- By Joshua Keating
Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy
The latest from relatively calm Jordan:
A Jordanian man set himself on fire outside the prime minister’s office in Amman in the first such act since political unrest hit the country in January.
Mohammed Abdul-Karim was in critical condition with third-degree burns to his face and much of his body, said a doctor at Bashir Hospital. It was a similar act of self-immolation by a vegetable vendor in Tunisia in December that ignited the wave of protests that brought down autocratic rulers there and in Egypt and is threatening others across the Arab world. Similar acts occurred in other Muslim countries – some of them fatal – to protest repressive governments.
If you haven’t yet, it’s well worth checking out Adam Lankford’s piece on self-immoation from January. Lankford has argued in his work that it’s worth considering that the most salient fact about suicide bombers is not their political motivation, but the fact that they are suicidal. He feels a similar perspective is needed when talking about self-immolators:
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.[…]
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.
Of course, governments deserve the blame whenever there are enough "jobless, homeless, frustrated" young men that these acts become a trend.