The Shoe Thrower: What Bush Didn’t Understand

On December 14, less than two weeks before his final White House Christmas, President George Walker Bush made a last pilgrimage to Iraq, the country which will, more than anything else, define his presidency.

During the otherwise unmemorable news conference, someone threw a shoe at him [video]. The president was clearly not prepared for this turn of events. More than a bit flustered, he commented that the perpetrator of this act was trying to attract attention to himself and that it was rather much like being “booed” at a political rally or having someone “wave” with not all his fingers held up.

Not exactly. I watched a CNN video clip of the “shoe throwing” and the presidential response with a group of Muslim and Christian graduate students at the Center for Religious and Crosscultural Studies at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. We watched the film over and over for nearly half an hour, all of us roaring with laughter. Many of us, for once, felt sympathy for President Bush, for whom there is, generally speaking, almost no sympathy here. No one can blame him for being surprised and confused by the event, but some of his aides must certainly have understood how it would resonate in the Muslim world.

Boundary of Holiness

Throughout the Muslim world, and in most of Asia, shoes are ritually impure. They are “dirty” in more than the material sense of the word. One does not, ever, wear shoes or sandals in mosques, shrines, temples, or in most instances in peoples’ homes. In my travels in Asia over the past three decades I have often encountered signs at the entrances to holy places reading something like: “Boundary of Holiness. Footwearing Strictly Prohibited.” Muslims remove their shoes and wash their feet, hands, and faces before prayer to purify themselves.

There is also a long history of diplomatic impasses and political conflict stemming from the refusal of western envoys to remove their shoes while visiting Muslim and other Asian capitals, and the refusal of Asian monarchs to make exceptions to accommodate Westerners’ discomfort at the thought of appearing shoeless in official capacities. To throw a shoe at a visiting head of state and erstwhile ally is very close to the ultimate expression of disgust and defiance.

Viewing the “shoe clip” and listening to my students, I could not help but recall another event involving shoes and Iraq and two very “nontraditional students.” When the war began I was teaching an undergraduate class on local Muslim cultures at Arizona State University. One of my students was an army reservist whose education had been interrupted by the first Gulf War and feared that he would be “called up” because he is a medevac helicopter pilot. The second was a very young and charming Iraqi woman, whose family had suffered horribly under Sadam Hussein and who more than anything else hoped that the war would be over quickly so that she could return to her own country. I still hear from both of them occasionally. He served two tours of duty in Iraq and finally finished his degree. She is studying for a masters degree at the American University in Cairo and has not been able to return to Iraq.

It should come as no surprise that we spent much of the semester talking about the war, Iraq, and Saddam. This, of course, included the atrocities perpetrated by the Iraqi regime. I knew that it was going to be difficult; I did not know how difficult.

At one point my Iraqi student burst into tears. She grew very angry, pulled off one of her (very) high-heeled shoes and started banging it on the table. Between her sobs she explained: “I hate him! I hate him for what he did to the Kurds and what he did to my father.” (She is Kurdish; her father was tortured and killed by Iraqi security forces.)

Pointing at the reservist she said in a voice seething with anger: “You catch him. You give him to us, the women of Iraq. We will take care of him. Shooting is too good for him! Hanging is too good for him! We will beat him to death with our shoes! That is what he deserves!”

The reservist was more than a bit taken aback, as were we all at the sudden transformation of our normally mild-spoken and pleasant colleague. He replied: “Yes ma’am but that could cause some problems with the folks from the Judge Advocate’s office…but I think you’re telling me that when I get over there I should be on the lookout for women with shoes?”

“That’s right,” she replied, and continued: “If Iraqi people come at you with shoes, you have lost their hearts and lost the war and God help us all.”

The Associated Press has reported that thousands of Shi’ah Muslim have demonstrated in support of Mutradha al Zeidi, the 28-year-old Cairo man arrested by Iraqi police in connection with the incident. He has been hailed as a hero throughout the Muslim world and is now referred to as “The Shoe Thrower.” AP seems to have missed the symbolic significance of his assault weapon of choice.

My Indonesian students understand the meaning of shoes perfectly well. They almost agreed with my Iraqi student’s assessment and the implications of the “shoe throwing” incident. One commented that in a symbolic sense this will have more important and longer lasting consequences than the attempted “shoe bombing.”

Sometimes symbolic violence is, historically speaking, more damaging than physical violence.

For another perspective on the incident, including video, see Missing the Anger for the Shoes.