Fox News today includes these pictures on their front page:

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Photo Credit: AP

They accompany a news story about some Shiites in Iraq protesting the U.S. presence in the wake of the detention of a radical Muslim cleric.

What strikes me about these pictures is the cultural gap revealed in them. According to Arab custom, it is extremely vulgar to display the bottoms of your feet to someone (such as when you are sitting down, or cross-legged in a chair), and shoes are sometimes used as a form of insult. When Saddam’s statue was pulled down in Baghdad, many local Iraqis threw shoes at it:

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Iraqis use their shoes to hit the remains of a statue of Saddam Hussein in downtown Bagdhad, Iraq Wednesday April 9, 2003. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Thus, the people in these photographs are making a statement, one intended to be very offensive to Americans and Jews. They look quite proud to be doing so, as for them it is a defiant gesture.

The average American’s reaction may be considerably more muted than they hoped for. Although we show respect for our flag by custom, drawing a picture of one on the ground is not the same thing as an actual flag (especially if the drawing is inaccurate, as is the one in the pictures. Deliberately making the drawing incorrect is one way to avoid defiling the symbol). So “desecration” of such an image generally doesn’t draw much anger from us. In fact, I can easily visualize a flag being painted on the ground at a school or college as part of a patriotic celebration. Some people might refrain from walking on it, but it simply doesn’t have the same connotation in our culture.

Such a culture gap also explains the Arab world’s reaction to this cartoon that originally printed in the Washington Times:

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The cartoonist, Bill Garner, had this somewhat amusing backpedal explanation:


Cartoonist Bill Garner told Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper that he never intended to offend the Pakistani nation.

“It is a cultural gap, a cultural misunderstanding that caused the uproar.

“The symbol to me was that of friendship,” he was reported as saying. “There is a saying in English that a dog is a man’s best friend.”

“There has always been a great friendship with animals, especially dogs, in America”.

Mr Garner said that the cartoon was meant to depict “the spirit of goodwill and friendship that exists between the two countries”.

Garner must not be a very good cartoonist, since a message of friendship and equality is not what I take away from that cartoon. Garner fails to remind his audience (probably intentionally since he was talking to a Pakistani news service at the time) that dogs are also lapdogs — trained servants who happily obey their master’s every whim and lick his hand in gratitude.

That is clearly the message this cartoon intends. However, the Arab reaction to it is stronger than one might expect even with that insulting message.

The key is that dogs are considered unclean by many Arabs, on par with pigs. Many Arabs won’t even be in the same room with a dog, and to have a dog enter their home would be disgusting to them. To actually compare someone to a dog — to call Pakistan as a whole, a nation of dogs — is offensive on a whole new level.

Garner was probably not aware of this cultural trait. Many Westerners are not. But as Kyle pointed out to me when we discussed this, it is no longer safe to assume that such cartoons are only consumed by a Western audience. The internet has made the audience a global one, with many varying cultures and customs. Being a political cartoonist is very risky in such a theater.

The general lesson here is that one needs to be aware of the customs of one’s audience, and also one’s critics. Otherwise, you may offend without intending to, or fail to realize when you are being insulted. Both can severely inhibit any progress toward peaceful relations with others.

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