As is well-known now, the uprising in Tunisia began with a young street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, setting himself on fire in protest against the humiliations and hardships he faced daily. The act triggered off mass protests, leading to the removal of the country's long time dictator, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, which in turn ignited mass protests across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, bringing down two more dictators in 2011 and rattling the regimes of pretty much every other despot.
During the same period, a strange and disturbing pattern has emerged in the region: protest by self-immolations.
In Tunisia, there were 107 incidents in the first six months of 2011. Algeria reported multiple incidents as well through 2011, with at least four deaths. In the immediate aftermath of the Tunisian uprising, there were similar incidents reported in Egypt as well, although these seemed to dwindle once Mubarak stepped down. A scan of these incidents in Egypt seems to place them in the days soon after the Tunisian revolution with a marked decline once the January 25th movement kicked off (perhaps closest to copycat acts as discussed later). In the first three weeks of 2012 alone, there have been the cases of a man in Jordan and a depressed mother of a prisoner in Bahrain, both of whom died, as well as five protesters in Morocco, two of whom remain in serious condition in the hospital. In 2011, there were cases of self-immolation reported in Saudi Arabia, Mauritania, Ethiopia and Syria, so covering a rather large range of geography and conditions.
One aspect of these incidents are that many of these involve people protesting quite small yet significant acts of injustice: trouble in claiming pensions, electricity being cut off, protesting the right to food or shelter, or simple dignity as in case of Bouazizi. Much of the press both in the region, as well overseas, has attributed self-immolation protests to the despair felt by the people and their anger at quotidian humiliations. No doubt, both of these play a significant part in these acts, although they are by no means sufficient as explanation.
However, what escapes understanding is the emergence of this specific act of protest in a region where there is no tradition of self-immolation for any reason. First of all, suicide is unacceptable under Islam, which is one reason that suicide attacks have been so heatedly debated in the region and have only a grudging acceptance by most mainstream Islamic scholars (this is not to say that there are not ample supporters of the tactic in both religious and political circles). The point is that even suicide attacks can be justified only thinly on theological grounds and by specific schools of Islamist thought; most groups - including (in)famously the Palestinians ones - use the practice for a range of strategic and tactical purposes, especially political/societal survival, retaliation and competition. More importantly, suicide attacks build on earlier historical memories and ideals, and are often explained as the latest manifestations of militant heroic martyrdom, and thus within - albeit on the margins - of older martial traditions of jihad. It is precisely this final reasoning that is employed by contemporary theologians to make sense of this tactic.
However, the case of self-immolation is quite different. It clearly violates the Islamic principle of not violating the body and/or corpse, especially one's own. It cannot be fit into any militant heroic martyrdom tradition as it is an act of protest turned entirely upon oneself.
Indeed, it may only vaguely fit Durkheim's concept of 'altruistic suicide', despite the attempts by the media to fit these acts into a 'martyrdom' narrative. Much of the media and activist narrative around self-immolations is that some how they were acts of protest, motivated by defiance or a Durkheim-ian 'over-integration into the society' and therefore a sense of responsibility towards the larger collective. Instead, if anything, these acts, at least on a closer look seem to be closer to Durkheim's definition of the 'fatalistic suicide,' one that he had even in 1897 dismissed as of little consequence to modern societies (how premature that was!!). However, it is fatalistic suicide that Durkheim had associated most with 'over-regulation' or moral or physical despotic excess, noting that it occurred amongst populations who felt their futures were blocked and their natural passions oppressed.
However, self-immolation is not simply an act of fatalistic suicide. It is a particularly public way to self-destruct, holding within the act itself incredible expressive, symbolic potential, which is the primary reason for its longevity in certain societies. As an act of protest, and perhaps more closely linked to Durkheim's notion of altruistic suicide, it is deeply rooted within the Indic traditions as well amongst various Buddhist societies of Asia. After all, it was the monks of South Vietnam immolating themselves in protest in 1963 that brought the term into common usage in western media. Again in India, it has been used in protests, with the Mandal protests seeing some of the most prominent incidents. In the past few years, Tibetan monks have continued the practice as a form of protest against Chinese occupation.
Yet none of this makes sense why this act has emerged in the MENA region, in cultures as diverse as Tunisia, Bahrain and Egypt? Or indeed why it has emerged in the region at this particular time. There is little by way of influence or motivation or trajectories that I can find for self-immolations as a form of protest in these countries. Moreover, the region, as far as I can see, does not have any historical tradition of self-immolation, not only for protest but for any reason at all. Even if we took a misplaced essentialist stance that the region is tied by Islam as a binding factor (a fallacy in itself), we would be left wondering why then a significant amount of the population would choose to defy the religion's crucial precepts.
Again, if we attempt to write these off as fatalistic suicides, we are left wondering why the people across an extraordinary range of backgrounds, cultures, genders, and ages would choose the same method? If these are to be considered copy-cat acts, and we may well agree that the immolations in Egypt in January 2011 could well count as such, we are left wondering at the gaps of time or indeed the complications in the cluster contagion that create reasoning anomalies (I could be wrong here so expert dissent is very welcome). How would we explain Bouazizi self-immolation in Tunisia in December 2010 as a point of contagion for Badriya Ali's act in Bahrain in January 2012. The copy cat explanation begins to seem a little too pat to hold water, at least for me.
Furthermore, there is the aspect of media narrative and attention. It is true that Bouazizi's act was immediately declared an act of martyrdom by political activists, but there is little evidence that he had acted out of political principles. Moreover, if we consider the acts following his as copycats, then what triggered his own choice of self-immolation as the method of self-destructive protest?
Self-immolation is a particularly horrific and public act of suicide, but it is also primarily an act of expressive violence. It has few instrumental goals that can be served, beyond the self-destruction of the individual. In contrast to the Buddhist monks of Vietnam or Tibet, whose social and moral status imbues them with greater symbolic potency, or the students in India where a long tradition of self-immolation provides a moral legitimacy to the act, in MENA region, these are in some ways lone acts, excised from the theology of the dominant religion and alien to the cultural ethos of the societies of the actors. As far as I have been able to research, there have been no fatwas or other theological support from Islamic clerics or schools for these acts (not a surprise!). The declarations of martyrdom have been generated primarily from the activists, who in many countries listed above are still battling for not only political space but also legitimacy, so their impact can be queried.
The question of why self-immolation and why now remains thus unanswered. The press may call it a result of daily humiliations, or attribute it it lack of jobs; political activists may declare these political acts of martyrdom, but these are justifications not explanations of the phenomenon. I can only hope we don't need many more of these for that explanation to emerge.
Full disclosure: I explored the concepts of heroic martyrdom, self-immolation and altruistic suicide in my last novel so this is a topic that I have long attempted to understand.
Final note: I asked on twitter about the topic and want to thank the following for their insights and thoughts: @FouadMD, @princeofthenile @Thabet_UAE for their generosity in discussing the topic with me.