Tunisian Uprising: The Other Martyrs

Tunisian Uprising: The Other Martyrs

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The Tunisian uprising didn’t just bring down a president, it gave birth to a new kind of martyr in the Arab world. So far, more than a dozen young men and women in different countries have doused themselves with gasoline and set themselves on fire. The public and media are calling them martyrs.

Considering the ban on suicide in Islam, the pronounced support of these deaths seems to indicate a trend of turning away from religion when it comes to solving some of Arab society’s biggest problems.

Arab media calls the new self-immolation phenomenon “Al Bou-azizieh,” after Mohammed Bouazizi, the 26-year-old Tunisian vendor who burned himself outside a government building, setting off what many Arab journalists now call the “glorious uprising."

These aren't suicide bombers; they are self-immolators. Their objective is not to kill the maximum number of people as a means of bringing about political change. And they do not expect to be escorted to heaven or be accompanied by 72 virgins while there.

Rather, their purpose is calling attention to their plight by inflicting on themselves the most excruciating method of death. Their decision to violate the clear Islamic ban on self-immolation is in effect a statement that they are losing their religion.

Islamic authority figures are more than a little alarmed.

While the Arab media has glorified Bouazizi, clerics and theologians of Islam have tried to emphasize the ban on suicide in Islam.

Well-known theologian Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, who also hosts a popular program on Al Jazeera television called “Shariah and Life,” was one of the voices that initially opposed the rising trend of self-immolation. “I pray to God Almighty to forgive this young man [Bouazizi] and pardon his action that violates religion, which forbids the killing of one’s self," Qaradawi said.

But the unpopular stance taken by him and other religious figures toward a revolutionary hero has led to some backpeddling. Al-Qaradawi eventually retracted his position, explaining on his website that Bouazizi's self-immolation was justifiable because it was in protest of hunger and humiliation.

Al-Qaradawi was referring to the event that reportedly triggered Bouazizi's act: A police officer confiscated his only means of income, an illegal vegetable vending cart, and allegedly slapped him on the face in public—doubly offensive because the officer was female. She has been arrested, and her brother told the New York Times that she did not slap Bouazizi.

While Al-Qaradawi and other religious figures continue to call on young Muslims not to immolate themselves, their words have fallen on deaf ears.

In the days since the Tunisian president was ousted, at least a dozen people in other Arab countries—including five in Egypt, eight in Algeria, and one in Mauritania—have set themselves on fire. They have caused a great deal of embaresment to their governmnts and brought attintion to the widespread coruption and injuctices, in ways sucide bombers have never been able to do.

Abdel al-Bari Atwan, the editor-in chief of the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi, called for the erection of a statue of Bouazizi “to immortalize his memory and sacrifice." Others, such as Tawfiq Rabahi, an Algerian writer and journalist who lives in exile, supported the call. 

The Tunisian people aren’t waiting around for statues to be erected, however. The residents of Bouazizi’s hometown of Sidi Bouzid have already used the walls of their homes and buildings to publicize phrases glorifying Bouazizi and his role in igniting the uprising. The town has become a mural of homage to their hero.

Near the area where Bouazizi set himself on fire, residents have placed his picture on a statue that was put there by the former regime. On the wall nearby, members of the public have written “this is the square of the martyr Bouazizi." There have been calls for a street to be named after him. 

It is hard to know what went through the minds of these new “martyrs” before they decided to light their matches, but writers in major Algerian newspapers seem to agree that the copycat immolators hope that their tragic deaths will bring about a similar uprising in their countries.

“Frustration has caused the youth to lose their social and religious values,” a social scientist from the University of Algiers told Al-Quds Al-Arabi. “Religious decrees banning self-immolation no longer deter those who are being subjected to injustices from dousing themselves with gasoline and setting themselves on fire."

For the Bouazizi family, the reasons seem clear. ”What kind of oppression pushes a young man to self-immolate?” his sister Lila was quoted as asking. “In Sidi Bouzid, those who do not have connections or do not have money to pay bribes are humiliated and not allowed to live.” 

Judging by the support her family has received, and the growing numbers of people who have followed Bouazizi’s lead, Arabs identify with these problems, regardless of where they live. And they are no longer turning to religion for the answers.