Self-immolation and the power of self-sacrifice

Since Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself last month—inspiring a national uprising in Tunisia—nearly two dozen attempted self-immolations have been reported across the Arab world, three of them fatal. It is believed that most were political acts committed by people suffering from economic despair and political oppression, leaving many Arab leaders fearful that further uprisings may follow. This raises important questions about the dynamics of self-immolation and whether it is not only a legitimate form of protest, but also a strategic form of resistance.

To better understand it within the context of nonviolence, I turned to Michael Nagler, president of the Metta Center for Nonviolence Education in Berkeley, California. I began by asking him about the history of self-immolation, its ties to culture and religion, and whether we in the West should be careful to pass judgment.

While there are traditions within cultures (think of the Samurai code) and religions (Buddhist monk or monks appear to have set themselves on fire in Ancient Athens, prompting St Paul’s comment “if I give myself over to be burnt” in 2 Corinthians) that countenance self-immolation to various degrees, it is surely an act that impacts others in a universal, not to say shocking way.

The question is, what is the message it conveys? Buddhist monks immolating themselves in Vietnam had a desired effect, while the American who tried it in front of the White House did not. So while the statement “I no longer want to live” is universal, the interpretation of it is potentially positive in a culture (like Buddhist Vietnam) that places a high value on and understands the significance and power of self sacrifice, but not necessarily in a go-getter culture like our own.

Islam seems to me somewhere in between. The concept of martyrdom seems to have originated among Jews about two centuries after Christ, and Gandhi said of the martyr, Imam Hussein, “I learned from Hussein how to achieve victory while being oppressed.” However, there is a big difference between martyrdom and self-immolation, because the latter is voluntary while the former is only accepted.

Let’s take the case of a fast unto death, because Gandhi did accept and actually practice it, as we know, to good effect (that’s an understatement!). What people rarely realize is that there are five rules for such a drastic act, some of which might be met by the contemporary self-immolaters:

  1. You must be the man or woman for the job, i.e., really in possession of your will to live. Gandhi and the monks of Vietnam qualify. I doubt most of the imitators of Mohamed Bouazizi do.
  2. The audience you intend to reach must be a ‘lover,’ in Gandhi’s language: someone who has enough of a bond with you to be moved. I doubt this obtains in our case now.
  3. It must be a last resort. I don’t think other means have been exhausted here.
  4. The demand you are making on the opponent must be doable. I worry about the vagueness of what the contemporary martyrs are protesting. Bouazizi and the Korean farmer who killed himself at the World Trade Organization meeting in 2003 were simply at their wits’ end and could not go on living.
  5. It must be consistent with the rest of the campaign, or movement.  In other words, the Irish fasters in Long Kesh prison, some of whom did give up their lives, more or less threw away the gesture because the rest of the revolt was not at all nonviolent at that time.

All this being said, there is yet another important difference between a fast unto death and self immolation: in a fast you are ready to give it up the instant the opponent has responded: you are trying to persuade him. With that accomplished, the fast has done its work and you go on living together. But when you immolate yourself you are not having a ‘conversation’ with the opponent. No reconciliation, for example, is possible. For this reason, I suspect Gandhi would have been horrified at what these imitators are doing, without in the least blaming them. He would have accepted their courage but tried to show them a better way.

While self-immolation may lack the constructive attributes of a nonviolent act like fasting unto death, it is, as Stratfor’s Rodger Baker recently explained, “a method of public death that doesn’t harm others in the same way that suicide bombings or attacks of that sort do.” This raises the question: does self-immolation deserve less criticism, particularly in a region where suicide bombing might be unfortunately more expected?

Immolation is vastly preferable to suicide bombing, of course.  But it’s not perfect.  It has the difficulties enumerated above, and it sends a message that there is nothing else one can do, while in reality other nonviolent options are usually available if you happen to know what they are (as so few of us do). This is by no means to overlook the courage of all people driven to that extreme; but it is to say that such a thing is to be contemplated only as a really last resort. And its results, as we can see, are hit or miss, unlike the famous fasts of Gandhi.

In the Garwahl district of the lower Himalayas, tradition relates that centuries before the Chipko (tree-hugging) movement began in the early 1970s hundreds of villagers had thrown themselves off a cliff when the local Raja began deforesting their land for his own profit. So their sacrifice was not entirely in vain: it had some effect on the Raja and left a legacy that the Chipko people could pick up.

In the rare case where suicide does have a powerful political impact, as in Tunisia, it is tough for advocates of nonviolence to relate. But there are important lessons to be learned, as Nagler explained.

We should take from the act the courage and self-sacrifice it implies without thinking to imitate it directly in the same form. We progressives (or whatever we are) often make this mistake: to focus on tactics without understanding their underlying dynamic… This is an opportunity to get some nonviolent principles before the eyes of the public, who badly need to know that nonviolence is not some hapless, hit-or-miss action but a science with discernible principles we can all learn to use much better than we do at present.

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