Comment: Democracy derailed

This is a brief sketch of how over a period of 10 years, one set of background assumptions has been replaced by that of another.

How that of system building & primacy of democracy has been replaced by seizure of power by any means necessary and scorched earth tactics, regardless of impact on democratic institutions.

How reverence for democracy has been replaced by deceptive cynicism and manipulation.

How an old idea about an objectified, malleable subject has returned with a vengeance in a new form to replace active, vigilant, citizenry.

These combine together to create two different sets of values that are in conflict for supremacy. There are many different versions of this story. This is the version I find most compelling and convincing.

At times these sets have been shared across the political spectrum by various degrees, but as I write, the contrast could not be any sharper. A few days ago, a JP coalition partner speaking at the H.Kunooz podium hailed the Supreme Court’s decision to suspend elections, until they complete their inquiry into the process, as progress for democracy.

If we take this event as an isolated instance, it may seem to an outside observer that we should not be worried about a fair judicial inquiry in to the process. This was perhaps the United States’ stance, when it declared that all should respect the “judicial process”.

But we cannot isolate that instance from everything else that has happened, and is happening. It is hard to accept for us that Supreme Court has accepted a case with outrageous and ridiculous claims in good faith. The Supreme Court is not a wholly independent institution. It too has a history, a memory, and power relations, that it cannot extricate itself from. The same goes for every other democratic institution in the country.

We must also learn to recognise the fundamental shifts that have taken place – of behaviours, attitudes and values, driven by ideology – to a position where previous agents of democracy now wish to dismantle the entire framework. We must understand how things came to be. I write this because there are choices to be made, choices that will shape our future to come.

The last decade

Our story begins 10 years ago on a sunny September day like this, when we struck by the news of murder and killing in Maafushi Prison installation. The shock was followed by rioting and civil unrest in Male, as disenfranchised citizens took to the streets to torch & burn. In retrospect, this may be hard to understand, but if you were there, born in that system, felt the weight of oppression, of a present without a future, of walled enclosed horizons, it was hardly a matter of choice. This was perhaps not the beginning of voices calling for democracy, but provided the impetus for action, and represents a turning point in our history.

That September day led to the formation of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) in Sri Lanka, and their campaign to bring democracy to the Maldives. By June of 2004, just seven months into the MDP’s campaign, President Gayoom had shuffled his cabinet, brought in some fresh blood – known then as New Maldives (Hassan Saeed, Jameel and Ahmed Shaheed) – and then went on TV to give a very brief statement. He claimed “… [I] too were a reformer”, followed by a list of things he wished to change.

What followed was a long drawn-out process. Under constant pressure from the MDP, Gayoom conceded on a number of issues and new democratic spaces opened — a Special Constitutional Majlis was assembled for drafting a new constitution, political parties were allowed to operate, and for the first time in our history a free press was allowed.

This process of democratization has been described, following Huntington, as “transplacement” – a process of negotiation between actors in the establishment and those challenging that establishment. But for our purposes, I think it is important to understand the motivations and specific strategies employed by Gayoom’s regime to ward off the MDP’s threat of destabilizing the autocratic regime.

Gayoom bolstered the police with a new division called Special Operations to counter the threat of street protests. For the Majlis and Special Majlis, he had the advantage of using his network of loyalists across the atolls to elect the candidates he wanted. All in all, his overall strategy was to absorb demands made by citizens, make cosmetic changes and render them passive long enough for him to survive – known in Gramscian terms as “transformism”. Interestingly, the group called New Maldives would move on to other activities that would closely resemble Gramscian tactics, like recruiting intellectuals to their cohort.

Gayoom campaign poster from 2008 / image from flickr — sujaa

The motivations for the Gayoom programme seem to have been to make as minimal changes as necessary, survive as long as possible, re-invent his image as father of democracy, and win the presidential slot. Underlying these is a fundamental shift in behaviour and attitude towards politics. Whereas pre-2003 Gayoom did not need to reinforce and bolster his democratic credentials (brute force did the work of convincing), now he had to refer back to democratic values and associate himself with it, however minimal his interpretation of democracy was.

Prior to 2003, his ideological platform was built on a strong cohesive, homogeneous version of religious nationalism – of harmony and unity – which left little room for diversity of opinion. Now he had to concede that freedom of speech was fundamental to the creation of a modern state.

In effect, Gayoom was responding to a set of assumptions he had — that Maldivians wanted a democratic state, that democratic values were on the ascendancy and gaining primacy, and that his autocratic regime was no longer sustainable in its current form because his ideological notions of nation and religion (Islamo-Nationalism hinged on his version of modernist Islam) were losing ground. Democracy and its related set of values were values he had to respond to, even if he had not assimilated them.

Adhaalath party officials / image from

Meanwhile, the MDP’s camp attracted a diverse range of actors with disparate backgrounds — victims of the autocratic regime, the disenfranchised, the educated middle-class, etc. All perhaps, bound through by one nodal point – one basic idea — that Maldives needed democratization , and that was the discursive centre around which much of debates happened. There certainly were differences within MDP and it’s associates, but that basic idea remained primal.

This back and forth between MDP and the autocratic regime opened up the space for other actors in the Maldives as well. Among these were Salafists and similar groups, which had long been victims of Gayoom’s oppression. The opening of participatory politics, paved the way for Islamist parties, with the formation of Adhaalath party.

Though Islamist groups appreciated their new-found freedoms, some radicals remained skeptical of democracy itself, which they take to be an unsustainable ‘Western’ product that needs to be dislodged and replaced as soon as possible. These radical Islamists believed, and continue to believe, that there is no inherent value to sustaining a democracy – it’s value is only as a means for a theocracy to come.

Dr. Mauroof with George Galloway / image from twitter

There is always a danger in speaking of Islamist groups as one monolithic bloc that we stereotype and associate with anti-democratic radicalism and extremism. This would be fundamentally wrong. Even among the Salafists and Islamists there remain quite a large number of people who see an inherent value in democracy, and democratic values like freedom of press and speech.

This could hardly be true for Adhaalath, and its ideologists. Between 2003 and 2008 – on websites like Dharuma, and Noorul-Islam – Adhalaath’s main proponents continued to bash democratic values, human rights, and what they saw as ‘westernization’. This was at a time when Adhaalath remained quite marginal politically. Their numbers hardly registered in elections. But since they comprised of all the educated elite within the Islamist discourse, they had direct impact on public opinion on Islamic issues. Adhaalath combined this with the ideological notion they popularized, that Islamic matters must be addressed only by Islamic scholars – giving them a small but significant foothold from which to shape politics.

Yet, in Adhaalath’s strategy there was a momentary dialectic tension — even as they bashed democratic values and human rights, they were tacitly affirming democracy in their practice, by giving sermons and speeches, by forming associations, by forming parties, by holding debates, and opinion forming councils. More explicitly, they were embracing a limited form of democracy – a polyarchy within themselves where the educated elite or sheikhs were freely forming opinions , and debating and dispersing those opinions, which could be described in Islamic terms as shura. This was hardly possible before, under Maumoon’s brutal regime. There were perverse limitations to this opinion forming process, of course, but that is another article altogether.

“Wathan Edhey Gothah” Coalition from 2008 / image from flick — firax

In addition, Adhaalath’s position was conflated with struggles over identity (“West vs. us”, “true Muslim”, “modernity vs. a return”, etc) and struggles between Islamic discourses. What this means is that, at any given moment, they must factor in multiple variables in their calculation, of which being democratic or not, is just one variable. Hence Adhaalath’s position is not simply reducible to the binary, anti-democratic vs. pro-democratic.

In the second round of the 2008 presidential elections, Adhaalath joined up with the MDP as did Hassan Saeed, Ibra, and Gasim. The MDP won the elections and Mohamed Nasheed took over as president in a smooth transition of power. This was the first free and fair elections to take place in the Maldives, and an important step forward for democratic consolidation.

Even though the MDP, the main proponent of democracy, had just 25% of the popular vote in this first round, this show of solidarity by the various parties, with different ideologies against the autocratic regime, was important ideologically for democracy itself.

Progress stalled

In the ensuing years much of the debate would be framed through the language of liberal democracy, debates centered on the issue of whether that certain problem was of nature democratic, constitutional, corruption, etc. In the background, democratic ideology had been asserted as primal — that which shapes values, behaviours and attitudes.

Chief Supreme Court Justice Faiz / image from Raajje News

Meanwhile, other institutions of democracy were making progress. There were multiple free newspapers, magazines, TV channels, radio stations, civil society groups were forming, independent commissions were formed, and most importantly a free and fair election had been completed. Yet, within three short years there would be a dramatic reversal.

Gayoom left behind a vast network of loyalists that still paid him tutelary respect within the government machinery, police and military. In addition, the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) – Gayoom’s party – and it’s allies would make inroads by taking the majority in the Majlis elections which was to affect the composition of the Supreme Court, where the majority is held by old Gayoom loyalists. In effect, Gayoom still cast a vast grey shadow over Maldives, and had indirect control over institutions.

Civil Service protest / image from Minivan News

Nasheed’s reform efforts were hampered from the very outset due to the worsening global economic crisis in 2008/2009. Tourist inflows slowed, and the government was left holding a huge deficit. At the recommendation of the IMF, Nasheed would initiate plans to reduce and control civil service costs — his first run-in with a major Gayoom clientele.

Nearly 40% of all employment in the Maldives is created within the civil service, and it’s rumoured that no government has ever been able to gauge its true finances. Because of this large bureaucracy, some have described Maldives’ situation as a Rentier State.

A Rentier State is a state with a large source of revenue from natural resources, such that it is not dependent on tax from its citizens. The corollary to that is the government uses this inflow to create a dependent bureaucracy for employment, and a large military to pacify its citizens. Thus the theory says, because the government does not tax its citizens, citizens cannot make direct demands from the government, and in case they do, the government will use the huge military to silence their voices. This amounts to a very persuasive explanation of the long and stable thirty year dictatorship of Gayoom.

Following the economic crisis, attempts to change the civil service salary structure would backfire as the civil service association took the government to court. The economic crisis also affected small businesses, civil society, and the free press, and as media sources dwindled, the gap would be filled by media funded by resort owning oligarchs, primarily Haveeru, Sun, DhiTV, DhiFM & VTV.

Dollar transaction / image by @subcorpus

These resort-funded media outlets, and Gayoom’s political parties, worked hand-in hand and together would leverage the disaffection during the dollar crisis to form a bulwark against Nasheed & the MDP. Working with the media, using the Majlis and the Supreme Court as instruments, Gayoom’s loyalists would manufacture issue after issue, to which the MDP could not adequately respond. We can recall here a number of issues like the introduction of GST, Aasandha, and many others. In the worsening crisis – economic and political – the MDP lost crucial voting blocs, most significantly in Male’ (as has been evident in the first round of 2013 Presidential elections).

It’s important to note the transitions in background values, behaviours and attitude that occur at this point with the consolidation of media sources funded heavily by the resort owning oligarchs, and in the way these media were used, between 2009/2010.

DhiTV screenshot showing EC members, with their heads upside down / image from twitter @mideyalvarez

With the twilight of Gayoom’s oppressive era circa 2003, a number of media outlets came into being. What these new sources brought was the idea of an active citizen, who would inform themselves of issues, join debates, and challenge the status quo. The background idea was of liberation from chains, awakening from darkness, and activity against passivity, apathy and lethargy. The idea hinged on the potential capacity of these citizens to free themselves, to know right from wrong and decide for themselves.

What the resort owning oligarchs brought back circa 2009/2010 was the idea of a top down bullhorn – a blunt object to manipulate an objectified, malleable, subject, but with a slight twist that was different from Gayoom’s. The notion was that listeners or viewers had no independent capacity to form opinions of their own, and would be receptive to the way media primes and conditions them with their language. They were careful to use the language of democracy, to manipulate conditions in favour of the resort owning oligarchs.

In this way they would demand action against Nasheed’s administration. In other words, they were mobilising crowds to protect the status quo that benefits the resort owning oligarchs. They would manufacture crises in order to claim that such and such were “unconstitutional”, against “free speech”, etc. Unlike Gayoom, they were no longer demanding passivity, but using liberation language to undermine democratic institutions. They were undermining democratic institutions, but were using the language of democracy. It was blatantly cynical and manipulative.

Sheikh Imran / image from Haveeru

Democratic reversal

The next turning point in our story would come late in 2011, with Adhaalath leaving Nasheed’s administration, joining the opposition and the formation of the 23 December Ithihaad. This turn brought with it a whole new language, and would fundamentally change and eject the primacy of democratic ideology. The battle ground would shift from a terrain where “democracy was the only game in town” to one where democracy itself had to battle an anti-democratic Islamo-Nationalism.

The new Islamo-Nationalism that was emerging was nothing similar to the old Islamo-Nationalism of Gayoom. One has to make the distinction here, that this ideology that was emerging was quite different from all the things that had inspired it. It was in a sense determined by a number of movements, histories and trends, and situated firmly within the particularities of our politics. Adhaalath brought with it the language of globalist Salafism, and political Islam. Yet, what they preached on the podiums had little to do with Salafism – it was addressing a Maldivian subject, within the confines of a Maldivian history, promoting a particularly Maldivian political project — that of challenging Nasheed.

Gayoom’s progeny, Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) & DRP, brought with it the memory of a stable thirty years, and used the language of nationalism — sovereignty, independence, militarism, harmony, unity, etc. The 23rd December Ithihaad that emerged used our collective memory and fears, promoting xenophobia and isolationism. The movement was in continuity with a certain history, also a discontinuity, and a break from our past.

Police and military inside the state broadcaster compound posing for a picture on 7th February 2012 / Image source unknown

The December 23rd Itihaad’s anti-democratic turn would come after the 7th February 2012’s coup d’état. Up until then, they were still using the language of constitutionalism, democracy and so on. But after the coup, not having much to rely on after pulling off an anti-democratic coup, and firmly challenged by the MDP, they would drop all pretense of being democratic, and rely solely on Islamo-Nationalism — that language of sovereignty, unity, harmony, Islamic identity, etc. They must  have realized that it was a losing battle, and needed to alter the board itself, to survive. What we are left with is a severe reversal of the democratic project.

After the coup, Hassan Saeed was caught on tape saying that this was a “unique coup”. But there is nothing unique about the reversal of fortune for democracy in the Maldives, and it follows quite closely with cases studied in democracy consolidation literature. According to scholars who have studied democratic consolidation, where democratic transition takes place not through direct replacement, but in a negotiated transfer of power, old regimes continue to hold vested interests in state institutions and perverse informal institutions, as a guarantee against persecution. At times these old dictators have used these institutions to upend the democratic project. This is exactly the case in Maldives, where Nasheed was given a poisoned chalice.

Presidential Candidate Mohamed Nasheed speaking after runoff elections were halted by Supreme Court / image from flickr @dyingregime

In this post-election debacle today, what we are witnessing is an attempt by the members of the 23rd December Ithihaad at a systematic destruction of the last standing democratic institution — the electoral system.

The election was monitored by international bodies, the counting was done in front of party representatives. There are no significant issues with the voter’s registry. Yet, the counting was followed by VTV’s campaign to create doubt about the election results, as these media funded by resort owning oligarchs have done similarly in the past. The Supreme Court, infiltrated by Gayoom’s loyalists, has intervened and is deliberately delaying the runoff election. Adhaalath is using its ideological tools to campaign against Nasheed and Elections Commission. How this is a religious message is beyond me. The police and military are being deployed to pacify those demanding for an immediate runoff election.

The conclusion writes itself. We demand our right to vote!

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]


Comment: A brief history of ‘ladini’

This article first appeared on Abdulla Faraz’s blog. Republished with permission.

Ladini, an Arabic word often translated as ‘irreligious’ or ‘non-religious’ is being thrown around to describe President Nasheed, especially with more vigour after his Copenhagen speech.

The content of the speech, otherwise benign to most ears, discusses various strategies to deal with Wahhabism and extremism in the Maldives.

This particular aspect of the speech has been taken out of context to present Nasheed as a person against Islam in general, by government-aligned media. Such a thought is scandalous in a country, where more than 98 percent of the population is Muslim as estimated by Pew Research Centre. In conjunction with this media campaign there has been a coordinated effort to spray paint the word ladini in yellow on numerous walls (yellow being the colour of his political party).

While it may appear that there is widespread disapproval of the anti-Wahhabi rhetoric, the particular force with which this has been taken up by the media can only be explained in contrast to the upcoming Presidential elections which is just three months away and the narrative that aims to construct Nasheed as anti-Islamic, which has an ongoing history and a particular potency among the opposition.

This, of course, isn’t the first time that a politician from the Maldives has been questioned on religious extremism by foreign media, an otherwise regular affair since 9/11, and Nasheed’s response doesn’t differ significantly in terms of content or tone.

Ladini, this specific word, does not enter our vernacular until the late 2000s and early 2010s, although the anti-Islamic label has been used in the past to describe Nasheed. Even in the run up to last Presidential elections in 2008, the more frequently used phrase was “Christian missionary”. This particular term took ascendancy as Islamist parties (Adhaalath Party in particular) started playing their role as opposition.

In the Islamist vocabulary, in the region and around the world, ladini is the pejorative term for ‘secular’. However, this notion of the word is lost on most Maldivians. Most Maldivians readily take it to mean anti-religious, anti-Islamic, or kafir.

Of course, kuffar (infidel) is a highly-charged term, of which usage is strictly regulated in Islam (takfir). The Islamist strategy seems to be to work-around this strict regulation to use a “softer” term such as ladini and still mean the same thing.

Since the Copenhagen video surfaced, Islamist online media has offered various reasons why such a term could be used (archived here). In particular, they stress that this does not amount to calling Nasheed a kuffar, but that the term is justified since “he advocates for behaviour that is against religion”. Such a justification relies on merely the compound form of the word — a combination of both la (non) and dini (religious). Whether he actually advocated for any measures that is against Islam is debatable, and this justification glosses over the entire history and various meanings that are readily interpreted from calling someone ladini.

A brief anecdote will suffice. I tried to explain to a Maldivian friend that non-religious does not mean anti-religious. Every action cannot be described as for or against religion, and all non-religious activities are not anti-religious either. For example, having a coffee is not a religious activity (non-religious), and so it is a ladini activity. Of course, the expression on his face suggested that I was making an absurd claim.

The Islamist justification on DhiIslam also doesn’t explain how the Islamists came to use this term against Nasheed. Why this particular term? To understand that we have to examine the history of the term, and how it came to be.

The word ladini first appears in the works of Ziya Gökalp, a Turkish nationalist, who was described as the “leading ideologue of the Young Turks” and influential in the new Republic of Turkey in the early 1920s, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. It was a complete neologism he coined to mean “secularism”, but facing increasing criticism (from the Muslim clergy headed by the Sheikh al-Islam) because of its negative connotations, secularism was later translated aslayik or laic in Turkey, loaned from the French term laïcité.

This was, perhaps, a superfluous translation as Coptic Arabs had been using almaniyya for secularism long before this. Abdulhak Adnan Adivar, a Young Turk who served the early republic in various Ministerial positions described the experience as “Ziya Gökalp’s most unfortunate mistake”.

The dissolution of the Ottoman Empire was met with mixed reactions in and outside the empire. This was a period in history when nationalism was beginning to take hold, and the empire was already dealing with separatist movements within its borders before World War I began. Arabs rushing to create Saudi Arabia consequent to the war, is just one example of the kind of reaction to fall of the Ottoman Empire.

But there too were those who were devastated with the loss of the Caliphate. For the first time in the history Islam, Muslims no longer had a Caliph. The Caliph was a powerful symbol in the Muslim imagination, and the occupation of the empire after the war was met with frustration and resistance.

The Khilafat movement, based mostly in India, began as an attempt to prevent the dissolution of the empire, and prevent the sacking of the Caliph. This was a brief lived movement that ended in failure, unable to convince the British or the Turks, yet had a decisive impact on a young Indian journalist, barely 18, who joined this movement known as Abul A’la Maududi.

Abul A’la Maududi or Mawlana Maududi as he was commonly known was a towering figure whose influence in the Islamic revivalist movements of the 20th century was phenomenal. Together with Hassan Al-Bana and Sayyid Qutb of Egypt, all three born in the year 1906, they would shape the discourse of Islamist parties of the latter half of the 20th century.

Roy Jackson notes in his biography of Mawlana Maududi “just as India often looked to Egypt, so Egypt often looked to India”. It is said that Hassan Al-Bana was influenced by Maududi’s book Jihad in Islam, and Maududi by Hassan Al-Bana’s activities with Muslim Brotherhood; also Maududi’s influence can be seen in Qutb’s later prison writings. Maududi will go on to found Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan after the partition, which would provide the model for most other Islamist parties around the world.

Maududi was the first to coin the term “Islamic State”, and he had a unique political philosophy that he envisioned to ground such a state which he called “theo-democracy”. To understand why he developed such a philosophy, we must understand the circumstances that shaped his intellectual and political life. In the 1920s, as Turks were celebrating the birth of a new republic, Muslim communities in the Middle East and South Asia were devastated. The world was left without a Caliphate, the might of British colonialism was everywhere, and it is within these circumstances of insecurity and uncertainty that the idea of an Islamic State, as a rigid homogeneous, exclusionary and authoritarian body, is invented.

For Maududi, as he liked to often compare, Islam is different from nationalism, socialism, capitalism and all other -isms, and stands apart as a complete and total system, and it is only within that system a Muslim person can be a wholesome Muslim. It is also in this idea of an Islamic State as wholesale rejection of all “Western” ideas, that we encounter ladini.

This is the first page from a small pamphlet he wrote, titled “Reality of Secularism”, which would help us to situate the word ladini in its semiotic context. We’ll attempt to locate the meaning of ladini in Maududi, through differences he emphasizes and comparisons that he makes.

Maududi starts off by saying —

Secularism — which can be referred to as dunyawia or ladini. The basic premise of secularism is that God, His guidance and His worship are matters that belong to the personal domain of an individual. Outside of this personal domain, all worldly matters must be viewed from a strictly worldly perspective, divorced from any religiosity, based purely on human intellect and man-made moral and ethical systems.

From a contemporary understanding of secularism, this would sound strange, yet was no different from the positivist ideas that were adopted by the Turks with much enthusiasm. Whether such a clear demarcation between the private and public is possible, and/or has ever been achieved is highly questionable. Such a clear break between public/private and the binary secular/religious has been problematized by scholars such as Casanova, Asad and Taylor. Also, this is our first clue to the meaning of ladini — the secular is separation, separation from the divine. This definition of secularism is already posited in a frame that pits secularism vs. religion, such that a reader will have to make choice, to choose secularism and lose his/her way of life, to be cut off from the divine.

He then goes on to describe his various objections to a secular world, thus —

This dogma started in the West due to the fundamentalism and backwardness of Christian theologians. However, with the passage of time, this reactionary dogma became the permanent way of life and the first pillar of the modern civilization.

He associates secularism with retrogression and backwardness, and his contrast, the religious then is progress. On the face of it, this is again an absurd claim. He was living in a time of unbridled modernity, coupled with the advent of science and technology. By modern civilization he must’ve meant the British, who had unparalleled power then. Why would he make such a claim? Khaled Abou El Fadl in his polemic The Great Theft would describe this as “apologetics” with “supremacist thinking” who remained “uninterested in critical historical inquiry”. Roy Jackson, in his biography of Maududi would offer a much more nuanced view. He says that Maududi was operating in a framework that could be referred to as ‘transhistorical’, looking back to a golden age as utopia, a utopia that he was actively engaged in to recreate, where this transhistorical taints everything he does in everyday life. Within this utopian measure then, it would’ve been easy to dismiss anything modern as backward, without further thought. 

It makes no sense that two men, both of whom are individually under God’s jurisdiction, become independent of that very God as soon as they interact with each other. If God himself divided up the matters like that, there should be some proof for that. And if human beings invented these limits on God’s jurisdiction, then is this plain transgression against the Lord of this universe?

On the face of it, this again is a strange claim, and goes against our experience of the quotidian. Human interaction is rarely transcribed in religious terms, or in reference to religious experience. Why then does he claim that to think of an act as such is transgression – to divide up matters is also to transgress against God’s will? This again goes back to the transhistorical view, and the recreation of the utopia of the Islamic golden age. The model is Prophet Mohamed, whose every act is considered a religious act by Maududi. Hence, to recreate that utopia, every act must be recreated exactly in the way Prophet Mohamed acted. In a sense Maududi was literalist not just in word, but in act too. 

Human beings rely on their countless social connections for their very survival.And it is only God Almighty who can show human beings how to negotiate these social connections in a manner that is just and equitable–and most importantly, permanent.

The secular, unmediated by the divine, which he equates with a world that is guided by human intellect and desire is coupled with the whimsical, as opposed to the divinely inspired or guided which is permanent.

To conclude, when an Islamist says ladini, they are offering a term overloaded with these notions of separation, transgression, retrogression, and the whimsical. It is also, haunted with the spectre of colonialism, subjugation of Muslim communities and betrayal. While the average Maldivian may take away a different understanding of the word, these are the roots from where ladini arrives, and this is where and how this word enters our vocabulary.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]


Comment: Anatomy of a manufactured crisis

“The mass do not take their opinions from dignitaries in Church or State, from ostensible leaders or from books. Their thinking is done for them by men much like themselves, addressing or speaking in their name, on the spur of the moment… ” – John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

As I’m writing this (13th March 2013) negotiations are underway between Male City Council, Environment Ministry and Tatva Global, with the help of Clinton Global Initiative towards a final resolution that will hopefully put Male’s waste management issue behind us. Though it would seem that the issue is simply, writing a fair and favourable contract for all stakeholders involved, the picture that emerges from media is entirely different.

The media narrative (especially in the broadcast media belonging to rich resort owning businessmen) is a simple one. Male City Council with the sole interest of obstructing proper functioning of government had deliberately halted its waste management program. At times, this story shifts towards a negligent or inefficient Male City Council.

Nevertheless, the basic premise is indubitably clear: the responsibility lies with Male City Council. While the waste management crisis is a real, concrete issue that affects many lives, this simplified story of good and evil that we are sold supports a political goal – that of constructing a people antagonistic to Male City Council, and by extension MDP, who dominates the City Council seats.

This is helped by the fact that Male Kunikoshi (waste disposal area) is subject to arson attacks whenever MDP protests flare up in the city, and media consumers are often led on to believe that such arson attacks have a relation to MDP. While it is unclear who is actually responsible for these arson attacks, the general nuisance such incidents create helps to foster sentiments that support the above narrative of an inefficient/negligent Male City Council.

When we unpack this whole series of events beginning with the budgetary issues of Male City Council, waste handling issues, and how these issues are portrayed in the media, a pattern emerges. I believe this pattern is reflected in other similar issues of the past three years, and can be used to explain the mobilisation of thousands of anti-government supporters (together with police and MNDF), which finally resulted in Waheed taking control of the executive. The significance of this pattern is the populist approach media takes, pitting the interests of a ‘people’ against a system of corruption, negligence, inefficient bureaucracy, where this system is often institutions controlled by MDP.

The result of such narrative is key voting blocs are won over to the camp who represents the interests of the said ‘people’. Understanding this pattern is key to understanding how politics is conducted today in the Maldives.

Roots of the waste management crisis

An agreement between Tatva Global, an Indian company with experience in environmentally friendly waste management, and Male City Council was signed in May 2012. Very little or no budget was allocated for waste management for the following year 2012 by Male City Council, which seems to have been on the understanding that Tatva Global would take over waste management within six months of signing.

Yet by early 2012, nine months into the contract, Tatva Global had little to show and was requesting for more time. Following the February coup, Male City Council issued a statement refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of Waheed’s government and presenting a stand of non-cooperation with Waheed’s government.

By May 2012 the conflict between Male City Council and Waheed’s government was intensifying, primarily over land and other assets controlled by Male City Council. At that time, Thilafushi was considered part of Male and under the jurisdiction of Male City Council. All waste ends up on Thilafushi either for processing or burial and is key to the waste management project.

Waheed’s reaction to the crisis was to change Thilafushi Corporation’s Board of Directors and refuse cooperation with the waste management project. Meanwhile, Tatva Global’s project itself was running into their own problems, with Tatva requesting yet more time from Male City Council, with the project already a year late.

May 2012 was also the time at which the media onslaught against Male City Council ratcheted up. Media coverage of Male City Council during May and in the following months was primarily focused on creating a narrative that attempted to portray Male City Council as extremely politicised and unable to provide basic services for the public, because of their non-cooperation stand. As part of this campaign against Male City Council, a petition with fifty odd signatures was submitted to LGA requesting to take action against Male City Council for their negligence.

By June 2012, a month into the targeted media campaign against Male City Council, Male City Council was reported as saying that they did not have the necessary funds to pursue various projects such as roadworks and waste management. Members of the City Council kept repeating that there was no budget for such projects, and they were capable of conducting only minimal ‘patch’ works, and that previously held assets for such work had already being transferred to Road Development Corporation. It would seem that the government and media were in sync, pulling the levers of finance and media against Male City Council – by transferring responsibility of roadworks from Road Development Corporation to Male City Council without giving them the necessary resources, by blocking finance, and creating a media frenzy around this issue portraying Male City Council as inefficient and negligent.

By July 2011, Waheed had issued an executive order for the takeover of Thilafushi and handed over complete control of Thilafushi and all related assets to Thilafushi Corporation. At the same time, Waheed’s Environment Minister went to press expressing the government’s intention to start their own waste management project. This completely sidelines Male City Council and Tatva Global, bringing their project to a halt.

Just a week later, Male City Council would announce that Male Kunikoshi (the waste disposal area) was full ahead of Ramadan, a peak time of the year, and they do not have the budget for the cleanup as finance was completely blocked.

From this point forth, the same pattern kept repeating – either the garbage disposal would be full and Male City Council would be forced to close the site, or an arson attack burned the garbage dump – and this continued for a full nine months.

All the while, the media unquestioningly follows the official line – Male City Council is at fault, and it is their sole responsibility. The result: public opinion, vital ahead of the election, is turned against Male City Council and MDP.

February/March 2013 would bring a slightly new twist to the whole narrative. This recent episode begins with Nasheed taking refuge in the Indian High Commission, and once again there’s an arson attack on Kunikoshi. This time however, Imaadhudheen School shuts down because of the smoke and parents protest outside Male City Council.

Waheed, seeing the opportunity to grab a few more votes, swept in with the MNDF to clean up the garbage dump.

The following video report produced by DhiTV on the day Waheed visited Male Kunikoshi is exemplary of the kind of biased, one sided, vote-seeking reports produced in our media landscape, and worth seeing just to see how an issue can be manipulated in the media:

Unpacking the Media Narrative

The first point to note is that underneath all the political rhetoric and maneuvering lies a real issue that affects many lives – the public health hazard, teachers and students being hospitalised, closing of schools, the smoke, the stench etc.

The public has a right to feel disaffected by this crisis, and is indignant and up in arms with good cause.

The second point to note is though this is a manufactured crisis; there is no inherent direction to which this raw emotional energy of the public may flow. That is to say, that it is entirely contingent, and depends on how Male City Council responds as much as to how Waheed is able to captivate and charm his way around it.

But clearly, Male City Council is at a disadvantage here, when the media gives little attention to their press conferences.

The MDP, which is ultimately implicated in all these battles, rarely seems concerned by how these issues unfold in the public imagination, and are mostly focused on other battles that they consider more significant.

It is in these circumstances that Waheed is presented as savior coming to save the public from an impending health hazard with his sleeves rolled up, literally. His words focus entirely on creating the impression that Male City Council has been unable to fulfill their duty, and that he had to ‘save’ the public from a health crisis by marching in to Male Kunikoshi with the MTCC and MNDF.

In what little facts that are in the report, we are still able to glean a few and be amazed at their glaring contradictions. For example, Waheed claims that he will clean up Male Kunikoshi by allocating a MVR 21 million budget for the immediate one time clean up, yet for all their complaints, Male City Council were given only MVR 8 million for the same job in the months before.

Had he allocated the budget earlier, could he have prevented this crisis, entirely? Yet, such doubts are easily glossed over when we are bombarded with such repeated rhetoric as “the past three years”, “irresponsible, politicised City Council” and so on. The public in its turn can only breathe a sigh of relief, a moment of catharsis, after weeks of burning stench.

From Disaffected Public to Political Subjects

This is also the same public who protested in front of Male City Council demanding a rapid solution to the waste management issue, after being tormented by weeks of smoke.

It’s important to note the changes that occur when a disaffected public (in this case Imaadhudheen parents) goes in to political action. Before engaging in political action, one has to accept certain notions, and give meaning to certain symbols in that particular situation.

To simply have a demand – stop the smoke and stench – is not enough for one to be constituted as a political subject. In this case, the choice of location (in front of Male City Council) already shows who they chose to blame in this particular crisis.

The choice to protest there shows they had already accepted the basic contours of the narrative presented by Waheed and DhiTV, which in one sense means that even before Waheed marched in to Male Kunikoshi, he had succeeded in creating a possible voting bloc. This last gesture of providing MVR 21 million in relief for the clean up was mere icing on the cake; Waheed’s chance for a souvenir victory portrait atop a garbage hill.

When we have examined this crisis closely we see how a disaffected public is created in a crisis, captured within a particular discourse, and within this system of signification how different elements cohere together and give articulation to political subjects.

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