Shoe-Throwing Incident Still Has Legs

When President Bush had a news conference in Baghdad over the weekend, an Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at the president. That story got a lot of attention around the world. For a look at how it is playing in the Middle East, Steve Inskeep talks with Ramez Maluf, professor of journalism at the Lebanese American University in Beirut.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Next, we're going to check on the media coverage of an Iraqi man who threw his shoes at President Bush. We know how it was covered in the United States, replayed over and over and over again on the television news. Our question today is how it was covered in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Islamic world. We turn once again to Ramez Maluf. He's a professor of journalism at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. Welcome back to the program.

Professor RAMEZ MALUF (Journalism, Lebanese American University, Beirut): My pleasure.

INSKEEP: So how widely covered was this shoe-throwing incident?

Professor MALUF: Very widely covered. People were showing a clip from the shoe-throwing incident repeatedly on different stations, newspapers, and in some cases led with that story. Pictures of it were on the front pages.

INSKEEP: Now, we should mention, I suppose, that President Bush was visiting Baghdad when this happened. It was an Iraqi journalist who did it. And we heard a lot of things about this symbolic meaning of shoe throwing in Middle Eastern culture, or Arab culture. Can you tell us how it was seen there?

Professor MALUF: I'm not sure there's a lot of symbolism of shoe throwing. It's not something people do often. But shoes in general, particularly the sole of shoes, are regarded with a lot of disdain. And as you may know, for example, when people walk into a mosque they're supposed to take off their shoes, leave them at the door. If you're sitting with company you're never supposed to sit so that people can see the sole of your shoes. The word itself has a derogatory meaning. Calling somebody a shoe is a great insult.

INSKEEP: So did the Arab press lean on that interpretation of this, or did they suggest that this conflicted with another Middle Eastern tradition about taking good care of guests?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Professor MALUF: I don't think people are paying a lot of attention to this contradiction. A lot of people, however, criticized the incident in that it did not reflect the profession itself. So there were articles that said that the job of journalists is to fight for their ideas through the use of the pen or the camera, and so forth.

I think the mood in general was, you know, in favor, supportive of the man who did it. There are a lot of incidents, you know, reflecting that. You know, people offering to buy the shoes for $10 million. A station here in Lebanon, the chairman came on TV to say that he would gladly hire the man who did it, should he be fired from his station. But there were also some more sober writings.

INSKEEP: Such as what?

Professor MALUF: Well, for example, a very respected columnist in Al-Hayat, which is a newspaper with very wide circulation, said that the media had been too keen to celebrate this incident and paid very little attention to the fact that George Bush was in Iraq to sign and consolidate agreements that he wanted signed. And rather than pay attention to the significance of these agreements, they were too concerned with the imagery of the shoe throwing and not concerned with the substance of the visit.

INSKEEP: This was the agreement having to do with how much longer U.S. forces can stay in Iraq.

Professor MALUF: Right, right. Another columnist said today that had a journalist done this to Saddam Hussein, the journalist and his whole family would have faced the execution squad. And that is something worth pointing out, he writes. Also, an interesting column in Al Akhbar, which is a state-owned Egyptian newspaper, after he talks about the shoe incidents in history - and he refers to Krushchev's banging on the table with his shoes at the United Nations - he says that this is the first time a shoe was actually used as a missile. And he opinionates that this incident will define how Bush will be remembered in the Arab world, as the president who was hit by a shoe. A few years from now, he says, the fact that he ducked will be forgotten.

INSKEEP: Ramez Maluf is a professor of journalism at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. Good to talk with you again.

Professor MALUF: My pleasure.

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