Muntazer al-Zaidi, the shoe-throwing Iraqi journalist whose cri de chaussures against President Bush in Baghdad this week made headlines around the world, has apparently seen the error of his well-shod ways, asking Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for a pardon for his “big and ugly act” toward the president who ordered the invasion of his country in March 2003.
There’s every likelihood of Zaidi being the recipient of Iraqi justice; the penalty for Zaidi’s action — a serious offense in the eyes of the Iraqi government — is reportedly some serious jail time.
But oddly enough, what’s going on in Iraq, with the kind of gestures that Maliki and Bush have lately made toward each other in the pursuit of a timely exit of American troops from that country, suggests that Zaidi could be the object of his government’s mercy, rather than its retribution for an act that, for all its emotional resonance in the Arab world, was really no more than an act of bad manners.
There may be no more dramatic an overture Maliki could make to prove how democratic principles — among them free speech and expression — are ready to take hold in soon-to-be-postwar Iraq than to exercise restraint in dealing with Zaidi.
This is Maliki’s chance to step through protocol, to present to the Iraqi people a different, less reflexively punitive style of leadership — one that recognizes that the concepts of free expression have a place in the new Iraq that is evolving.
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For sure, free speech and expression have limits; throwing shoes at a President of the United States has consequences everywhere, and it should have. But Maliki — facing his own bid for re-election — may be advised to look at this matter not just from the viewpoint of a leader, but also from the view of an Iraqi: one of Zaidi’s countrymen, allied from birth with the people first brutalized in a war started by an invader, then further brutalized by the latent but lethal sectarian violence that followed.
To the extent that the American-led invasion was the direct result of the deaths of thousands of innocents, the dismantling of the Iraqi infrastructure, the discomfiture of its citizens, and vast damage to the national morale, Maliki owes more than a nod to his own nationalistic reflexes, and the ways in which Zaidi’s graphically-expressed outrage mirrors that of millions of the people Maliki governs, and whose votes he’ll need to win a new term as prime minister.
Maliki’s decision of a final punishment for Zaida, no matter what it is, will send a message to Iraqis, the Arab world and the world in general. To decree that an act of impassioned, impetuous foolishness should demand a sentence of years behind bars can hardly be the anodyne message intended by a prime minister seeking to unify an already badly fractured nation.
We don’t know what kind of punitive leniency works in Iraqi justice (Is an ankle-bracelet monitor the answer? House arrest? A work-release program?). But there must be some option available to Maliki short of imprisonment. As over the top as it was, the nationalistic fervor Zaidi demonstrated last week deserves a better reaction than that.
Image credits: Al-Zaidi: Abdou4ever, republished under GNU Free Documentation License. Bush and Maliki: Public domain.