Democracy Imprisoned in Iraq

Before switching careers from journalism to academics, as editor of a newspaper this columnist looked for certain qualities in reporters.

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Before switching careers from journalism to academics, as editor of a newspaper this columnist looked for certain qualities in reporters. These included a lack of awe of the powerful, pugnacity in chasing a story, and a consciousness of social needs. Muntazer al-Zaidi, who “shooed” U.S. President George W. Bush in Baghdad a few days ago, combined these qualities.

Clearly, the choice of projectile indicated the intention was neither murder nor physical harm, but simply embarrassment. In India, a democracy where half a billion votes are cast in a general election, it is commonplace for not only a shoe but a garland of shoes or slippers to be tossed in the way of politicians who have disappointed their constituencies.

In more economically developed countries such as the United States or the European Union, their more thrifty inhabitants usually avoid hurling shoes, confining themselves to rotten eggs or tomatoes. More than a few projectiles land on their targets – unlike that of the luckless al-Zaidi, who failed to take into account the superb reflexes of his Texan target.

In India and some other democracies, it is not only members of the public but members of the legislature who flex their muscles by tossing chairs, inkwells and other available projectiles at their rivals. In some state legislatures, such incidents are so frequent that inkwells, chairs and tables are kept chained to prevent their use as projectiles.

If any citizen has been arrested for throwing a garland of footwear at a politician, or any legislator caught throwing a table or chair at a colleague, the incident has gone unreported. Few in India regard such displays of exuberance as deserving imprisonment or even a token fine.

Similarly, those in the United States or European Union who dispose of their surplus eggs or tomatoes on the suits of miscellaneous politicians do not ordinarily get anything more than a scowl from the police – which is as it should be unless the projectile causes significant bodily harm.

When Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair invaded Iraq in 2003, their promise was to ensure the establishment of a democracy where people would have rights similar to those enjoyed by citizens of the United Kingdom and the United States.

That al-Zaidi was pummelled to the floor, strip-searched, tossed into a military prison and questioned for 16 hours indicates the commitment of the Bush administration to democracy in Iraq, which stops where its own perceived interests – no matter how small – begin.

If those within the administration of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki are to be believed, they were in favour of lenient treatment but were overruled by the “U.S. military leadership in Iraq” – an alibi that sounds improbable. What is more likely is that considerations of face – so typical of local rulers – overrode sensible counsel and led to the indefensible treatment meted out to al-Zaidi.

Had he been shown the same lenience meted out to those responsible for similar actions in India, the United States or the European Union, the people of the Middle East would have received a good lesson in the way true democracy works. Instead, the Maliki administration has planned a lengthy period of imprisonment. This would be a travesty of justice.

It is time for the Bush administration to stop comparing Iraqi justice to “the way it was when Saddam was in charge” and instead compare it to conditions in its own country or in Europe or even India, where democracy is still a work in progress despite six decades of independence from the British Empire.

Unlike Germany and Japan, where both defeated countries were speedily lifted onto a democratic track after World War II, in both Iraq and Afghanistan human rights have been severely circumscribed, if not eliminated altogether, by regimes suffused with nostalgia for the absolutist powers of their predecessors.

In Afghanistan there are curbs on dress, education, justice and faith that make nonsense of any claim that the country has been liberated “for democracy.” Women and those not of a moderate persuasion are still subject to discrimination and even persecution, although not to the extreme witnessed when the Taliban were in power in Kabul. Outside the capital rights are even more tenuous; in several patches of territory they are wholly absent. A similar situation prevails in Iraq, where women and religious minorities are witnessing persecution for the first time in decades.

Muntazer al-Zaidi will enter the history books either as proof of the falsity of claims that Iraq is a democracy, or as living proof – via lenient treatment – that the first shoots of democracy in the tortured country are alive. Hopefully the international human rights fraternity will soon shed its present indifference to his fate.

[Professor M.D. Nalapat is professor of geopolitics at Manipal University. He can be reached at [email protected].]