By ROBERT F. WORTH
Published: January 21, 2011
WHAT drives an ordinary man to burn himself to death?
That question has echoed across the Arab world and beyond in the
weeks since an unemployed Tunisian, Mohamed Bouazizi, doused himself
with paint thinner and lit a match on Dec. 17. His desperate act set
off street clashes that ultimately toppled the country's autocratic
ruler, and inspired nearly a dozen other men to set themselves on
fire in Egypt, Algeria and Mauritania.
Those serial self-immolations have provoked horror and wonder, with
some Arab commentators hailing the men as heroic martyrs of a new
Middle Eastern revolution, even as others denounce them under
headlines like "Do Not Burn Your Bodies!"
Yet burning oneself as political protest is not new. Many Americans
remember the gruesome images of Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk,
burning himself to death in Saigon during the Vietnam War in 1963,
his body eerily still and composed amid the flames. Many other monks
followed his example as the war intensified. In Europe, Jan Palach, a
20-year-old Czech who burned himself to death in Prague in 1969 a few
months after the Soviet invasion of his country, is remembered as a
martyr of the struggle against Communism. Less well-known protesters
have died in flames in Tibet, India, Turkey and elsewhere. In China,
Buddhists have set themselves alight for at least 1,600 years.
Perhaps what is new about the latest self-immolations is their
effectiveness. Mr. Bouazizi, a fruit vendor, set himself on fire in
front of the local governor's office after the authorities
confiscated his fruit, beat him and refused to return his property.
He is now seen as the instigator of a revolution that forced out
President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years of authoritarian
rule. Mr. Bouazizi's imitators hope to generate similar revolts in
other Arab countries, where corruption and stifling autocracy have
led to a similarly vast gulf between rulers and the ruled.
In the past, many people recoiled from such protesters as
attention-seeking lunatics. Or the authorities were too powerful. Few
people today remember Homa Darabi, the Iranian child psychiatrist who
set herself on fire in a crowded Tehran square in 1994. A month
earlier, a 16-year-old girl had been shot to death for wearing
lipstick, and Darabi who had lived in the United States and refused
to wear the veil had seen enough. "Death to tyranny, long live
liberty, long live Iran!" she shouted, as flames engulfed her. Iran's
official attitudes toward women's rights have scarcely changed.
One striking feature of the passionate discussion about Mr. Bouazizi
and his imitators at least for Westerners is the relative absence
of religion. Most Americans are used to hearing about Muslim suicide
bombers who are impelled in part by the promise of salvation. The
recent Arab self-immolators appear to have been motivated more by
anger and despair at their social and economic plight.
Even some clerics have kept the debate on a secular level. Yousef
al-Qaradawi, for instance, a prominent and influential Egyptian
cleric who lives in Qatar and has a TV show on Al Jazeera, spoke
sympathetically about Mr. Bouazizi and others who attempted suicide,
saying that they were driven to it by social injustice and that the
responsibility for their deaths lay with the rulers of their countries.
"People call these men brave, and mostly they don't use the word
'suicide' in describing them," said Tarik Tlaty, a Moroccan political
analyst. "They don't use the word 'martyrs' either. They call them
'sacrificers,' and they speak of an 'uprising.' It is not a religious
Others, including many clerics, disagree. Al Azhar, the Cairo
university that is the oldest and most prestigious center of learning
in the Sunni Muslim world, issued a fatwa last week reaffirming that
suicide violates Islam even when it is carried out as a social or
A similar debate has often taken place among Buddhists over
self-immolation. Many Buddhist authorities say suicide cannot be
reconciled with their religious tradition. But an ascetic strain
among Chinese and Korean Buddhists includes gestures of painful
self-sacrifice, from the burning of fingers to self-immolation, said
Robert Sharf, chairman of the Center for Buddhist Studies at the
University of California, Berkeley. The practice is rooted in the
Lotus Sutra, a relatively late Buddhist text that speaks of a magic
king who douses himself with fragrant oil and allows his body to be
burned as a sacrifice.
"Full-body immolation is rarely done solely as a religious practice,"
Dr. Sharf said. "It is more typically a form of political protest at
the same time. For instance, it has been used repeatedly in Chinese
history to protest anti-Buddhist state policies, such as the mass
defrocking of priests."
In Afghanistan, some women burn themselves to death to escape abusive
marriages, a practice that seems to be on the rise recently. Although
these deaths are not intended as social protests, they are often seen
in the West as implicit critiques of Afghan society.
It is often impossible to be sure what really motivates those who
burn themselves to death. There is debate, for instance, about how
Thich Quang Duc viewed his self-immolation in 1963, a protest that
was related to the South Vietnamese government's treatment of
Buddhist monks and may have been at least partly religious in nature.
In other cases, politics may be a cover for personal despair or rage
against a loved one.
Whatever the motive, suicide sometimes spreads like a disease,
especially when heavily covered in the media. David P. Phillips, a
sociologist at the University of California at of San Diego,
published a 1974 study documenting spikes in the number of suicides
after well-publicized cases. He called it "the Werther effect," after
the rash of suicides that followed the 1774 publication of "The
Sorrows of Young Werther," the novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
whose romantic hero kills himself.
"One thing is strongly suggested by the academic studies: People are
more likely to copy suicides if they see that they have results, or
get wide attention," Dr. Phillips said.
Tunisia has provided grim evidence for that. And Mr. Bouazizi may yet
provoke more fiery deaths across the Middle East if the revolution he
helped spark is seen as successful.