The demand for dignity surpasses all others

There are those who want to portray the emerging trend of self-immolation across the Middle East as the expression of suicidal desperation. For instance, Adam Lankford, attempts to explain away the death of Mohamed Bouazizi — the man who triggered the Tunisian revolution — suggesting that:

By setting himself on fire near a government building during a period of political turmoil, Bouazizi must have anticipated that his act would be interpreted as a sign of political protest. And those who followed him were also no doubt aware of how their actions would be interpreted in this climate. However, it is relatively common for depressed and suicidal people to try to latch on to something bigger and more significant than themselves in their last moments on Earth — regardless of their primary agenda.

Subsequent deaths have been referred to as “copycats” — as though the most intensely solitary moment of anyone’s life would be shaped by thoughts of imitation.

Such observations are glib interpretations of death made by those who view it from a comfortably safe distance.

Michael Slackman recounts the story of an Egyptian man, Abdo Abdel-Moneim Hamadah, which is strikingly similar to that of Mohamed Bouazizi.

Mr. Hamadah had a small sandwich shop in Ismailia. The government bureaucracy suddenly denied him access to a monthly allowance of cheap, state-subsidized bread. After he set himself on fire, the government-controlled media said he was suicidal over that issue.

A relative said, however, that his protest was not about bread but dignity, the same intangible that drove Mr. Bouazizi to light himself on fire and that the governments here and around the region have yet to redress. The relative said Mr. Hamadah snapped after a government official agreed to give him back the bread, not because he was entitled to it, but as charity.

“They spoke to him like he was a beggar,” said the relative, who spoke anonymously for fear of government retribution. After Mr. Hamadah burned himself, the relative said, the government turned over the cheap bread.

“He got his rights,” the relative said. That, he said, was all Mr. Hamadah had been seeking.

In these acts of self immolation, individuals when stripped of every other power are asserting the one and only power they still possess: the power to end their own lives. Whether or not conceived as a revolutionary trigger, this is without question, a political action. It is a demand that the state not treat an individual life as worthless — a demand that such a life not be disregarded and treated with contempt.

The New York Times reports on the political shifts now evident in many quarters of the Middle East, through which ideology is being set aside in response to an even more urgent demand for the restoration of human dignity and liberation from oppression.

Egypt’s most powerful and proscribed opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, has decided that it will not participate in an antigovernment demonstration this week for a curious reason: The protest conflicts with a national holiday honoring the police.

“We should all be celebrating together,” said Essam el-Erian, a senior member of the group, offering an explanation that seemed more in line with government thinking than that of an outlawed Islamist organization whose members are often jailed.

That type of calculation, intended to avoid a direct confrontation with the state, is helping build momentum, many here say, for a political evolution — in Egypt and around the region — where calls for change are less and less linked to a particular ideology like Islamism. Instead, analysts and activists say the forces that brought people to the streets in Tunisia and excited passions across the Middle East are far more fundamental and unifying: concrete demands to end government corruption, institute the rule of law and ease economic suffering.

This is a relatively nascent development in a society like Egypt, which has been depoliticized over the past three decades of President Hosni Mubarak’s one party, authoritarian rule, experts said. But the shift seems to be striking fear in the country’s leadership, which has successfully pacified opposition by oppressing those it cannot co-opt, but which remains anxious about the prospect of a popular revolt, political analysts and activists said.

“Ideology now has taken a back seat until we can get rid of this nightmare confronting everyone,” said Megahed Melligi, 43, a longtime member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt who said he quit the group three years ago out of frustration. “This nightmare is the ruling party and the current regime. This is everyone’s nightmare.”

In 1979, the Iranian revolution introduced the Muslim world to the force of political Islam, which frightened entrenched leaders, as well as the West. That ideology still has a powerful hold on people’s imaginations across the region, which continues to feed fighters to jihadist movements. But like Arabism and socialism before it, the political Islam of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran and the radicalized ideology of Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden have failed to deliver in practical ways for the millions of people across the Middle East who live in bastions of autocratic rule.

That failure — and now the unexpected success of Tunisians in bringing down their government — appears to be at the heart of a political recalculation among some about how best to effect change in the Arab world. The Tunisians were joined together by anger at oppression and corruption rather than any overarching philosophy.

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  1. Were the self-immolations of, in no particular order, Norman Morrison, Roger Allen LaPorte, Alice Herz and Thích Quảng Đức expressions of suicidal desperation? The trouble is that these days, shits like Tony Blair would describe such acts as terrorism and pass a law against it.

  2. Black slaves would occasionally rise up and strike their masters and tormentors down, this too was a suicidal act, but a last grasp of dignity. I’ve written here before that Native American mothers and Black Slave Mothers both, in acts separated by centuries drowned their own children. But, I’m sure this is something new, that humanity and dignity are evolving so quickly, that that past would have little bearing on today. Or, we are an idiot people with no perspective.