What's behind the Middle East's new trend of self-immolation?
On Dec. 17, 2010, a 26-year-old unemployed college graduate named Mohamed Bouazizi stood in front of a government office in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, poured gasoline over his body, and lit himself on fire. In doing so, he seems to have sparked a much broader flame that has spread throughout the country and much of North Africa.
Bouazizi has been credited as the "martyr who toppled the Tunisian government" and the political inspiration for a series of similar self-immolation attempts throughout the region. In the month that followed his now famous act, at least eight other individuals in Algeria, Mauritania, and Egypt have set themselves on fire.
Historically, self-immolation has often been seen as a political act, and the famous images of Buddhist monks setting themselves on fire to protest persecution in Vietnam stand out as particularly harrowing. The tactic has been used by political activists in China, India, the United States, the former Soviet Union, and a range of other countries.
It is thus no surprise that many commentators have been quick to attribute political motives to Bouazizi and those who followed him. For instance, though acknowledging that frustration and despair may have played a role in the Egyptian cases, Associated Press correspondent Hamza Hendawi declared that the immolations "are deeply symbolic means of protest in a region that has little or no tolerance for dissent."
However, although these acts may be imbued with symbolism after the fact, it is not yet clear that any of these individuals were primarily motivated by politics. They may have simply been suicidal. Unable to find work despite his college degree, Bouazizi had become a fruit and vegetable vendor to survive. When police confiscated his cart and all the food with it, insisting that he somehow find the money for a vendor's license before it would be returned, it seems to have pushed the desperate young man over the edge. Similarly, the other self-immolators throughout North Africa were reportedly struggling with a range of personal problems such as unemployment, homelessness, and depression.
If these suicidal acts were personal, not political, they would not be the first collection of self-immolations to fit that psychological profile. From 2005 to 2006, there were approximately 150 reported cases of women committing suicide by setting themselves on fire in the Herat province of Afghanistan. Subsequent studies by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission revealed that such self-immolations are severely underreported, increasingly common, and usually sparked by personal problems, including forced marriage, physical abuse, and sexual assault. Given the power of traditional gender norms in the Islamic world, it seems likely that the shame, dishonor, and desperation experienced by those violated women in Afghanistan may be similar to what was felt by these jobless, homeless, frustrated, and powerless men in North Africa.
There is another major reason to think that Bouazizi and those who followed were not staging political protests. There has been no evidence that any of them left videos, letters, manifestos, or suicide notes of any substance in which they claimed that their acts were calculated political statements and then articulated their grievances. Purely rational actors who are planning to sacrifice their lives for a cause should be expected to care about how their deaths are interpreted. These individuals left it completely up to chance.
A useful comparison can be made to suicide terrorists. A significant percentage of bombers make martyrdom videos for this precise reason: They want to make sure that their audience -- their friends, family members, and the public -- are convinced that their acts were politically and ideologically motivated, rather than some form of suicidal escape. Suicide bombers who do not speak out before their deaths usually know that they will be spoken for afterward by the terrorist organizations they leave behind that attest to their motives. If Bouazizi and the self-immolators were politically motivated, they would similarly have cared about their audience and not wanted to leave their public in the dark. The fact that they apparently did not put this forethought into their actions suggests that they were motivated more by desperation and suicidal compulsion, rather than political premeditation.
By setting himself on fire near a government building during a period of political turmoil, Bouazizi must have anticipated that his act would be interpreted as a sign of political protest. And those who followed him were also no doubt aware of how their actions would be interpreted in this climate. However, it is relatively common for depressed and suicidal people to try to latch on to something bigger and more significant than themselves in their last moments on Earth -- regardless of their primary agenda.
Again, the parallel to suicide terrorists informs this issue. Growing evidence indicates that many suicide bombers were in fact clinically suicidal, and that no matter what they may have claimed, no matter what doctrine they may have spouted, it was actually personal psychological problems that led them to blow themselves up. Terrorist organizations exploit this psychological vulnerability for their own strategic reasons, but their pawns appear far less invested in the political consequences of their attacks.
For instance, in interviews conducted by Israeli researchers with failed Palestinian suicide bombers, they usually claim that they wanted to kill themselves for the cause because of their hatred for Israel and its treatment of their people. However, if you dig a little deeper, their true psychological motives surface: Suicide bombers are often consumed by clinical risk factors for conventional suicide such as depression, hopelessness, guilt, shame, and rage. I have conducted a series of studies on the life histories and underlying motives of suicide terrorists, and there is a consistent pattern of these individuals attempting to mask their psychological angst as self-sacrificial martyrdom. Furthermore, their attacks are often triggered by the same types of personal crises that cause people to kill themselves in New York, Paris, or Tokyo, including financial problems, divorce, unwanted pregnancies, inability to get married, poor health, physical disabilities, or the death of a loved one. Both self-immolators and suicide terrorists may indeed channel the political frustrations of a much larger population, but the primary difference between the very few who choose to kill themselves "for the cause" and the much greater majority who do not is usually the presence of classic suicidal traits.
Despite this evidence, both types of suicide are often interpreted as primarily constituting political acts. Perhaps this says as much about us, the public, as it does about the deceased. We see an increase in suicide bombings or an increase in people setting themselves on fire, and we put it in a broader political context because it is this context -- and not the personal psychological problems of the individuals involved -- that has the biggest effect on our lives. However, studies suggest that the apparent increase in these behaviors may have nothing to do with politics at all, that conventional suicide can spread via social contagion, and that a "copycat effect" may increase suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts, regardless of political developments.
In addition, it is possible that the behavioral change we are seeing is primarily in the method of suicide, more than in the total number of suicides themselves. The self-immolators who followed Bouazizi may be copying his modus operandi, but they may very well have found another way to kill themselves had he never appeared. What seems like a sudden spike in suicides in North Africa may mostly be a function of the media paying more attention than usual, due to the political turmoil in the region. Nine people setting themselves on fire in a month may seem like a trend, but in the United States, approximately 94 people commit suicide every day, and similar per capita rates of suicide are seen among some African countries.
Furthermore, though suicide by fire may seem inherently dramatic and symbolic, the Afghan women who chose this method did so simply because they thought it was more reliable than overdosing on pills.
This is not to say that there aren't some legitimate links between politics and suicide. A government is at least partially responsible for the mental health of its people. When citizens lose faith in their leaders, the inherent justice and fairness of the system, and their ability to overcome adversity, they lose hope, and hopelessness is one of the most common psychological causes of suicide. The motives for Bouazizi's suicide may have been personal, but it was Tunisia's political leaders who failed him and millions like him. Ultimately, that is the symbolic legacy of his act and why those leaders have been held accountable.