x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

As Rihanna courts controversy, let’s talk about tolerance

Given the social dynamics of a country as ethnically diverse as the UAE, the opinions over Rihanna's mosque photoshoot that have been put forward on this matter have been predictably varied.

Rihanna, a performer who is rarely happier than when she is in the full gaze of the public eye, has sparked widespread controversy after posing for what have been termed “disrespectful” pictures outside Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.

After analysing the Instagram pictures (yes, guilty as charged), it is important for me to point out that Rihanna was dressed fairly conservatively in these pictures, even if she was always bound to kick up a storm by posing outside a house of worship.

Should she have known better? No. Should her PR and the public authorities have known better? Perhaps.

Given the social dynamics of a country as ethnically diverse as the UAE, the opinions that have been put forward on this matter have been predictably varied. But if you are looking for a strong opinion on the subject, you can stop reading now.

Having said that, one thing that does strike me about this situation: how easy it is to court controversy in the UAE, especially when it comes to religious or cultural norms.

Whether it’s a call for a nationwide dress code, the misdemeanours of a culturally insensitive expatriate or a Rihanna photo shoot, the energy that is channelled into condemning any of these acts, at least on social media, is second to none.

When the fuss has died down – I give it about two to three days unless a Twitter hashtag keeps the momentum going – what will we as a community have accomplished? What will we have learnt from this situation? More importantly, what will we have taught the world, and Rihanna, on how to approach these sensitivities in the future? The answer is: pretty much nothing.

In many situations, particularly ones as sensitive as religion, the brightness of a smile goes further than the screams of outrage.

We cannot simply mark a person as disrespectful if they are unaware of any potential disrespect caused and even if they were aware of the repercussions, a response filled with anger only exacerbates the matter.

What we can do, however, is reach out to each other in kindness. We can educate and embrace the cross-cultural and religious similarities in the face of our differences.

So if you didn’t know Rihanna before this and now hate everything she stands for, or if are a disappointed fan, I would encourage you to reach out to her and her fans as well as your direct community and explain why you are upset. Educate the world on the importance of our places of worship and why some people might take offence at these photographs.

Be everything except angry or outraged. You may not win the battle of words and numbers, but you will win the war of respect, and will showcase everything you and your religious views stand for. That is what matters most, and that is what people will remember.

Many are asking each other where they stand on this recent incident, approve or not?

The question here is not whether I, or anyone else approves or disapproves of Rihanna’s photos. It is how each of us will process these topics, and how we will communicate our thoughts with the broader community.

As Gandhi was reputed to have said while trying to unite Indian Muslims and Hindus: “When we scream and shout our stances of religion we send fear into the hearts of our brothers, [and ] that is not the India I want.”

Wherever you are and whatever faith you practise, we are all brothers and sisters of the world. We all want to live better and more peacefully. So, approach each other in peace and understanding. I know this might seem like a hopeless place for many, but if Rihanna found love there, maybe we can too.

Khalid Al Ameri is a social affairs commentator studying for his MBA at Stanford University in California