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The Significance of Self-Immolation: Then and Now

Updated: Mar 23

Aaron Bushnell, a twenty-five-year-old U.S. Air Force Member succumbed to his injuries after setting himself on fire in front of the Israeli Embassy in Washington D.C last Sunday.

Since his death, many have marched in his memory in some of the biggest cities in the United States. He was also not the first to self-immolate in front of an Israeli embassy. Last December, an unnamed woman set herself on fire in front of an Israeli embassy in Atlanta. 

Similar cases of self-immolation, while solitary, have signified turning points in history and a newfound collective consciousness for issues previously ignored.

Mohamed Bouazizi was a Tunisian vendor who self-immolated due to intense frustration at Tunisia’s corrupt and harsh government. His act of despair sparked the Arab Spring, a series of pro-democracy protests, rebellions and uprisings that took place in 2011, which fundamentally changed the relationship between citizens and their governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain. 

Sahar Khodayari was an Iranian woman who self-immolated in 2019, in protest of Iran’s infamous sports stadium ban after being caught trying to enter a sports stadium dressed as a man. Her death raised awareness of the inequalities between men and women; not just in Iran, but all around the globe. 

As we know, fire has historically had a deep religious significance, symbolizing purity, power and destruction in almost every corner of the world. In Hindu cremations, Zoroastrian fire ceremonies and even Christian tradition, fire is one of the most important elements in religious rituals, symbolism and practices. 

An example of self-immolation as a protest motivated both by politics and religion is the case of Tibetan Buddhist monks, who have self-immolated as a form of protest against Tibet’s occupation by China, and to demand the return of the Dalai Lama. Vietnamese Buddhist monks also self-immolated in the era of the Vietnam War, to protest both the mistreatment of Buddhists in Vietnam and the Vietnam War. Thích Quảng Đức was a monk whose self-immolation was captured on camera and shared around the world, and became known as the ‘Burning Monk.’ 

Fire is powerful. Its warmth is a blessing, but if left unattended, can destroy any and everything in its path. Fire is what sparked our evolution, and is what some, like Aaron Bushnell, Mohamed Bouazizi, Sahar Khodayari, and Thích Quảng Đức turned to in their times of utmost despair.

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