What was the significance of an Iraqi journalist throwing his shoes at President Bush?

We asked Middle East expert and ARC post doctoral fellow at Melbourne University Benjamin MacQueen:

US President George W Bush came in for some rather harsh treatment yesterday by being pelted with the shoes of Iraqi journalist Muntazer al-Zaidi of Al-Baghdadia television who also labelled the President a “dog”.

So what is the significance of this, despite the obvious reticence anyone would have by being hit by a shoe? There are two elements that make the shoe, and hitting someone with a shoe, a particularly significant statement in Arab and Middle Eastern culture. The first has its basis in religion and the second in cultural custom, although the two are inter-related.

Not limited to just Arab Muslim culture, but Middle Eastern religious culture generally (Jewish, Christian and Muslim), reference to someone or assault of someone with a shoe carries symbolic value in terms of Old Testament tradition. For instance, Psalms 60:10 (“Moab is my washpot, over Edom will I cast out my shoe…”) reveals that assault with a shoe is a traditional defamatory gesture for one’s enemies (Moab and Edom were both enemies of Judah).

In more strictly cultural terms, the shoe is representative of the foot, the lowest part of the human body. It is a sign of respect in Arab culture (and, many other cultures) that one does not show the sole of one’s foot or shoe to another. To do so can be taken as a sign that you consider that person of being beneath you. This is analogous to the practice in many cultures of leaving your shoes outside before entering a home or religious/sacred place.

The insult of the shoe can also be seen through some rather creative forms of verbal insult. For instance, whether at a football game, driving through the streets of Beirut or Cairo, or in the rather entertaining television debates on regional satellite TV, using phrases such as inta kundara (you are a shoe) or ibn al-kundara (son of a shoe) sit at the high end of insults, and are not to be taken lightly (i.e. don’t say it unless you really mean it, and are ready for a reaction).

Whilst these cultural observations do risk generalisation, there is a strong emphasis in Arab culture (particularly Arab male culture) on issues of respect and shame. To publicly shame someone by declaring that they are beneath you, that they are only worthy of the soles of your shoes, is intensely humiliating.

The “shoe issue” also has some added weight in terms of the Saddam-Bush relationship. Saddam had pictures of George H.W. Bush as well as American flags tiled into the floor at the entrance of his major palaces, so that all those who entered walked on his face, an extreme act of disrespect. The toppling of Saddam’s statue in April 2003 and the peppering of it with shoes (albeit a rather contrived event as has subsequently been shown) continued this symbolic war.

It is here that the “shoe-ing” of Bush last night gains added significance. To assault the President in a televised public forum, in front of another Head of State, and to call the President a “dog” (an animal seen as unclean in Arab culture and, again, highly culturally significant) was an act designed to show the utmost disrespect.

Crikey welcomes your dumb questions, and will find someone smart to answer them. Send your suggestions to [email protected] with “clarifier” in the subject field.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey