Protesters holding an image of Bouazizi, the Tunisian who burned himself to death, thereby inspiring demonstrations leading to the resignation of the Tunisian president 28 days later
I can't believe I haven't written about the revolutionary happenings in the Arab world yet. Well, actually I can believe it, since I've been ungodly busy with grad school. I simply haven't had time to write more than a few lines on anything. But I have to at least acknowledge what's going on.
Remember in history class learning about the "shot heard round the world" that preceded the American Revolutionary War? The self-immolation of Mohammed Al Bouazizi in Tunisia on December 17, 2010, will be talked about in a similar way in the future. The flames of unrest have engulfed an entire world region: Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, and further. The Arab world will never be the same again.
Is this inspiring, horrifying, or both? If the change leads to greater freedom and power for the people, it can only be a good thing. On the other hand, many may recoil at the thought of a person burning himself to death. It shocked the American public in the 60s when Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc protested in the same way, and it shocked the people of ancient Greece when Empedocles through himself into an active volcano in an attempt to prove his immortality (different reasons, same act). Yet there is also something grotesquely compelling about self-destruction by fire.
Thich Quang Duc, Vietnam, 1963, in protest of Buddhist persecution at the hands of South Vietnam's Ngo Dinh Diem administration
Costica Bradatan writes intelligently about the phenomenon of martyrdom by fire, proposing three crucial conditions that give it power. The event must take place:
1. in a context of significant political and social oppression
2. in public, being "performance by definition"
3. within a community with a diffuse sense of guilt for its own inaction, a sense that "nobody is doing anything"
If these three conditions are met, a single self-immolation can spark a conflagration, as it were. Bradatan also remarks that there is something about fire itself, a purity unmatched by other forms of martyrdom. Self-immolation demonstrates complete seriousness and dedication, and transforms the body into light.
I do not in any way condone this form of protest; I simply acknowledge the momentousness of the event. In the case of the Arab world, the wildfire now spreading through the region is unprecedented. We are witnessing history in the making. Someday textbooks may refer to Bouazizi's death as "the beacon fire seen round the world."
Does this man deserve to be called a hero? I don't know. Regardless, his act is changing the world.
Bradatan, Costica. Why Bouazizi burning set Arab world afire. Christian Science Monitor. February 8, 2011.