As I observed the immediate aftermath of the shoe throwing incident in Baghdad, I noted that the most striking effect occurred among the Western public, and particularly within the United States. Commentators and regular citizens were asking themselves again, seven years later, “why do they hate us?” missing one more time the fact that this particular violent expression, far from being a unique emotional reaction by one individual, is part of a war of ideas; it is a continuous organized confrontation over the future of the region. In short, this was another form of Jihadism, one I am coining now as a Jihad by the Shoe (Jihad bil Hizaa). Here is why.
Western Awe of So-Called Arab Reaction
The main question on anchors’ minds and lips reflected the shock and awe felt by many Americans. It wasn’t really about the Iraqi journalist al Zaidi targeting President Bush with his two leather “missiles,” for in liberal democracies, the scene of flying eggs, pies or liquid in the direction of politicians, legislators, Prime Ministers or Presidents is part of the political culture. Even obscene gestures and words are frequently uttered against leaders; this behavior comes with the package of democratic freedoms. It ends up usually with a sensational picture on the front page, as a joke on TV’s late night shows, and/or it can come with some minor legal consequences.
But the shoe bombing of President Bush stunned Western commentators for another reason: the seemingly vast outpouring of support the thrower received in the region. In the absence of sound expert analysis as to the meaning of the colorful reporting on Arab channels, and as many Western media went overboard in their guilt-ridden commentaries, the public was left alone to figure this out. Obviously their conclusion was that “whatever we do for them, they will continue to hate us.”
That’s exactly the gist of almost every question I was asked by the media: “After all we’ve done for them, freed them from Saddam, lost three thousand American men and women and spent billions of dollars, they made a hero of a shoe thrower against our President.” While the unease in America and in many Western countries is legitimate, the cause of their frustration, not the shoe thrower, should be blamed: as before, the public was very poorly served by its media and academia. The public simply wasn’t told – with accuracy - what actually unfolded in that incident, which was another battle in the ongoing War of Ideas, aimed at defeating the will of the free world. Here is how:
The Shoe Thrower
According to Arab commentators, Iraqi journalist Muntazar al Zaidi, who launched his two shoes against U.S. President George Bush while calling him “dog”, is a controversial militant. Dr. Abdel Khaliq Hussein, writing in Elaph accused al Zaidi of being a “friend of the terrorists.” Furthermore, along with other analysts, Hussein said the “shoe thrower” used to know about the “terrorist attacks before they took place and managed to be at the location beforehand.” These are serious accusations against a person who was made into an icon of “Arab pride” by the Jihadi media machine. Furthermore, Hussein wrote that al Zaidi fabricated his abduction story last year to get “maximum publicity.” One can see a pattern here. Maybe President Bush’s instincts were right.
In the daily al Shaq al Awsat, another observer wrote that al Zaidi is a Sadrist. Others disagree and describe him as radical opportunist. Nidal Neaissi, also writing in Elaph, reminded his readers of an historical precedent in Bedouin history: a well known greedy man, Abi Qassem al Tamburi was always trying to get rid of his shoe by throwing it against well known people, attracting the support (and more) of their enemies. Too many comments about the so-called “shoe hero” have appeared in the Arab media - unread in the West - leaving us with one conclusion. The man had a plan for his shoe: a major show. And it worked.
The Force behind the Shoe Thrower
It gets better when you investigate the organization paying his salary and expenses. Al Baghdadiya TV, based in Cairo, is owned by another controversial figure in the murky world of Middle Eastern media: Abdel Hussein Shaaban, an Iraqi Shia from Najaf and ex-Communist. According to Iraqi opposition sources based in London, Shaaban was an operative for Saddam, tasked with discrediting the Baathist leader’s critics around the world. Obviously it comes with payroll, according to the same sources.
But more recent accusations leveled by media experts in the region claim that al Baghdadiya TV, like dozens of other recipients, are getting significant funding from the Iranian regime. Military expert W. Thomas Smith, Jr., writing in World Defense Review has described the huge propaganda operation unleashed by Tehran directly, and via its network in Beirut, to “influence” Arab and Western media and to direct them against the regime’s foes.
Blasting George Bush, and more importantly his project of “spreading Democracy”, is high on Iran’s list but also on many other regimes’ agendas. An article by Ali Al Gharash titled “Shoes Terrify Regimes Now” shows that a consensus exists within the region’s establishment to demolish the image of the man who dared (despite the failure of U.S. bureaucracy) to “do it,” that is to tear down their wall of radical ideologies. The shoe thrower was clearly on a mission to do just that by striking at the “head” of the enemy with his pair of shoes.
The Making of a Jihadi Hero
Minutes after the incident took place and was captured by the media feed and aired worldwide, a snowball flurry of releases, special shows with commentators - gathered too fast for the circumstance - were on the airwaves. Interestingly al Baghdadiya TV issued – faster than the speed of light - a long press release calling for struggle. Minutes after, a vast magma of satellite channel sympathizers of Jihadism, and of sites virulently anti-democracy, exploded with incitement and calls for mobilization - and some were even as provocative as characterizing the ballistic exercise by al Zaidi as an “act of Jihad.”
Within six hours, the airwaves in the region were invaded by the “shoe Jihad.” Within 12 hours, friendly voices beaming from Western networks joined the orchestra in aggrandizing the matter. “A shoe in the Arab culture is the worst epithet one can use, it expresses so deep an anger,” blasted one of the oldest international media out of Europe. More seasoning was added on this side of the Atlantic. “Analysts” for mainstream networks - most of whom can’t speak the language - began lecturing the stunned public on the “lessons to be learned and on the pain felt in those lands at the sight of President Bush.” And the framing continued on. By the second day, both the Arab satellite cohorts and the “specialists” on “how to understand the region” were breaking to the world the grandiose news: a new hero was born in the Muslim world, the shoe thrower. Give it a few weeks and Hollywood will buy the story and make a movie out of it. Give it a year and it will be taught as a course by our academic cinema.
The West is Dragged to Confusion
Within Western democracies, informational confusion reigns: this is “Bushophobia” claim the most sophisticated. It is impossible, after all the Coalition has done to free Iraqis from Saddam, that demonstrators are chanting for the shoe thrower. Others, less confident in the ability of the region’s peoples to accept democracy and to be thankful to the liberators, began a psychological withdrawal: let them live under dictatorships for they don’t deserve better, said many talk show hosts.
When a Western response like this happens, connoisseurs of Jihadi tactics know that the “shoe Jihad” worked impeccably. It spread doubts in the heads of Westerners, particularly among Americans, so that few will support a U.S. President in the future if he asks for sacrifices to “bring change” to the region. The combined propaganda machine of the Baathists, Salafists, Khomeinists and other authoritarians scored a major coup in a job lasting only 48 hours: they forced a confused West to believe that the region is utterly opposed to liberal democracy. Consequently, the next White House and other chanceries across the Atlantic need to learn from the shoe attack: do not intervene in Darfur; do not pressure the Iranian regime; do not help Lebanon against Hezbollah and let go of democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Pro-Democracy Voices Lash Out
But the critics of the “Shoe Jihad”were as fast as the petro-dollar machine in reacting. Indeed, and unlike what most Westerners were swift to conclude, pro-democracy voices were loud and clear: from Kuwait, Lebanon, Jordan, Morocco and across the Arab world, and particularly from Iraq, journalists, bloggers, talk show hosts, teachers and artists blasted the Jihadi comedy and rejected the “unholy shoeing.” For each email on al Jazeera supportive of the insult, another email landed on liberal web sites and editorial rooms. How the incident was reported in the Middle East depended on who stood behind which medium. Sadly, if the funders were petro-regimes, the “Shoe Jihad” won. The other side’s volume was too low to be broadcast throughout the world. International media, incorporating the West’s global apology syndrome, obviously showcased the “partisans of the shoe” rather than those who were embarrassed by it.
A War of Ideas
The West was left to see only what it was allowed to watch: a repeat of previous cycles in the War of Ideas. Viewers in New York and Paris can see the angry protesters of the Danish Cartoons and Guantanamo and the insulting of a U.S. President; but they cannot see the men and women who wish to shoe bomb their own dictators and oppressors. Sometimes the public has a mere glimpse of the other side: when Saddam’s statue was toppled and beaten with shoes for few hours, and when a million people demanded the Assad regime to take their boots off of Lebanon’s soil.
Meanwhile, the battle for minds and hearts rages relentlessly - a confrontation so far won by those who wage Jihad by all means, as they say. This time, it was by the shoe.
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