Foot soldier

Different people will have different opinions of who has been the star of this holiday period: if you’re pro-reality TV you might feel that it is Alexandra Burke; if you are anti then you might have a newfound respect for the late Jeff Buckley. For me, though, the star of this month or so has to be Muntadhar al-Zaidi.

For those of you who don’t remember this story, al-Zaidi was the Iraqi journalist who, on December 14 at a press conference held in the Middle Eastern country, threw his shoes at thank-God-soon-to-be-ex-President George W. Bush while shouting derogatory things at him. While for many of us this is just a hilarious video (if you haven’t seen it, look it up on YouTube – it’s fun for the whole family), al-Zaidi was in fact making a very strong statement. In Arab society, shoes are considered unclean, and to throw them is one of the greatest insults that can be given. Make no mistake, while the idea of throwing your shoes at a politician may seem quite funny to those of us who have grown up in Western society, al-Zaidi was not trying to be light-hearted at all – he detests Bush.

When you consider his history, it’s not difficult to see why. Reporting for the al-Baghdadia TV station, the journalist used to follow the stories of the innocent victims of the Iraq war, seeing firsthand the devastation caused that we don’t necessarily get to see back here. Not that he hasn’t had some nasty experiences himself: he has been arrested by US armed forces twice since the war began and in 2007 was kidnapped and tortured by unknown assailants apparently interested in his career as a journalist. For somebody who has witnessed and experienced such atrocities, al-Zaidi’s anger is understandable.
Apparently it is also being shared by others, especially in the Arab world but also elsewhere. More than two hundred lawyers from around the world, including America, have in an astounding show of moral principles within the legal profession offered their services to al-Zaidi for free. He has been hailed as a hero in Syria, while leading politicians in Malaysia described his action as “the best act of retaliation so far”. Bush himself, meanwhile, simply laughed off the incident: “It doesn’t bother me. If you want the facts, it’s a size ten shoe that he threw.” He here disrespects al-Zaidi’s very legitimate grievances and the sacrifices he could potentially make if convicted (he could spend three or fifteen years in prison, depending on what he is charged with) by treating the whole incident as a joke, and succinctly sums up his attitude towards the feelings of the Iraqi people as he leaves office.

The Iraqi government has been less amused, stating that “this action harms the reputation of Iraqi journalists and journalism in general.” In my opinion, they could not be more wrong. As has been shown by the reaction of many in the international community – or at least those not afraid of speaking out against Bush – al-Zaidi’s reputation has been done no end of good. He even has a fan page on Facebook, the ultimate compliment these days. The man made a minor protest and has now been arrested and reportedly beaten in custody. If he is detained and imprisoned, it will be a massive step backwards for a country that has supposedly been moving towards freedom.

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