Self-immolation and individual freedom

The personal stories of despair that led up to these acts of self-sacrifice are inevitably brought to the forefront.

Self immolation 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Self immolation 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Self-immolation is horrifying. Yet the pent-up turmoil and despair to which it gives graphic expression has the potential to move masses to action.
Such was the case with Muhammad Bouazizi, a 26-yearold Tunisian college graduate who set himself on fire last month. Unable to find employment commensurate with his skills, Bouazizi settled for peddling fruits and vegetables in his home town. He became despondent when security forces brutally destroyed his unlicensed cart and confiscated his wares. His desperate act of protest touched a nerve with educated Tunisian youths in situations similar to Bouazizi’s and helped spark a revolution.
It also set off a spate of self-immolation attempts this week in Africa and the Middle East.
In Egypt, Abdu Abdel-Monaam Hamadah, a 48-year-old owner of a small restaurant, lit himself on fire outside the parliament building in central Cairo in protest of a government policy preventing restaurant owners from buying subsidized bread to resell to patrons. And Yacoub Ould Dahoud, who had expressed discontent with the government, drove to a government building in the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott, and torched himself in his car. There were also several cases of self-immolation in Algeria.
Until recently, media coverage of self-immolation has focused on the women of Afghanistan. Horribly oppressed by a backward, male-dominated Muslim extremism, women married off at a young age to brutally abusive spouses have opted to put an end to their lives in a blaze rather than forfeit their individuality. A combination of despair for one’s own future, and the hope that a fiery death might bring change for others, seems to be the motivation for self-immolation. But the recent outbreak of such incidents has started a new trend.
“Those who are promoting fantasies and trying to ignite the situation will not achieve their goals and will only harm themselves,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul-Gheit announced in a particularly unfortunate turn of phrase aimed at dismissing speculation that unrest in Tunisia would spread to Egypt.
Perhaps. Still, many states in the region suffer from the same problems – unemployment, slow growth, corrupt government, aging dictators – that brought Tunisians out to protest. Protesters have taken to the streets in Algeria and Jordan, demanding jobs and affordable food.
Whether these protests erupt into the kind of revolution Tunisia is experiencing is impossible to know. What’s clear is that the actions taken by Tunisians are reverberating around the region.
PART OF the reason for the widely-felt impact has been the central role played by new media. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, Dailymotion, forums and blogs have collectively transformed the Arab communications environment and shattered authoritarian regimes’ ability to control the flow of information, images, ideas and opinions.
And this user-generated content has been utilized by satellite TV stations – in particular Al Jazeera – even after authoritarian Arab regimes have succeeded in closing down conventional news-gathering outlets.
However, the tremendous impact of new media is not just in its ability to escape the careful monitoring of Arab police states. The highly personalized dimension of a blogger’s entry or an image put up on a Facebook page seems to offer profound human resonance. Video footage of the deadly shooting of a demonstrator, for instance, takes on a whole new meaning when it is contextualized not by an objective news correspondent but by a blogger who witnessed the shooting or personally knew the victim, or when it includes details from the victim’s Facebook accounts.
It is precisely new media’s focus on the personal, the uniquely individualistic aspects of a popular struggle, that has made it such a potent instrument in the hands of the opposition in Tunisia and in other authoritarian Arab countries.
Perhaps the recent flurry of self-immolation is an extreme aspect of this trend toward individualism. The personal stories of despair that led up to these acts of self-sacrifice are inevitably brought to the forefront. And the very nature of protest through self-immolation emphasizes the importance of exceptional individual acts and their capacity to generate widespread empathy via self-identification.
It is no coincidence that it is precisely this striving for individualistic freedom of expression, which seems to be stronger than life itself, that autocratic Arab states fear so and are working so hard to stamp out.