Suicide, Islam and Politics

In January 1969, a young man entered Wenceslas Square, doused himself with petrol and set himself on fire. [1] This was a desperate act to dramatize the failure to follow up the momentum of the “Prague Spring” of the previous year. For a whole generation of young Europeans, eastern as well as western, Jan Palach was a symbol, both tragic and heroic. In their eyes, what could be more anthropologically definitive than to give one’s life, to die voluntarily – and not slowly? [2] This was a rejection of the idea that suicide is scandalous. The young Czech student had imitated the action of a bonze, Tich Quang Duc, who had burned himself to death in Saigon in 1963 to protest against the Ngo Dinh Diem regime that was dependant on the United States, which was already engaged in fighting against North Vietnam and its allies in the south. At the end of 2010, the same gesture was made by a Tunisian fruit and vegetable merchant. In this case, Mohammad Al-Bu’azizi, in addition to the despair associated with being despised and underprivileged, a condition shared by many of his compatriots, also had the personal humiliation of having been struck by a woman, who represented the established order. But that was not the crucial factor, because within a month, around thirty people were to repeat this action of self-immolation, in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Yemen. This is a headstrong action, and its effect is even greater for being the visible part of an increasingly widespread phenomenon, which breaks with the traditional idea that life is not primarily self-dependence.

Norms and Realities

Researchers know that the “real” is not the “norm”; among the duties of a specialist in the study of religion is that of measuring the distance between the “prescribed” and the “lived”. [3] Suicide does exist in Muslim-majority societies, as elsewhere, both among women (with more attempts) and men (with more deaths), especially among the unemployed and the generation aged 18 to 30. [4] In the middle of the 2000’s, in an article headlined “Every day, an Algerian commits suicide…”, El Watan reported: “Ending their lives in order to flee a reality too hard to endure: that is how 177 Algerian souls counted by the police were carried off during the past year, in addition to 128 sadly recorded by the national gendarmerie. Is there reason for alarm? The answer is undoubtedly yes, for the curve is going up and the number of suicides is increasing, even if only slightly.” [5] The first official figures date from 1993, coming from the security services, who noticed a progression that, according to them, is putting Algeria up near the mean of Arab countries: from 0.94 per 100,000 in 1999 to 2.25 per 100,000 in 2003. [6] These statistics understate the reality, the journalists add. With few or no self-immolations, the methods currently used are barbiturates, jumping, hanging, gas, guns and chemicals. Suicide attempts are made by consuming “spirit of salt”, a euphemism for products used to unblock drains. And, since sometimes it is only a short step from misery to humour, [7] here is a short story: A man walks into a local shop. The shopkeeper asks: “Can I help you, sir?” The man replies: “I would like a bottle of spirit of salt, please.” The shopkeeper asks: “To eat here or to take away?” [8]

Suicide has been a taboo subject for ages. The same is true of a number of practices related to customs concerning, for example, sexuality as it is actually experienced rather than as it is idealized in a projected denominational model (e.g. sexual relations before marriage, or homosexuality). Fearing the opprobrium that will descend on the suicide’s family, there is a tendency for the cause of death to be hushed up. So in the current state of things, it is not possible for an analysis to be based on reliable statistics. The publicity given to the self-immolations of 2010-2011 has loosened some tongues, but has not removed doubts about the numbers. Thus, the Syrian website Dpress contends that countless numbers of self-immolaters have followed in Al-Bu’azizi’s footsteps. [9] According to some sources, the suicide rate in Tunisia surpasses that of the other Arab countries. The views of psychotherapists (psychoanalysts, psychologists, and psychiatrists) have been sought, and civil associations have set up professional bodies to respond. For example, in Algeria, there is SOS Suicide Phénix and SOS Amitié. Also, imams in charge of Friday prayers constantly deliver messages forbidding suicide. [10]

Dominique Avon

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