What do Iraqis find so insulting about shoes and feet?

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Dec. 15 2008 5:32 PM

Voting With Their Feet

What do Iraqis find so insulting about shoes and feet?

During a Sunday press conference in Baghdad, an angry Iraqi journalist hurled insults, and his shoes, at President Bush. According to the New York Times, "Hitting someone with a shoe is considered the supreme insult in Iraq." Why is that?

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Because they're so dirty. The degree of insult seems to be an idiosyncratic cultural development, as opposed to one that derives from clear textual sources. There's no particular mention in the Quran or any of the Hadith of shoe-throwing or debasement of enemies by exposing them to feet. And historical origins for the tradition are not easily found. However it started, Arabs—and perhaps Iraqis in particular—throw their shoes to indicate that the target is no better than dirt.

The foot has special meaning in many societies. Most cultures see the act of subjecting another to one's feet or shoes as a sign of superiority. (Former U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson learned this lesson when he enraged Saddam Hussein in a 1995 meeting by accidentally exposing the soles of his feet to the dictator.) Likewise, it's an act of humility—or even worship—to voluntarily subject oneself to another's feet.

Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist temples all require entrants to remove their shoes. Buddhist temples forbid guests to point their feet at a representation of the Buddha, but adherents do display a deep reverence for the feet of deities. Buddha is often represented by a pair of intricately adorned feet or footprints, and some Hindus worship a footprint believed to belong to the god Vishnu. Many Indians also show respect to their parents or grandparents by touching their feet.

In the ancient Near East, it was traditional to offer guests a basin in which to wash their feet. Under Jewish law, the host could also order a servant to wash a guest's feet, as long as the servant was not a Hebrew. Because of this custom, Christians believe that Jesus intended to show humility and servitude to his disciples when he washed their feet at the Last Supper. (This may be why the global aversion to shoes and feet has less force in the Christian world.)

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Meanwhile, political shoe-throwing has become something of a free-speech tradition for the newly liberated Iraqis. As U.S. soldiers pulled down a Saddam Hussein statue in 2003, Iraqis flung shoes at the monument. Former interim President Iyad Allawi was also pelted with shoes while campaigning in 2005. Sunday's press conference isn't even the first time a U.S. president has suffered a shoe-related insult in Iraq. After the Persian Gulf War, Saddam Hussein installed a mosaic of President George H.W. Bush on the floor of the Al-Rasheed Hotel. Hussein delighted in releasing images of foreign dignitaries stepping on Bush's face.

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Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.