Journalist Muntader al-Zaidi, the shoe thrower of Baghdad, has given us all a Christmas present – like the gift of the Musli – in the form of a new way to react to rage and conflict, one that’s symbolic and non-violent. It evokes respect, even from its target, rather than further rage and violence.
I don’t think his act was unprofessional, as claimed by Haroon Siddiqui in the Toronto Star, or a Globe and Mail editorial – since I don’t see journalism as a profession, not the way medicine or shoemaking is. It lacks a unique body of knowledge and depends on a skill everyone has language – plus the exercise of normal virtues such as common sense, skepticism, observation and integrity.
The humour, restraint and non-violence – or, at most, symbolic violence – Muntader al-Zaidi showed are a welcome antidote to the common stereotypes about some inherent Muslim impulse to violence. Violence is a human trait. It’s certainly just as Christian – wars of religion, Crusades, world wars, the Holocaust – and Jewish, if you consider the historical books of the Old Testament or the 41-year occupation of Palestinian land.
Our own violent, martial era of disastrous invasions and occupations is a good time to be reminded of the merits of non-violent action. It had its triumphs, in India under Gandhi and in the civil-rights battles of America. Non-violence as a political tactic usually goes with symbols such as sit-ins or the march to the sea. There are places today, including the Mideast, where it should be tried. There is, for instance, a non-violent current in Palestinian politics that might be effective, if it got a (pardon) foothold.
Symbolic acts are therapeutic for people who feel, like many Iraqis and Palestinians, humiliated. You not only lose your homes and lives, you lose your sense of dignity. A restrained, controlled act helps restore that sense. You could see it in the creativity of people raising shoes on poles in recent demos demanding U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, or pelting military convoys with shoes – rather than blowing them up with IEDs, which assault terrified young soldiers instead of the decision-makers. The latter are rarely exposed, except at press conferences, where the indignity can descend on them, if they have to dodge around like targets in a dunk tank.
Such acts can even be helpful for the targets. "This is a gift from the Iraqis … you dog!" yelled the shoe thrower. But he gave George Bush a chance to look quick on his feet and more astute than he ever did after 9/11. Remember his doltish "analysis": It’s because they hate us for our freedoms. Here he called it an "interesting way for a person to express himself" – as if it gave him something to reflect on, for once. So it was a gift.
As for journalists, the brave Irish reporter Patrick Cockburn said the toss would "gladden the heart of any journalist forced to attend these tedious, useless and almost invariably obsequious" sessions with visiting Western leaders. Journalists are citizens, too, with civic obligations. Meeting leaders isn’t their "privilege," as The Globe editorial claimed; it’s their duty and right. But if you merely ask tough questions, you won’t get called on again, likely won’t be invited next time, and may lose your job.
The shoe thrower hasn’t been seen since his arrest, although he was heard from: screaming while being beaten by security afterward, then apologizing yesterday for his "big ugly act," according to a government official. He used to sign off his reports from "occupied Iraq," which sounds more sincere, as well as being both objective and impassioned. And his tosses seem a model of self-restraint and goodwill when compared to two bombings during a visit on Wednesday by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown: at least nine dead in Baghdad and a 13-year-old north of there. Gimme a shoe thrower any day.