Flying Shoes and the Queen of England

The recent incident of an Egyptian journalist hurling his shoes at Prrsident Bush during a press conference with Prime Minister al-Maliki in Baghdad has received enormous publicity over the past several days. More often than not, it is depicted as a clownlike portratit of the soon-to-depart president in a scene befitting a Saturday Night Live sketch. But is it the symbol of something more important than that?

It was certainly an insult to President Bush himself. The perpetrator of the “air attack,” Muntadhar el-Zeidi, certainly meant it that way. Apparently, throwing shoes at someone is the ultimate insult in Middle Eastern culture, symbolizing the conviction that the victim is considered to be dirt below the soles of one’s shoes. El-Zeidi’s accompanying epithet concluded by referring to the President of the United States as “you dog.” Being called the “dog” in my house means you are a privileged character who essentially rules the roost; I doubt if that is what the Egyptian had in mind.

El-Zeidi is apparently being hailed as a hero in the “Arab street” of Baghdad and beyond, even though he is being held under arrest. What should we make of this? Was it simply an embarassing moment akin to when Bush’s father upchucked on the feet of the Japanese Prime Minister at a state dinner? Or was it a more serious popular indictment of the United States and its policy? In other words, was Bush or the United States the object of the attack?

Enter the Queen of England. One of the great advantages the British system has over ours is that it separates the two major functions of the political executive. In England, the prime minister is the chief elected, partisan politician in the country, and he (or she) can be attacked on partisan grounds based on what one thinks of his or her policies without raising questions about loyalty to or support of England. The prime minister is the head of government, in textbook fashion. The Queen (or King), however, is the symbolic representative of the country, the head of state. Attacking the queen is not so much an attack on the individual as it is a criticism of the state.

In the United States, by contrast, the two roles of head of government and state are combined in the president (head of government) and the presidency (head of state), so that it is difficult to tease out whether an attack against the office is a based on a dislike of the incumbent or the country. This is occasionally troublesome. For instance, during the disgrace of Richard Nixon, many defended him not because of his innocence but instead because criticism seemed to weaken the presidency and thus the country.

So against whom was el-Zeidi was directing his ire? The prime minister (the president)? Or the queen (the United States)? In one sense, it is hard to distinguish, since it is the policies of the Bush administration that have created an outpouring of disrespect, even hatred, for the United States. It is, however, important as the United States moves forward in the Middle East under a new leader.

If it is just George W. Bush who is the object of disdain, then the problem is less severe. In that case, Bush’s replacement by Obama will help put the hurt behind us: there is some evidence that many Middle Easterners have some positive hope for the administration of a man with a shared regional middle name. If, on the other hand, it is the queen at whom the ire is directed, that is a more serious and difficult matter to reverse. If el-Zeidi and those who agree with him hate America, then only a sharp reversal in how we are perceived will turn that situation around.

Changing the American image will require overcoming the reasons we are resented in that part of the world, and nothing symbolizes the resentment more than the enormous, very public American military presence in the region, the capstone of which is the military occupation in Iraq and the American intervention in Afghanistan. The Iraqi occuption will begin to wind down with the change of administration,  but American interference in Afghanistan is scheduled to increase, not decrease. Does this mean more flying shoes in our future? God save the queen if it does.

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