The Buzz

Moccasins for Mahmoud

The Arab world, with its culture of honor and great linguistic diversity, is a font of creative insults. An Iraqi diplomat, in the days before the 2003 war, famously yelled to his Kuwaiti counterpart, “A curse on your mustache!” One Lebanese artist illustrates expletives with lovely calligraphy, such as this, from when he bumped into an older man, who said, “may your heart go blinder than it already is.” But Egyptians take the cake with phrases like “May God destroy your house, and the house of those who bore you.”

Two other delightful Egyptian creations: “You son of a shoe,” and “He deserves to be hit with sixty shoes.” The association between feet and filth became widely known in the west in 2008, when Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zaidi launched his loafers at George W. Bush in a gesture of anger that resonated through the region.

Now Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has gotten the same treatment. While on a historic visit to Cairo—the first by an Iranian leader in thirty years—several Salafi men slung their shoes at him. It was the culmination of a visit which showed the depth of distaste for Iran in the Arab world, in particular in religious Sunni circles. Ahmadinejad got a stern talking-to regarding Iran’s regional role from the head of the al-Azhar university, and his convoy was attacked. Several months ago, he had been insulted by Mohamed Morsi himself, who thrilled the Iranians by attending the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement—a summit they had hoped would show their international legitimacy in the face of Western pressure—only to use it as a platform to denounce Iran’s ally, Syria.

It’s no coincidence that Bush and Ahmadinejad both got the boot during trips to the Arab world. Both have a similar misperception of their state’s role and reputation in the region. Bush and the neoconservatives behind him thought that an attack on Saddam would see American troops “greeted as liberators,” in his vice president’s words. Ahmadinejad and his onetime friend, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, have tried to brand the Arab uprisings as an “Islamic awakening” against Western oppressors, and suggested that the solution is to make a united, non-Western Islamic community a new pole of international power:

The valiant revolutionary nations of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, as well as other awakened and combatant nations, should know that the sole means of deliverance from the oppression and guile of the United States and other Western hubristic powers is to establish a global balance of power conducive to their interests. Muslims must put themselves on equal footing with major world powers in order to be able to seriously resolve their problems with the world devourers. This cannot be achieved except with the cooperation, understanding and solidarity of Islamic countries.

Hardliners within Iran’s government are sometimes—appropriately—called neoconservatives. The neocons of the United States and the Islamic Republic both believe that there is a popular yearning (for liberal or Islamic society) that constitutes an inevitable historical force (toward liberal or Islamic democracy) that will bring about rapid social changes (the end of illiberal or un-Islamic regimes) and transform the world order (to make an American Century or to make a Middle East in which Iran is a key leader, not a pariah) if it is backed by force. Both must oversimplify the region’s complex dynamics. Both have seen their plans for the Middle East fail, and both weakened and isolated their nations in the process. Sometimes the truth hits you like a shoe in the face.