Arab reaction to the shoe-throwing incident at President Bush’s Baghdad press conference on Sunday was a mixed bag. While some hailed reporter Muntather al-Zaidi as a hero for hurling his shoes at the US president, others thought the attack was a disgrace to Iraq and to the journalistic profession.
Iraqi blogger Nibras Kazimi, who was clearly outraged, wrote that he would “seriously consider beating the crap” out of Zaidi, and added that he’d like to “take one of his [Zaidi’s] shoes…and stuff it in his mouth.” The Iraqi government issued a sharp condemnation of the reporter’s “barbaric and shameful behavior.”
By contrast, Abdul-Bari Atwan, the Palestinian editor of the London-based daily al-Quds al-Arabi said Zaidi’s action was “an appropriate farewell to a war criminal.”
The chief irony of this embarrassing episode is that it provided real proof of Bush’s success in transforming Iraq into a democracy.
Most Arab newspapers carried the “flying shoes” story prominently on their front pages, with commentators split on the implications of the weird assault.
Elaph.com, a prominent online newspaper, noted that Afghan journalists who attended a press conference Bush gave later at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan were allowed to keep their shoes on. That event proceeded without incident.
Shoe jokes were being exchanged throughout the Arab world via emails and text messages. One said Israeli forces on Monday busted “a secret shoe factory belonging to Hamas in Gaza and arrested several shoe-makers.” It noted that “many of the shoes confiscated were size 10 (EU44)," the same size as the pair used against the US president.
Beating someone with a shoe is the ultimate insult in Iraqi and Arab culture. Iraqis beat the fallen statue of Saddam Hussein with their shoes after the collapse of the dictator’s regime in April 2003. Muslims are required to take off their shoes and leave them outside before they enter a mosque. This often leads to worshippers losing their shoes to others who mistake them for their own.
Iraqi journalists quoted in the Arab media said Zaidi was a Baathist supporter of Saddam who works for the Cairo-based al-Baghdadia, an anti-government Iraqi TV station. They blamed the Iraqi government for the security lapse of allowing someone like him into the press event. The TV station issued a statement distancing itself from the incident, saying Zaidi’s action was not representative of the station’s views.
While Bush remains unpopular in most of the Arab world, some comments on blogs and websites pointed out that the Iraqi journalist would have been summarily executed had he attempted something similar on Saddam.
The bizarre incident also drew some admiration for the quick reflexes that allowed Bush to successfully dodge both shoes hurled at him. But the chief irony of this embarrassing episode is that it provided real proof of Bush’s success in transforming Iraq into a democracy. Not that the president contemplated freedom of expression going this far.
Blogger Kazimi predicts an ultimate vindication of Bush’s Iraq war: “Give it twenty years or so, and a main thoroughfare in Baghdad will be called George Bush Avenue. Or maybe that's just the name of my driveway. Anyway, there will be a big sign and all.”
Salameh Nematt is the international editor of The Daily Beast. He is the former Washington bureau chief for the international Arab daily Al Hayat, where he reported on US foreign policy, the war in Iraq, and the US drive for democratization in the broader Middle East. He has also written extensively on regional and global energy issues and their political implications.