Human Rights

Was Throwing a Shoe at Bush a Violent Act?

The infamous shoe-tossing incident has sparked a debate within the peace movement whether the act was appropriate and constitutes nonviolence.
On March 12, one week before the sixth anniversary of the war in Iraq, Iraqi journalist Muntadar al-Zaidi was sentenced to three years in prison for throwing his shoes at President George W. Bush on Dec. 14, 2008.

Code Pinkco-founder Medea Benjamin talked about the incident with Hero Anwar Brzw, a Kurdish Iraqi woman, who is getting her master's degree in conflict transformation at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, Eastern Mennonite University.

Medea Benjamin: Al-Zaidi's action spawned a lively debate, even within the peace movement, over whether throwing shoes is a violent act. As an Iraqi and a student of nonviolence, what is your opinion?

Hero Anwar Brzw: I have thought about this a lot and have concluded that his action was not a violent one. Al-Zaidi was simply trying to express the humiliation and anguish that Iraqis have experienced since the start of the occupation. He wanted to insult Bush in a symbolic way.

He did not want to kill or injure the president. There are plenty of other ways to inflict harm, if that were his intention. As al-Zaidi said in his trial, "What made me do it was the humiliation Iraq has been subjected to due to the U.S. occupation and the murder of innocent people. I wanted to restore the pride of the Iraqis in any way possible, apart from using weapons."

Dr. Gene Sharp, a famous American writer on nonviolent struggles, says that insulting someone in power is a legitimate form of nonviolent resistance. One of his writings, called Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential, is a collection of 198 methods of nonviolent action. He groups these into several categories, the first being nonviolent protest and persuasion. The methods in the first group are the kinds of things you can do if you have little power or resources, because they are simple and easy. No. 32 is called "taunting officials (mocking or insulting them)." That is precisely what al-Zaidi did.

MB: What if al-Zaidi had actually hit Bush with the shoe?

HAB: Even if the shoe hit Bush in the head, I would still consider it a nonviolent action. It wouldn't have really hurt; at most Bush would have gotten a bump on his head. Remember, al-Zaidi's intention was to insult, not hurt.

And of course, the harm that could be inflicted by a shoe cannot be compared with harm inflicted by an unwarranted occupation that has resulted in the deaths and displacement of millions of Iraqis. U.S. foreign policy is about killing, maiming, leaving orphans and widows, destroying infrastructure. Throwing shoe is violent, you say? No. War and occupation is violent.

MB: So you consider this action nonviolent, but was it appropriate, especially for a journalist who is supposed to be objective?

HAB: I have worked for an Iraqi NGO on peace-building. I, too, have felt the effects of the occupation -- the violence that the invasion unleashed, the daily humiliations of being second-class citizens in our own country. Iraqi journalists have felt this as well. They have seen firsthand the terrible destruction caused by U.S. soldiers. Many Iraqi journalists have died in the violence, and many have been imprisoned and terribly abused by U.S. soldiers.

So it is normal that we would want to express our anger. Some Iraqis express their anger through violent means, but that puts them on the same level as the occupiers. In general, journalists and NGO workers don't believe in violence. But we also don't have to be passive or conform to the oppressors.

In Kathleen Fischer's book Transforming Anger, she says "True nonviolent resistance is not possible until we have learned to acknowledge and express anger in healthy ways. Nonviolence is not the same as suppressing an emotion because of fear, intimidation or censorship. We do not choose nonviolence because we are afraid to fight." We can and should continue resisting -- as al-Zaidi did. And I think it takes more courage to resist oppression through nonviolent actions than picking up a gun.

MB: There were many Americans who don't like Bush but were uncomfortable with this action because they saw it as rude.

HAB: If someone threw a shoe at Hitler, would people say it was rude? If someone threw a shoe at Saddam Hussein, would someone say it was rude? If New Yorkers were able to confront the people who carried out the 9/11 attacks, I don't think they would throw shoes at them; they would probably kill them with their bare hands. And Osama bin Laden killed a lot less people than George Bush.

Would the American people prefer that we express our anger by killing American soldiers? Would that be less rude? I don't think so. But people in the United States should acknowledge that we are human beings, and we need a way to express our anger.

For other people, especially in the Arab world, al-Zaidi immediately became a folk hero. YouTube videosof the incident have been viewed millions of times. The company that made the shoes became wealthy overnight. And al-Zaidi has received everything from job offers to marriage proposals. Do you consider al-Zaidi a hero?

HAB: There are people all over the world who consider him a hero, especially because his act countered the powerlessness that many Arabs feel. I wouldn't call him a hero, though. I call him a nonviolent resister; I call him brave. And I certainly understand his anger, for I am angry, too.

MB: President Bush said in an interview that he thought al-Zaidi threw his shoes because he wanted to become famous.

HAB: That's ridiculous. He was prepared to die, if he had to. Instead of attributing dishonest motives to al-Zaidi, Bush should ask himself why someone would dare insult the leader of the most powerful country in the world, knowing how serious the consequences could be.

Bush was a symbol for U.S. foreign policy. We Iraqis have been the victims of these policies for too many years, and we are fed up.

The American government supported Saddam in the 1980s during the Iraq-Iran War; it encouraged Saddam to invade Kuwait, but then turned against him and "liberated" Kuwait. Then the U.S. government imposed sanctions that killed hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis, especially children.

Today, American troops have become the owners, and we Iraqis are treated like illegal intruders in our own country. People in the United States have no idea what Iraqis have been enduring, how much we have suffered from this invasion. That's why al-Zaidi, when he threw his shoes, cried out: "This is for the widows, the orphans and all those who have died in Iraq." He was doing it for his people, not to become famous.

MB: Bush said that thanks to the U.S. intervention, the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein is gone, and Iraq is a free country. And of course, the Kurds were particularly brutalized by Saddam. As a Kurd, aren't you grateful to George Bush for overthrowing Saddam?

HAB: The U.S. government has told too many lies to the American people and the international community. Saying that the Kurdish people have been happy with U.S. occupation is one of those lies.

I agree that Saddam was a brutal dictator, and yes, we Kurds were victims of his brutality. I always dreamed about freeing ourselves from his rule. We were happy to get rid of Saddam, and many trusted the United States and thought it would bring democracy.

But then we saw our country go from a dictatorship to an occupied nation. Why should the cost of getting rid of Saddam be a U.S. invasion and occupation? Is that our only alternative?

How can we accept the presence of armed foreigners in the streets of our country? For years, they have been ordering us around us at checkpoints, breaking down our doors in midnight raids, imprisoning our loved ones without cause and torturing them. Should we thank Bush and the U.S. government for that?

Besides, it was not the role of the United States to get rid of Saddam. That was for us, the Iraqis. Many people around the world didn't like Bush. But would Americans have wanted a foreign military to invade their country to get rid of him? Would that be acceptable to Americans? I don't think so.

MB: What do you suggest people do to support al-Zaidi?

HAB: It is absurd that al-Zaidi will spend three years in prison while George Bush walks free. It is Bush who should be in prison for war crimes. I also fear for al-Zaidi's life if he remains in prison. He was already tortured while the world spotlight was on him; imagine what might happen when people have forgotten him. He could easily be killed by government agents.

If Prime Minister Nouri Al-Malaki believed in democracy and human rights, he would consider al-Zaidi's act an expression of free speech and pardon him.

If there is enough public pressure, that could happen. People should sign petitions, and call the Iraqi Embassy in Washington and the Iraqi Mission to the U.N. It is only through public pressure that he can be released.

Medea Benjamin is co-founder of Global Exchange and Code Pink: Women for Peace. Contact the Iraqi Embassy at (202) 483-7500 and the Iraqi Mission to the U.N. at (212) 737-4433. Sign petitions at http://salsa.democracyinaction.org/o/424/signUp.jsp?key=3909.
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