Comment: Whose pragmatism? Which principles?

It is surprising that some have attempted to justify Wednesday’s constitutional amendment to change age requirement for the offices of president and vice president on its substance.

The efforts to amend the constitution by putting an age limit for the president and vice president and by giving the powers to the president to appoint and dismiss vice president, curtail electoral rights. This includes the right to elect the vice president and the right to contest political office. These efforts are also dictated by the whims and wishes of the government of the day, not by any widely felt need for democratic reforms to the constitution.

However, it is more baffling the amendment has been defended on the basis of “pragmatism”. This is because this amendment is directly related to the failure of opposition’s “pragmatism”. One is forced to wonder whose “pragmatism” does the vote serve?

Whose pragmatism?

Nebulous words like “pragmatism” hardly clarify what the constitutional amendment is about.

The amendment is not simply about the removal of the current vice president. It is about President Abdulla Yameen’s desire to fully control and perpetuate political power. The amendment is yet another attempt, on President Yameen’s part, to eliminate serious, potential presidential candidates.

There was a reason why former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom rejected it, and pointed to the unacceptability of setting age limit to 65 years. This not only disqualifies Jumhooree Party leader Gasim Ibrahim, it also disqualifies Gayoom himself, and Yameen’s long-time political rival, Ilyas Ibrahim, as presidential candidates.

One is therefore forced to ask whose “pragmatism” this vote serves?

Yameen could have attempted an old style illegitimate dictatorship. But this vote, with its appearance of democratic agency and a position of bargaining power on opposition’s part, seems to be typical to his type of new despotic regime, ruled through a veneer of legitimacy, fully utilising democratic discourses, formal institutions and other antics of democracy.

One could therefore call the success passage of the amendment Yameen’s “pragmatism”, not Maldivian Democratic Party’s or JP’s.

Political pragmatism indeed assumes the belief that one has agency and one is in a position of power to somewhat direct things. However, the opposition acted not from the belief they were in a position of power or real agency.

The vote to pass the amendment was an outcome of complete disillusionment, if not distrust, in what ordinary people are capable of achieving. It was also an outcome of the belief the international community has failed to act against the rise of Yameen’s new despotism.

In other words, it was an outcome of the belief there was no power and democratic agency in politics through ordinary people or the so-called international promoters of democracy.

The vote is therefore not opposition’s pragmatism. It is their defeatism.

Why defeatism?

It is easy to put blame on ordinary people when their mobilisation could not be sustained or the mobilisation could not achieve one’s unclear goals.

Yet sustaining political mobilisation for major changes requires certain common ideals. At the very least, it requires common sensibilities and affects.

From the beginning, MDP defined their political mobilisation against Yameen’s government based on “pragmatism”. For example, the alliance with JP, who had stolen the first round of presidential elections in 2013, was defended on “pragmatism” based on common “interests”.

But a group capable of sustaining political mobilisation effective to bring major positive changes cannot rely on “pragmatism” based on narrow “interests” alone. A set of shared ideals for a shared political future is necessary to sustain mobilisation. The opposition not only lacked these shared ideals. It is also not altogether clear they held any political ideals individually, beyond rhetoric such as “In Defence of the Constitution” or “Aniyaverikan Ninman”.

The nebulous term “aniyaverikan” to capture all the disparate interests or unclear goals of the opposition also lent itself to conceptualisation by religious leaders such as former Adalat president Sheikh Hussain Rasheed Ahmed in terms of the tripartite sins in Islam: sins against God, sins against one’s self, and sins against third parties.

Short of common ideals for a shared future, such a political grouping must be, at the very least, based on common sensibilities and emotions. True, anger and betrayal might have animated many, including JP leader, businessman Gasim Ibrahim. However, one wonders if this anger and sense of betrayal have any affinity with the sensibilities shared by others.

The lack of a shared future based on shared ideals and sensibilities was deeply felt from the first rally against Yameen’s government on 27 February. Some also saw even the May Day rally, the biggest so far, as a failure because of this lack of shared goals based on common ideals and sensibilities. By June 12, any doubt as to the political parties’ ability to sustain a common political mobilisation was gone.

If this is so, one is left to wonder, isn’t Wednesday’s vote really a failure of “pragmatism” by the opposition?

Despotism facilitated

There is no proven formula for how to achieve and sustain democracy. Therefore, the matters of how to achieve and sustain democracy fall within “pragmatism” if pragmatism is about what works in practice.

As the great pragmatist William James held, holding on to certain beliefs even if they could not be proven to be true provided those beliefs could bring about positive consequences, is partly what pragmatism is about.

However, some beliefs as to how to achieve democracy have clearly no positive consequences. The belief in the “short walk” to democracy and the belief that the wisdom and dictates of single individuals to be sufficient to walk this walk, seem to me such beliefs.

It is the public rationalisation based on these beliefs that led to Wednesday’s vote. It is not democratic pragmatism.

In doing this, opposition is facilitating Yameen’s new despotism to flourish. If this so, to my mind, it is foolish (and thus “unpragmatic”) to think the most popular politician in the country will be allowed to contest in 2018 under fair terms. That is, if he is allowed at all.

Azim Zahir worked at the President’s Office and Transparency Maldives. He has a Masters in Political Science from the University of Sydney.

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 & Analysis: Rotten politics to defend a democratic constitution?

The Jumhooree Party (JP) in January split from the ruling coalition and allied with the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) to “defend the constitution” against what they allege to be President Abdulla Yameen’s repeated constitutional breaches. The new alliance left many confused given the JP’s key role in former President Mohamed Nasheed’s 2012 ouster.

When Haveeru asked Nasheed how he could now trust JP Leader Gasim Ibrahim, he said: “It will be very easy [to understand the alliance] if we talk about interests instead of trust. In the political sphere, nobody should trust the other”.

This statement, I think, perfectly captures the rotten political culture that stands in the way of democratisation in the Maldives. President Nasheed is right. What we have is a political culture where nobody should trust the other. It is indeed a culture where nobody could. “Should” only arises where “could” exists.

It is a culture of extreme opportunism and cynical behavior, established through years of complex, interlocking dependencies fed by corruption, oligarchic money, crime, and patronage. Floor-crossing by elected MPs, some to multiple parties and back in one term, is just one visible aspect of its depth.

But, democracy will not function in the Maldives without a political culture in which we can be confident that the other’s commitment to minimum democratic principles and behaviour will transcend their personal interests.

Sacrifices, compromises, humility

Without this commitment, our only hope is that politicians’ interests and differences always harmonise with democracy. But interests don’t always harmonise with democracy. Substantive differences don’t always benefit from democracy.

Democracy thrives on sacrifices of interests. It requires painful compromises with substantive differences, be they religious or philosophical. And, importantly, democracy derives its sustenance from an ethic of humility.

The ethic of humility decries arrogance, hubris, and bossing around. Democrats dislike treating people as pawns on a chessboard and acting as though one knows all the right moves. That is also why democracy requires honest and robust debate, discussion, and critique.

This is not to say through an opportunistic game of duelling interests, this or that political reform may not happen. It’s also true that in moments of harmony of interests good outcomes could materialise. Sometimes the outcome may not even be what the participants intended.

Democratic failures

The past decade is rife with instances where politicians across the spectrum favored their own interests over democratic process, allowing mistrust, cynicism and opportunism to thrive on.

President Nasheed’s controversial detentions of Gasim and Yameen and the Criminal Court Chief Judge Abdulla Mohamed, during his term are instances of failure of this transcendental commitment to the democratic process. The 2012 coup by the then opposition parties through the security services is the ultimate breach of this commitment.

Jumhooree Party’s contestation of the first round of presidential elections in 2013 without any reasonable grounds and the abuse of the Supreme Court to manipulate the electoral process is another extreme example where “interests” transcended the commitment to democracy.

Now, President Yamin’s turn towards what may be a form of “competitive authoritarianism,” whereby, through legislative manipulation, he now can control an already corrupt judiciary and other independent state institutions, shows his commitment to democracy does not transcend his narrow political interests.

Yamin has succeeded in removing the Chief Justice and perhaps the only just Justice in the Supreme Court through legislative manipulation by his party’s majority in the parliament. This, of course, could help him manipulate the elections in 2018.

Democracy has become ever more elusive.

A combination of institutions and human behaviour

I’m of course not saying politics is for angels. But without a political culture based on certain minimum human behavioural commitments, democracy cannot be the “only game in town”, which, political scientists Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan claim, is a test of democracy’s consolidation.

I think one of Amartya Sen’s important points in The Idea of Justice is also that institutions alone don’t result in justice. Similarly, institutions of democracy — be they perfect constitutions or genuine elections — alone don’t result in democracy.

A people and a political elite that are behaviorally and attitudinally committed to democratic rules and principles are as crucial.

That is also why I am skeptical of the MDP’s claim that the solution to authoritarian turns in our politics is adopting a parliamentary system.

The forgoing analysis is bleak. A democracy survey in the Maldives in 2013 already painted a bleak picture for the country. The survey points to a crisis of public confidence in key democratic institutions and extraordinarily high levels of public cynicism towards politics as compared to other transitional states.

But that same survey also shows there are some reasons to be optimistic.

Youth comprises around 30% of the population. It is these youth groups that tend to gravitate towards democratic values. A political culture based on their empowerment and mobilisation is perhaps how we may achieve and sustain democracy.

Azim Zahir worked at the President’s Office and Transparency Maldives. He has a Masters in Political Science from the University of Sydney.

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: Afrasheem, Rilwan, and the future of the Maldivian community

Writing in the 1970s, anthropologist Clarence Maloney remarked that religion in the Maldives was limited to “washing, fasting and praying”.

What he meant is similar to what MB Hooker observed in the Southeast Asian Muslim populations – Islam was characterised by “a ‘non-literally’ Muslim culture”, limited largely to practice without much theorisation and philosophising.

However, since the 1980s – and especially since the year 2000 – the most spectacular change in our culture has been the conscious appropriation and questioning of received religious doctrines and practices. Processes associated with modernisation and mass education have enabled this never-ending fragmentation of discourses, interpretations, and different visions at a larger scale.

This is what Eickelman and James Piscatori described as the “objectification of Muslim consciousness” that has now swept the whole Muslim world. Maldives is no exception to this.


It was in this emerging context of fragmented religious discourses and different religious interpretations that the regime of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom suppressed both those who embraced Salafi interpretations of Sharia and those drawn toward more pluralist Sharia.

It is in this context – now characterised by extreme political and social uncertainties – that one of the most prominent Maldivian religious scholars, Dr Afrasheem Ali, was murdered in October 2012. It was also in this same context that my friend, journalist, and human rights activist Ahmed Rilwan disappeared six weeks ago.

None of us yet knows the truth about those tragedies. But what we know is that both have significant religious context. Afrasheem had faced harassment and assault on several occasions because of his religious views. Similarly, Rilwan – once a Salafist – received threats because of his criticisms of certain understandings of Sharia.

More importantly, the murder and disappearance sends a chilling message to the rest of us – religious disagreements cannot be tolerated.

The fact of the matter is that, however small and homogenous, ours is now a society characterised by pluralism. We cannot wish away these disagreements on deep questions of what the good life is.

In need of a new moral order…

But ethical and religious disagreements do not mean there is no possibility of a moral order for collective life that we could come to agree upon.

Such a moral order must be based on political and moral principles that we all can – or should – value, i.e. liberty, equality, and peace. These are also among the higher values that Islam stands for.

In this moral order, there should be a maximum and genuine role for religion. It is not a secularist moral order where religion must be privatised, or religion is seen as something that will just disappear with the rise of ‘rationality,’ science, or modernisation.

In my view, both the Maldivian Democratic Party and the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party/Progressive Party of Maldives have failed to articulate a vision of democracy that genuinely respects the place of religion in democracy.

Officials of both governments have characterised religious people as somehow irrational or pre-modern. Both governments have tried to control or co-opt religion in their instrumentalist and ideological narrowness.

A democracy based on such a moral order does not make a fetish out of ‘secularism’ or ‘separation of religion from the state’. Secularism is not about separation as such. It is about certain moral ends, including liberty and equality.

Sometimes separation and at other times accommodation will promote those values. There is no a priori fixed solution (such as “a wall of separation”) to the relationship of religion to the state in order to achieve those ends.

Context is everything. And contextual reasoning is the way forward.

Thus the moral order the Maldives need is not that of the mainstream secularism we find in France, Turkey, or sometimes even the US – where the value of religion and the rights of religious people are not fully recognised.

In this new moral order, religious parties and religious scholars must have an equal place in the public sphere as their secular counterparts. Laws and policies based on religious values must have a place too. How else could it be, unless we think we can simply separate our religious selves from our political selves?

Only a ‘thin’ liberal conception of citizenship based on a ‘thin’ understanding of epistemology would think moral truth is somehow ‘secular’.

…for a new imagined community

To be sure, in concrete terms, this moral order means freedom of religion cannot be denied – citizenship cannot be denied on religious grounds. How can anyone of us in all religious honesty deny this basic and God-given right?

Even Gayoom, who was the architect of the prevailing insular nation-identity based on ‘sattain satta muslim quam/100 per cent Muslim nation’ had to acknowledge that the denial of religious freedom in the Maldives was in spite of Islam:

The real essence of Islam…is that it is non-discriminatory. Its tolerance of other beliefs and religions is clearly established in the Holy Quran…

We Maldivians…hold freedom of belief as sacred and we abhor discrimination…on any grounds whether of creed, colour or race. It is only that we are such a homogenous…society based on one national identity…that we are convinced that the preservation of this oneness in faith and culture is essential for the unity, harmony, and progress of the country.

Gayoom, Address at the Opening Ceremony of the Seminar on ”The Calls for Islam in South and South East Asia’, 1983

In other words, a universal precept of Quran was overridden by his attempt at creating a homogenous ‘imagined community’. While this imagined community had been homogenous, the real community has undergone fragmentation of religious discourse.

As a result, the national self-understanding that Gayoom – still leader of the country’s ruling political party – created is now being subjected to vigorous contestation from all fronts – both religious and secular. That is why we are in need of a new moral order for a new imagined community.

Why Afrasheem and Rilwan matter

Perhaps one of the biggest immediate challenges for a new moral order in the Maldives is related to the tragedies of Afrasheem and Rilwan.

Besides our human concern for them, the need for a new moral order is the long-term reason why we all must be concerned to find truth about them. That is why everyone should be calling for greater accountability of the government in these cases.

That is why I support the #suvaalumarch taking place tomorrow afternoon (September 19) in Malé.

For the future of democratisation in the direction of this new moral order is contingent on seeking truth and justice for Afrasheem and Rilwan.

Azim Zahir is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Muslim States and Societies, University of Western Australia.


Comment: Making sense of the rejection of the Other

The resurgence of religious politics is a global phenomenon.

From Khomeini’s theocracy in Iran to the rise of Islamic movements in Egypt, Tunisia, Nigeria, Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Malaysia, Islamist politics has continued to be a salient feature of the Muslim world.

Religious politics, however, is not limited to the Muslim world.

Hindu nationalism in India, ultra-orthodox politics in Israel, Protestant fundamentalism in the US, religious politics in Australia, Catholic ultra-conservative politics elsewhere, and the crises of secularism in several Western European countries, mean religion is a global political topic.

The first thing that we should keep in mind therefore is that religion is not an issue unique to the Maldives.

This is important in order to avoid the false sense of an outside ‘Civilised World’ in possession of all good values. The truth is reasonable accommodation has become a profound issue in several of the so-called liberal democracies.

The second point is we need to avoid the mistake of blaming solely Islamism in our failure of reasonable accommodation. Islamism in the Maldives is a recent phenomenon, largely coinciding with democratisation since 2004.

Our shrill polemics could hardly clarify the main underlying issues around religion in the Maldives. I believe the issues around religion run deeper than recent Islamism. Let’s, for instance, take the recent cases of SAARC banners and monuments.

There have been broadly three main groups of positions on the issue: a) those who reject the monuments and the banners largely because they supposedly show imageries of other religions; b) those who accept the imagery saying they are not really supposed to be religious imageries or idols as such; and, c) those who decry Maldivian ‘intolerance’, ‘ignorance’, or ‘fanaticism’.

a) What is largely true for the first group is that their publicly cited main excuse for rejecting the monuments and banners is not particularly or only Islam. For it would be extremely hard to justify destruction of imagery and idols of other religions purely based on Islam. It would be impossible to cite a purely religious rationale to reject freedom of religion.

b) What is true for the second group is their assumption that if the imageries were really supposed to be religious imageries or idols in the public sphere, it might be OK to reject them.

c) What is largely true for the third group is there is a collective, generalised image of the Maldivians: thus, we hear remarks such as ‘Maldivian intolerance’, ‘undeserving people’, ‘fanatically intolerant state’, and so on.

If so, I think there is something common to the reaction of all three groups. The underlying issue is not Islam as such. ‘Intolerance’ as such does not explain it either.

Based on these three sorts of reaction, I submit there is something about the Maldives as a nation that does not allow reasonable accommodation. Indeed, the dominant Maldivian national identity is uniquely exclusionist. It automatically excludes the possibility of any reasonable accommodation.

Therefore, much like the Muslim veil is seen as an affront to the secular character of France, any non-Muslim religious symbol or imagery in the public sphere is an affront to the Maldivian national self-understanding.

This national self-understanding has now become our background national self-understanding. That is, we are not necessarily even aware that we act under its hegemonic influence. It is our taken for granted identity.

Fortunately or unfortunately, national identity is not given or primordial.

Identity is a construction of discourses, symbols, and myths. Political and other leaders could be effective agents of construction of identity. For this to happen, modern developments such as newspapers or other communication media are necessary.

It is no trivial matter that a chapter in President Gayoom’s biography, A Man for All Islands, is entitled ‘A Sense of Identity’. When Gayoom came to power in 1978, the Maldives hardly had any sense of collective identity.

Maldivians, of course, were Dhivehin. However, despite President Amin’s initial efforts since late 1940s, Maldivians had not imagined themselves as a nation.

It came down to Gayoom, with the widespread availability of means of communication, to construct such an identity.

Today this national identity is coming under immense strain.

With the pluralisation and fragmentation of religious discourses, with the increasing number of migrants of other faiths, and the Maldives becoming part of the globalised world, life would not be either easy or just with an out-dated national self-understanding.

It’s time for us as a nation to consider seriously Islam’s universal values of equality and love.

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: ‘All religions guide to the path of God’

Like all Maldivians, I have always known that former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom articulated an Islam that he calls a ‘meduminuge’ (moderate) religion, or in Quranic terminology a religion of wasatiyyah. But until recently, when I immersed myself in Gayoom’s speeches and books for my Master’s thesis, I could not have fully articulated this Islam. I have only space to use material from three important speeches. (All quotes of Gayoom are from their original English versions.)

Progressive face or phase

The best place to start is Gayoom’s paper in 1985 on the ‘Flexibility of Islamic Shari’ah’ presented at a seminar in Kuala Lumpur. In this paper, Gayoom laid out his broad outlook on Islam:

Gayoom’s understanding of Islam is fundamentally ‘progressive’. He argued, ‘the message of Islam was never meant to be limited to the confines of a backward nomadic community of fourteen centuries ago’.

For him, the use of ijtihad (independent reasoning) should be wide-ranging: ‘there might be many problems, albeit already covered in traditional works on Islamic law, which need reconsideration in light of the changing circumstances’. This means, according to Gayoom, ijma (juristic consensus) can be overturned.

Gayoom maintained that ‘[t]he so-called closing of the door of ijtihād [is] quite alien to [Islam’s] encouragement of scientific and intellectual research and the attaining of knowledge in all fields’.

Thus, he concludes reflecting on the importance of ‘reason’ to Islam by saying: ‘Islam does not exclude a reasoned and diligent attitude to change; it does not instruct us to impede the flowing stream that is essential to human nature and its development.’

If this is Gayoom’s jurisprudential outlook, his substantive views are equally ‘progressive’ or even more radical than many of us might have thought.

Universal message of equality, love and tolerance

Thus, in an address in 1983 at Aligarh University of India, Gayoom laid out a radical message of tolerance, mutual love, and equality among people of all faiths.

On tolerance and love, he says:

The tolerance and magnanimity shown by the great Prophet of Islam, Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him), the Second Guided Khalīfā, Umar ibn al-Khattāb, Salahuddin al-Ayyūbī and other renowned Muslim rulers of all times towards not only non-Muslims but also towards those who had waged war against the Muslim state will bear witness to the spirit of love and human brotherhood inherent in the teachings of Islam.

On equality, Gayoom argues there is no distinction whatsoever to be made with regard to the equality of rights between Muslims and non-Muslims:

The Holy Quran clearly establishes the right of every individual to follow whatever religion or creed of his choice when it says: ‘There is no compulsion in religion; surely right has become distinct from wrong.’ Islam safeguards the rights of non-Muslims…to no less a degree than it safeguards the right of its own followers.

For Gayoom, the tolerance and equality of all people is premised on the equal normative status of all religions:

No religion preaches hatred, jealousy or animosity. Religious intolerance, which inevitably leads to friction and conflict, and more often than not to bloodshed, is therefore an unforgivable departure from the path of God.

The path of God, according to Gayoom, is not a unique possession of one religion. Therefore, even more radically Gayoom points out that:

All religions guide to the path of God – the path of love, understanding and peace.

Subjecting the message to politics

Now, of course, this deeply anti-authoritarian, even radical, ideology contradicts the authoritarian political policies of president Gayoom. I am here referring to his discourse of nationhood. His nationhood discourse, which is now our taken for granted background national self-understanding, is based on the mythical and authoritarian motif of ‘100% Muslim nation’.

In another speech in 1983 at the ‘Seminar on the Call for Islam in South and South East Asia’, held in Male, president Gayoom again acknowledged that Islam provided for complete equality of rights for all humans. Nonetheless, he implied that the ‘unique’ national self-understanding overrides even the commandments of Qur’an:

The real essence of Islam, as you know, is that it is non-discriminatory. Its tolerance of other beliefs and religions is clearly established in the Holy Quran, the Sunnah of the Prophet (Peace be upon him!)…We Maldivians, as true believers of Islam, hold freedom of belief as sacred and we abhor discrimination between man and man on any grounds whether of creed, colour or race.

In spite of this, he continues, because:

[w]e are such a homogenous and closely-knit society based on one national identity, one language, and one faith…we are convinced that the preservation of this oneness in faith and culture is essential for the unity, harmony, and progress of the country.

It is this homogenising political discourse that underpins the dominant national self-understanding. But this discourse is not an Islamic discourse. In fact, as we saw above, it is at odds with Islam’s universal messages outlined by Gayoom.

A degree of godliness

Whether or not we will seriously uphold Islam’s anti-authoritarian universal messages as Gayoom so clearly laid out and whether or not we will rethink the authoritarian national self-understanding, are some of the most crucial questions we must address individually and as a society.

This task of serious self-reflection has become even more urgent under an increasingly interdependent and pluralistic world. This task has become socially necessary with the pluralisation and fragmentation of religious discourses, and with the increasing diversity in the society, not least because of migrant people of different faiths.

The task at hand is a transformation of ourselves as subjects and citizens: this task ultimately is one of inculcating a degree of godliness – mercy, compassion and love – in all of us.

This is indeed a more transcendent endeavour than the selfish, materialist politics that has always spread fear about a non-existent Other conspiring to destroy Islam. We all really deserve a better politics.

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: The mixed story of the rise of Islamism in the Maldives

One of the many lessons of the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s magisterial book, A Secular Age, is how religion continues to exist and continues to be relevant.

The relevance is not only limited to religion’s potential for creating identity and meaning in life.

Religion’s relevance also lies in the moral and epistemological limitations of the virulent forms of atheistic exclusive humanism and hardcore naturalistic ‘science’ that Richard Dawkins, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and their ilk seem to be promoting.

Religion’s potential for solidarity and taking the cause of justice and vulnerable forms of life, is as relevant as ever.

Its potential for an ultimate explanation against an unfounded scientific reductionism cannot be blindly and arrogantly dismissed.

Rise of Islamism and electoral democracy

During the last seven or so years, coinciding with (or in response to) democratisation, the most spectacular religious phenomenon in the Maldives is the rise of Islamism. At least twelve Islamic/Islamist NGOs were registered between 2004-2010. Prior to 2004, there were no more than three organisations with the specific goal of religion.

But re-Islamisation led by Islamism itself should not be taken as alarming for at least ‘electoral democracy’.

If popular participation in politics can be an indication of support for democracy, the voter turnout in February 2011’s local elections stood at around 70%, which is comparable to past turnouts for parliamentary elections. Equally important, Islamist Adalath Party fared quite badly in all three elections since 2008.

However, re-Islamisation seems to have had, and will continue to have, mixed results for the society and politics.

Questioning religion

As late as the mid-1970s, ethnographic research in the Maldives could conclude that Islam of the people was largely limited to ‘washing, praying and fasting’.

What this means can best be contrasted by describing what James Piscatori and Eickelman call ‘objectification of Muslim consciousness’. They explain that this is ‘the process whereby basic questions come to the fore in the consciousness of large numbers of believers’.

This process has become a salient feature of all Muslim societies. Similarly, this growing objectification of consciousness, largely over the past decade, became the most important religious development in the Maldives. Its main feature includes fragmentation and pluralization of religious discourses.

For sociologists like Jose Casanova this could ultimately mean an Islamic aggiornamento, or a sort of reform that took place in the Second Vatican when Catholicism finally endorsed democracy and human rights in the 1970s. But should we be so optimistic?

Judging from data and people’s comments, often here on Minivan News, it would be hard for some of us in the Maldives to see any positives from objectification of our religious consciousness.

Indeed, in the Maldives what we have seen is a sort of reflexive re-Islamisation: through responding to the terms of alternative discourses (e.g. democracy and human rights) and processes of global modernity, the society seems to be undergoing a new re-traditionalization.

Mixed Results of Islamism

We could observe two parallel processes led by Islamism in the Maldives. It seems to be a striking reversal of what had happened since the 1970s.

First, there is an attempt at de-secularising the actual community. The most obvious example is public piety such as the Muslim veil.

But there is also an attempt at re-Islamising the functional spheres like the economy. Islamic banking or riba-free business is a case in point.

Call for re-Islamising the national curriculum, call against music and entertainment, and rise in ‘creationism’ pseudo-science, are important examples too.

Perhaps a more important example is greater de-privatisation of religion: Islamist organizations and Islamist media outlets have proliferated in the public sphere. Their influence in the political society and the state has increased (e.g., a religious ministry led by Islamists).

But here is the other side of the picture. Islamist attempts at ‘rationalisation’ and ‘objectification’, or in short ‘purification’ of the society, seem to have mixed results for the dominant national consciousness.

The powerful motif of a ‘100% Muslim nation’ may no longer serve as a taken-for-granted, internalised background. It may no longer be a largely unconscious sacralised background understanding of the nation.

The signs of this change could already be seen from the increased sarcastic deployment of ‘sattain satta muslim qaum’ (e.g., ‘are we really a 100% Muslim nation?’), especially by Islamists to decry the alleged failure of officials to make the society ‘Islamic enough’.

If this is so, there is not only de-secularisation. There is a sort of ‘secularisation’ taking place too. This is a secularisation of the imagined community, of the taken-for-granted national consciousness. Ironically, reflexive re-Islamisation is driving this secularisation.

Now, why does this matter? Here is one reason why it matters.

Freedom of religion

This sort of secularisation of the national consciousness seems to be a condition of effective religious liberty. Even if political secularism was to be enshrined in the Constitution, freedom of religion might not be effective without this sort of secularisation of the ‘imagined community’.

The poignant suicide of a young man, possibly because he felt he betrayed his ‘comrades-in-identity’ (i.e. the rest of us Muslims) is a case in point. His desperate email is telling: ‘Maldivians are proud of their religious homogeneity and I am learning the hard way that there is no place for non-Muslim Maldivians in this society.’

One cannot only legally be non-Muslim; but more importantly such a person may be dismissed as unworthy. If this is so, political secularism itself may not be a sufficient condition of liberty without secularisation now seemingly driven by reflexive re-Islamisation. (Here then is also a lesson for the arrogant global (i.e. the US) project of bringing freedom of religion to the world.)

Awareness of the Other

If the above interpretation is correct, we could increasingly experience these phenomena:

i) Through objectification of the taken-for-granted national consciousness, an increased awareness of the existence of some fellow Maldivians with different worldviews and faiths.

ii) Through a process of de-secularisation of the actual community, intense reflexive and political bulwarks (especially by Islamists) against this cross-pressured awareness.

I think both of these things are taking place.

Political Reconciliation of the Cross-Pressure

How we finally politically reconcile this awareness is the ultimate condition of the possibility or impossibility for democracy – and therefore equality, liberty, fraternity – in this over two-millennia-old country.

This is not a place for advocacy. But for this political reconciliation, a necessary, but not sufficient, condition is a dose of humility from the full political and social spectrum.

As a colleague at the government once pointed out, as a first step, the government needs to get over with its ‘hubris’ of going it alone.

Azim Zahir has a BA in Philosophy and Politics and is completing his MA degree at the University of Sydney.

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 preface to explaining democratisation in the Maldives

If several different people don’t write about the significant events changing their societies, romanticization of and myths around those events creep in, and that is one way unreal heroes and unreal villains are born. Because of this lack of literature on the historic changes that have been taking place in the Maldives, this musing is a preface to democratisation in the Maldives.

Since the beginning of what Samuel P Huntington famously called the “third wave” of democratisation in mid-1970s, efforts toward finding explanations of comparative democratisation intensified. To this day, there is however no single theory of demoratisation that will satisfy everyone or that will explain every single case of democratisation. There are probably many factors and independent variables that explain democratisation.

The Maldives’ case also shows that no single explanatory factor or theory is sufficient. But, following Huntington, we could try to explain Maldives’ democratisation along its “why” and “how”.

The Why: modernisation, valuation and grievances

There will hardly be any Maldivians who seriously dispute that the current president Mohamed Nasheed has no important role to play in democratisation in the Maldives.

“What and who” he is, I think, is a representative case of why and how democratisation happened in the Maldives. The “what” factors are well explained by modernisation theory of democratisation most famously advanced by Martin Lipset. Lipset argued that that economic development and modernisation are strongly correlated with democracy. In brief, he argued that education (an aspect of modernisation) facilitates people’s valuation of their beliefs and values and thereby they come to accept democratic values.

I said Nasheed is a representative case because I want to emphasise five factors relevant to democratisation in the Maldives. First, Nasheed was educated in Great Britain where he was, both as a child and an adolescent, exposed to democracy in practice.

Second, I want to emphasise the fact that the global discourse of democracy as the most viable political system permeated the hearts and minds of many Maldivians.

Third, Nasheed is not a representative case of the whole or even majority of the Maldives’ population. He is a representative case of only those who are relatively exposed to the discourse of democracy and who have been one way or another aggrieved by the personal dictatorship of Gayoom.

Fourth – and I know this is going to be very controversial – the Maldives’ democratisation is not a mass-based democratisation movement as evidenced by the relatively low support the “democratic opposition” garnered in elections starting from the election for Constitutional Assembly. Alternatively, this is evidenced by the high support Gayoom still attracts.

Hence, the Maldives is closer to the transition model explained by Guillermo O’Donnell. The Maldives is a case of democratisation largely by elites who had either come to value democracy (because of modernisation factors) and/or who were aggrieved by the personal dictatorship of Gayoom (While the “clan power-struggle” model explained by Mohamed Nasheed in his illuminating book, Maldives Politics, bears some structural similarity to this model, I doubt Nasheed’s model any longer explains the Maldives’ politics).

Fifth, international factors, which are of course again well documented in democratisation literature, played an important role by virtue of the fact that both the authoritarian system and opposition were subjected to what I call international “politics of naming and shaming”.

The How: a play of elites?

“Why” factors, however, don’t tell us the causers of democratisation. This is where transition model is helpful.

Democratisation researchers subscribing to transition paradigm say there must always be a crisis in the authoritarian regime for democratic transition to take place. It could be an economic or other crisis.

Where was this crisis in the Maldives? Was it Evan Naseem’s murder and subsequent riots? Was it 12/13 August mass arrests and subsequent divisions in Gayoom’s regime? Or was it the December 26 Tsunami?

Another factor emphasised by O’Donnell is the rise of a more moderate/liberal elite faction within the government. Alternatively, the dictator himself or herself could start to liberalise because of the crisis.

The Maldives I think is a case of ‘transplacement’ transition where transition occurred through the actions of both the government and the opposition. Gayoom of course maintains it is a case of ‘transformation’ where he initiated reforms.

It is debatable whether Maldives is one of transplacement or transformation or mixed case.

It certainly is not a case of replacement where the personal dictatorship of Gayoom was overthrown or replaced by democrats.

It is perhaps more accurate to say that liberalising elites within the government played the game within the regime. Also, ironically, the hiring of (PR firm) Hill & Knowlton itself could have played against the hardliners in regime as ‘public relations’ never work without real reforms.

The transition paradigm also gives room for the opposition elite. In fact, in the Maldives the opposition protests (again by no means popular mass mobilisations) and opposition campaigning by figures such as Ahmed Shafeeg Moosa using 21st century information technology were the reasons a liberalising elite faction was born in the first place.

There were also factors that facilitated or obstructed democratisation in the elite-interplay. These included, among other things, the problem of divisions within the opposition itself. Usually, it is the moderate elites within the opposition that facilitate democratisation.

Revolutionary-minded figures such as the current president Mohamed Nasheed within the opposition were unsuccessful in mobilising enough numbers for an outright overthrow of Gayoom regime. They ultimately had to moderate or adapt themselves towards a “transplacement” model where the opposition and regime elites negotiated the terms of democratisation.

Finally, while the opposition protests were not mass-mobilisation protests, they had the benefit of seeking international attention for a “politics of naming and shaming”. As a country dependent on import, foreign aid, tourism, and good standing with the outside world, the “politics of naming and shaming” by long-standing human rights NGOs like the Amnesty International and pressures from the EU became too much for the authoritarian regime.

So that is how the Maldives transitioned to an “electoral democracy” in October 2008.

Azim Zahir is studying for a Master of Human Rights at the University of Sydney, Australia.

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: Democratic bargaining over religion

Although an Islamist party heads the Ministry of Islamic Affairs in the coalition government of President Mohamed Nasheed, he chose not to mention religion either of his two presidential addresses to the parliament so far. This is only the latest incident that has led to suspicions of ‘almaniyya’ pursued by President Nasheed.

On the other hand, the more liberal or ‘moderate’ Maldivians have lamented over the ‘leglessness’ of the government in the face of the steady growth of religious puritanism and conservatism in society.

It is no easy job for any president or government to carve out a religious public policy that will satisfy both these groups at the same time.

History’s lesson for us is that it is only through a painful process of democratic bargaining over the place of religion in government that we can consolidate liberal democracy.

Price of ignoring or thwarting religion

The history of several Muslim majority countries shows that governments cannot afford to have a top-down policy of ignoring or thwarting religion when religion is a significant part of social identity.

The Iran of Pahlavis, where religion was either ignored or thwarted by the government, only contributed to the rise of mullahs and a bloody Islamic revolution giving power to an elitist group of religious guardians who surpassed their secular predecessors in imposing their brand of Islam on the Iranian population.

Equally true is the case of Turkey where Mustafa Kemal Atatürk pursued a rigid French Republican style laïcité ignoring the religious sentiments of the population. This hard secularism had failed to provide a tolerant and fair democratic system for Turkey, where an Islamic party now heads the government (their second term), which was a slap on the face of the secular establishment.

Top-down secular modernisation programmes have failed in all post-colonial Muslim societies, which are instead mired in corruption, religious and political suppression and autocracy. As a consequence, in these societies, religious puritanism, Islamism, and re-Islamisation have steeply gained ground, and a home-grown, bottom-up, democratically-negotiated secularism has not materialised.

The calls for a so-called Islamic state have been the rallying cry in the wake of these crises.

But is an Islamic state the solution?

Men behind Sharia: the illusion of an Islamic state

A typology of religious views in the Maldives could show that there are at least three broad positionings on Sharia and its place in government. They include the more nuanced, eclectic and ijthihad-friendly version of Gayoom; the more conservative-Islamist yet religion-government-conflationary version of the Adhaalath; and, the more government-independent and insular versions which despise ‘democracy’ and similar concepts as bid’a and Western constructs.

The rule, rather than the exception, is that there are deep religious-political disagreements among these camps, as depicted by their different politico-religious groupings which compete and contest with one another, even when they are doing the same things!

Now, whose interpretation of Sharia would you like to implement?

Such disagreements are the inevitable outcome of the fact that both Sharia and fiqh are products of human interpretation of Qur’an and Hadith. There is no way one can delineate the anthropocentrism involved in this. Even the categorical injunctions like “cut off hand for theft” are bound to be differently interpreted, for instance, as to the exact meaning of the words ‘cut off’ or ‘theft’. Even more disagreements are bound to happen where their practical applications are concerned.

To take an example from among our own clerics, for instance, Sheikh Shaheem’s translation of verse 59 of Al-Nisa (in his book entitled ‘Islam and Democracy’, 2006, p. 15)[1] is literally very different from any of the translations (Yusuf Ali, Shakir, Mohsin Khan, Pickthal, or even the recent Dhivehi translation commissioned by President Gayoom) that I have read.

The religious reason for such disagreements is that even if there is a divine concept of Sharia that is eternal, there is no divine interpreter of Sharia amongst us. If so, whatever interpretation of Sharia you want to enforce as public policy, that is inevitably a human choice, not Allah’s. If so, such policy is strictly speaking always secular. And such policy can always be contested.

It is then not just too naïve to rally blindly behind an illusory ‘Islamic state’ as the final solution to all our problems. It is also dangerous. The only thing close to such a so-called Islamic state is utter political despotism.

The first step

As elsewhere in the Muslim countries, ‘secularism’ is a very negatively loaded term in the Maldives. Unfortunately, it is also a misunderstood concept – both in the Muslim world and in the West.

Dhivehi, like several other languages, including Arabic, do not have an equivalent term for the concept. We have seen in recent Divehi religious literature a term called almani – meaning ‘worldly’ – for ‘secular’. Originally in Muslim literature, the term dahr – roughly ‘atheist’ – was used for ‘secular’, which explains the pejorative view of the concept early on.

Influential Muslim intellectuals such as Jamaluddin Al-Afghani, Sayyid Qutb, Maulana Mawdudi, Ayottalah Khomeini, Yusuf Qardawi, Sayed Naquib al-Attas of Malaysia, who have voiced against ‘secularism’ referring to it as ladeeni, only added to our dislike towards ‘secularism’.

They, like Sheikh Farooq’s article on the 12th March 2010 issue of Hidhaayathuge Magu, assert religion will wither away or is relegated to private sphere in liberal democracy.

But the fact is, in the United States where there is a constitutional separation of religion and state, to this day religion is very much alive and active in the public sphere. Religion has been a strong voice in public policy and law making. Incidentally, Islam is also one of the fastest growing religions in the US.

On the other hand, how many of us remember that even in this 21st century, for instance, Scotland, England, Norway, Finland, Greece, Denmark, Iceland, and the Netherlands, could have officially recognised religions? Or why have Christian parties often ruled in several European countries?

What then is the ‘secularism’ proper for liberal democracies?

To be a liberal democracy, the minimum requirement from religion is that no religious institution must have the constitutional right to mandate a government to implement their views without a due democratic process or have the right to veto democratic legislation.

This minimum institutional separation of religion from state does not preclude religion from politics. If you want to implement amputation for robbery, you must go through the democratic process of convincing others through accessible reasons.

The right steps

Religion is an important part of our identity – even our political identity. As the historical lesson has shown in other places, it is therefore naïve, cruel and arrogant for a government to ignore or suppress religion.

Bringing on board religious people in public affairs or using religious language where appropriate does not make a head of state any less democratic or liberal. If President Obama, as in his Cairo speech, can quote from the Bible, Qur’an or Talmud, and speak about his policies towards religion, including Islam, and still be a liberal democrat, why cannot we be? President Nasheed therefore can show more of his religious side.

But, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs’ mandate must be overhauled so that they do not have an undemocratic, and unfair bargaining position to influence the national education curriculum and use public resources unchecked as a platform to promote their own interpretation of Sharia both within the government and society. This is unfair and religiously unjust because there are other religious groupings that do not have a similar advantage. Their mandate must be limited to undertaking training in Qur’an recitation, looking after mosques, regulating zakat, managing annual hajj, and similar non-interpretative religious matters.

This does not mean religious parties do not have a role in politics. On the contrary, religion can and should be part of the political process. It is unreasonable to ask from religious people to separate their religious identity and religion-based norms from politics whenever they step in the public sphere. A case in point is the recent protests on the liquor issue: religious individuals played a politically legitimate role to influence the government.

It is not toothless of the government to respond to those protests, given the profundity of religion in our social identity. Those who opposed the regulation – which itself was not democratically legitimised – might be a minority. Yet the alleged majority was simply democratically dead.

And, this brings us to the single most important arena where we ought to tackle religious issues: civil society.

Through the bloody wars of religion, it is with long, painful democratic bargaining of the role of religion in public affairs that we saw liberal democracy consolidated in Europe. It is only through difficult hermeneutical exegesis of religious texts and reformulation of religious views within the public sphere that we saw its tolerance in Europe.

This was not done by governments. The State, as a coercive apparatus, simply does not have the democratically appropriate resources to tackle and interpret normative issues.

In the face of growing conservative-Islamism and Puritanism in our society, what we need is a functioning civil society, bargaining for religious tolerance and promoting the universal goals of justice and equality envisioned in Qur’an.

What we need are our equivalents of the Sisters-in-Islam of Malaysia or our Sunni equivalents of Iran’s New Religious Thinkers, who will use the resources of religion to engage with the Islamist and puritan appropriations of religion.

We need to invite people like Khaled Abou El Fadl, who will help us ‘Rescue Islam from the Extremists’ who are committing a ‘Great Theft’ in daylight by sacrilising Mohamed Ibn Abdul Wahhab, who was even opposed by his own father and brother Sulaiman Ibn Abdul Wahhab.

We need an Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im who will help us ‘Negotiate the Future of Sharia’ and bring us ‘Towards an Islamic Reformation’ by teaching us the possibility of re-interpretation of religious texts through abrogation and teaching us more about the tolerant, pragmatic Mecca period of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH).

We need a Mohamed Charfi to clarify the ‘The Historical Misunderstanding’ of Liberty in Islam and show us that our practice of Sharia is not fixed, as, for example, the dhimma system, slavery and concubines (all allowed and practised under traditional Sharia) have become untenable and officially banned in several Muslim majority countries.

We need a Nurcholish Madjid who will challenge those for whom “everything becomes transcendental and valued as ukhrawi” while the Prophet (PBUH) himself made a distinction between his religious rulings and his worldly opinions when he was wrong about the benefits of grafting of date-palms. Is Sheikh Shaheem fully certain that when the Prophet (PBUH) is believed to have said “those who appoint a woman as their leader will not be successful” whether or not he was making a personal opinion?

What we need is not another religious minister, but an Abdulla Saeed to teach at our schools what a more tolerant and just Islam will tell us about ‘Freedom of Religion, Apostasy and Islam’, and engage with (Islamic NGO) Salaf to argue that Qur’an as in verse 4:137 assumes situations when an apostate (however we dislike it) continues to live among Muslims.

We also need a reformed former president Gayoom to lecture in the Faculty of Shari’a and Law to show that the ‘door of ijthihad is not closed’ as he argued in a lecture in Kuala Lumpur in 1985.

Last, but not least, the Richard Dawkins-style or Ayaan Hirsi Ali-style calls from fellow Maldivians for outright rejection of religion and exclusion of religion from politics can only hinder such ‘immanent critique’ of religious puritanism and Islamism.

It is through a religious discourse that is democratically promoted within civil society that we could negotiate with our fellow Islamists, puritans, and the rest that Islam’s permanent and ultimate goals are liberty, equality, justice, and peaceful co-existence – that is, constitutional democracy.

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: Reflections after the alcohol crisis

From a purely religious perspective it is very odd that you could buy alcohol or open bars in the lagoon of Hulhumalé, but not on the land. But that is exactly what the existing regulations on liquor have allowed.

Religiously, it is also very strange that you could open hundreds of ‘human bars’ in houses, but not in city hotels with more stringent regulatory measures. Again, that is exactly what the existing regulations on liquor have allowed.

A lesson from history

Going back to the last Muslim caliphate, it is very awkward, from a purely religious point of view, that the Ottoman sultans sanctioned the Hanbali School of jurisprudence over all others.

Going back to the very early period of Islam, from a purely religious point of view, it is a bit strange that Caliph Abu Bakr would allow the Wars of Apostasy (Ridda wars), but that leading companions such as Umar or Ali would oppose it.

Again, it is very revealing that his own brother Sulayman Ibn Abdul Wahhab and his own father would so strongly oppose Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab to the extent that Sulayman would write a whole treatise against his brother Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab.

No exception…

Reflecting on our society, it is equally revealing that Islamic Ministry disagreed, for instance, with Jamiyathul Salaf over health insurance and over the religious unity laws.

Why does Abdulla Saeed (Maldivian professor at Melbourne University) think there should be complete freedom of religion without worldly punishment while Jamiyuthul Salaf came out against this in the penultimate day of Hassan Saeed’s bid to become president?

Similarly, we could learn a thing or two from the disagreements over burqas and female heads of state between the double master’s degree-holder and winner of ‘Order of Merit, First Class in Arts and Sciences’ from Egypt’s Al-Azhar university, and the rest of our sheikhs.

We could also learn from the disagreements between Dr Afrasheem Ali and the rest over dancing, singing and dress codes.

…and the norm

Do we not wonder why there have been so many different interpretations of Sharia, including all the sects, Shiites and Sunnis and so on?

Indeed, inconsistencies, contestation and disagreement are the norm in every religion.

The European wars of religion and the Inquisition and Al-Mihna of Caliph Ma’mun were only the bloody face of such disagreements in religion.

To err is human

Now, could we not reflect on the incident when the Prophet (PBUH) was wrong about the grafting of date-palms and his subsequent distinction between Muhammad as Prophet (PBUH) and Muhammad as a human being?

The Qur’an, and more so the hadiths, constitute an overwhelming collection of information. Since the Prophet’s death, there has not been a divinely-guided interpreter of this information.

Hence, what we must know that it is us – all humans – who read the Qur’an and hadiths to come up with rulings and judgments.

As Caliph Ali is reported to have said, the “Qur’an is but ink and paper, and it does not speak for itself. Instead, it is human beings who give effect to it according to their limited personal judgments and opinions.”

The reasonable…

And as humans we all are subject to various sorts of burdens in our judgments and rulings, including:

  • The evidence involved in a particular religious matter might be complex and conflicting
  • The weight each group gives to particular evidences might be different
  • The issues themselves might be vague and that may lead to different interpretations (what is qawwamun, for example?)
  • The way each group weighs the issues are differently affected by their total life experience, knowledge, and so on

These limitations could be part of the explanation why we have so many reasonable disagreements even within religion.

So, because people may reasonably disagree on religion, is it not a good reason not to let the State – which has the monopoly on legitimate use of violence – become the arm of any religious faction?

…the unreasonable and the selfish

In the political sphere, disagreements on religious issues can be amplified to even bloody levels by ‘pure politics’ itself.

Stepping to political sphere, motivated by your own political aspirations, it is not so difficult to be so inconsistent on religious issues.

“It is the next election, stupid!”

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]