What does "improper" mean when it comes to Rihanna -- the Bajan pop star? The Independent in London circles hesitantly round this word in its report on Rihanna's publicity stunt at a mosque in Abu Dhabi last week, but never quite explains what she did that violated Islamic taboos. Did Rihanna pull the sort of stunt beloved by Madonna and Lady Gaga — actions that appear to have been undertaken to be provocative — theological marketing ploys designed to sell concert tickets? Are we seeing the start of a new theme in the arts and religious mockery? Will Terrance McNally’s “Corpus Christi” or Andres Serrano's “Piss Christ” be joined by Islamic equivalents? Somehow I doubt it.
A 21 October 2013 story in The Independent entitled "Rihanna told to leave Abu Dhabi mosque over 'improper' photo shoot" begins in the breathless prose favored by celebrity gossip writers. This school of journalism works to a formula as strict as a murder mystery. A crime is committed:
Wearing a headscarf and with her body almost fully covered, Rihanna portrayed herself as a bad girl gone good this weekend. But it has emerged that the pop star was asked to leave Abu Dhabi's Grand Mosque after posing for photographs.
The body discovered:
Mosque officials said they asked the pop star to leave the compound after she turned her visit into a photo shoot opportunity, which was considered to be at odds with the sanctity of the site.
Although Rihanna dressed conservatively in a head-to-toe black jumpsuit with her hair covered, the photographs were said to have been taken in an area normally off limits to visitors.
The detective investigates:
It said: "In the event of behaviour that violates the moral codes of access to the mosque, or other visit regulations – such as taking inappropriate pictures, posing in ways that are improper in the context of sacred place, talking loudly, or eating – the violators are directed in a polite manner that reflects the civilisational and tolerant attributes of Islam.
And the case, she is solved:
Rihanna, who was in UAE as part of her "Diamonds" world tour, has not yet publicly responded to the statement made by staff at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.
Here was have the newspaper version of M. Poirot recounting the crime as the suspects are gathered in the drawing room, while Inspector Japp stands to one side ready to snap the manacles on the wrist of the criminal (the doctor?).
But no explanation as to motive is presented. Reading this article, I felt like Captain Hastings. "But why?"
The Independent tells its readers Rihanna violated the sanctity of the mosque, even though she was wearing clothing that covered her body and hair. Was her crime using the mosque as backdrop to her photos -- crass commercialism with a tinge of vulgarity?
To find out more we need to turn to the Abu Dhabi newspaper, The National.
The mosque is open to non-Muslims but the body in charge, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Centre, ask visitors to respect religious sensitivities.
This includes women wearing an abaya and shayla, which Rihanna did not do.
Rihanna was bounced from the mosque for her dress, not her demeanor. The black body suit does not qualify as an abaya, the neck to toe dress worn by Muslim women in the Arabian peninsula, and her cap does not meet the requirements of the traditional shayla, or scarf, that covers the hair.
This is the sort of detail that provides context for an article. The information provided in The Independent article is insufficient for a reader to understand what happened -- it draws upon Western assumptions about Islamic customs to flesh out the story. And that is a mistake.
On one level this is a non-story. Mockery of religion in art lost its edge about 100 years ago and is more often silly than profound. Whether touted as free speech, artistic integrity and the like -- more often than not it is puerile foolishness. Rihanna's handlers organized this stunt perfectly -- an Islam-themed provocation. One that was "courageous" but rather insincere. The Independent could have pursued that story.
Instead it kept it simple, reimporting the facts ( just not all of them).