Missing the Anger for the Shoes

Recently, President Bush was assaulted by an Iraqi reporter with a shoe. I think in order to understand the true import of an assault by a shoe, one needs to truly appreciate the insulting nature of the shoe, not only in Arab culture, but in Muslim cultures more generally.

The shoe as tool of discipline is quite a common trope in Islamicate literatures. Salman Rushdie has used the idea of children being disciplined by champal (flip-flops) to great comedic effect. Iranian films also use it for humor, because the truth is funny.

It is relatively well-known that when you enter a Muslim house of prayer, you must remove your shoes. What may not be generally known is that it is customary when entering a Muslim’s home to remove your shoes. Unlike non-Muslims, Muslims consider steaming piles of dog feces unhygienic and essentially disgusting. They don’t appreciate having said feces smeared all over their floors and carpets, although I’m sure a great number of non-Muslims appreciate these artifacts from guests’ shoes.

As mentioned previously, shoes are also used to discipline people. Belt-whuppins are difficult when men’s traditional garb does not include belts. Shoes/slippers/etc. are far more common. They are used to help “enlighten” insouciant, arrogant, oblivious, destructive, or otherwise socially maladjusted individuals. Unfortunately, there is no common experience with non-Muslims who do not have any disciplinary problems of any sort. It would not be a stretch to say a Muslim nation has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with consistently high capital punishments per capita. It would be hard to imagine a non-Muslim country with any of these problems. This issue of discipline is why the shoe is so symbolically important.

Now, one could be more generous in the visual reading of this incident. The Iraqi journalist may have been re-enacting the “flying pie” that greets so many non-Muslim celebrities. In Arabic, orthographically, “pie” and “shoe” are written similarly to one another: a’-pie and ash-shu. He may actually have been trying to have some fun at the President’s expense.

Of course, the final proposition is that the man was screened by the Security Service, amongst other security agencies, and only had a shoe to express his hatred of President Bush. The point is that this man was traumatized by the war. He wanted to express his anger. He had a shoe. He threw the shoe. Is this really so hard to understand? Do we as Americans treat having a shoe thrown at us as a sign of happiness or joy? We have become so conditioned to seeing Arabs and Muslims as the “Other” that we have to process simple human emotion through a filter that makes that emotion foreign. The shoe is constructed in a culturally different way amongst Arabs than among non-Arabs. Maybe. Maybe not. Does it actually have any relevance to this argument? Now Iraqis are throwing shoes at armed forces? Is this cultural, or a sign of solidarity? Does it matter? The Iraqis are pissed-off. Focusing on the shoes seems to miss the point.

For more, see The Shoe Thrower: What Bush Didn’t Understand.