Anti-American protesters in Baghdad on Monday, a day after Iraqi journalist Muntader al-Zaidi threw his shoes at President George W. Bush during a press conference. (Karim Kadim/The Associated Press)

Shoe insult against Bush resounds in Arab world

Monday, December 15, 2008

BAGHDAD: A day after an Iraqi television journalist threw his shoes at President George W. Bush at a news conference here Sunday, his act of defiance toward the American commander in chief reverberated throughout Iraq and across the Arab world.

In Sadr City, the sprawling Baghdad suburb that has seen some of the most intense fighting between insurgents and U.S. soldiers since the 2003 invasion, thousands of people marched in his defense. In Syria, he was hailed as a hero. In Libya, he was given an award for courage.

Throughout much of the Arab world Monday, the shoe-throwing incident generated front-page headlines and continuing television news coverage. A thinly veiled glee could be discerned in much of the reporting, especially in the places where anti-American sentiment runs deepest.

Muntader al-Zaidi, 29, the correspondent for an independent Iraqi television station who threw his black dress shoes at Bush, remained in Iraqi custody Monday.

While he has not been formally charged, Iraqi officials said he faced up to seven years in prison for committing an act of aggression against a visiting head of state.

Hitting someone with a shoe is a deep insult in the Arab world, signifying that the person being struck is as low as the dirt underneath the sole of a shoe. Compounding the insult were Zaidi’s words as he hurled his footwear: “This is a gift from the Iraqis; this is the farewell kiss, you dog!” While calling someone a dog is universally harsh, among Arabs, who traditionally consider dogs unclean, those words were an even stronger slight.

The incident has been a source of embarrassment for the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who, in a statement Monday, called the shoe throwing a “a shameful savage act” and demanded a public apology from Al Baghdadia, the independent satellite channel that employs Zaidi.

“The act damaged the reputation of the Iraqi journalists and journalism in general,” the statement said.

As of Monday night, no apology from the station was forthcoming. Instead, the network posted an image of Zaidi in the corner of the screen for much of the day. Telephone callers were invited to phone in their opinions, and the vast majority said they approved of his actions.

Opponents of the continued American presence in Iraq turned Zaidi’s detention Monday into a rallying cry. Support for the detained journalist crossed religious, ethnic and class lines in Iraq – vaulting him to near folk-hero status.

“I swear by God that all Iraqis with their different nationalities are glad about this act,” said Yaareb Yousif Matti, a 45-year-old teacher from Mosul, a northern city that has is contested by Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen.

In Samarra, one of the centers of the Sunni insurgency against American forces, Zaidi received nearly unanimous approval from people interviewed Monday.

“Although that action was not expressed in a civilized manner, it showed the Iraqis’ feelings, which oppose American occupation,” said Qutaiba Rajaa, a 58-year-old physician.

In Sadr City, thousands of marchers Monday called for an immediate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. The demonstrators burned American flags and waved shoes in a show of support for Zaidi.

In Najaf, several hundred people gathered on a central square to protest Bush’s visit Sunday to Iraq, and demonstrators threw their shoes at a passing U.S. military convoy.

But praise for Zaidi was not universal. His action ran counter to deeply held Iraqi traditions of hospitality toward guests, even if they are enemies. And those who have cooperated or welcomed the American presence in Iraq were far more apt to side with the government in their condemnation.

Ahmad Abu Risha, head of the Awakening Council in Anbar Province, a group of local tribal leaders that started a wave of popular opposition against Qaeda fighters in Iraq, said that he condemned what happened “because the American president is the guest of all Iraqis. The Iraqi government has to choose good journalists to attend such conferences.”

Kamal Wahbi, a 49-year-old engineer in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniya, where pro-American sentiment is strong, said: “This is unsuitable action by an Iraqi journalist. His action served terrorism and radical national extremism. I think he could send the same message by asking Bush embarrassing questions.”

Witnesses said that Zaidi had been severely beaten by security officers Sunday after being tackled at the news conference and dragged out. One of his brothers, Maythem al-Zaidi, said Monday that the family had not heard from Zaidi since his arrest, and that a police officer who picked up Zaidi’s cellphone late Sunday had threatened the family.

It was unclear whether Zaidi had planned his actions beforehand, or whether – as his brother said – he had become infuriated by Bush’s words of farewell to Iraqis and made a spontaneous decision to insult him.

Saif al-Deen, 25, an editor at the Baghdadia television network in Cairo, said Zaidi had been planning some sort of protest against Bush for nearly a year.

“I remember at the end of 2007, he told me, ‘You will see how I will take revenge on the criminal Bush in my personal way about the crimes that he has committed against innocent Iraqi people,”‘ Deen said. He said he tried to talk his friend out of doing anything at the time, but that “he insisted he would do it.”

Around the Arab world, the shoe throwing became the topic of the moment. In Syria, Zaidi’s face was broadcast on the state television network, with Syrians calling in throughout the day to share their admiration for his gesture. Lawyers volunteered to represent him by the dozen.

In Lebanon, reactions varied by political affiliation, but curiosity about the episode was universal. An American visitor to a school in Beirut’s southern suburb, where the Shiite militant group Hezbollah is popular, was besieged with questions from teachers and students alike, who wanted to know what Americans thought about the insult.

“It’s the talk of the city,” said Ibrahim Mousawi, a Beirut-based journalist and political analyst affiliated with Hezbollah. “Everyone is proud of this man, and they’re saying he did it in our name.”

In Libya, Zaidi was given a bravery award Monday by a charity group chaired by a daughter of the Libyan leader, Muammar el-Qaddafi, Reuters reported.

The charity group, Wa Attassimou, also urged the Iraqi government to release Zaidi.

“Wa Atassimou group has taken the decision to give Muntader al-Zaidi the courage award,” the group said in a statement, “because what he did represents a victory for human rights across the world.”

One thought on “

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