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Azzouz Boutobba lost his mother in 2007. According to sources close to his family, he struggled with the loss well into his 20’s. His mother passed away while making her Hajj and was buried there.
On June 8, 2018 (his 26th birthday), Azzouz died by suicide in the same place that his mother was buried, the Grand Mosque in Makkah. Azzouz had planned to make Hajj with his mother when he was 14 years old but he was denied a visa and could not travel to make the pilgrimage with her. Boutobba’s neighbour in France, Meloud, said that Azzouz spoke often about the death of his mother and the fact that she was buried alone in Makkah.
In light of Azzouz’s death, many are calling for serious discussions surrounding mental health and suicide within the Muslim community. These conversations will be difficult and should include criticism of the ways suffering can become pathologized. What follows is a brief summary of what I see as the pathologizing of Azzouz’s grief at losing his mother and a close reading of the ways this leads to criminalization in the news.
Articles like this one from Reuters, indicate that this is not the first time “something like this” has happened in Makkah; in 2017, a man attempted to self-immolate and was stopped before doing so. Reports state that he tried to burn the kiswah (the silk curtain that covers the Kaaba) and that he was heard uttering “extremist” slogans. This man was said to be “mentally disturbed” and his actions contextualized using the example of the 1979 “Grand Mosque Seizure” referred to here as “the attack and the siege that inspired Osama bin Laden.”
Azzouz’s grief and his death by suicide are hereby othered, rendering his death “ungrievable” by both Saudi Arabia and France as nation-states which pathologize his grief in order to criminalize and “other” his death by suicide.
Neither the above-mentioned case of attempted self-immolation or the “Grand Mosque Seizure” are clearly related to Azzouz’s death and yet, all three are cross-referenced. This forces a conflation between these occurrences which maps “extremism” onto Azzouz’s death by suicide.
Azzouz is referred to as a Frenchman, Saudi Officials are quoted as calling him a “foreigner,” the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) frames his death as “an insult to Islam,” and French news outlets feature an image of Azzouz’s passport (which indicates that he is not permitted to work in Saudi Arabia).
The same article notes that Azzouz is a French national, and not a citizen of France; he is constructed as an “outsider” in news coverage of his death. Azzouz’s grief and his death by suicide are hereby othered, rendering his death “ungrievable” by both Saudi Arabia and France as nation-states which pathologize his grief in order to criminalize and “other” his death by suicide.
We must ask ourselves: What are the dangers of conflating Azzouz’s death with the attempted self-immolation and the Grand Mosque Seizure of 1979? What purpose does pathologizing this man’s grief and death serve, and how does the news factor into his criminalization? Why the focus on his citizenship status? And, finally, how can our conversations regarding mental health include criticism of ways that nation-states attempt to police Muslim bodies – be it through travel bans, incarceration, deportations, surveillance, torture, or war?