Why Bouazizi burning set Arab world afire
Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi's desperate act of self-immolation triggered a shame in many Arabs that they hadn't done enough for their dignity and freedom, igniting protests for democracy. Under what conditions have such 'founding deaths' worked in other societies?
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The suicide method matters, too. Of all the political uses of a dying body, self-immolation is the purest, if one may say so. Gandhi’s “fasting onto death,” spectacular as it may have been, was part of a pragmatic political strategy. It was, for the most part, reversible, and it always invited negotiation. Suicide-bombers makes a political point, too, but they do so precisely though the death of the others, the damage they inflict on the world around, and the ensuing sense of terror.Skip to next paragraph
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A selfless sacrifice
By contrast, the self-immolator conveys the compelling image of a totally selfless sacrifice – indeed, generous beyond comprehension. He embarks on a journey that usually ends in death, which is always his own. As a consequence, his death comes to function as what French philosopher René Girard would call a “founding death.” His fierce determination, his courage, the terrifying manner of his self-annihilation: All these make him irresistible. If an intuitive connection, however symbolic, can be established in the public mind between the oppressive political conditions and the occurrence of such a death, then a grand narrative of martyrdom, revolution, and renewal is about to emerge.
Finally, what renders self-immolation as a unique occurrence is the element of fire itself. A death by water or poison can rarely be a “founding death.”
Nothing marks the human imagination more profoundly than fire. Fire holds universal fascination for its symbolic power, its metaphysical charge, and its rich imagery. The ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles threw himself into an active volcano in a bid to prove his immortality. What makes the self-immolator particularly fascinating is his being consumed by fire, his body transubstantiated into light (the note Palach left behind was signed “Torch Number 1”). The self-immolator’s exit from this world coincides with his entry into myth.
According to some media reports, what motivated Mr. Bouazizi’s gesture was in fact the public humiliation to which he had been subjected by a female police officer who allegedly slapped him in the face, slurred against his long-deceased father, and spat at him. All done in public.
Needless to say, for an Arab man, living as he did in a mainly traditional society, a shame greater than this would be hard to imagine. This means that he may well have immolated himself out of shame, and not primarily for political reasons. If these reports are true, Bouazizi’s case becomes even more interesting: It only proves that when a grand narrative is ripe, it will have no problem inventing its own heroes.
Costica Bradatan is assistant professor of philosophy at the Honors College at Texas Tech University. He is writing a philosophical book on martyrdom.