Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Hometown Hero

The journalist who flung his shoes at President Bush is being lauded as a folk hero in the Middle East.

On Monday, people across the Middle East applauded [Muntadar al-Zaidi] for expressing their anger at the Bush administration. In cafes and online chat rooms, people joked about the incident with glee, releasing years of frustration with U.S. policies. Thousands of Iraqis demonstrated in the streets demanding his release from Iraqi custody.

Iraqi authorities have not charged Zaidi, but they have arrested him for “his aggressive actions against an official and a visitor of the Iraqi government,” Yaseen Majeed, a top media adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said in a statement. Majeed called Zaidi “a disgrace to journalism” and said he would be handed over to the Iraqi justice system for punishment.

I think what’s interesting about this incident is that it seems to be the perfect cap on the Bush administration: to Westerners who are not aware of the cultural significance in the Arab world of showing the soles of the feet to someone, throwing a shoe sounds like a childish temper tantrum and slightly whimsical, especially since Mr. Bush was undamaged in the attack and showed the agility of a seasoned dodgeball target. But to the people who get the import of what Mr. Zaidi meant by his outburst, it’s the ultimate gesture of defiance by people who felt humiliated and oppressed by Mr. Bush’s attempt to impose his will and his vision of “freedom” on the Iraqis.

No matter how much the president claims that Iraq is better off than it was under Saddam Hussein, the symbolic act of throwing shoes tells him — even if he doesn’t get it — just how much the occupation has turned the Iraqis and the Middle East against him, and the spontaneous demonstrations in the street makes all the talk about “freedom on the march” and painted schoolhouses sound both hollow and ridiculous.