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Shoe Throwing Incident Exposes Western Failure to Understand Arab World

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Americans are the most educated people in the world but the least educated in the world. They can't tell the difference between a Palestinian and a Pakistani, and an Iranian and an Indian.

That might explain why the West is so outraged that an Iraqi, who is a journalist, threw his shoes at President Bush, while people in the Arab World view it as a moment of pride.

The case of the shoe-throwing Iraqi cameraman only serves once again to highlight the disconnect between what Americans do and do not know about the Arab World, which their leaders insist will bring "Democracy."

How can you bring Democracy to a part of the world that fundamentally few Americans can even comprehend?

The throwing of a shoe at someone is not an intended act of violence. In fact, if an Arab were to want to pursue an act of violence, throwing a shoe would not be a choice.

Throwing a shoe is a fundamental cornerstone of Arab culture, and it is the failure to recognize this and the bigger principles that it represents that explains why the United States and the West have been frustrated in almost every attempt to "change" the Middle East.

This week, the President of the Society of Professional Journalists asked me to remove a post from a blog that has been assigned to Arab American members, al-Sahafiyeen, in which I defended the shoe-thrower.

You might think journalists would be more willing to discuss these issues. The reality is this topic is being discussed more openly and with less inhibition in the "oppressed" Arab World than it is in the "Free" America.

Only because the SPJ is one of the only journalism organizations in the United States that truly respects the particular challenges that confront Arab Americans in journalism, I removed the post, replacing it with my letter of response.

Here are some facts that all trace back to the huge divide that exists between the West and the Arab World that I think the shoe-throwing incident symbolizes:

America claims to be the land of the free, yet an effort to make the Arab satellite broadcast al-Jazeera English available as a paid option on cable TV channels was rejected for political reasons.

The Arab World isn't even allowed to make its argument to the American people or to the West, and their efforts to do so are shrouded in defamation asserting that Arab journalism is "biased."

Although the Middle East is the number one topic in the World today, and in the United States especially after the terrorism of Sept. 11, 2001, the fact is there isn't one major Arab American columnist who writes on a regular basis for a major mainstream American newspaper who is allowed to explain Arab culture and Arab thinking and Arab politics.

Even debates on such touchy taboo topics as "criticism of Israel" are oftentimes parsed out not between two opposites (One Israeli columnist versus one Arab columnist), but often between two Israeli columnists.

Arab Americans are excluded from the media at almost every level, and the coverage of the Arab American community is often restricted to controversy, violence and terrorism. Very few mainstream newspapers cover the Arab American community, the way they cover, for example, the Jewish American community.

The challenge of the media is not restricted to the news media, but also to the entertainment side of the communications profession, including in Hollywood where opinion is molded in the fictionalized bastardization of real worldly events.

Sometime in January, one of the first movies to explore the challenges facing Arab Americans will be released. It is called "American East." Although the movie, made by Hesham Issawi and Sayed Badreya, portrays the controversial topic in a balanced and fair manner, not one American theater would show it.

The reality is that Arab Americans are victims of this Western ignorance of the reality of the Arab World. Many Americans, including those with noble causes on their shoulders, discriminate against Arab Americans because it is politically correct to do so. They will champion the right of every ethnic group to express their views, but not when it comes to Arab Americans.

Muntandar al-Zaidi, the cameraman for al-Baghdadiya TV, threw his shoe at President Bush not as an act of violence, but because in Arab culture, that is in fact the ultimate form of protest.

Rather than see it in that light, Americans continue to bury their heads in the sand as they race across its deserts seeking to "Westernize" the "Arab" and to "bring Democracy" to the shores of the Middle East.

No wonder American and Western policies in the Middle East have and continue to fail. Until Americans take the time to understand the Arab mind, and to apply the same principles of free speech, justice morality and fairness to the Arab people, that failure will continue at breakneck speed.

(Ray Hanania is an award winning columnist and Chicago radio talkshow host. He can be reached at www.RadioChicagoland.com and by email at rayhanania@comcast.net.)