x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

The irrefutable power of a transcendent sacrifice

Self-immolation is at once a very private act and a very public act.

Pep Montserrat for The National
Pep Montserrat for The National

In the photographs it is clear he was calm, even at the end. As the flames melted and charred his face and body, he remained composed, seated in the middle of a Saigon street.

The most famous self-immolation of the 20th century was a very public act. In 1963, Thich Quang Duc, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, set himself alight in protest against the government's policies. Within a few months, popular anger - focused by his act - had forced the collapse of the government. Duc's death was captured by photographers and the image has been republished widely, an instantly recognisable moment of history.

In contrast, the moment of Mohammed Bouazizi's self-immolation in Tunisia that sparked off riots and a revolution was not recorded, as far as we know. Whatever the end of the revolt in Tunisia is, there is not yet a definitive image. But Bouazizi's message was clear and has reverberated with Arab publics and the wider world. The act, if not the message, had instant resonance.

Thich Nhat Hnah, a Buddhist monk who analysed Duc's act, wrote that "to burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance. There is nothing more painful than burning oneself. To say something while experiencing this kind of pain is to say it with the utmost of courage, frankness, determination and sincerity."

Yet what is it about this act of self-violence that so captivates us, that leaves such a strong impression?

Talking about self-immolation over the past week, it is clear that the resonance of the act varies. On one level, it seems so simple: one man's act of despair sets off a chain reaction. But it is more complex than that. The reasons why this act has such resonance for those of us who see it or hear about it turn out to be more complex than we first think.

It starts with the first wife of the Hindu god Shiva. The story is told that Sati, having married Shiva against the wishes of her father, became angry when her father insulted her new husband. Feeling that it was her marriage to Shiva that had brought such ill-feeling on him, she burnt herself to death. It is from her name and this myth that the Indian custom of suttee comes, whereby a woman burns herself on the funeral pyre of her deceased husband.

Suttee was never very common, but its power to shock foreigners and even Indians was strong; it seemed impossible for such devotion to a loved one to carry widows through to death. Yet within Indian tradition suttee is seen as a selfless act, as a way of maintaining dignity and sacrificing oneself for a greater reason.

This same misunderstanding can be seen in western news reports after the self-immolation of Thich Quang Duc. But Buddhist and Confucian traditions ascribe a different meaning to an act that harms the body than the Abrahamic faiths. As with Hindu tradition, they see such an act as a sacrifice, but also a way of moving beyond the body. In eastern traditions, physical life does not end with the destruction of the body.

The Abrahamic religions usually fundamentally disagree with anything that defiles the body. These faiths consider the body a gift from God - perhaps even fashioned in their creator's own image - and destroying it is a grave sin. In many countries it is even an illegal act.

Yet Christianity, at least, has accepted the idea of self-sacrifice. Over the centuries of Christian persecution and struggles between Catholics and Protestants, many Christians chose to die for their faith and were afterward revered as martyrs.

There is, however, an important distinction, in that Christian martyrs were killed for their faith, they did not ignite themselves because of it. In other words, someone else struck the match. Those who died were not therefore defiling their own bodies.

Yet the idea of dying for a cause is deep rooted in both Christian and Muslim faiths; Jesus Christ, a prophet to both faiths, was killed for his beliefs.

It makes more sense, however, to view self-immolation outside of a religious context. Afghan women today burn themselves, regardless of religious edict, because of their social circumstances. US Christians who burnt themselves to protest against the Vietnam War did so against their religious beliefs, because of their political views.

It is this last form of self-immolation that is most familiar from the 20th century and its struggles against authoritarian governments. Self-immolation was used to protest against communist regimes in eastern Europe and China. It worked especially in paternalistic states, those governments that purported to provide everything for their citizens. In such a context it was a clear cry of removing responsibility for one's self from the faceless state, of seizing back control. Political repression that brooked no dissent among the population meant that the state had power even over your own body. Such an act was a way of protesting against the power of the state, of figuratively releasing oneself from the grip of the state. In the end, that self-harm is the last refuge.

It is with those ideas in mind that we can look at Bouazizi's act and understand our reaction to it. Self-immolation carries with it a tradition that is apparent to the viewer, reaching back to historical understandings but carried out in the midst of particular political circumstances.

Yet there are other types of political protest and self-harm, those aimed internally - hunger strikes - and those aimed externally such as suicide attacks. Our reaction to them differ. Especially with suicide attacks, which aim, unlike hunger strikes, to end with the death of the actor, public reaction is one of revulsion, whether towards the kamikaze pilots of Japan's military or the men and women of the Tamil Tigers or al Qa'eda.

And it is easy to see why: these attacks are aimed at others, at harming and killing. Suicide attacks are first and foremost attacks, aiming to take the internal feelings of the actor and externalise them by force. While there is always a private element to these attacks, they are mainly public.

Self-immolation is at once a very private and very public act. It is public because it requires an audience to see or hear of it. But it is also intensely private, requiring thought and resignation, an understanding of the physical suffering that will occur before death. "It is out of my hands," Bouazizi is reported to have written before his act. "There is no more room for reproach or blame."

It is because of this internal dialogue that we are amazed by the act, by the definitiveness of the stance. A person who self-immolates wants no sympathy, no advice, no help. We are required only to watch.

Faisal al Yafai is an award-winning journalist. You can follow him at twitter.com/faisalalyafai