Why Is the Arab Spring So Obsessed With Martyrs?

Repressive political cultures and other factors make martyrdom central to the movements there, but they might not be so unique.

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Bessema Bouazizi, half-sister of Mohamed Bouazizi, holds a poster of her brother at her home in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid / Reuters

During the 11 days of agony and ecstasy between Ben Ali's flight from Tunis on January 14, 2011, and the beginning of the Tahrir Square protests on January 25, I remember discussing Mohamed Bouazizi with my coworkers at the Beijing bureau of a Chinese newspaper. As one of a few part-Tunisians in China, I was treated as a sort of spokesman for a country I have actually never seen.

There was no way to convey, in the span of a lunch break, the 23 years of systematic humiliation and economic injustice that my grandmother's relatives experienced under Ben Ali. So I described the many popular images of the martyr, Mohammed Bouazizi, who in lighting himself on fire had thrown his body on the gears of the regime and started the revolution that I had seen in news broadcasts, plastered on revolutionary pickets across Tunis.

The images of his martyrdom had become the images of Tunisia's revolution. The proud face, his fruit cart, his body consumed in flames, Ben Ali hovering at his bedside in a sad moment that illustrated the opportunism and desperation of a regime in decline.

A few days later, I had to make another explanation, present another before-and-after picture of a young North African man who died, albeit unknowingly, for a cause.

Plastered across Tahrir on posters and printouts was the face of Egyptian youth activist Khaled Said alongside a photo of his head after police had literally shattered it against the marble of his own apartment building. The before-and-after helped wake up enough Egyptians to oust President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years of his silencing so many other pro-democracy movements.

"In Egypt, there were a lot of people carrying around pictures of Khaled Said," said Mosa'ab Elshamy, a 21-year-old Cairene photo blogger who protested in Tahrir during the 18 days that ousted Mubarak, "[Egyptians] remembered him throughout the 18 days. The fact that so many went right ahead to Said's family house right after Mubarak stepped down to chant for him and celebrate with his mother was a very obvious gesture."

The likenesses of Mohamed Bouazizi and Khaled Said are everywhere during the revolutionary anniversaries in Tunisia and Egypt, on posters, stamps, plaques, and statues. But, with so many others who gave their lives, it's easy to wonder why these two men earn such special acclaim. Some 3,500 Tunisian and 30,000 Egyptian political dissidents were imprisoned before the revolutions early last year, and many people have been killed during protests against both regimes. Bouazizi and Said didn't even knowingly die for the cause of government accountability or democracy.

"The revolution needed the spark," explained Radwan Masmoudi, the Tunisian-born president of the D.C.-based Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, just before his first flight to post-revolutionary Tunisia, "Martyrs are something that attracts your attention."

Masmoudi believes it was precisely because Bouazizi wasn't anyone special that his image struck a chord with the Tunisian public.

"Things had already reached a boiling point, and the timing was such that hundreds of people who had had enough with the regime said, 'This could have been me. This is a young, educated Tunisian who could have been me," he said.

Elshamy suggested the same of Said, Bouazizi's Egyptian counterpart.

"Khaled Said's case was unique, because he was your regular, young, middle-class man, who lived his life normally and wasn't too involved in politics," Elshamy said, "And when he died, it became certain that you don't have to be an opposition figure or in the Muslim Brotherhood to get killed by the Ministry of the Interior."

"This made him an icon. It started a flame within millions of young men, who felt the danger that they may have had the same fate if they didn't do something."

And then came Google executive Wael Ghonim's famous Facebook page We Are All Khaled Said, now credited with orchestrating much of the revolution that took down a three-decade dictatorship in 18 days. The email address associated with the Arabic and English versions of the page is elshaheeed@gmail.com, the romanization of the Arabic word for 'the martyr.'

Why was it that so much of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions hinged on martyrdom? The U.S.-born international Occupy movement is not only without a Khaled Said or Mohamed Bouazizi, but is ostensibly leaderless -- without any faces at all.

Free Arab Voice co-editor Nabila Harb wrote in The Truth about Martyrdom in Arab and Islamic Culture, "The concept of the martyr in the Arab world is one that is fundamental to Arab culture, connoting a life that is sacrificed for a cause." Harb also writes about the centrality of martyrs in not only Arab culture but also Islam.

"That's an oversimplification," responded Mokhtar Kamel, Egyptian national and board member of the Egyptian-American Alliance, to the idea that martyrdom is somehow more central to Arab or Muslim culture than others.

However, he conceded, "Though I may reach the same conclusion if I were a researcher or an academic. There's a lot of material supporting that idea."

In fact, suicides -- even Bouazizi's- - are condemned by Islam, and are thought to be punishable by eternal damnation.

"A society produces its own iconography," said Dr. Osama W. Abi-Mershed, the director of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University, "The concept of martyrdom isn't any more central to Arab culture or Islam than Christianity of Judaism. The Christian tradition of martyrdom is much more central. Jesus himself was a martyr."

Abi Mershed explained that the reason why Tunisia and Egypt each needed a martyr and Occupy doesn't is a question of vastly different political environments.

"There's a difference between the highly repressive states, which you had in Tunisia and Egypt, and societies with due process and accountability," Abi Mershed said, "There are more legitimate outlets to air grievances [here] than there were in Egypt or Tunisia. Immolation is the ultimate sacrifice for people who are entirely powerless and have only their bodies to give."

"Egyptians, before the revolution, lived in extreme totalitarian regimes that have done their best to block the possibility of dissent, not only through security, but through cultural means," Kamel said.

"The people of the Middle East are constantly misinformed, deliberately. There are a lot of anti-dissent ideas pumped into their heads."

Kamel added that religious leaders "have been telling the people that revolting against a ruler is against God."

The Democracy ReportMartyrdom in Arab and Muslim societies has become a major issue of contention in Abi Mershed's academic field, especially after some terrorist organizations heralded as martyrs the perpetrators of September 11 as well as suicide bombings in Palestine/Israel.

"About 10 years ago there was a big debate about suicide bombers in Muslim countries and some academics were saying this was a manifestation of ingrained violence of these societies," Abi Mershed said.

"And the counter-argument was that suicide bombings are about asymmetrical forces and modes of resistance of the desperate against the state that has monopolized all legitimate forms of violence. When the state uses violence, innocent victims are usually explained away as collateral damage."

Not everyone in the Occupy movement believes there haven't been martyrs in the occupy-style American movements for government accountability

"The martyrdom in Occupy is an economic martyrdom. It's not a physical or religious one," said the Egyptian-American Alliance's Kamel, who has been deeply involved in the occupy movement in D.C.

Kamel argued that each individual owner of a foreclosed home could be seen as something of an American Khaled Said.

"I think Mohamed Bouazizi was the spark for the occupy movement in the United States -- We live in a global village," said Tunisian-American Masmoudi, "People saw what happened in Egypt and Tunisia and realized we need to take to the streets and speak out for our rights."

Not everyone at the Occupy encampment in Washington D.C. agreed with Masmoudi.

"I didn't start Occupy because of the Middle East. That didn't have anything to do with it," said Michigan-native Sarah McAdams, manning the occupy information tent while eating a peanut butter sandwich on sliced wheat from the rations tent.

McAdams joined the movement to address what she sees as America's economic injustice and the failure of the U.S. government to hold Wall Street CEOs accountable for the economic crisis.

But occupy participant Will O'Neill did know about his counterparts in North Africa.

"When Mohamed, what's his name...," O'Neill asked.

"Mohamed Bouazizi," O'Neill's fellow occupier Mike Patterson chimed in.

"When Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire, he was the tipping point for worldwide angst against a lack of government accountability," O'Neill said, explaining that although Bouazizi's images aren't on display across occupy encampments in the U.S., his story is behind the impetus for much of the 99%.