What hurled shoes say about America’s standing in the world

Fatemeh Keshavarz

Posted Dec 19, 2008      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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What hurled shoes say about America’s standing in the world

By Fatemeh Keshavarz

President Bush may be pleased to have ducked the shoes hurled at him by an Iraqi journalist at a press conference on Sunday. But to miss the significance of these flying objects would be a grave mistake.

The “size 10’‘attack or “attention-grabbing” move, as the president called it, would have been unimaginable only a few years ago, even after the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Something has changed dramatically. The shoes flying into history may have screamed what the world has been whispering to us for some time: If the United States wants to be regarded as a dignified global leader, it should act like a caring global leader.

Please do not get me wrong. Insulting heads of state is not all right, particularly when they are your guests. The point is not to justify such inappropriate and discourteous moves; it is to understand them, rather than dismiss them.

With the hurling of his shoes, Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zeidi has unleashed a few noteworthy processes. One process began seconds after his action: Judging by his cries of pain on the video clip, it led to a few broken ribs, not to mention a fully shattered career, assuming he lives.

Another process brought hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and other Arabs onto middle eastern streets expressing gratitude for the act that gave voice to their frustration with the U.S. military presence in the region. Such cries more often are expressed in poor and dilapidated neighborhoods that decision-makers do not have to frequent.

Mr. al-Zeidi did not hurl his shoes in a vacuum. He hurled them in official halls of power, which normally are sanitized to protect the authorities from “facing” the consequences of their actions. Thus, to the demonstrators, Mr. al-Zeidi is a person who put his life and career at risk to say that Iraqis are tired of measuring death and counting refugees. They are tired of occupation. They are tired of imagined “progress.” And, most of all, they are tired of being viewed as creatures who respond to carrots and sticks.

But another process that the flying shoes unleashed probably is the most important for us here in the United States. That is the open nature of this defiance, which occurred in a formal and visible setting and was directed at America’s standing in the world as the power not to be trifled with.

Mr. Bush was lucky to duck the shoes. But the truth is, if a journalist stands up in an official press conference and throws his shoes at an official’s face, the office that the official represents has been hit, whether or not his face
physically was struck.

It is easy to dismiss Sunday’s incident as the work of an anarchist or an anti-American or a supporter of one extremist or another. It could be viewed as the result of personal grudge or grief. And, at the other extreme, it could be romanticized as a courageous act.

None of these addresses the real issue, however: A good deal of the world has had it with our carrots-and-sticks policies. The world wants to be recognized for its complexity, agency and humanity. This does not mean that everything other nations do must be acceptable to us or considered right, for that matter.

But it means that the United States may have to sit across the table and adopt a respectful attitude even, perhaps especially, toward those we disagree with. If we talk — and I mean talk, not issue ultimatums — with nations before hurling our blazing bombs at them and shattering their lives, they might stop and think before hurling their shoes at our face. Even more significantly, we might be able to reach some genuine agreements with them.

If we and the world are lucky, the flying shoes will come to mark a crucial moment in the United States’ global leadership, a moment when we began opting for genuine diplomacy.

Fatemeh Keshavarz chairs the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages and Literature at Washington University. She is the author of “Jasmine and Stars: Reading more than Lolita in Tehran” and serves as honorary co-chair of Iranians
for Peace.

Source:  Editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch