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 by the International Criminal Court by saying that �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 50 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
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 percent 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,
I corresponded with two journalists on the subject -- both
of whom had mentioned the motivation in their reports -- 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 in covering 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?�
He continued, �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
�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, 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
time bomb, 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 were to take a more frank look at themselves
and their 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