Sock and awe

The global reaction to the shoe-throwing incident in Iraq is a shoe-in for the most bizarre debate of 2008.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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‘History will remember him forever.’ The geography teacher at a Baghdad elementary school, who was quoted by Reuters, BBC, CNN, AP, AFP and in every newspaper published in Christendom and outside Christendom, was not talking about President George W Bush, Saddam Hussein, or the current president of Iraq (note to history-writers: his name is Jalal Talabani). No, she was talking about the man many believe should be the ‘next president of Iraq’, the man who has won a prestigious prize from the state of Libya, been offered sanctuary by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, and who has been gushingly hailed on both the Arab Street and Fleet Street as a ‘martyr as well as a hero’ and the ‘bravest’ journalist in the world (1).

Yes, it’s Muntadhar al-Zaidi, better known as ‘the man who threw his shoes at George W Bush’. Since he hurled his size 10s during a press conference on 14 December, yelling ‘This is a farewell kiss from the people of Iraq, you dog’, al-Zaidi has become an international hero. His shoes are venerated. A Saudi businessman has reportedly offered $10million for one of them. A senior advocate at the Supreme Court of Pakistan says the shoes should be sent to him for ‘safeguarding’. Thousands of Iraqis have marched through the streets waving their shoes in the air, while in America anti-war activists are sending their old shoes to the White House, ‘preferably the most stinky ones’ (2). One reporter refers to al-Zaidi’s actions as ‘sock and awe’, where the shoe becomes a ‘weapon of the masses’ (3).

Who knows why al-Zaidi did what he did? He’s clearly very angry. And many of us hurl things when we’re angry (it’s just that, normally, we throw something other than a shoe, and normally we throw it at someone other than the president of the US). By far the most striking thing about the al-Zaidi affair is the response to it rather than the ‘it’ itself: the latching on to it as a legitimate expression of Iraqi disgruntlement; the transformation of it into a symbol of the freedom of expression which, ironically, America delivered to Iraq; the use of it as an argument for journalists to become ‘more like al-Zaidi’, more willing to ask awkward questions, speak truth to power, throw their Jimmy Choos at Gordon Brown. The shoe-throwing incident suggests one Iraqi man is mightily pissed off; the wild reaction to it suggests the world has gone mad. This is a shoe-in for the most bizarre debate of 2008.

Symbolically, the shoe-throwing, the look of dumbfoundedness on Bush’s face, and the milking of the incident by Arab officials and observers, are powerful metaphors for the soulless nature (or perhaps ‘soleless’ nature?) of America’s global dominance today. They simultaneously show that America enjoys little political or cultural authority in the Middle East, or even much respect, but also that there’s little serious, structural opposition to America’s presence there. That the self-described ‘liberator’ of Iraq, the president who defined his presidency on the issues of combating terrorism, freeing Iraq and spreading democracy, can be targeted with a shoe and then laughed at in unison by a million Arabs exposes in Technicolor America’s utter lack of command – moral, political or democratic – in the Middle East. At the same time, the fact that Arab and other elites have so feverishly latched on to al-Zaidi’s action as a legitimate attempt to ‘avenge the Iraqi people’ for the ‘plunder’ of their country, as the ‘greatest strike’ yet made by Iraqis against America (4), only exposes the absence of a meaningful movement for Iraqi independence or pan-Arabism. The shoe incident shows up both the emptiness of American rule in the Middle East and the impotence of the opposition to it.

The transformation of al-Zaidi into a ‘hero of our time’ (as Counterpunch puts it) demonstrates the extent to which certain Arab elites, and other anti-American poseurs on the world stage, challenge America at a purely cultural level today. So in Libya, as Gaddafi continues to patch up his tattered political relations with Britain and America in a desperate desire to become part of the ‘respectable fold’, a charity run by Gaddafi’s daughter offers a bravery award to al-Zaidi because ‘what he did represents a victory for human rights across the world’ (5). Hugo Chavez this week expressed his hope that Venezuela’s political and trade relations with America would improve in the coming months yet at the same time he labelled al-Zaidi ‘courageous’ (6).

It is telling that everyone (and I mean everyone) is focusing on the ‘cultural meaning’ of The Shoe in the Middle East. Sounding like one of those irritating HSBC adverts (you know the ones: ‘Everyone has different cultural habits; bears shit in woods’), commentators have explained in detail that in Arab countries showing the sole of your shoe is the ‘ultimate insult’, and calling someone a dog is the same as calling them ‘filthy’ (7). This obsession with the cultural symbolism of the ‘sock and awe’ incident, and the symbolic embrace of al-Zaidi even by political leaders and groups who have relations with the US, exposes the extent to which anti-Americanism today is an expression of frustration rather than an anti-imperialist stand, a symbolic gesture more than a meaningful movement. The global embrace of al-Zaidi’s individuated cultural protest exposes the dearth of serious political arguments, far less real social movements, against American domination. The reported desire of wealthy Saudis or influential Pakistanis to turn al-Zaidi’s shoes into objects of veneration captures the replacement of any sense of political power amongst the people of the Middle East with something like individuated anger and a desire to be saved or avenged by ‘another’.

The shoe incident, and its fallout, is laced with revelations about the contemporary nature of American power and the demise of oppositional political movements. If Bush is exposed in this incident as a deeply unpopular emperor-of-sorts, then his opponents and critics are shown to be weak, discombobulated. One pro-Palestinian publication, reporting on pro-al-Zaidi ‘shoe protests’ in Gaza City, argued that ‘shoes are weapons of the masses’, and tellingly said: ‘Shoes, like stones and most other projectiles used by the masses, are not about defeating or causing physical damage to the enemy. [Throwing them] is a symbolic act, and one filled with anger.’ (8) The shoe incident captures the illegitimacy, the shakiness, of American influence in the Middle East, and the powerlessness of Bush’s opponents who see themselves as incapable of ‘defeating the enemy’ yet who still desire to execute ‘symbolic acts’. It’s a telling snapshot of international relations today, and of the quicksand-style stalemate brought about by the combination of a flailing America and the demise of radical or Arabist movements in the Middle East.

If the cultural elevation of al-Zaidi is strange, then even more bizarre is the use and abuse of this incident by Bush’s supporters. So desperate is the pro-war lobby to discover some evidence that the war was good that it is now arguing that al-Zaidi is symbolic of the freedom of expression and freedom to protest delivered to Iraq by the Coalition of the Willing. Some have described the shoe-throwing incident as a ‘sign of real hope’, evidence that ‘something good has happened; something very good’: Iraq is a now a ‘decent place to live’ where people can ‘speak openly’ (9). This provides an uncomfortable peep into the desperate world of the fast-shrinking, fact-avoiding, deluded pro-war lobby. By the same token, if Bush had been shot in the head while visiting Iraq, his supporters would have hailed it as glorious evidence that post-war Iraq has far greater respect for citizens’ Second Amendment right to carry weapons than Saddam ever did.

But perhaps the most self-serving and scary exploitation of the al-Zaidi affair has come from Western journalists. On both sides of the Atlantic, hacks point to the shoe-throwing incident as a symbol of ‘brave journalism’ which we over here should emulate. An American journalist says al-Zaidi shows the need for a more ‘activist’ style of reporting, with journalists ‘barking questions, laughing cruelly at inane answers, demanding follow-ups when they are given the run-around, and, where necessary, walking out, or perhaps tossing the occasional shoe’ (10). In Britain, leading commentators have hailed al-Zaidi as a hero of their profession and have said that journalists should ask officials ‘tough questions’ and maybe carry out the occasional ‘collective protest, taking a stand on an issue’ (11). (As an aside – but an important one – two of the main British journalists who congratulated al-Zaidi for protesting against Bush’s unjust war in Iraq were the chirpiest of cheerleaders of Blair and Clinton’s similarly ‘illegal war’ in Yugoslavia in 1999, when journalists threw, not their shoes at Blair, but their Y-fronts, bras and mobile phone numbers on scrumpled-up bits of paper.)

Western al-Zaidites are exploiting this incident to put the case once more for the ‘journalism of attachment’, for a journalism that cares as well as knows, for a journalism that throws shoes at political leaders as well as questions. These scribblers seem to have ideas above their workstations. A reporter’s job is to uncover the facts and reveal the truth, not stage protests, ‘flip the bird’ (as one American writer suggests), or throw items of clothing. The pro-al-Zaidi fervour in Canary Wharf and King’s Cross suggests journalists have not only become too big for their boots – they now want to take their boots off and hit somebody with them. Part of a journalist’s job is to inject some perspective during hysterical times. Maybe we should do that with the al-Zaidi affair.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton in October. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill called the British withdrawal from Basra a media stunt to end a PR war and said America’s and Britain’s phantom occupation of Iraq had turned into a ‘gesture invasion’. David Chandler called British army forces a token occupation. James Heartfield said that the road to Baghdad was paved with good intentions. Or read more at spiked issue War on Iraq.

Video of shoes being thrown at George Bush.

(1) Precedent for the shoe-throwing protest, Guardian, 16 December 2008

(2) Mail your stinky old shoes to Dubya, Craigslist, 16 December 2008

(3) Play the ‘Sock and Awe’ game here.

(4) Arab reaction from al-Jazeera,, 16 December 2008

(5) Flying shoes create a hero in Arab world, Washington Post, 16 December 2008

(6) Chavez praises Iraqi shoe-thrower, Bush’s reflexes, Associated Press, 16 December 2008

(7) Arab culture: the insult of the shoe, Daily Telegraph, 15 December 2008

(8) The weapon of the occupied, Electronic Intifada, 16 December 2008

(9) The Bush shoe attack: a sign of hope, Real Clear Politics, 15 December 2008

(10) A hero of our time, Counterpunch, 15 December 2008

(11) Precedent for the shoe-throwing protest, Guardian, 16 December 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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