Tuesday, March 17, 2009

What the Iraqi shoe-thrower can tell us

Statue Honoring Bush Shoe Thrower Unveiled in Iraq

A statue built for Iraqi journalist Muntazer al-Zaidi, who hurled his shoes at former U.S. president George Bush, is seen in Tikrit, 150 km (95 miles) Baghdad, January 27, 2009. An Iraqi town has unveiled a giant monument of a shoe in honour of the journalist who threw his footwear at former U.S. President George W. Bush. The letters on the sign reads “Muntazer is fasting until the sword breaks his fast with blood, silent until our mouths speak the truth”. Picture taken January 27, 2009.

16 March 2009. A World to Win News Service. Muntadar al-Zaidi, the young Iraqi journalist who threw his shoe at President George Bush late last year, has been sentenced to three years in prison. "I am innocent. It was a natural reaction to the crimes of the occupation," he told the court 12 March. "Long live Iraq, " he is said to have shouted when his sentence was read.

When the Iraqi government asked the U.S. for Zaidi's shoes to use as evidence against him, it turned out that American technicians had blown them up during testing for explosives. But what made Washington consider his shoes a possible weapon of mass destruction was the way they expressed the sentiments of so many Iraqis. In January, a bronze-coloured fibreglass giant shoe statue in his honour was put up on the grounds of an orphanage near the town of Tikrit. When he threw his footwear at Bush, he had shouted, "This is a farewell kiss, you dog. This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq." The artist explained that Zaidi's act was "a source of honour for all Iraqis." The authorities had the statue taken down and destroyed immediately.

Zaidi is incontestably the most popular figure in Iraq and perhaps the entire Middle East. While not exaggerating his deed or confusing a great piece of performance art with the tasks of a political party, it's worth examining why his act has had such resonance. He is an ordinary Iraqi – as symbolized by his solid, locally-made brown leather shoes bought in the market – but exactly the kind of person missing from Iraq's political scene today. He stood up for the country’s national honour at a time when the U.S.-backed Nuri al-Maliki government is continuing to kiss the occupier's boots. His act was not just about the past, about how history should remember Bush (although he may have set his own seal on that), but about the U.S. domination of Iraq that Bush’s successor as president wants to continue. Further, although he comes from a Shia family persecuted under the Saddam regime, Zaidi is neither a religious fundamentalist of the kind that had made up the current regime’s central social base, nor a Baathist, the reactionary former lieutenants of Saddam Hussein now being welcomed into the Maliki government. Nor is he a representative of the narrow nationalist Kurdish parties fighting for the U.S.'s favour. All this is also a big factor in why he won the support of people all over the world.

In short, his act and the response brought a glimpse of the potential for a different kind of political movement than any now existing in Iraq, one that could unite the people against their enemies and with their friends everywhere. While nationalism isn't enough, this is worth thinking about in terms of what it shows about revolutionary potential. Certainly this case seems to disprove the idea that the only kinds of politics possible in the Middle East are the kinds so many people are sick of.

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