Monday, December 15, 2008

How the Shoe Fits in Iraq

As could be expected, Al Jazeera English has one of the better accounts of the aftermath of yesterday's confrontation in Baghdad when Muntadar al-Zeidi, a correspondent for Al-Baghdadiya television, hurled both of his shoes at George W. Bush, calling him a "dog" at the same time. Let's begin with the current legal status:

Muntazer al-Zaidi [sic, probably due to Arabic vowel ambiguity] was still in custody on Monday after being detained for what the Iraqi government said was a "barbaric act and ignominious act".

This leads to the question of whether custody will lead to charges:

Al-Baghdadiya television, his employer, has demanded his release after Yasin Majeed, the prime minister's media adviser, said al-Zeidi would be tried on charges of insulting the state.

An Iraqi lawyer told the AFP news agency that Zeidi risked a miminum of two years in prison if he is prosecuted for insulting a visiting head of state.

This led me to wonder what would have happened had such an event occurred in this country. My guess is that this would be treated as an open-and-shut case of assault, particularly given the evidence on video. Al-Zeidi would be entitled to a jury trial, although it is unclear what kind of defense strategy could be invoked, particularly since even a pie in the face can be recognized as assault. Probably the only interesting part of the case would be the sentencing.

My point is that, in our legal system, insult is not, of its own accord, a criminal offense, certainly not the way libel is. The problem is that insult is a highly subjective matter, while our conception of justice is bound to a more objective interpretation of evidence. Remember the words that William Shakespeare gave to Sampson in the opening scene of Romeo and Juliet:

No, sir, I do not bite my thumb at you, sir, but I bite my thumb, sir.

In the Iraqi context think of what could happen if someone heard the word "dog" without any context.

Context is definitely the issue. It is easy enough to promote the advantages of both our governmental framework and the legal system implemented within that framework. However, as Mohammad Khatami observed in an interview he gave to the BBC two years ago:

Democracy is not something to get exported.

If we are sincere in our belief in "government of the people, by the people, for the people," then we should not assume that a government for Iraq should fit in the shoes (so to speak) of a government for the United States. It needs to run its own course in its own setting of cultural values, even when we do not share those values. On the other hand placing someone in custody strictly on grounds of insult is not that far from the grounds behind some who are now in custody in Guantanamo. Perhaps the shoes fit better than we thought, just not in the way we expected they would.

Whatever the issue of due process may be, there is also the free speech question. According to the Al Jazeera report, this issue has surfaced in a variety of interesting ways:

On Monday, al-Baghdadiya suspended its normal programming and played messages of support from across the Arab world.

A presenter read out a statement calling for his release, "in accordance with the democratic era and the freedom of expression that Iraqis were promised by US authorities".

It said that any harsh measures taken against the reporter would be reminders of the "dictatorial era" that Washington said its forces had invaded Iraq to end.

Demonstrations also took place in the southern city of Basra and Najaf, where some people threw shoes at a US convoy.

Khalil al-Dulaimi, Saddam Hussein's former lawyer, said he was forming a team to defend Zeidi and that around 200 lawyers, including Americans, had offered their services for free.

"It was the least thing for an Iraqi to do to Bush, the tyrant criminal who has killed two million people in Iraq and Afghanistan," he said.

"Our defence of Zaidi will be based on the fact that the United States is occupying Iraq, and resistance is legitimate by all means, including shoes."

In Iraqi culture, throwing shoes at someone is a sign of contempt and the incident is likely to serve as a lasting reminder of the widespread opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq - the conflict which has come to define Bush's presidency.

"Throwing the shoes at Bush was the best goodbye kiss ever ... it expresses how Iraqis and other Arabs hate Bush," Musa Barhoumeh, editor of Jordan's independent Al-Gahd newspaper, wrote.

Here at least there appear to be some shared cultural values, and it will be interesting to see to which our own media take note of such items concerned with media in the Arab world. (On a related note I found it interesting that while this shoe incident received lead coverage last night on ABC News, there was no mention at all about the "Hard Lessons" report on the failure of reconstruction efforts in Iraq.) This is a story that is still in the process of unfolding; and I am glad that, in the absence of more reliable sources, I can turn to Al Jazeera to track its progress.

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