Thursday, December 18, 2008

The shoe could have been a WMD

Before stepping down from the U.S. presidency, George W. H. Bush finally got what he was looking for in Iraq prior to the American invasion in 2003. This WMD or weapon of mass destruction, however, came in the form of a shoe from a disgruntled Iraqi journalist. It was the last thing an unpopular president could have asked for, the ultimate shaming of his presidency’s legacy.

To many Arabs, throwing shoes at another person is a gesture of extreme disrespect. The shoe represents the lowest part of the body (the foot) and displaying or throwing a shoe at someone or something in Arab culture signifies that the person or thing is beneath them. After the giant statue of Saddam Hussein was pulled down to the ground by U.S. forces, Iraqi detractors of Hussein’s harsh regime threw their shoes at the fallen statue. Iraqi citizens in Baghdad stamped their shoes on torn-down posters of Saddam Hussein to celebrate his downfall from power.

One should not be surprised at all when Iraqi reporter Muntadhar al- Zaidi threw his shoes at President George Bush while the latter was speaking at a press conference last December 14. It would have been just the second insult of the day because right there on the lobby of Al-Rashid Hotel in Baghdad is a depiction of George Bush on a mosaic tile on the floor, where visitors entering the hotel have to step on Bush’s face to enter the hotel.

The incident made al-Zaidi an instant hero to many Iraqis and to the Arab world. While al-Zaidi’s mode of attack against a visiting head of state reflected badly on Iraq, we cannot fault others in considering it an ideal parting gift for the president who was responsible for bringing the war on them.

“This is a farewell kiss from the Iraqi people, you dog,” al-Zaidi yelled in Arabic as he threw his first shoe towards Bush. “This is for the widows and orphans and all those killed in Iraq,” he shouted as he threw the other shoe.

Decorum, of course, demands that we fault al-Zaidi for failure to control his temper, and for behaviour inappropriate for a man of his profession. However, as one writer aptly put it, it is not fair for al-Zaidi to be condemned by those who have not walked in his shoes. He has, after all, seen how his country was destroyed by an unjust war. Al-Zaidi, a correspondent for al-Baghdadia TV, first gained international fame in 2007 when he was detained by unknown assailants and released three days later without ransom. He was also arrested twice by the U.S. armed forces in Iraq.

People may think that al-Zaidi’s behaviour made him sink to Bush’s level; however, this perception is unfortunate because while the enormous publicity the throwing incident generated may resonate for some time, al-Zaidi’s reputation in the long run will have been tarnished—and the Western press could already be exploiting his outburst to smear the Arabs as a whole.

Shoe-throwing as a form of disenchantment or protest is not peculiar to Arabs alone. In January 2007, a member of Taiwan’s legislature hurled a shoe at the House Speaker while others pushed and shoved, throwing the legislative session in total chaos. Such brawls in the Taiwanese legislature were not uncommon in the past, since they represented the island nation’s sometimes stormy transition from dictatorship to democracy.

Another form of unruly public outburst of dissatisfaction and anger at public leaders or personalities is pieing, or smacking a victim with cream pie on the face. Popular in the West, these attacks have taken place throughout the world and have claimed such illustrious victims as Microsoft’s Bill Gates, former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, former European Commission President Jacques Delors and Dutch Finance Minister Gerrit Zalm.

Dr. Rodney Barker, Reader in Government at the London School of Economics, calls these cream-pie attacks as “a form of democratic anarcho-populist politics.” According to Dr. Barker, “what it’s doing is saying that those who are taken incredibly seriously both by themselves and the media deserve to be knocked down a peg or two. It’s about pointing out to the general public that the emperor doesn’t have as many clothes as he thinks he does.”

In the past, as early as the 1st century AD, Roman historians described how Emperor Nero was pelted with onions in the Colosseum. Some had also resorted to throwing eggs, vegetables or rotten cats. The use of cream pie as a means of political protest is relatively a recent phenomenon, and because it is derived from slapstick comedies, is accepted with some humour because it allows you to make your point without actually hurting anybody.

Among the most active of the cream-pie throwers are the Biotic Baking Brigade and Mad Anarchist Bakers’ League in the United States. The Meringue Marauders in Canada. T.A.A.R.T. in Holland, and People Everywhere (PIE) in the United Kingdom.

In Belgium, Noel Godin, the Godfather of the Cream Pie, started in 1969 what he described as a “cream crusade” against the “great and the wicked.” During that time his International Patisserie Brigade has “entarted” everyone from New Wave film director Jean-Luc Goddard to Bill Gates.

“We only use the finest patisserie,” Godin told Britain’s Observer newspaper, “ordered at the last minute from small local bakers. Quality is everything.”

An increasing number of people, however, are seeing cream pie as a useful tool for venting one’s frustration and making a political point.

I have read a blog about a high-profile insulting incident in the central African nation of Chad where hitting someone with a pair of pants is the highest form of insult. According to Chadian culture, this means that the target is lower than the pants, i.e., the hem, which is often near the ground and therefore unclean. The only problem with this form of insult is that the thrower then must retrieve the pants, else he or she be caught with his or her pants down!

My point is we’re taking the recent shoe-throwing incident in Iraq too seriously. The Iraqi reporter has been beaten in jail and may even face imprisonment for his few seconds of fame. Al-Zaidi’s offence is so minor compared to the devastation of Iraq under Bush’s command.

President Bush deftly ducked twice and avoided being hit. Some Iraqi reporters present at the scene offered their apologies to him. “Thanks for apologizing on behalf of the Iraqi people. It doesn’t bother me,” Bush joked. “If you want the facts, it’s a size 10 shoe that he threw.”

There’s the cue, from the American president himself. End of story.

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