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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.