulpits in Egypt following the recent self-immolations. Cultural unacceptability may be a hindrance to political impact, although some will also interpret the committing of such a serious sin as a reflection of the magnitude of desperation.
The impact may also be softened in other areas of the Islamic world such as Afghanistan, where self-immolation is a common method of suicide for women, particularly victims of forced or child marriage and continued domestic abuse. Problems in home life are governed and solved through the tribal system and solutions are frequently elusive. Cooking oil and flame is often all the women (mostly teenagers) have left to work with and when solutions to their problems are unable to be found, they resort to a dramatic method of suicide that some claim has been romanticized by Iranian cinema, where one popular film depicts a young woman committing self-immolation rather than enter a forced marriage. Less than 20% survive and incidents and statistics often go unreported because of the shame it brings to the family.
Whether a political self-immolation in Northern Africa or a child bride’s suicide in Afghanistan, incidents of self-immolation always indicate a dysfunctional society that may not be sustainable. It is a dramatic and extremely painful way to die and if the fire is extinguished, death may take days or not come for years. Death is no guarantee and those that survive are left with searing pain and serious scarring. The emotional commitment that is required to commit such an act is often indicative of the depth of dysfunction and discord that exists in public life.
From the need for effective governance and protection in domestic life in Afghanistan to the oppression of free speech and popular rule in North Africa, the emergence of self-immolation in the Arab world may be an indicator that the Middle East is entering a particularly tumultuous period that will undoubtedly bring significant instability to an already fickle region. Leaders and regimes will need to reform or find a way to siphon the underlying tension in order to maintain stability.