By Nicola Pratt
You cannot help but be curious about the amount of public interest surrounding Muntadhar al-Zaidi—the Iraqi journalist who will undoubtedly go down in the annals of history for throwing his shoes at George Bush during a press conference in Baghdad a couple of weeks ago. In response to the US president's claim that the war "is decisively on its way to being won", al-Zaidi took off each of his shoes, hurling them towards George Bush and shouting, "This is a goodbye kiss, you dog … and this one's for all the widows and orphans and all those killed in Iraq!". The journalist was immediately arrested and is awaiting trial, on charges of conducting an act of aggression against a foreign head of state, which could carry up to 15 years imprisonment.
The Iraqi government clearly did not want to condone the shoe hurling incident in any way. It has recently concluded a very controversial agreement with the US to extend the presence of US troops in Iraq beyond the UN mandate that expires at the end of this year. Yet whilst al-Zaidi faces criminal charges at the hands of the Iraqi authorities, he is being feted throughout the Middle East. In Iraq, the anti-occupation Sadrist movement has led demonstrations across the country in support of al-Zaidi. An Egyptian pop star, known for his satirical songs, is soon to release a tune with the lyrics, "Bush, you're over, no one wants you any more. May a thousand shoes see you out the door". In Jordan, hundreds of people held a sit-in last week at the Professional Associations Complex calling for al-Zaidi's release. In Libya, the daughter of Muammar Qaddafi has honoured al-Zaidi with a bravery award. A shoe manufacturer in Turkey is claiming to have made the famous shoes and, in an interview, the sales representative claimed that, "we have received orders totalling 370,000 pairs" since the shoe-throwing event, whereas the company only usually sells 15,000 pairs of that particular style in a year.
The consensus appears to be that the man is a hero. Since arriving in Jordan last week, I have heard more than one person tell me that Muntadhar al-Zaidi did what no other Arab government has dared to do—that is, to stand up to the US. The throwing of shoes is generally a huge insult in the Middle East. However, this particular shoe throwing was far more symbolic than one individual insulting another. This incident symbolized the opposition of ordinary people against the military might of the US and its allies. This is the opposition not only of the Iraqi people, who have directly borne the misery of US occupation, but also of the Palestinian people, who have suffered Israeli occupation—illegal according to international law but indirectly supported by the US—for more than 40 years, not to mention the humanitarian catastrophe that has befallen the residents of the Gaza Strip living under international siege since June 2007. These sentiments are shared by a great number (if not the majority) of the Arab world, who feel that the international system clearly operates in the favour of the US and its allies and against anyone who begs to differ.
The Western media likes to talk about the 'Arab street' — as though the Middle East consists of US-hating hordes, waiting for any excuse to swarm into the streets and burn some effigies of George Bush. Rarely are we asked to consider the patience and calm of the vast majority of Arab citizens who find their sovereignty and human rights often ignored in the name of a combination of US 'security interests' and Western oil needs, making the Middle East region possibly the most frequent global victim of foreign intervention. In the face of some pretty awful transgressions of international law by the US and its allies—including, illegal invasions and occupations, violations of the Geneva Convention, unimaginable numbers of civilian casualties, torture and 'extraordinary' rendition—the international community has proved itself to be toothless and, in some cases, complicit. Meanwhile, protests against these transgressions are either ignored by those responsible or they are criminalized, as demonstrated by the case of Muntadhar al-Zaidi, as well as many other cases, including East Anglia's own Lakenheath 8. It is a world turned upside down when certain governments can, in practice, act with impunity, whilst those who protest their injustices face prison sentences. Therefore, whilst I do not think that shoe throwing is a solution to the world’s injustices, I have to support the right of Muntadhar al-Zaidi to voice his protest against the leader of the world’s most powerful military might.