April 1, 2009
Ramzy Baroud | Arab News
It’s remarkable how some in the media can cleverly manipulate a story by avoiding its essence and focusing on marginal details. The chucking of a pair of shoes at former US President George W. Bush by an Iraqi journalist, Muntadar Al-Zeidi, during a Baghdad press conference on Dec. 14, 2008 is a case in point.
Most Arab and Muslim media — and other media around the world, save mainstream Western media — framed Al-Zeidi’s deed within its proper context, that of a horrific, genocidal war, bloody and humiliating occupation and the colonial hubris of a superpower that gave itself the right and “moral” justification to devastate a sovereign nation for the sake of oil, Israel and the desire for sheer hegemony.
Nonetheless, in most — although, not all — mainstream Western media outlets, Al-Zeidi’s story somehow became the focus of attention for it was, to a certain degree, amusing, and also allowed for the further dissection of Arab culture — throwing shoes, supposedly being the “ultimate” Arab insult. For some, the dramatic act of a journalist’s shoes lobbed at a “liberating” president in a farewell visit to a “liberated” country was an indication of Arab ingratitude. Others sought less controversial topics, using the do’s and don’ts in journalism as a unit of analysis, as if shoes thrown at smirking presidents are a recurring topic in the field of journalism.
CBC correspondent, Richard Roth commented, a day after the incident, “Mr. Bush’s message of progress was eclipsed in Baghdad by a sign of his unpopularity.” Roth reminded listeners of the symbolism of shoe throwing or “footwear beating” in Iraqi Arab culture, in reference to throngs of Iraqis slapping the toppled statue of Saddam Hussein on April 9, 2003.
The juxtaposing of the two occurrences was highlighted by other media as well, conveniently omitting the fact that despite Saddam’s unpopularity among many Iraqis, the April 2003 events were completely staged by the US Army’s “psychological operations team.”
“As the Iraqi regime was collapsing on April 9, 2003, Marines converged on Firdos Square in central Baghdad, the site of an enormous statue of Saddam Hussein. It was a Marine colonel, not joyous Iraqi civilians, as was widely assumed from the TV images, who decided to topple the statue,” the army report said. “And it was a quick-thinking army psychological operations team that made it appear to be a spontaneous Iraqi undertaking,” wrote David Zucchino in the Los Angeles Times, July 3, 2004.
But even if one willingly ignores the fact that the army was behind the statue toppling theater, the underpinnings of the comparison are still faulty. The subtle indication is always the same: The former Iraqi president was hated by many Iraqis for his oppressive rule, while Bush is disliked because of the lack of “progress” in Iraq, which could mean anything between lack of basic services, economic development or the security situation. What is not directly discussed is the lethal war and the brutal occupation, which followed a decade-long suffocating siege as key factors in Iraq’s ongoing tragedy.
Those who wish to deviate from the debate altogether, conveniently reference the shoe throwing as a discussion pertaining to cultural mannerisms. The issue, however, is not about Arab shoes, but imperialism, the cruelty of war and, equally important, the Iraqi government’s subservience.
Although the tabloid-like media’s presentation of Al-Zeidi’s famous shoes have petered out, the true story of Iraqi anger and abhorrence of the occupation doesn’t end there, nor does that of Al-Zeidi himself.
On Feb. 20, 2009, Al-Zeidi received a short trial of 90-minutes by the Baghdad Central Criminal Court. On March 12, he was sentenced to three years in prison for assaulting a head of state during an official visit.
Of course, the Iraqi court — directed by political checks and balances of a government, whose own existence is an American diktat — wished to overlook the very motive behind the journalist’s action, as reflected in his cry: “This is a farewell kiss from the Iraqi people, you dog! This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq.”
Also of little bearing to the court’s decision were the many millions around the world who regarded Al-Zeidi’s action “heroic” for reasons too obvious to restate.
But aside from both narratives — one that glorifies Al-Zeidi as a hero, and another that creates every possible distraction from the true underpinnings of the man’s action through extraneous and inane commentary — Al-Zeidi is a typical Iraqi, who was merely responding to the subjugation of his own people.
Al-Zeidi told the court during the trial that his act was a spontaneous response to Bush’s praise of the “achievements” made in Iraq after nearly 6 years of US occupation: “While he was talking, I was looking at all his achievements in my mind. More than a million killed, the destruction and humiliation of mosques, violations of Iraqi women, attacking Iraqis every day and every hour. A whole people are saddened because of his policy, and he was talking with a smile on his face — and he was joking with the prime minister and saying he was going to have dinner with him after the press conference.”
Al-Zeidi’s action was reduced in the mainstream media, perhaps because he was an Iraqi fighter of a different type, the kind that fails to fit the media’s stereotype, that of the sectarian militant, blowing people up, gunning them down, or detonating their homes and houses of worship. Indeed, Al-Zeidi didn’t only challenge Bush, the occupation and the quisling government of Iraq, but the media perception itself.
The true story, conveniently missed or reinterpreted by many in the media, was not about a pair of shoes, but a pair of narratives, that of the Iraqi court and the government it represents — compromising, self-serving and sectarian — and that of Muntadar Al-Zeidi and the people he represents, occupied and oppressed, true, but daring, and exceptionally proud.