Across Mideast, Arabs hail shoe-hurling journalist
December 15, 2008
BAGHDAD ” Iraqis and other Arabs erupted in glee Monday at the shoe attack on George W. Bush. Far from a joke, many in the Mideast saw the act by an Iraqi journalist as heroic, expressing the deep, personal contempt many feel for the American leader they blame for years of bloodshed, chaos and the suffering of civilians.
Images of Bush ducking the fast-flying shoes at a Baghdad press conference, aired repeatedly on Arab satellite TV networks, were cathartic for many in the Middle East, who have for years felt their own leaders kowtow to the American president.
So the sight of an average Arab standing up and making a public show of resentment was stunning. The pride, joy and bitterness it uncorked showed how many Arabs place their anger on Bush personally for what they see as a litany of crimes ” chief among them the turmoil in Iraq and tens of thousands of Iraqi deaths since the 2003 U.S. invasion.
The reaction explains in part the relief among Arabs over the election victory of U.S. President-elect Barack Obama, seen as a repudiation of the Bush era. But it also highlights the task Obama will face in repairing America’s image in the Mideast, where distrust of the U.S. has hampered a range of American policies, from containing Iran to pushing the peace process and democratic reform.
Bush “got what he deserves,” said a Jordanian businessman, Raed Mansi, in Amman.
“I hope he got the message loud and clear: that he’s loathed for his wrongdoing, for killing Muslim women and children in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine,” the 52-year-old contractor said.
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Some regional TV channels showed the footage from Sunday’s press conference more than a dozen times in the space of several hours. The scene bounced around Internet networking sites like You Tube and Facebook, showing Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zeidi standing, hurling both his shoes at Bush and shouting in Arabic, “this is a farewell kiss, you dog. This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq.”
Shoes hold a special place in the Arab lexicon of insults as a show of contempt ” effectively saying, you’re lower than the dirt on my shoes. Even sitting with the sole of a shoe pointed at another person is seen as disrespectful.
The hurling of shoes at Bush on his last visit to Iraq as president made an ironic bookend to one of the first images after the 2003 U.S. invasion, when Iraqi opponents of deposed leader Saddam Hussein toppled one of his statues in Baghdad and hit it with their shoes.
Al-Zeidi attained instant hero status around the Arab world. At one Baghdad elementary school, a geography teacher asked her students if they had seen the footage of the shoe-throwing, then told them, “All Iraqis should be proud of this Iraqi brave man, Muntadhar. History will remember him forever.”
In Baghdad’s Shiite slum of Sadr City, thousands of supporters of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr burned American flags to protest against Bush and called for the release of al-Zeidi, a 28-year-old Shiite who works for the private Iraqi TV station Al-Baghdadia.
What made al-Zeidi’s defiance particularly resonant for many was their anger at autocratic Arab leaders who they have considered slavish followers of Bush’s policies in the Middle East.
Abdel-Sattar Qassem, a Palestinian political science professor at the West Bank’s An Najah University, wrote in an online commentary that “Bush wanted to end his bloody term hearing compliments and welcoming words from his collaborators in the Arab and Islamic world. But a shoe from a real Arab man summed up Bush’s black history and told the entire world that the Arabs hold their head high.”
The Iraq war is the most prominent cause of Arab resentment of Bush. Even many who were outraged at Shiite and Sunni militant groups for the killings of civilians and sectarian strife that tore the country apart ultimately blamed Bush for unleashing the chaos. Some accuse his administration of fueling Shiite-Sunni tensions across the region.
But more broadly, nearly every U.S. policy in the region became seen as part of a campaign to divide or subjugate Mideast nations, from Iran and Syria to Sudan and Somalia. His administration’s war on terror was seen as a war on Muslims and Arabs in general, an image fueled by civilian deaths in Afghanistan and, in particular, the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.
Bush was seen as heavily favoring Israel over the Palestinians. His administration’s campaign to isolate the Palestinian militant group Hamas translated to the Arab public as an attempt to starve Palestinians in Hamas-ruled Gaza.
The intense personal resentment of Bush may give Obama an automatic advantage in his attempts to repair the U.S. image.
Obama’s race and his family ties to Islam have raised hope among some Arabs that he’ll be more sympathetic to their views. Obama’s aides have spoken of him delivering a major address in a Muslim capital early on in his administration to set a new tone.
But many in the Mideast say it will take more than symbolic gestures. The president-elect’s promises to withdraw from Iraq and close Guantanamo have also raised Arab hopes. Another top demand is for a more balanced U.S. stance in the Arab-Israeli peace process.
But on Monday, Arabs were just glowing with pride over the farewell to Bush.
“I’ve watched the video over a dozen times on You Tube and was excited every time I see him (al-Zeidi) standing up and calling Bush a dog,” said Tamer Ismail, 23-year-old art student in Cairo. “But I felt so bitter when he missed.”