Comment: The politics of the death penalty in the Maldives

In a presidential campaign rally in 2008, former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom dismissed the issue of death penalty:

“Maldivians won’t accept it. The international community no longer accepts it…this can’t be done in the Maldives.”

Five years’ on, and such a statement from a major politician seems unthinkable. In fact, in 2012, in the aftermath of the murder of Afrasheem Ali, Gayoom stated: “Death penalty is an option.”

Not mainly a religious or human rights issue

Coming from a secular liberal background, a person may conveniently blame the changing nature of this issue to a rise in ‘fundamentalist Islam’, Islamism, or Salafi puritanism.

Without denying the reality of re-Islamisation, this explanation comes partly from a fundamental fear of Islamism by secular liberals. The death penalty goes deeper than religion or liberal human rights.

While none in this debate claim that criminals should be set free, in 2008 Gayoom eloquently argued that forgiveness is more preferred in Islam. The Islamist side has been largely silent on the emphasis of mercy in Islam, thus making it difficult to limit the Islamist calls for death penalty to religion.

Even during President Amin’s time, the execution of the death penalty was not particularly meant to fulfill a religious obligation by a religious state. Amin’s constitution – based on Ceylon’s constitution granting dominion status – was one of the most secular and authoritarian of all Maldivian constitutions. Back then, Ibrahim Shihab claimed: “I could not find in the Republican Constitution any concern for Islamic principles and Divehi conventions’. Amin himself was accused of being ladini (irreligious).

Now take human rights. The right to life is the main basis for rejecting capital punishment under mainstream liberal conception of human rights. Yet, the death penalty has no equal juridical, advocacy, or enforcement status to other basic rights like freedom of religion, which has been completely denied in the Maldives.

In reality, for both sides, death penalty is about the very identity, the very nature of the state. It is indeed one test case for the ‘Islamist state’ – or the ‘secular state’, depending on which side one stands in the debate. The death penalty is about this mutual fear of the perceived influence and control by one side over the other with regards to the nature of the Maldivian state.

A matter of secular yet illiberal politics

While the death penalty may be a life-and-death issue about the nature of the state for liberals and the Islamists, the real actors and the real issues in this debate are neither religious nor liberal – though Islamism and human rights now feed into the background context of this issue.

The real actors who will determine the issue one way or the other are the secular (yet illiberal) politicians.

The real issue is instrumentalisation of religion and Islamo-nationalist sentiments of the people for political gain by ordinary politicians. This has created a vicious cycle in which every politician/party has a high premium to show their religious or Islamo-nationalist credentials, and discount the opponents’ credentials.

The result is what I call the ‘instrumentalist dilemma’ – the situation where a person (or a group) individually or privately holds a position/belief that they collectively or publically can’t hold. The instrumentalist dilemma is at play not only in the death penalty, but also in religion-based discrimination such as citizenship restriction.

Gayoom’s apparent turnaround or Foreign Minister Dunya Gayoom’s position seems to be none other than this dilemma. More clearly, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) chairperson’s recent support for it, or the MDP’s retraction of a statement rebuking the death penalty in 2012 – is this dilemma in action.

Stop the instrumentalist madness

The upshot of these instrumentalist dialectics is the irrational, out-of-hand outcome that the collective don’t necessarily want as individuals. If anything will see the death penalty implemented, it’s such secular, illiberal instrumentalist madness – not Islamism, Salafi puritanism, or religious fundamentalism.

But an outcome of madness neither serves religion nor human rights. And, much less does it address the issue of murder.

As for religion, irrespective of the question whether or not capital punishment is a religious obligation, without personal pious intention (niyah) the act doesn’t become a religious act. As for human rights, saying no to capital punishment is saying yes to the right to life.

As for murder reduction, a 2009 survey of criminologists – people who know the stuff about crimes and crime reduction – revealed that an overwhelming 88% believed death penalty was not a deterrent to murder. Similarly, murder rates have remained consistently lower in non-death penalty states over death penalty states.

Therefore, the religious and the liberals and those who are genuinely concerned about religion, human rights, or crimes should oppose this political madness, not each other.

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