Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia on 17 December 2010. He died of his injuries 18 days later. He took this extreme action to protest the venal corruption of local police officers. He might instead have gone to the local police station with explosives strapped to his body or blazing away with an assault rifle. But, in that case he would be just another suicide bomber to go with the nearly 5000 others in the last 20 years.
Bouazizi’s goal was to invoke empathy for the way that he and thousands of others had been treated, rather than to invoke terror. He couldn’t have imagined how successful he would be. The Tunisian President, President Pine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country after 23 years in power. Mubarak has gone. Qaddafi is next, and who knows where it ends. I find it fascinating that empathy has proven so much more effective than terror as an agent of change.
Suicide as a political act is quite rare through history. When it does happen, it can have a dramatic impact. The Buddhist monks who burned themselves with gasoline in Laos and Cambodia during the Vietnam war had a substantial impact on the American public. The hunger strike of Bobby Sands for his Irish republican cause had a similar impact. Mahatma Gandhi’s hunger strike was an important part of his campaign. Throughout history there have been martyrs who were prepared to accept excruciating deaths to advance their political or religious cause. The Romans were deeply impressed by how many early Christians would accept an agonising death rather than renounce their beliefs.
Suicide bombings are a different thing. They are in essence acts of violence, rather than acts of sacrifice. And they are treated by the public accordingly. My reaction to 5000 suicide bombings — from mostly islamist groups — is to acknowledge the intensity of feeling and determination to succeed that there is among the members of various islamist groups. Suicide attacks are rare in history. 5000 over 20 years exhibits an immense and enduring level of determination, which cannot be ignored.
But I wonder whether empathy would be a more effective tool than suicide attacks for islamists. It is hard to think of a cause that has been won through terrorism, and many have failed.