Skip to main content

Self-immolation spreads in Middle East

Self-immolation is becoming tragically more common in the Middle East, including Lebanon, where Syrian refugees are not the only ones setting themselves on fire in acts of desperation and despair.

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Twenty-five-year-old Mohammed Heriz lay in his hospital bed in Beirut, breathing heavily, covered head to waist in bandages. His eyes struggled to stay open after a dose of morphine for the pain of his burned body.

On Oct. 16, Heriz set himself ablaze during a protest in front of the Lebanese military court. Protesters were demanding the release of citizens detained by the Lebanese military earlier in the month.

Since August, Lebanese citizens have called for an end to the crisis that began after trash accumulated in the streets due to the closure of a landfill south of Beirut. The loosely organized “You Stink” movement took off when other protesters took advantage of the widespread call for change and accused the government of corruption, with some even calling for new elections.

Tensions between sectarian-oriented political parties and between members of the Lebanese parliament have prevented a presidential candidate from being elected, and the country has been without a president for 17 months.

Heriz’ friend and fellow protester Lita Hanna was there when it happened and told Al-Monitor at the hospital, “We saw him holding benzene and he spread it on the ground, around him on the road. We thought he wanted to burn tires, but then he set fire to himself.”

Amir Bachir, an Eritrean nurse in the burn unit, has tended to Heriz since he arrived and explained that when Heriz came in “45% of his body was burned. We ran a line through his arm and had to do a blood transfusion. We took blood samples and cultures. He has pain, but he is stable.”

Mohammed’s father, Mahmoud, arrived at the hospital with Hanna. He said that he is not currently working due to health issues and that the burden was compounded for his family when Mohammed was not able to find work. He said, “I was against this [protesting] at first, but now I will support him. The situation of the state — they are not honest.” 

Heriz is another case of growing desperation in the Middle East for a stable life.

Since 2010, when Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of the Tunisian government offices, a regional movement against economic disparity has risen to prominence. But self-immolation is a relatively new form of protest in the region.

According to Imad Salamey, an associate professor of political science at Lebanese American University, “When people reach a situation of hopelessness, they find death more rational than life.” But he explained that not everyone who immolates themselves intends to die. “The reason they do it publicly  it's not a suicidal act, it's a message to others. It's politicized to mobilize a way for change.”

In the year following Bouazizi’s death, self-immolation cases multiplied, including at least five in Morocco, men in JordanEgypt and Saudi Arabia and an elderly woman in Bahrain, all facing economic disparity, debt or unemployment.

A 2014 study by the US National Library of Medicine showed that 25-40% of all suicides in Iran were cases of self-immolation. In March 2015, an Iranian fruit vendor lit himself on fire after the government confiscated his fruit stand. In May 2015, a report emerged of a Syrian Kurd in Greece who set himself ablaze.

Lebanon had already suffered cases of self-immolation among Syrian refugees. But due to a heavy influx of asylum seekers, the Lebanese government has been pulled into sectarian discord and struggles to regulate amenities like trash, electricity and water.

In 2012, The New Yorker explored the origins of the practice in both Asia and ancient Europe. Author James Verini noted, “Perhaps self-immolation captivates so thoroughly because it wins on all counts. It is the ultimate act of both despair and defiance, a symbol at once of resignation and heroic self-sacrifice.”

However, when Al-Monitor asked Heriz if he felt igniting himself was worth the risk of death to send a message, he said, “I don’t know. Every day I am at war; there is no water or electricity. I want to have peace. I don’t have anything.”

Despite Heriz’ mental struggle, Ghida Grangieh, a member of the Lawyers Committee for the Defense of Protesters, told Al-Monitor that his actions were a “clear symbolic move ... of someone who was willing to harm himself and destroy his life because of the situation.”

Anti-government protesters have split since the You Stink movement raised its environmental demands. Protesters have created splinter groups calling for accountability from government officials and for some of their resignations, while others want an end to sectarian politics or specific measures to fix infrastructure problems.

Salamey stated he thought the Lebanese protesters are too diverse in their demands and need “a program of action that would convince people they could do something, that they could change the reality, so they could express themselves before the matter got worse rather than resort to extreme forms of protest.”

Most self-immolation cases in the Middle East appear to involve poverty-stricken citizens with no psychological support in facing socio-economic despair. The Arab world has faced a significant unemployment crisis due to continuous unrest and conflict. In dire circumstances, psychological needs are not often a primary concern for those struggling; rather, their survival takes precedence.

Salamey pointed out that the social impact of self-immolation has spread through the use of cell phones and social media, often emotionally affecting people. However, there is no guarantee it will have a substantial effect on political leaders.

Grangieh, who has represented a number of Lebanese protesters who have been detained, believes the courts are impacted by the citizens’ protests. She explained that civilian cases are being pushed to military courts because protesters are accused of actions such as damaging military property or defaming the military. But the military judiciary knows protesters are monitoring them, and this knowledge has driven their decisions to release detainees. 

As for Heriz, Hanna said she still believes he “is a hero because he did this for his friends and for his culture. And what he did was make us feel more supportive.” She went on to say that in spite of the diverse religious backgrounds of the Lebanese, “We are together. The government is against this because they don’t want us to be unified.”

“We are Shiite Muslim, and she is Christian,” Heriz’s father explained. He smiled and leaned over to kiss the cross around Hanna’s neck.

Meanwhile, Heriz will rest and recover, but he said he is not done protesting and plans to return to the streets when he gets out of the hospital.

More from Ash Gallagher

Recommended Articles