One of the things I really enjoyed about my graduate studies that looked at understanding cultures was the ways in which elements within cultures can mean very different things in diverse cultural contexts. I continue to find the study of such things helpful, and it is applicable to a recent event that made the international news.
The media has shown the clip of an Iraqi journalist tossing his shoes at President Bush many times, and much of what I've seen tends to trivialize the event, or present it with tongue in cheek (as in, isn't it funny what that crazy Iraqi did?). But the episode is rich with cultural symbolism and meaning that Americans would do well to reflect on.
"Throughout the Muslim world, and in most of Asia, shoes are ritually impure. They are “dirty” in more than the material sense of the word. One does not, ever, wear shoes or sandals in mosques, shrines, temples, or in most instances in peoples’ homes. In my travels in Asia over the past three decades I have often encountered signs at the entrances to holy places reading something like: “Boundary of Holiness. Footwearing Strictly Prohibited.” Muslims remove their shoes and wash their feet, hands, and faces before prayer to purify themselves.
"There is also a long history of diplomatic impasses and political conflict stemming from the refusal of western envoys to remove their shoes while visiting Muslim and other Asian capitals, and the refusal of Asian monarchs to make exceptions to accommodate Westerners’ discomfort at the thought of appearing shoeless in official capacities. To throw a shoe at a visiting head of state and erstwhile ally is very close to the ultimate expression of disgust and defiance."
The second article is "Missing the Anger for Shoes" by Hussein Rashid which provides another perspective on this incident. Regardless of the specifics of the interpretation it appears that there is an important symbolic significance to the shoe throwing incident, one that does not bode well for American foreign policy in Iraq or our continued perceptions in the Muslim world.