Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Symbolic Significance of Shoes

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.

Two new stories in Religion Dispatches discuss this. The first is "The Shoe Thrower: What Bush Didn't Understand" by Mark Woodward. Following is an excerpt:

"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.


John Smulo said...

Great post John. I wish our media had more intelligent commentary on events like this.

Cody Heitschmidt said...

So John,

You think more articles analyzing the Shoe incident from a purely speculative stance would be good??

You think more articles analyzing it by saying the analysis of other media outlets is trivializing it are a good idea.

You think Guessing about symbolic meanings is any freaking less a poor job of journalism than just playing the video over and over again.

Just wondering

John W. Morehead said...


To respond to your brief queries:

Yes, I think we need more analysis that points out that much of the American and Western media has trivialized the event.

And second, I am not suggesting we guess about suggested meanings. The article excerpt I provided looks at the meaning of shoes as a cultural symbol in Iraqi culture and what we can learn about the deeper meaning of the event with president Bush.

We need to do a better job at understanding the symbolism of other cultures, and what they can tell us about seemingly superficial events like the Bush shoe tossing video.

Hopefully these clarifications help you resolve your wondering.

Semaphoric said...

The shoe-throwing incident illustrates well Clifford Geertz's concept of "thick description" in that symbols and signs are deeply contextual and are tied to structures of a particular culture. This is why Mid-East and Asian cultures better understand the shame element rather than the forensic substitutionary aspect of the Gospel. The shoe incident is all about bringing shame to Americans (as represented by Bush). Contextualization is key!

Steve Hayes said...

Psalm 60:8.

Kristin said...

I'm an archaeologist working on a site in Tucson (I live in Michigan, however) and I'm fascinated by the symbolic meanings of footwear. In archaeology, we tend to dismiss footwear as simply an indicator of socioeconomic status. This view is Eurocentric and simplistic. I enjoyed your comment and analysis. Thanks for posting. My blog on footwear will be posted today at if you'd like to check it out.