Hug a Muslim!
Young, media savvy Muslims in Canada reworked the ‘Free Hugs’ concept into a social experiment about stereotypes and trust which was posted online and subsequently went viral.
Hugging for trust
A blindfolded Muslim man stood in the street in the middle of Toronto (Canada) in January 2015 with two posters. The first said: 'I am a Muslim. I am labelled as a terrorist,' and the second said 'I trust you. Do you trust me? Give me a Hug.' This was a social experiment, staged and filmed in Toronto under the banner ‘Blind Trust Project’. The video features a short introduction with a young articulate woman adorning the hijab. She explains how the project aims to address Islamophobia and make an effort ‘to break down barriers and eliminate the fear and ignorance projected towards Muslims and Islam.’ The rest of the film is dedicated to the experiment itself. The footage is of a young man clad in casual clothes in the colour blue. His arms are stretched out wide, and most notably, he is blindfolded with a narrow white scarf.
A number of people come up to hug him. There is no audible dialogue nor are there any added sound effects during the hugging. The event is filmed from a slight distance and in silence. The video is close to three minutes long, and has been circulated in both social and mainstream media. By the time of writing, the video has been viewed over 2.7 million times since 31st January 2015. There is tangible sense that the man is very vulnerable, since he cannot see who is approaching him, and whether they are friends or foes. This Blind Trust experiment not only lead to interest in media - but has inspired a series of similar events in other countries - at least one of which -was far less successful with regards to the trust issue.
Similar experiments took place in the U.S. and Europe, which invariably lead to intriguing adaptations and variations. In March 2015, a near identical experiment is conducted in Stockholm, Sweden. Here the poster reads 'I am a Muslim, not the same as a terrorist. I trust you. Do you trust me?’ In Stockholm too, the man is standing with his arms stretched out, wearing predominantly blues and blacks, and a narrow white scarf as blindfold. The contrast in colour gives a similar striking effect as in the original. The video is similarly bare of additional audio features and it is without an intro. The viewer gets close-up camera shots of the blindfolded bearded man and the embraces he receives from strangers. This video was re-shared on social media after the Paris attacks in November 2015.
A Parisian Muslim dressed in all black blindfolded himself with a thick woolen black and white checkered scarf amid mourners of the terrorist attacks. The man included a poster with a text similar to the one in Toronto and Stockholm: ‘I’m a Muslim and I’m told I’m a terrorist. I trust you, do you trust me? If yes, hug me’. This video is very powerful due to the context. The embraces are long, and eye-wateringly emotional.
The blindfolded man weeps together with and in the arms of other weeping grievers. The video serves to underline the common unity - the fact that both are grieving the loss of lives in the terrorist attacks. It is also heightened by the fact that conducting a social experiment like this at time like that involves a high level of risk. It could easily be interpreted as a provocation and lead to anger, abuse, or violence. This video also stands strong in that there is no intro or particular ending. It is short. It is powerful. Despite its brevity, only two minutes and twelve seconds long, this video is perhaps the most compelling of them all.
On Nov 22nd 2015, Danish media report of a ‘well-dressed’ Muslim man conducting an international trust experiment in Aarhus, Denmark. This man is slightly more casually clad than the others who perform the experiment, in that he has a headphone speaker hanging down over one shoulder, and a grey cardigan or pullover tied around his waist. His trousers and jacket are very dark, but the grey arms of the cardigan or pullover hang out from under his jacket, and a single white headphone speaker dangles off one shoulder. His blindfold is a beige scarf. Together, the pullover, head phone and scarf contrast to his otherwise dark exterior. His poster is a slight variation of previous posters. It says: 'I am a Muslim not a terrorist. Do you trust me? Then give me a hug ❤❤’. The two red hearts next to the word ‘hug’ are striking. He stands with his arms out and receives hugs from strangers. In the three minutes and nine seconds, we see many children coming up to hug him, and number of parents carrying children in their arms stepping up to give him a hug. The last hugger is a man in an electric wheel chair. The camera films the blindfolded man up close. A very unique feature of this film is how it shows the same man conducting the same experiment in several locations, different streets and a shopping mall (in loop). The video is set to music without lyrics, but at times you hear the muffled sounds of chatting in the distance. The video ends with a black screen and the white text: 'Stop hating! Start loving!'
In South Carolina, on November 23rd 2015, a young Muslim man performs a similar experiment under the banner: 'Hugs for humanity’. He creates his own introduction with the formulation ‘I am conducting a social experiment to prove (…) I want to prove that we are not all terrorists… I want to prove that in our city not all people are that judgmental’. He carries two signs. One blue sign reads 'I am a Muslim. Humanity has labeled my kind as terrorists #notallmuslimsareterrorist’. The other poster is green and reads: 'I trust you. Do you trust me? Give me a hug. #hugsforhumanity.’ He introduces the content of the signs verbally. This man is adorned in entirely black clothing and blindfolded with a lighter coloured scarf.
This video is filmed from a far compared to the others. He stands alone in a space which is not very crowded. The wide-angle filming demonstrates his vulnerability, and serves to highlight how he is easy ‘prey’ as he stands entirely alone, blindfolded with his arms out. This also shows how those who pass by have to actively walk up to him and give him a hug. The video differs from the previous ones in that it is set to music with a female voice who sings 'only you and me'. The lyrics are perhaps meant to enhance then individual encounters of the two humans who embrace. This video is among the longest. It is about ten minutes long, and possibly a bit too long to keep the viewer’s interest.
Most of the videos feature one and one embrace, and only grown-ups hugging the blindfolded man. This video features both children releasing their parents’ grip to go and hug the man, and a group hug. The man who performs the experiment states that to him hugs create a unique opportunity to unite people of all backgrounds. “Nothing negative was said to me and, frankly, I was a little surprised,” he said. ‘Everyone congratulated me for my bravery of standing there so vulnerable and thanked me for expressing what some could not find the courage to express’
In January 2016, a Muslim man carries out a similar performance in Trondheim, Norway. He wears a mixture of dark and light coloured clothing and uses a dark narrow scarf as a blindfold. His entire outfit is a mixture of colours of lighter and darker shades, and hence the visual effect of the blindfold becomes less of a contrast. This video is also filmed from a far, set to music without lyrics. The video features an introduction with a text that reads: 'There is a lot of talk about animosity towards Muslims in the media. This made me want to test how much friendliness there is.’ The video ends with a text: 'Thanks to everybody who gave a hug. This shows the unity we have in Trondheim'.
One trust-campaign went tremendously wrong in the UK, when a British convert to Islam was tried for dispensing bomb threats to an MP shortly after posing with the poster "I am Muslim, I am labeled a terrorist, I trust you, do you trust me enough for a hug?"
Some reports emphasizes that the man has a history of mental illness. Regardless, the incident, reported in December 2016, does seem to be an epitome of distrust: serving the diametrically opposite effect to the one intended.
The experiment had a more successful run in the UK when orchestrated by a young Muslim woman in Trafalgar Square in January 2016. She is the only woman I came across who blindfolded herself. Her poster reads 'I am a Muslim, not a terrorist. If you trust me, give me a hug ❤ ❤ ❤’. The three red hearts on the sign serve to sweeten the message. The only video I could find was one with an introductory voice-over and an on-camera introduction in Russian. The filming is close-up and you can see that she has her handbag in front of the poster. She is wearing a long black skirt, a grey coat, predominantly white hijab with a black pattern and an entirely black scarf for a blindfold. What is striking about the footage compared to the others is how it is overwhelmingly women who step up to her. This gender divide is not at all visible when blindfolded Muslim men received hugs.
Arabic-sounding music, with a gentle voice singing ‘ah’ accompany the embraces. In the beginning we hear a man’s voice saying 'thank you’ often, possibly belonging to the man who introduces the video in Russian. There is a large frame where you can see a group standing across from her watching her, but the camera is for the most part a close-up of women embracing. The footage is roughly eight minutes long, a bit longer than the average footage. It is somewhat repetitive, in the sense that having a shorter film would not have altered the content.
Norway - again
In January 2016, in Oslo, Norway a slightly different street hugging campaign is launched, and is called ‘Do you dare greet a Muslim?’ This video shares some similarities with the others, but is nonetheless of a slightly different genre. The video is set to classical music and is rather long, roughly 10 minutes. The most notable difference is that the video includes a line-up of young men and women, and nobody is blindfolded. In this sense it is far less dramatic, and the ‘huggers’ are less exposed and vulnerable to the general public since they can actually see who approaches them, and are standing side by side with fellow campaigners. Another contrast is that for the most part it is handshakes rather than hugs that are exchanged. The video starts with shaking hands and a close up of the poster and one of the men, and moves on to more handshakes, and then eventually some hugs.
One of the most striking contrasts is that while in all the other videos people hug in silence, this line up of young Muslims engage in small talk, laughter and animated conversations. The video is accompanied by the constant buzz of conversations and interactions. In a word, this video is chatty. In this sense, the interactions are far more ‘ordinary’ and everyday-like than the videos featuring a blindfolded person who stands all alone receiving hugs in solitude and silence. When a man seems less than enthusiastic about their presence on the street, one of the girls cheerfully says ‘Do we look scary? Do not be afraid. Most Muslims are like us. Look at us, aren’t we beautiful?’ Towards the end there is a man dressed up as a Lego figure who comes up and gives them all a hug which makes this video end on an even lighter note.
The hug a Muslim trust experiment is copied by a spectrum of individuals across various geographical and cultural contexts, and each time it changes a little bit. The performers interpret, add and subtract from the first rendition in their execution of the social experiment. While a few of the young Muslims who perform a variant of the experiment speak in conclusive terms such as ‘now we have proven that unity soars’, most either let the silence of the video speak for itself or talk of being deeply moved by the positive reactions and lack of negative response when they took to the streets. While I do not believe that such social experiments can 'prove' anything, I certainly believe they may bring people closer together, if only for a fleeting moment, in a close embrace, or by evoking shared emotion.