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Copycat effect: How one man's self-immolation engulfed a region

How and why did one Tunisian vendor's self-immolation spark a chain of events that ultimately toppled a regime, led to a rash of copycat suicide attempts and spread panic across the region?


It all began on Dec. 17, 2010, on the streets of the central Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid, when an impoverished street vendor, confronting the sheer hopelessness of his situation, set himself ablaze. Within weeks, a once seemingly indestructible regime was toppled and the fire of copycat self-immolation attempts appeared to engulf the region.

In Egypt, one of at least two men who set themselves on fire in recent days succumbed to his injuries on Tuesday. In Mauritania, a 42-year-old businessman alerted journalists before dousing himself with a flammable liquid and setting himself ablaze in a car parked outside the Senate.

In Algeria - a country that shares a 960-kilometer border with Tunisia and has had the same president for the past 12 years - there have been at least seven immolation attempts over the past few days. Algerian officials have occasionally tried to play down some of the cases as isolated incidents involving mentally-ill people. But few Algerians buy that argument.

When Tunisian vendor Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire, he was in effect declaring his frustration over his inability to earn a living in a country beset with high unemployment rates, soaring prices, growing income inequalities and crippling political repression.

These are conditions that have plagued several neighbouring Arab nations over the past few years. But outside academic and policy circles, few were paying much attention.

Suddenly, that has all changed.

While Bouazizi’s suicide succeeded in ultimately ousting Tunisian strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s 23-year-old regime, the rash of copycat attempts has rattled hereditary or dubiously elected leaders across the Arab world.

At an Arab League meeting in Egypt on Wednesday, the 20-member body committed to a proposed $2 billion program to boost faltering economies region as Arab League chief Amr Moussa’s warned that “the Arab soul is broken by poverty, unemployment and general recession”.

‘Burning monk’ highlights religious repression

Self-immolations may be brutal and horrific, but they’re also a startlingly effective form of public protest.

One of the world’s most iconic images of a public self-immolation is a June 1963 photograph of a Buddhist monk seated in a lotus position on a Saigon street engulfed in flames.

Taken at the height of the Vietnam War by Pulitzer Prize-winning US photographer Malcolm Browne, the images of “the burning monk” - as the photograph came to be known - horrified the nation and highlighted the repression of Buddhism by the US-backed Catholic regime of Ngo Dinh Diem.

Barely six months and several copycat attempts later, Diem’s regime had been overthrown and the tide of US public opinion had swung against the war.

In an interview with the New York public radio station WNYC this week, Browne noted that there seemed to be “very close parallels between the Indochina situation in the mid-1960s and the current situation in Tunisia and elsewhere in the Mideast. Certainly self-destruction has been a part of the weapons used by relatively weak people to bring their point of view to a very wide group of people.”

Comparing suicide bombings and suicide protests

The image of the weak prepared to die for the cause against the powerful is not new to the Muslim world.

During the Second Palestinian Intifada in the early 2000s, Hamas adeptly exploited the symbolism of a poorly equipped suicide bomber rattling a powerful enemy – the Israeli state.

But Michael Biggs, a sociologist at Oxford University whose research on self-immolation appears in “Making Sense of Suicide Missions” (Oxford University Press), makes a distinction between suicide bombings and what he calls “protest by self-immolation”.

“Suicide attacks are intended primarily to kill the enemy. They require a lot of organization and are almost invariably orchestrated by an organization, however shadowy,” said Biggs in an interview with FRANCE 24. “With suicide protests, all you need is courage.”

Bouazizi’s immolation, according to Biggs, was “individual, spontaneous, and not aimed to kill anyone else. That gets a great deal more sympathy than suicide bombings.”

A religious dimension

But while the region has seen a fair share of suicide bombings, Biggs noted that suicide protests are rare in the Muslim world.


“Burning can have a more sacred sense in eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism and suicide protests are much more common in countries such as Korea, Vietnam and India,” he said, referring particularly to the wave of self-immolations by upper caste Indians in the 1980s protesting caste-based affirmative action policies.

“Muslim countries see comparatively lower suicide rates in part because Islam has quite a strong prohibition against defiling the human body,” he noted. “In religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, it can be viewed as an act transcending the body or an act intended to reduce the suffering of the world.”

As the recent rash of self-immolation attempts gripped the Arab world, Egypt's state-backed al Azhar, a prestigious centre of religious learning in the Sunni Muslim world, issued a statement warning anyone considering suicide.

"Sharia law states that Islam categorically forbids suicide for any reason and does not accept the separation of souls from bodies as an expression of stress, anger or protest," said al Azhar spokesman Mohammed Rifa al Tahtawi.

It’s not clear if a warning against the separation of souls from bodies will deter distressed or enraged Muslims from trying to emulate Bouazizi and make political history. The question now is whether history will repeat itself.

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