Tuesday, 17 March 2009
A lesson in losing perspective: Muntadhar al-Zaidi
Remember Muntadhar al-Zaidi?
We all cheered him when he threw a shoe at Bush in December last year. Some of us even thought ‘oh man, I wish I had done that’. We cheered him and we forgot about him. And when he was sentenced to three years in prison a few days ago, for attempting to assault a foreign leader, nobody really noticed.
Zaidi, a journalist, pleaded ‘not guilty’ to charges of assault, considering his act a reaction to the violence he and his people had suffered in the hands of the American invader. But as it often happens with these things, if you have an army, your trespasses are discussed in round tables, if you protest on your own, you soon find that most of what you can think of doing breaks the law. So Bush is sitting at home and Zaidi is going to jail.
Now, I'm not saying that chucking shoes at people you dislike is an acceptable form of political disagreement. I am saying that, in the context of Iraq, war changes the normal rules of the game.
Of course there is a debate to be had here about the limits of lawful protests and the boundaries of legitimate expressions of disagreement. But this debate cannot be had in war-torn Iraq, not yet. Not while the US occupation forces are still on the ground. Not while democracy and civil society are still just words in textbooks.
But rather than admitting that the debate regarding acceptable limits to freedom of expression cannot be had in the context of a war and what Zaidi did cannot be judged as if it were done in peace time, the court ploughed on ahead regardless.
Surely, when shoot-outs on the streets are a daily occurrence, the boundaries of what constitutes ‘violent behaviour’ ought to be slightly adjusted to fit reality?
But even if context is not taken into account, a three-year jail sentence is radically out of proportion with the nature of the crime, if flinging a shoe can be described as a crime at all, raising important questions about the sobriety, independence and reliability of Iraqi courts.
It is telling that Zaidi’s lawyers failed to convince the court to reduce the charge of attempted assault to insult. The courts were evidently making a point, still the tragic irony of the terminology is way too poignant: In the context of an on-going war, you would expect people to know the difference between a flying loafer and mortar. But everyone is in a flap over insulting the Americans and moderation has gone out the window. Premier Nuri Al-Maliki described the throwing of the shoe as a ‘barbaric act’ in December, earning himself universal scorn for having no sense of perspective. Obviously the sentencing has done his reputation as an American mouthpiece no favours.
The Journalistic Freedoms Observatory is shocked and dismayed at the harshness of the decision. Public opinion in Iraq, however, remains divided, some believing that a foreign guest should not be insulted under any circumstances and a journalist should be able to keep a cooler head. Others of course have hailed Zaidi as a hero.
The court had a chance to diffuse this situation without taking sides, but the harshness of the sentence imposed shows they have no such intention.
The anti-American Shiite factions have already accused the pro-US factions of leaning too heavily on the judges while the response form Maliki’s party was the incredibly callous: “If this case was politicized, the punishment would have been harsher.”
And the Americans?
Desperate to leave Iraq, they have stopped caring about their legacy.
This was a unique opportunity to lead, to inspire, to show what democracy, free speech and toleration look like in practice.
Maybe they did lean on the judiciary to get retribution of sorts – and if that happened it shows a complete lack of vision, humanity and imagination.
But maybe they didn’t lean on the judiciary at all. They left the Iraqi judges to fret over expunging the insult and placating the Americans on their own and, in doing so, they missed a momentous opportunity to lead, teach and inspire.
So Zaidi is going to prison for throwing a shoe at Bush.
Bush goes home to tend to his presidential library after carpet-bombing Zaidi's country.
And ‘democracy-building’ in Iraq has gone from being an empty shell to a hollow promise, not even symbolically upheld by those who made it.
So when we start wondering when America went beyond caring about democratisation in Iraq, remember Muntadhar al-Zaidi.