Beware of multicultural blessings in the Maldives

A European couple got more than they bargained for when they renewed their marriage vows in a resort hotel. 
Paul Adams | Nov 1 2010 | comment  

Renew your wedding vows on the beach of the tranquil island of Vilu Reef, just the two of you hand in hand against a golden sunset backdrop. As the Maldivian sunset transforms the sky into a kaleidoscope of romantic hues, seal your everlasting love.

Thus urges the website of luxury resort Vilu Reef in the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean. The brief ceremony costs US$1300, which includes the services of celebrant, a hotel employee.

All would have been well, perhaps, if a European couple had not posted a clip of their ceremony on YouTube. But someone who spoke the local language saw it. He translated the “blessing,” adding subtitles that showed it to be a string of insults and curses in which the happy couple are called swine and infidels. The couple’s global humiliation was complete when the subtitled clip went viral.

What are we to make of it? There are so many levels, it's almost a cultural Rorschach inkblot test.

It’s a natural enough comic device in films that depict relations between colonial settlers or visitors and the locals who serve them—in one such film (I don’t recall which) the Europeans are being carried in some sort of chair held aloft on the shoulders of the natives who are singing a cheerful song in the local language that insults the beaming passengers as fat and ugly. Everyone, including the cinema audience laughs. No one is offended since those being carried are blissfully ignorant of the words being sung and who cannot empathize with this small token of defiance in face of subservience to a colonial power?

This story, one of hate rather than humor, has a more sinister ring to it. The level of hostility, the de-meaning of what is for the couple a deeply meaningful once-in-a-lifetime event (unless the vows keep expiring, I suppose). The fact, as I understand it, that the couple themselves proudly posted the scene on YouTube only makes their humiliation all the more exquisitely mortifying.

Then there is the dependence of the Maldives on high-end tourism, especially weddings, honeymoons, renewals of vows, and so forth. Yet, as in Hawaii, there is a certain local hostility and contempt for the tourists, but even more for those haoles (whites) who have moved here from the mainland US. Cruise ships are greeted on arrival and serenaded on departure by hula dancers hired for the purpose, as cameras flash and tourists beam. Who among the visitors knows what the performers are actually singing?

There's the idyllic setting, the experience of a lifetime on which people spend their precious savings—and not only the rich or glamorous like comedian Russell Brand and singer Katy Perry who were recently followed an extravagant Hindu wedding in India with a honeymoon in the Maldives. And then there are the low-paid workers who serve the visitors, depend on them for their jobs, but even in the land of aloha resent them--understandably since the visitors may spend in a week what they make in six months.

Behind all that, there's the additional element of well-meaning European multiculturalism, appreciating the cultural variations, wanting an "Islamic blessing" and to put it on YouTube as a cultural and class marker--we are not prejudiced or "Islamophobic." We are European, not Americans…

I know nothing of the couple in this case—they have wisely asked for anonymity. But it is easy to imagine that such a couple would want the blessing to be from a foreign culture, language, and religion just because it is exotic and at the same time shows their tolerance.

It's also a commentary on the naivete of the "if we're just nice to them, they'll be nice to us" element in European multiculturalist ideology. In this view, Islam is really a religion of peace and love, displacing blame for displays of hatred and intolerance by Islamists with the line that "everyone hates Americans and it's their fault."

There is irony in the self-loathing, the rejection of one’s own culture and its religion, that such sentiments express.

There's something perverse about the acceptability to secular liberals of grossly obscene and blasphemous works of "art" that depict Jesus in crude and degrading ways--defended on grounds of free speech and the value of shock--while the BBC and others in that mode bend over backwards not to depict Mohammed (whom they refer to not by name, but as the Prophet) at all. Any program about Islam will be very respectful with heavy sugar-coating, whereas any program about Christianity will be critical to the point of scorn and ridicule. Of course, there’s an element of self-preservation involved. One artist, asked why he did not depict Muslim themes with the same blasphemous disrespect as he reserved for Christianity, replied frankly, “Because I don’t want my throat cut.”

There's even a slightly embarrassing reminder of my own wedding.

At the time, we were both involved—in a serious but selective way mediated by Western teachers--in Buddhist meditation, and were married by a Buddhist monk with lots of stuff--music, texts, ritual--that was "exotic" or at least non-Western and non-Christian. Again a kind of class and cultural marker--we were part of the liberal elite doing something the ignorant masses would never do. (As an English émigré in Hawaii, I'm currently reading Kate Fox's wonderful, witty, anthropological study, Watching the English, laughing and wincing in equal measure.)

At the same time, there is anti-Muslim prejudice that this video will do nothing to dispel, especially when there is comment from Muslims under the YouTube video to the effect that it's a joke and where's everyone's sense of humor. On the other side, the clip and comments elicit the "humorous" response that global warming will take care of the Maldives anyway, hahaha.

Most comments I have read wherever I have seen the video posted have been from Westerners ridiculing the couple for paying so much for such an important (to them) ceremony in a language they didn’t understand.

Part of the difficulty in dealing honestly with multicultural issues is that some on the right are all too happy to respond with “We told you so” and for reasons that make so many on the left or “liberal elite” unwilling to abandon hollowed-out positions of cultural and moral relativism.

Meanwhile, the government of the Maldives is engaged in frantic damage control. The resort manager probably did not help much by observing, amid his own apologies, "The man had used filthy language. Otherwise the ceremony was OK.”

Paul Adams is professor of social policy at the Myron B. Thompson School of Social Work at the University of Hawai'i.  His blog, Ethics, Culture, and Policy is at

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