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What New Year Prospects for Iraq?
Last week, the political buzz in much of the European Union was not about the approval by the Iraqi parliament of the US-Iraqi security agreement (known as Sofa) stipulating the departure of US troops from Iraq within three years...

23 December   |   2008   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... Nor was it about the judgment of the highest federal court in Iraq that parliament had no right to strip one of its members, Mithal al-Alusi, of his parliamentary immunity so he could be prosecuted for his alleged anti-constitutional crime of visiting Israel in order to attend a seminar on counterterrorism. Nor for that matter was it about the ongoing struggle for Kirkuk, a region that contains 13% of Iraqi proven oil reserves but threatens to become the explosive fault line between Arabs and Kurds as it stands at the centre of a national parliamentary gridlock.

All those crucial issues would have perhaps warranted a couple of additional headlines were it not for the shoe-hurling incident that occurred when Muntadher al-Zaidi, a twenty-nine-year-old journalist for the Cairo-based Al-Baghdadia satellite television network, threw both his shoes at President Bush when the latter was giving a press conference in the insulated and oasis-like Green Zone in Baghdad in which he was talking about recent security gains in Iraq.

I do not wish to comment about the degree of insult that this incident represents within Arab culture. After all, this has been discussed eloquently by many Arab and foreign commentators, over and over again, and the consensus seems to be that calling someone the “son of a shoe” is one of the worst possible insults. Nor do I wish to be drawn into the debate in numerous Internet chat rooms or diwaniyyas as to whether such an incident broke the rules of rich Arab hospitality.

However, I would wish to reflect for a few minutes on the reactions that this unplanned event elicited within the Arab World. After all, most of us read about the clear popular support for this young man’s actions all the way from Saudi Arabia and Lebanon to Libya, Gaza and Syria, let alone in the Iraqi neighbourhoods of Sadr City, Samarra and Mosul. But why would Arabs in their large numbers support such a clear breach of respect and traditional Arab friendliness toward guests?

I believe that the answer is quite simple: all those hailing this man as a hero were fully aware that his actions were discourteous let alone offensive. However, their populist support plainly reflected once more the considerable swell of pan-Arab feelings that object to the American occupation of Iraq and to the humiliation felt by many Iraqis as well as Arabs across the whole region about real or perceived insults and abuses against them. Even the Sofa does not seem to placate those who feel that President Bush has violated their country and in the process their tribal, religious or clannish honour.

But what could be done to alter this image? After all, I am one of those who would suggest that an immediate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq cannot by itself resolve many of the pending issues and could in fact throw the whole country into further disarray. This is why a drawdown should be slow, gradual and planned in order to avoid black holes that are perilous. So what could be done to ensure that genuine outbursts such as that by Muntadher al-Zaidi do not happen again?

For one, it is imperative that the Iraqi judicial system be seen to function properly in this instance by providing this man with the right to defend his case - a right granted to any citizen in any democratic or democracy-friendly country. So there should be a due process whereby the rule of law would apply and countervail any zeal for summary judgments or condemnations.

But this is for the short term. On the longer term, though, what is necessary is to take those steps that show to the Arab and Muslim worlds that the West is not against them in any racist or xenophobic manner. This is why I am hoping that the incoming US president, Barack O’Bama, would perhaps fulfil this need as soon as possible. However, he needs to be careful. After all, simply visiting a Muslim country, such as Egypt, Indonesia or Turkey, to make a speech that trumpets dialogue and promotes values will not cut much ice or yield many dividends, and in fact the opposite could well happen, whereby many streetwise Arabs would cite this initiative as yet another example of a US leader pontificating at them whilst ignoring their grievances. Indeed, parallel to such a helpful step, the US Administration must also be seen to bolster all those Arab and Muslim countries that act in favour of democracy, pluralism and human as well as minorities rights. The US can no longer afford to be viewed as a party that talks from both sides of its mouth whereby it exalts democracy and freedom on the one hand only to support despots or flawed elections on the other whenever they suit its own designs, tactics and orientations.

If the new US president were to provide the bold lead for such a thoughtful and irenic direction, and in the process lift up once more those core American values that have not been very evident in recent years, I believe that anti-American (and more broadly anti-Western) anger as much as frustration feeding the Arab and Muslim worlds would begin to subside gradually. After all, our world is broken, and a healing peace remains an urgent priority across the whole orb in 2009.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2008   |   23 December


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