By Guy Gabriel
While a hero in the Arab world, in the West the position of Iraqi journalist Muntadher al-Zaidi was more ambiguous. Few people seemed to mind that such a bold statement as throwing shoes was being made against George Bush, then-President of the Untied States. What was of great interest was that the story had a comic element.
Bush reacted immediately with a quick remark that it was a size 10; headline writers the next day reported on ‘sock and awe,’ and within days an internet game inviting the player to throw shoes at Bush had been launched. The game’s website congratulates us that currently, over 90,000,000 million shoes have hit George Bush in the face, such is its popularity.
This has also fuelled the assumption that shoe-throwing is somehow intrinsically linked to the Arab world. People who have since thrown shoes at Chinese and Indian politicians are attributed to al-Zaidi’s act (even when no Arabs were involved), and when President Omar Bashir of Sudan reacted to news of his indictment at the International Criminal Court by saying "they are under my feet," this prompted reporters to add to their descriptions: "a favourite Arab insult."
Perhaps it needs to be said that shoes can be a useful and expressive tool for anyone: there is great precedent almost fifty years ago when in October 1960 Nikita Khrushchev of the Soviet Union banged his shoe on his desk in the UN General Assembly to express his anger.
But why such light-heartedness in the Western media regarding al-Zaidi’s act when the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq is clearly no laughing matter? Al-Zaidi’s sentiments were clear right from the moment he threw his shoes: "This is a farewell kiss, you dog! This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq."
Arab Media Watch (AMW), a London-based organisation that monitors the coverage of Arab-related issues in the British media, took a quantitative look into the coverage of the story in the British press.
Only those articles whose headline and/or first paragraph mentioned al-Zaidi were deemed relevant for the study. The reason for this was to include only those pieces with this subject as the primary focus (i.e. those that could reasonably be expected to mention the motivation as well as the act).
AMW’s research confirmed that huge emphasis was placed on the act at the expense of the motivation: while all stories mentioned the act (throwing the shoes), only 19% of them reported the motivation as well ("This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq").
Any act such as this in the absence of motivation reduces the perpetrator to the status of a prankster – it becomes a seemingly temperamental action, devoid of reason. But, of course, it was not: in reality – as was abundantly clear at the time – this was motivated by the situation of the widows and orphans, and the deaths of hundreds and thousands of Iraqis.
So why didn’t the British press convey the motivation adequately? While the initial reaction is to point out that the tendency of the media is to truncate and sensationalise material, this does not seem like a good enough answer. Al-Zaidi’s motivation is well known to the Arab press, after all.
I corresponded with two journalists on the subject – both of whom had mentioned the motivation in their journalism – one British and one Iraqi, both writing in British newspapers. The contrast between their replies sheds some important light not only about the incident itself, but also on the broader issue of the performance of the British press over the Iraq war.
The Iraqi journalist told me that reporting the motivation would also require reporting an explanation about US-led war crimes in Iraq as well, but "that, of course, is too much to expect from most of our editors, who live or die by sound-bites or clever headlines."
The British journalist, by contrast, told me:
"…well, he was an Iraqi, in Iraq. His motivation was a given. He was hardly going to be vexed about Hurricane Katrina, was he?"
"Shoe-throwing, in the West at least, is a fairly humorous idea… Like I said in the piece I wrote for the Times, this was maybe an error on al-Zaidi’s part. If he’d thrown a brick, people might have sniggered a little less."
The assertion that the motivation was obvious is underpinned by a belief that the general readership is aware of the extent of the crimes committed in Iraq, something the Iraqi journalist is not so sure of. He argued:
"Most of the mainstream media have self-imposed censorship regarding the occupation’s war crimes against the civilian population of Iraq. Civilian deaths are reported only if the incident involves an act of mindless terrorism, which could be instantly pinned on Al-Qaida, ‘Sunni extremists’ or ‘remnants of Saddam’s regime’.
"The terrorists then become the unacceptable face of the resistance to occupation in Iraq. This type of reporting also provides implicit support for the US and British officials who argue that they are in Iraq to fight terrorism and support the Iraqi people.
"So, a dramatic incident like Muntadher throwing a shoe at Bush, in the name of the orphans and widows of Iraq, could only hit the headlines after some careful editing. Otherwise it would, if his words were reported, contradict most previous reporting and accepted wisdom on Iraq."
So what to the Iraqi journalist is an act motivated by (inadequately reported) crimes committed in his homeland, is to the British journalist something "fairly humorous," with an obvious motivation.
This raises questions about the performance of the media in covering the war. How is it that such a gulf in interpretation between the two journalists can arise? Why is the act perceived to be humorous by some when the crimes to others speak volumes?
Some recent evidence suggests that a certain degree of denial on the part of the media does exist. As British forces handed over operations in Basra last week, the Daily Mail wrote in an editorial on 1 April 2009 that it "has consistently opposed the war." However, it is an easy piece of research to find out that on 21 March 2003, the day after the invasion began, the Mail stated:
"…for 12 years Saddam has lied and cheated and denied that he has vast amounts of chemical and biological poisons, from anthrax to VX nerve agent…It is to avoid future dangers that we have to fight it out now."
How could a mainstream newspaper with the second-highest circulation figures in Britain so conveniently ignore its original endorsement?
The Daily Express, another mainstream British newspaper, wrote on 1 April 2009 that British troops were sent to war "on the false prospectus that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction." However, this is a far cry from the strong endorsement it gave to the war on 12 March 2003:
"Leaving Saddam to build up his secret hoard of weapons of mass destruction is a deadly timebomb, which would merely feed the ambitions of the ‘axis of evil’ and give succour to the terrorists who want to bring their war to these shores. Mr Blair is the one on high moral ground…the Prime Minister must take the country – kicking and screaming, if necessary – into war if we are to save ourselves from a far worse fate."
It is these sins of omission, and countless others like it, that help to explain why the motivation of al-Zaidi in throwing his shoes was absent in a large part of the reporting in the British media.
Perhaps if the media was to take a more frank look at itself and its conduct surrounding the Iraq war, then the impressions of humour that met al-Zaidi’s act would fade as the full details and extent of his motivation become clearer. This is a debate that is yet to take place.
– Guy Gabriel is an adviser to Arab Media Watch. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.