Paul Vallely: A gesture against a mighty power

17 December 2008

The shoe-throwing at George Bush was not just a comical incident

THERE was much mirth all round when President Bush had a couple of shoes thrown at his head this week. On the part of those who oppose the war in Iraq, there was a gleeful sense of comeuppance at the meting out of this most Arabic of insults to the outgoing President of the United States.

On the part of those who supported the swaggering Texan, there was much chuckling that he managed to dodge the missiles as deftly as he does awkward questions about a war in which, as estimated in that most neutral of authorities, The Lancet, 655,000 Iraqis have died.

There is something innately comic in Western culture about the shoe. If it is a good luck symbol, it is a jolly one, as it bumps along behind the newly-weds’ confetti-covered car. And superstitions about ill fortune following if you put your shoes on the wrong feet are all tinged with the bad luck of the pratfall rather than a portent of real doom.

So we smiled somewhat patronisingly back in 2003, when the citizens of Baghdad set about the toppled statue of Saddam with their footwear. Even when it was explained that showing a shoe was the gravest expression of contempt in Arab culture, we saw the gesture as reflecting the frustrated futility of a people who had failed for so long to get rid of a tyrant who was a ruthless killer but also a buffoon.

This week, Mr Bush continued to smirk: “If you want the facts,” he told reporters afterwards, “it was a size 10.”

But the furious impotence of the journalist who hurled his shoes at the President — the first “a farewell kiss, you dog”, and the second, “from the widows, the orphans, and those who were killed in Iraq” — gave me pause for thought. We have been told that this is a most Muslim gesture of contempt; for shoes are somehow unclean, they must be removed before prayer, and have to be carried in the mosque, in the disfavoured left hand, with their soles facing one another. Yet it seems a very Christian insult, too.

There is a vulnerability about being shoeless. In Manchester, they still talk, with barely faded outrage, about the time in the era of football hooliganism when United fans went to an away match in Middlesbrough, and on alighting from the train were told by the police to remove their shoes and leave them on the platform.

They were then marched, in their stockinged feet, the couple of miles to Ayresome Park to watch the match. They then had to walk, still shoeless, back to the station to collect their footgear as they boarded the train home. There was no trouble that day. Remove a man’s shoes, and you drain away his power.

For a man, therefore, to remove his own shoes and throw them is a double-edged act. On the one hand, it demonstrates the depth of his disdain, but it also constitutes a surrendering of power. It is a bit like a bee sting: the bee’s act of self-defence results in its own disarmament, or worse.

By all accounts, the shoe-thrower this week, Muntadar al-Zeidi, was beaten up after the incident. At the time of writing, he was still in the custody of the Iraqi authorities — where, one fears, rather more darkly, he was losing more than his footwear. But he had known there would be a price to pay before he acted, and he decided he must pay it.

It is no small matter deliberately to make yourself defenceless in the face of the world’s most potent military power. Christians can bring to mind someone else who did just that.

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