Jailing of Iraqi shoe thrower sparks continued online debate

The 3-year jail term given to Iraqi TV-journalist Muntazar Al-Zaidi for throwing his shoes at former US-President George W Bush at press conference in Baghdad last year has generated massive debate on social networking sites and in online forums. While many are rallying in support of Al-Zaidi, others maintain that Al-Zaidi’s shoe toss was an insult to journalism.
A screenshot of the Facebook group - “I'm a fan of the great hero who hit Bush with his shoes in Baghdad!” - which counts 120,000 members. © Facebook

BEIRUT, March 20, 2009 (MENASSAT)- Although it has been over one-week since Iraqi journalist Muntazer Al-Zaidi was sentenced to three years in prison for throwing his shoe at former US president George W. Bush last year –the online fallout has continued to rage.

Even before his March 12 sentence, Al-Zaidi’s act of defiance had the virtual and real world buzzing.

Al-Zaidi’s act inspired a computer game, “Sock and Awe”, and in the Iraqi city of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown, a 3-meter high copper statue in the shape of Al-Zaidi’s shoe was erected for less than 48-hours before it was taken down.

[Monument to Muntazer Al-Zaidi in Tikrit (right) An inscription on the $5,000 monument read: “Muntazer: fasting until the sword breaks its fast with blood; silent until our mouths speak the truth.]

Since his sentence, the popular social networking site Facebook, has added hundreds of thousands of Al-Zaidi fans from well beyond the Arab region in multiple virtual campaigns to have Al-Zaidi released from prison.

At the University of Auckland-administered Facebook group in New Zealand, one American fan writes, “Give him a medal not jail time! He did what millions of others wanted to do but couldn't get access to….Their (the Bush administration) actions have caused the rest of the world to think we (Americans) all are soulless greed-mongers like them.”

With countless Al-Zaidi support groups on Facebook, his largest fan base on Facebook is the near 120,000 strong group “I'm a fan of the great hero who hit Bush with his shoes in Baghdad!”

The group has generated more than 5,000 comments, but as was the case before Al-Zaidi was sentenced, not all of the comments have been positive.

Texas-based “Hanieh” wrote on “I’m a fan’s” comment section, what Al-Zaidi did was “disrespectful.”

“No matter who it was, Bush or not. He couldn't even control himself. I'm not a Bush fan, actually I am the opposite, but I have respect for my former president,” Hanieh wrote.

Another commentator, “James”, said he thought Al-Zaidi’s sentence was appropriate, and questioned the fallout of such an act had former dictator Saddam Hussein had been in power.

“He is lucky he wasn't shot by the Secret Service who could not reasonably be expected to assume he was only throwing a shoe. Ask yourself what would have happened if this man had thrown a shoe at Saddam Hussein…?” he wrote.

Ari Vais, administrator of the Facebook page, "Free the Iraqi shoe throwing journalist!" said he was taught the value of free speech during the Cold War.

The 39-year old New York resident told CNN, "I was born in the Soviet Union, where dissent like this was cracked down on severely. We came to America when I was a boy because we knew that people should be free."

Al-Zaidi’s shoe stunt was a reflection of the democracy Bush sought to spread, Vais said.

Blogosphere and copy cats

But the blogosphere had been the main battleground for public opinion on the matter since Al-Zaidi was arrested in December, and clearly bloggers have used Al-Zaidi’s 3-year sentence to continue to rail against the former Bush administration's policies.

Blogger Tim Redmond wrote on the San Francisco Bay Guardian blog, “After all that Bush has done in Iraq -- after all the Iraqis killed and maimed, after the devastation that country has seen -- it's hard to blame the guy (Al-Zaidi).”

The NY-Times Baghdad bureau blog has been a rich source of information for Al-Zaidi’s case, featuring a section “best of readers comments” on Al-Zaidi.

Without question, the consensus on the blogoshphere was overwhelmingly against Al-Zaidi's sentence. 

A few days after the Al-Zaidi sentence, one blogger, Sam Hayden wrote, "This to my mind is a disgracefully harsh sentence. If Iraq wants to be seen as a mature democracy, this overreaction to a very mildly violent political protest is not going to help its cause."

Hayden continued, "Protests in this vein happen regularly in democratic societies: in the 1970s Richard Nixon was egged in Ireland by an anti-war protestor; a few years back here in the UK,  John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister at the time, had an egg thrown at him by a farmer. His response? He punched the protester and got into a scuffle."

Indeed, Al-Zaidi’s highly publicized show throw has inspired several copy cat incidents since last December.

In February, a protestor hurled a shoe at Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao as he gave a speech at Cambridge University in the UK. The protester is facing a maximum of 6-months jail time and is walking free on bail.

On March 9,  a man threw his shoe at Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad while the premier’s convoy was driving towards a soccer stadium in the Iranian city of Urmia where he was due to give a speech ahead of the 2009 Iranian Presidential Elections.

The shoe actually landed inside the open top car, but did not hit Ahmadinejad. Security reportedly failed to locate the shoe thrower.

Meanwhile, those looking to show their support for Muntazer Al-Zaidi while out jogging or drinking their morning coffee, American and Canadian site creators for Free Al-Zaidi offer “Free Al-Zaidi” mugs, t-shirts, and bags for purchase.