CAIRO, Jan 23, 2011 (IPS) – Upset over a policy that prevented him from buying subsidised food, Egyptian restaurant owner Abdou Abdel Moneim travelled to Cairo to find someone in parliament to help. When security officers prevented him from submitting his complaint to MPs entering parliament, the 49-year-old man doused himself in fuel and cursed the Egyptian regime as he disappeared into a ball of fire.
Abdel Moneim survived with severe burns to his legs and face, but by the end of the day similar incidents had occurred in three different North African countries. In the past week, nearly two dozen attempted self-immolations have been reported across the Arab world, three of them fatal.
The horrifying public suicide attempts echo the iconic act of Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old Tunisian who set himself on fire in mid-December after police confiscated the produce cart he was using to make a living. Bouazizi died weeks later of his burns, but his desperate act triggered protests that eventually led Tunisian president Zine Al-Abdine Ben Ali to flee the North African country he had ruled with an iron fist for 23 years.
Analysts say the Tunisian revolt has resonated with millions of Arabs living under repressive regimes who are frustrated with their difficult economic conditions and limited opportunities to improve their lot. Many are drawing parallels to the situation in their own country, and wondering if a similar uprising will take place.
It’s not surprising then that the heroic story of a vegetable seller whose horrific yet spectacular death brought down a tyrant has taken on an almost legendary flavour. But it may also be inspiring more tragic stories.
On Jan. 15, one day after the fall of Ben Ali, a 37-year-old Algerian man died after setting himself alight. Since then, at least 22 attempted self- immolations have been reported in Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
The suspected motive behind each incident has varied. One man was protesting corruption and injustice, another was reportedly upset at being unable to secure cheap housing, and two textile workers objected to their employer’s decision to transfer them to other departments.
“The self-immolations appear to be political acts,” says Michael Biggs, a sociologist at Oxford University. “These people may have personal grievances, but they’re clearly attributing those grievances to the political system. They may be thinking that ‘if Bouazizi can set himself on fire and precipitate a massive, popular uprising then why can’t I to resolve my problem?’”
According to Biggs, incidents in which protestors deliberately set themselves on fire are extremely rare, “but much less rare than people might think.”
Since the 1960s, over 1,000 cases of self-immolation have been recorded in more than 25 countries worldwide. It often occurs in waves and is most prevalent in India, Vietnam and South Korea, which account for more than half of all cases.
There are examples of Kurdish nationalists setting themselves on fire during protests in Europe in the 1990s, but until now the practice has not been common in the Muslim world, possibly due to Islam’s strong prohibition of both suicide and cremation.
“It’s mostly an Eastern practice. In Buddhism and Hinduism burning has a more sacred character and is an accepted form of disposing of dead bodies, so it’s not the terrible thing as we think of it in Christian and Muslim religious traditions,” Biggs told IPS.
The spectacle of a fiery death can be highly effective in focusing world attention on a cause or injustice. A photograph of Thich Quang Duc, the elderly Buddhist monk who immolated himself in the middle of a busy intersection in Saigon in 1963, became one of the iconic images of the Vietnam War. It was also instrumental in turning the tide of U.S. public opinion against the war.
The brutal act of setting oneself on fire usually elicits reactions of shock and horror, but also sympathy, Biggs explains. It has been utilised as a political form of protest by South Korean labour activists, Czechs opposed to Soviet occupation, and by upper-caste Indians, among others.
“Bouazizi’s is probably the most successful example,” he says. “The Tunisian government fell very quickly because his one action inspired many other people to go into the streets. It was also successful in South Vietnam in the 1960s, but it took five months and six monks and a nun to die before the regime was overthrown.”
The historical efficacy of self-immolation protests may be one reason Arab officials and state media have attempted to portray the series of “copycat” suicide attempts as the non-political acts of opportunistic and mentally unstable individuals.
“Suicide has become a fad and is being used for blackmail,” declared Egyptian state-run newspaper Al-Akhbar, deriding a man who reportedly threatened to set himself on fire after his request for public housing was repeatedly turned down.
Arab governments have appealed to religious leaders to stress Islam’s injunctions against suicide in order to discourage Muslim youth from taking their own life. Imams at state-monitored mosques in Egypt and Algeria condemned self-immolation during their weekly sermons on Friday, claiming suicidal thoughts stemmed from a lack of faith.
Al-Azhar, the highest authority in Sunni Islam, issued a statement last week reaffirming that suicide violates Islam even when it is carried out as a social or political protest.
“Islam categorically forbids suicide for any reason and does not accept the separation of souls from bodies as an expression of stress, anger or protest,” its spokesman said.
Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, the spiritual leader of Egypt’s outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, had a different take on the state-endorsed message. In a statement the influential cleric urged Arab youth to honour the sanctity of life, blaming repressive regimes for conditions that have driven them to despair.
“Dear young men, take care of your life because it is a great bounty from Allah, and do not set yourself on fire as it is the tyrants who should burn. Be patient, endure and be steadfast. Tomorrow will come soon enough.”