Arab World’s Revolutionary Immolations and ‘Martyrdom’ Change

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Self-immolations in the Arab world have been on the rise after Mohammed Bouaziz, a young unemployed Tunisian, dramatically set himself on fire to protest against the powers that be. North African psychologists and sociologists have been trying to dissect the cause, meaning and acceptance of this extreme form of social protest.

Since Mohammed Bouaziz’s gruesome self-immolation in front of the offices of local authorities in Tunisia, an act that sparked unprecedented revolts which resulted in the ouster of long-time dictator Ben Ali, there has been a steady rise in cases of suicide by fire in the Afro-Arab world. North African sociologists and psychologists are trying to make sense of this extreme form of protest after Mohammed Bouazizi’s horrendous death.

A quest for social justice

The most famous scene of self-immolation was caught on film by Malcolm Browne whose most epic photograph depicted Thich Quang Duc, a Saigon monk, burning himself to death on June 11, 1963. The monk’s desperate act was in protest against the persecution of Buddhists under the country’s then Catholic President Diem.

Thich Quang Duc’s act later inspired other monks and people around the world. In August 16, 1969, a Czechoslovak student Jan Palach set himself on fire in Prague as he protested against the Soviet invasion of his country. And like Mohammed’s immolation which triggered the “Jasmine Revolution”, Jan’s extraordinary act turned him into an overnight icon that Spring in Prague.

But why fire?

Seeking to understand the choice of self-immolation in the face of numerous less painful ways of committing suicide, Rita El Khayat, a Moroccan psychiatrist and anthropologist, explains that the desire to leave an indelible imprint on the minds of others encourages the depiction of a horrendous process especially for bystanders as well as those who hear accounts of the immolation.

Rita El Khayat, tells that “It is even stronger than suicide bombing… Here, we are taken through all the degrees of horror. It is either slow death or survival in an atrocious state”.

According to Algerian psychologist, Malika Chougar, interviewed by Midi Libre, immolation represents “death, destruction, reconstruction and rebirth. Fire also symbolizes purification. Hindus purify their dead and revive them with fire.”

A political act

On whether self-immolation is an act of desperation or a new form of political protest, Smain Laacher, Sociologist at the Center for the Study of Social Movements (CNRS-EHESS), believes it is political.

“It is not just about taking one’s life. Immolation is an indictment leveled against the authorities… It is when there is a lack of (…) a legitimate framework to enforce and seek redress that death becomes the only possible way out of endless misery.

“This act is entirely political, because it reveals the absurdity of social conditions in a dramatic and radical manner,” the researcher is quoted as saying by El Watan, an Algerian newspaper.

Suicide by fire and Islam

The spread of self-immolations in the Arab world have taken place in societies with Islamic traditions where suicide is strictly forbidden. Immolations are seen as major transgressions. Yet Smaïn Laacher argues that the acts are by no means anti-religious.

“It takes a mufti or an imam not to understand the historical transformations in Arab societies (to say things quickly), and in particular not to understand the emergence of new forms of protest… It is basically a self-sacrifice to change things. This is how this act must be understood,” says Smaïn Laacher.


Shayma Marion Renaud, anthropology student at the University of Paris, agrees with Smaïn Laacher. “By burning themselves alive, these people are breaking social taboos.

“And to cope with the situation, whilst basing their arguments on the issues that encouraged these acts, there’s now talk of martyrdom, the ultimate sacrifice; thus reconciling an individual act with collective and social justice. Immolation therefore becomes a socially beneficial act, and this martyrdom is reconciled with religious dogma,” she tells Quotidien d’Algérie.

After having set himself on fire on 17 December, 2010, in front the offices of the sub-prefecture of Sidi Bouzid, whilst protesting against the seizure of his fruit and vegetable stall, Muhammad Bouazizi’s act is no more just a symbol of the popular Tunisian revolt. Today, his act of desperation has become the emblem of change with respect to the concept of “martyrdom” in the Arab world.

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