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?

When Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire on December 17, 2010 – sparking protests that brought regime change in Tunisia and massive unrest in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world – he was unwittingly following an established pattern.

In an oppressive environment, a solitary act of highly visible self-immolation triggers a massive chain-reaction, which results in some major political changes.

Thích Quàng Đúc, a Buddhist monk, did it in Vietnam in June 1963, protesting against the persecution of Buddhists by the Ngô Đình Diem administration; and so did Jan Palach, a 21-year old philosophy student, in January 1969, when he set himself on fire in Prague’s Wenceslas Square to protest against the Soviet occupation of his country. The former’s gesture led to the toppling of Diem’s regime within months; the latter’s was sufficiently powerful to fuel the political imagination of the Czechoslovakian anti-communist resistance over the next two decades.

How is it possible that a single act, one individual’s suicide, can lead to political transformations on such a large scale? There is certainly no easy recipe. In fact, several factors have to conspire, in some unique fashion, to generate such an outcome. Sheer imitators hardly achieve anything precisely because they fail to see that the self-immolator himself plays only a small part within a much larger story.

Three conditions

First of all, the event has to take place in conditions of significant political and social oppression. A self-immolator is someone dead-serious about what he is doing, and the seriousness of his deed is only a reflection of a very grim context (or at least we should be able to construe it as such).

Second, the event has to take place in public. Self-immolation is performance by definition; the efficacy of martyrdom, political martyrdom included, depends as much on the performer’s action as it does on the crowd’s reaction.

Third, the self-immolator must emerge in the midst of a community marked by a diffuse sense of guilt due to its own inaction (“nobody does anything”). If the gesture occurs at the right moment and is sufficiently well advertised, it ends up shaming the others into “finally” doing something. What is fascinating about the shaming game is that, once started, nobody knows how it will end. First the Tunisians were put to shame by Bouazizi, then the Egyptians felt they were ashamed by the Tunisians. Who knows who will feel ashamed tomorrow?

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.

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.

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