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 http://ethicsculture.blogspot.com.

Paul Adams is emeritus professor of social policy at the University of Hawai'i. He now lives in Florida and blogs at Ethics, Culture, and Policy.