Sunny Singh makes a very intriguing and perceptive observation about the Arab Spring and the rash of self-immolations that it brought.
She points out that while self-immolation is known culturally in say India or among the Tibetan Buddhists, it is a very important taboo in Islam. Not only is suicide forbidden, but mutilating a body - dead or alive is another big no-no. Self-immolation is not a part of Islamic cultures, which see suicide as sin and even suicide bombings are largely justified by fringe beliefs as an act of jihad, but most Muslims will not be able to reconcile with it as acceptable.
Yet these self-immolations, almost flamboyant in both method and breaking of deep cultural taboos have been everywhere the Arab spring touched.
At this point, it is important to read her post to understand the religious, cultural and historical nuances she brings up.
When I read it, the first thought that struck me was that when something on such a scale, and totally unexplained happens, there is a good reason to look at what could be happening on an unconscious level and what immediately stands out to me, as it did to her is the symbolism. The very public statement being made.
The other thing that stood out to me was that if we look beyond the obvious, and choose to define our own lens for the circumstances rather than that of religion or culture alone, then there are threads in common with the self-immolations in Tibet, the women's self-immolations in Afghanistan, and the historical stories of self-immolation from India.
Now, at this point it is important to say that I am describing a landscape of perceptions, looking at how the unconscious mind may be working. The unconscious works in images and sensations rather than logic. So I am trying to look at those, rather than logic too. For example "suicide is useless because nothing is solved" has no place in this view I'm trying to describe.
About the circumstances:
1. One common factor that stands out instantly is the loss of autonomy. Most of these countries are dictatorships reeling under the choices of dictators or other autocratic rulers with little recourse. Particularly the Afghanistan women, but not men - is a quite telling instance. They feel helpless to influence their own circumstances.
2. The oppressor is perceived as having no concern for them as humans and deserving of consideration. (the "perceived" is not to debate the guilt or innocence of oppressor, but to describe what may appear to the victim)
About the method of suicide:
1. It breaks free of the perceived inability to change circumstances.
2. It grabs attention, so it is a statement.
3. It symbolizes the helplessness as an erasing of the identity from the scene. A charred, dead body has neither the personality nor the look of the person. Like the charred body is there, but means nothing - the live body was there, but meant nothing.
4. It is painful and long drawn rather than, say - a suicide bombing - which as Sunny points out also erases the identity from the scene.
5. It is an angry, torturous, deliberate act.
A hypothesis is that the person feels impotent to change their circumstances. There is a lot of anger at failure to do so. Anger directed at self for failing. The method of death is also a self-punishment for that. There is a need to be heard - to "register" and a willingness to pay a high price for it with pain and death after other options have failed - thus the very visual, dramatic death. The breaking of religious taboo also signifies the breaking free from imposed limits - so I think in that sense the taboo actually makes the act more desired. It is an angry condemnation of the oppressor by creating loud, difficult to ignore illustration of their unacknowledged actions destroying the person.
I disagree with Sunny about this being the symbolism of a suicide attack rather than self-immolation. I think a suicide attack is different in several key ways:
1. Object of anger - self immolation has two clear objects - the oppressor and the self. The punishment of the oppressor is in "exposing" his oppression, powerlessness, a possible intent that society or another more powerful will bring justice. In that sense, it marks the oppressor and attacks self. A suicide-attacker is either angry with the world at large or a person, with or without anger with self. The primary target of punishment is not self - the goal is to erase the presence of others. Also there is no element of self-punishment/pain intended - how it happens may be different. The death is intentionally quick.
2. The person may be cornered if at all, but is not defeated and will go down fighting. The self-immolator has acknowledged his powerlessness, but wants it known.
3. I perceive a suicide attack as resulting from anger rather than desperation, but there may be many reasons - including peer pressure to be a hero.
There are other perceptions too, but now that the "track" is open, I am sure you can think of them yourself.
The unconscious may not be consciously known, but it communicates. The symbolism is unconsciously registered by others too. So I want to look at the movements. Will look at the Afghan women separately.
Self-immolations marked the start of most. People understood the suffering the man was making known, and took it up. They also related with it deeply, because they could recognize it in their circumstances - so they were unconsciously on the same team (and in real life circumstances as citizens too). Others may have recognized the expression as appropriate for their circumstances and self-immolated too. Self-immolations dotted the process, giving voice to the suffering and in that sense adding power to the movement too.
There were no suicide bombings. This was a crowd of oppressed and defeated people at the end of their rope without the resources or inclination to attack the oppressor, leaving it to those able to take up the cause on their behalf. And I include the Tibetans in this.
Another connection I make is with India's Jan Lokpal Andolan. Very similar frustrations, massive mobilization of people. The only difference being that the people still had the right to be heard. There was one self-immolation attempted, but overwhelmingly, people were taking up the cause rather than giving up. I think this is also an important aspect of democracy - however dysfunctional in the moment.
However, the element of suffering manifested as fasting - without any attempt to erase identity. The identity had presence in a democracy, but the suffering hunger echoed the suffering deprivation (scams, inflation, etc) at the hands of the oppressor.
If you take still another example from around the same time - the Occupy Movement. Here, you see neither the physical suffering, nor the attempt to erase identity. You see an element of challenge rather than self-denial/deprivation. Taking risks with being attacked by the system, occupying spaces of power - in some kind of echo of the arbitrariness and inequality? Didn't follow the movement so much, so these are very general impressions rather than nuances - more important for what was not seen as compared with the other protests. This is a democracy, with also a somewhat functioning public welfare system - identity and no desperate deprivation or immediate threat of it.
At the root of these perceptions of deprivation and denial happening worldwide, is what I think Sainath points out in his lecture on mass media and mass reality - rising inequality, food prices, inflation and add to it collapsing economies and floundering corporates being bolstered by public resources, when the public itself is reeling.
The Afghan women's oppressor is not the government, but society and it is a very gender specific oppressor. So you don't find Afghan men self-immolating so much as the women. The Afghan men have their voice in their democracy - again, however dysfunctional - even the fact that "it is supposed to be like this" is often enough for someone to claim that space in need. The protests in Pakistan, for example.
On the other hand, women with their severe social restrictions, an extremely chauvinistic culture and little hopes for bettering their circumstances choose self-immolation largely as a means of escaping domestic violence. The rest of the symbolism remains the same, except the people taking up the cause are far fewer, because women's rights is not as widely identified with a subject and you find more of their champions among the social workers, though there are instances when locals - both men and women have protested when they identified with the victim.
In summary, I think there is a scale of dissent or protesting distress. The easiest method is chosen. Where the victim has voice, they speak up. Where there is no government listening, they rebel. If there is hopelessness, there are public self-immolations. It is about agency, in my view. They may be seeking acknowledgment that they suffered and they matter. Or "proving" the genuineness of their distress and hopelessness that goes unheard with everything they have - their life itself and a painful death in order to make that one statement that matters.