Comment: They don’t hate your freedoms

In his landmark speech at Cairo University in June 2009, US President Barack Obama announced that “No system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other”.

It was an apparent departure from the aggressive foreign policy of his predecessor, George W Bush, who was an advocate of revolutionary change in the Middle East, having stated in a 2005 speech that the United States would no longer “tolerate oppression for the sake of stability”.

Nevertheless, American commitment to its much-touted democratic values has always been a grey area – and the question has once again come to the fore in the wake of the ongoing Egyptian uprising.

The embattled current Egyptian dictator, Hosni Mubarak, reigned for over 30 years – supported and funded by the United States.

Egypt is the second largest recipient of US aid after Israel – receiving up to $2 billion every year in economic and military aid; the tear-gas canisters thrown at protestors on the streets of Cairo have ‘Made in USA’ written on them.

The US continued to support the recently-ousted Tunisian president Ben Ali, despite recently leaked cables revealing that they were fully aware of the debauchery and corruption that marked his 23 year old regime.

The leaked cables mentioned a lavish 12 course dinner for the American ambassador at the beachfront home of Ben Ali’s son-in-law where, reportedly, there were “ancient artefacts, Roman columns, frescoes and a lion’s head from which water pours into the pool.”

The dessert – ice cream and frozen yoghurt – was specially flown in from Saint Tropez.

The United States also turned a blind eye when the winners of the Algerian elections were arrested, and a State of Emergency was imposed in Algeria in the early 1990s that would last nearly two decades.

In the past, the US has embraced dictatorships in Chile, Guatemala, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq – and continues to support despotic regimes in Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and several tiny Gulf sheikhdoms – all apparently in the best interests of its national security.

America’s myopic vision of its ‘national interests’, however, has often come back to haunt them.

The Islamic revolution of 1979 that deposed the US-backed Shah of Iran, installed in its place a powerful, hostile theocracy that has refused to budge, and continues to ruthlessly crackdown on pro-democratic activists on the streets of Tehran.

The ‘Death to America’ chant that originated during this revolution continues to be the catchphrase of militant Islamist groups decades later.

It cost the US a disastrous war that continues to bleed their economy to oust former ally Saddam Hussein and today, CIA-trained Osama Bin Laden is the most wanted man in America.

Nevertheless, the US continues to pursue policies that risk their long term security in favour of short term political goals.

The US reactions to the uprisings in Iran and Egypt are a study in contrast; in 2009, they openly supported the pro-democracy ‘Green movement’ in Iran, since it was perceived to be in their immediate self-interests.

It was, however, only when the true magnitude of the Egyptian uprising became obvious that the less than enthusiastic US response changed to more vocal support.

Even more contentious is the manner in which the United States has responded to the democratic verdict of Arab people, on the rare occasions where they have exercised their democratic rights.

For instance, President George W Bush, who had emphatically promoted democracy as a part of his ‘freedom agenda’, refused to deal with Hamas despite their landslide victory in the 2006 elections in the West Bank that were unanimously declared by international observers as being free and fair.

Similarly, Hezbollah’s electoral victory in Lebanon was met with hostility.

Separate polls conducted by Zogby International and BBC reveal that even as the US pours billions in aid to Middle Eastern dictatorships, it has earned very little sympathy in return.

In a 2002 survey, 76 percent of Egyptians expressed disapproval of USA – two years later the number had jumped to 98 percent. In Saudi Arabia, another close US ally, the disapproval ratings have increased from 87 percent in 2002 to 94 percent in 2004.

Interestingly, the Pew Forum notes that there is general public admiration for American freedoms and prosperity though there was strong resentment at US foreign policy that deprived them of political freedoms.

Given this, the US should resist attempts to keep its political opponents such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt out of the democratic process – as it has only led to disillusionment with the democratic system in the past.

The paranoia of Islamist regimes shouldn’t prevent the US from accepting the rights of people to choose their own leaders, and shape their own destiny.

Indeed, in a democracy, even Islamist parties have to work hard to retain their mandate, as evidenced by Hezbollah’s defeat in the 2009 elections, and the victory of a US backed group.

The Arab uprisings have proven that the US must reconsider its policy of funding strong armed despots to suppress Islamist parties – as even the mightiest dictators cannot survive the wrath of an oppressed public.

Instead, America must address the root causes of the widely prevalent anti-American sentiment, not the least of which is their unflinching support of Israel despite their perceived military excesses, which are deeply unpopular in the Arab world.

The Israeli attack of an aid flotilla, the operation in Gaza, the Lebanon war, etc have all attracted condemnation from International Human Rights groups, but the American government missed the opportunity to get behind Arab outrage in these cases.

It continues to elude US policy makers that if only they would adopt a more even-handed approach towards the Israel-Palestine conflict, the entire Arab world would embrace America.

The present bitterness towards American policies is being exploited by Islamist parties in countries ranging from Iran to Pakistan to the Maldives to hide their own short comings and grab power.

America remains a very important and essential player that continues to be the embodiment of freedom and achievement. Whether it is their vibrant democracy, strong constitutional rights, scientific and technological achievements, or free enterprise and innovation, America provides a strong cultural leadership and acts as a guiding light for countries around the world.

Indeed, the recent Wikileaks cables revealed that popular American television sitcoms had a far greater impact in curbing extremism and promoting a cultural understanding of Western values in Saudi Arabia, than the millions of dollars spent on US propaganda in the region.

Perhaps it would be in America’s – and the world’s – best interests to answer the Arabs’ cry for dignity and freedom, and take a principled stance to help them usher in an era of political freedom and economic opportunity.

As President Obama said in his State of the Union speech in 2011, America is the first nation founded on an idea – an idea that everyone deserves the chance to shape one’s own destiny.

If the US wants to win the battle for hearts and minds of the Arabs, it must promote that ideal sincerely for all people, and acknowledge that freedom of speech and democratic representation are not just American values, but universal human rights.

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]


Arabs: The masters of their fate

Just two weeks ago, the authoritarian regime of Hosni Mubarak seemed as firm and immovable as the great timeless pyramids that symbolise his country of Egypt.

Today, the whole world is watching in suspended disbelief as tens of thousands of Egyptians openly defy Mubarak’s security forces – ignoring curfews, braving tear gas shells and water cannons, and tearing down giant posters of the powerful dictator that ruled over them for 30 years.

In parts of Cairo, law enforcement has melted away before the protestors, and the army has been called in to wrest back government control as Mubarak faces the largest public uprising since the Egyptian monarchy was overthrown in 1952.

Meanwhile, a sudden clamour for freedom is also posing serious challenges to despotic regimes elsewhere in the Arab world.

This unlikely revolution began with a humble Tunisian fruit-seller, Muhammad Al Bouazizi who, in desperation after policemen took away his wooden cart, doused himself in petrol and struck a match that would ultimately set the whole Arab world ablaze.

In the ensuing outrage, citizens rose up in revolt in Tunisia leading to an ignominious end to the 23 year old autocratic regime of President Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali.

The Tunisian president fled to Saudi Arabia with his family and close colleagues, where a Royal palace in Jeddah has reportedly been opened up to accommodate them.

A fascinating phenomena observed in this revolution is the manner in which a suppressed nation, long accustomed to arbitrary apprehensions and torture, could suddenly be overwhelmed by a single incident of tragedy – one moment of injustice that sent tremors throughout the population, leaving them seemingly immune to both pain and fear, as they took on a powerful, oppressive machinery.

The story is one that is intensely familiar to Maldivians. In 2003 the beating to death of Evan Naseem, an inmate of the Maafushi prison, sparked the first widespread riots in Male’.

As the unrest spread across the country, President Gayoom imposed a State of Emergency for the first time. However, it did little to bottle the popular grassroots revolution that successfully led to a new democratic constitution being adopted in 2008.

Egypt, on the other hand, has officially been in a State of Emergency since 1967, except for a brief 18-month period in 1980 and 1981; the Emergency was last extended by 2 years in May 2010.

Over 17,000 people are detained under the Emergency law in Egypt, and an estimated 30,000 political prisoners exist in the country. The Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, by far the most popular organised opposition party, has been branded a terrorist organization and remains banned in Egypt.

Surprisingly, even the Muslim Brotherhood appears to be struggling to catch up with the current mass protests that remain largely leaderless, but unabated in strength despite a death toll approaching 90.

For five whole days after the protests first started, no senior state official made a public appearance – an indication that the government was grappling with a response to the quickly unfolding revolution on the streets.

When Mubarak finally addressed the public in a pre-dawn speech aired on National television, it was with an air of hubris that characterises the 82 year old despot – he refused to budge, and sought to shift the blame to his nominal government cabinet, which he promised to replace by Saturday.

These actions are unlikely to satisfy the Egyptian protestors, and there might be more confrontation as Egypt prepares to flex its military muscle.

Another country living in a state of Emergency since 1992 is Tunisia’s giant neighbour, Algeria. In the aftermath of Tunisia’s successful revolution, protests have broken out all over Algeria – the largest uprising in two decades in a country that has witnessed a series of smaller protests in recent years.

Thousands of demonstrators have also poured out onto the streets of Sana’a in Yemen, the poorest of all Arab countries, where half the population lives under $2 a day, that nevertheless spends 40 percent of its state budget on maintaining its military force – the second largest in the Arabian peninsula after Saudi Arabia. President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen has been in power for 32 years; he also controls and heads the powerful military.

Indeed, the military has often been referred to as the backbone of Middle Eastern dictatorships. It has been the final instrument of power for several despots – notably illustrated by the fact that all four Egyptian Presidents since the overthrow of the monarchy have been military figures.

Hosni Mubarak’s grip on power may now depend entirely on the loyalty of the Egyptian military – the tenth largest in the world – of which he is the Commander-in-Chief.

It would be a loyalty well-earned, for Mubarak has spent generously on his armed forces; of the $1.55 billion aid granted by the US in 2010, $1.3 billion was spent on the military. Egypt is the second largest recipient of US military aid after Israel.

A leaked cable from the US Embassy in Cairo, nevertheless, suggests that the Egyptian military has gotten weak and fractious over the years.

While many analysts had deemed it unlikely for the military to side with the protestors, it is noted that the military prevented police from firing on demonstrators on Saturday – and soldiers could be seen publicly fraternising with demonstrators at the Ramses square in Cairo. The decision of the military could indeed decide the course of events in Egypt.

A loyal armed force helped the Iranian government crush the largest mass demonstrations since the Islamic revolution, in 2009. The pro-democracy movement, also known as the Green movement, threw up some vivid images of protestors trampling over posters of Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Club-wielding basij, a volunteer militia owing allegiance to the Ayatollah and the Revolutionary Guard, raided University campuses and broke up crowds while armed forces shot civilians in the street. Eighteen months later, the Iranian resistance appears to have been overcome.

On the other hand, intervention from the military saved the Tunisian revolution. The military refused to obey President Ben Ali’s orders to fire upon protestors, and reportedly even deployed army helicopters to protect demonstrators from government snipers positioned on rooftops. General Rachid Ammar, the head of the Tunisian military, also declined to occupy the newly vacant seat of power.

Winds of change are already blowing through the streets of a jubilant Tunisia, as the caretaker government has released hundreds of political prisoners, and vowed to lift restrictions on Islamist and Communist parties that were banned under the former regime.

It might be premature to say if this marks the beginning of a domino effect reminiscent of the serial collapse of the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe. Tunisia might very well be the Arabia’s answer to Poland, whose example led to a series of revolutions across Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania, ultimately leading to the collapse of a once mighty Soviet empire.

The shared nature of Arab grievances and their mutual solidarity was strongly visible. Thousands of protestors in Amman, the capital of Jordan, were heard chanting “Egyptian nation, our beloved, your redemption is near!”

Protestors in Cairo carried Tunisian flags, a symbol of hope for a region that has for decades been plagued by corrupt, autocratic and oppressive regimes propped up and armed by rich Western interests; a region where many citizens have never experienced political freedoms.

Speaking to BBC radio, an Egyptian blogger reiterated that “All they’re asking for is for their voices to be heard, for their dignity to be respected and to have a humane life, and to have political freedom.”

Egypt, being the region’s foremost cultural, intellectual and political hub, will likely set an example for people in other countries like neighboring Libya, whose citizens have been living under the dictatorial rule of Muammar Al-Gaddafi for 42 years.

In the words of Victor Hugo, ‘One can resist the invasion of armies, but one cannot withstand an idea who time has arrived’.

Clearly, the time for change has arrived for Tunisia, and hope exists that Egypt, Algeria, Yemen and other Middle Eastern dictatorships will be dismantled and see the power returned to the people.


The bright stars of Islam

It is a little known fact that many of the brightest, well-known stars in the sky have Arabic names.

The luminous Aldebaran of Taurus, the majestic Rigel of the Orion constellation… the night sky is studded with shining reminders of an age where the early Muslim astronomers mapped the heavens and the Earth, and committed the knowledge to thousands of paper manuscripts and stored them in the world’s first public lending libraries.

In the early centuries following the Prophet’s death, Muslims made tremendous intellectual and scientific breakthroughs in areas as varied as astronomy, arts, science, math, philosophy and literature: a period accurately portrayed as the ‘Golden Age’ of Islam.

Referring to what he called “civilization’s debt to Islam”, US President Barack Obama said in his famous speech at Cairo University in June 2009, “It was Islam… that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance.”

From the pinnacle of scientific and intellectual achievement 800 years ago, the downward spiral of Muslims to outcasts of the knowledge society has been spectacular, and devastating.

Astronomy, like other scientific disciplines, is today largely the dominion of Western scientists. The Soviets fired man into space in 1961. NASA landed man on the moon in 1969.

Nearly five decades later, only one Islamic nation, Iran, has managed to even launch a domestic satellite – in 2009. Meanwhile, the Voyager 1 spacecraft, that left the Western hemisphere 33 years ago, continues to send back images from the farthest edges of the Solar System.

Statistics paint a bleak picture.

Out of every 10 students who attempt the O’Levels in the Maldives, only three achieve passing grades. Maldivian citizens have an average of a mere 4.7 years of schooling.

The Sachar Committee Report, commissioned by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2006 to evaluate the social status of Indian Muslims, revealed that 25 percent of Muslim children under 15 didn’t attend schools, or dropped out early, despite free public education. Muslims were way behind the curve in literacy as well.

By the 10th century, Islamic centres like Baghdad, Cairo, Cordoba and Tripoli boasted great libraries containing between 600,000 and 3 million volumes, but the UN Human Development Report 2010, which weighs in literacy as a development factor, records only five Muslim states among the top 50 countries on its index, and none in the top 30.

Muslims take pride in the fact that the Guinness Book recognises Al-Qarawiyyin University in Fez, Morocco as the world’s first university to issue degrees. Ironically, not a single university from a Muslim country figures in the top 100 Times Higher Education world university rankings for 2010.

Only nine Muslims have ever won a Nobel Prize. Out of a population of 1.57 billion, exactly two have won the science prizes. In comparison, Jewish scientists and intellectuals have racked up 178 Nobels.

Some insight into this dismal performance can perhaps be gleamed from the reception to Nobel laureates at home.

Dr Abdus Salam, who won the Physics Nobel in 1979, was deemed a heretic in his home country of Pakistan. Dr Salam was certainly devout – he quoted from the Qur’an in his acceptance speech – but he subscribed to the Ahmadi sect which was declared un-Islamic in Pakistan in 1974. Consequently, the epitaph on his grave was defaced, by court order, to remove the word ‘Muslim’. His tombstone now reads, quite inaccurately, ‘the first Nobel Laureate’.

In Iran, religious conservatives criticized Nobel Peace prize winner Shirin Ebadi, a Human Rights lawyer, for not covering her hair during the ceremony, and alleged that the award was a conspiracy to “ridicule Islam”. Following attacks and raids on her home and office, Ebadi fled Iran and now lives in exile in UK.

These are reasons, perhaps, why President Musharraf of Pakistan, observed in February 2002, “Today we are the poorest, the most illiterate, the most backward, the most unhealthy, the most un-enlightened, the most deprived, and the weakest of all the human race.”

Egyptian scientist Dr Ahmed Zewail, who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1999, said in an interview that it was not Islam that prevented progress in the Muslim world, but “politicised Islamic scholars who profess that knowledge is restricted to the study of scriptures.”

Indeed, a study by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute of Pakistan found that the Curriculum Wing of the Ministry of Education, which is controlled by Deobandi Islamists, had altered school textbooks to include material that allegedly glorified war and incited violence against minorities.

A government proposal to introduce science subjects in Pakistani madrassas was met with hostility. The five madrassa boards formed an umbrella organization – the Ittehad Tanzimat-e-Madaris-e-Deenia (ITMD), which vowed to defy all government attempts at reforms.

Likewise, religious conservative parties in the Maldives objected strongly to plans by experts in the Ministry of Education to make Dhivehi and Islam subjects optional to senior Secondary students.
The Ministry argued that students should be free to focus on subjects that would help them get enrolled into Universities. Religious groups, however, accused the Ministry of “anti-Islamic” policies.

In September 2010, the Adhaalath party condemned government plans to introduce co-education in 4 schools. They claimed co-education was “a failed concept”. Incidentally, all of the Top 10 universities of 2010 were co-educational institutes.

Similar objections were raised by clerics in Saudi Arabia towards the inauguration the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology – a vast, new $10 billion dollar, co-educational institution.

Maulana Syed Kalbe Sadiq, a senior Indian Muslim cleric and Vice President of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board rejected this view. Noting that even co-worship was permissible during the Hajj, he stated there was no basis to deny co-education to Muslim students.

Speaking at Aligarh Muslim University in 2010, he said, “In the 21st century, only those who adopt high-level modern education will survive”.

The late Sheikh Tantawi, Egypt’s top cleric and the influential head of Al-Azhar University, ruled that Muslim girls in France should obey French Law and continue their education despite the ban on Hijabs, because sacrificing one’s education would be ‘the greater evil’.

Nevertheless, young Muslim girls continue to be kept at home by religious conservative families in Muslim countries, including the Maldives.

“Read!” -the archangel Gabriel’s first words to an illiterate prophet sparked the beginning of a movement which led to one of the greatest periods of human cultural achievement and enlightenment.

Muslims have a legacy of generating a volume of knowledge that, historians say, outweighs the combined works of ancient Greece and Rome.

That legacy of reason and science appears to have been overwhelmed by dogma in the 21st century. A culture that produced intellectuals of the calibre of Al-Farabi and Ibn Rushd is today more closely identified by gun-toting militants.

In the Maldives, it appears increasingly implausible that Islam might someday be represented less by Islamist preachers and more by scientists like Dr Hassan Ugail. But such a day, if it were to come, would pay rich obeisance to the legacy of learned Muslim ancestors.

It could be argued that such intellectuals are equally, if not more, deserving of the title ‘ilmuverin’, or ‘Scholars’.

Perhaps what it takes to fire up the uninspired young Muslim generation is a set of healthy intellectual role models to finally step in to inspire and guide them.

Alternatively, they could look up at the same Arabic stars that fascinated their cultural ancestors, and be inspired by the distant, faintly-glowing reminders of their fiery intellect from an age gone by.

Image: An astrolabe made in Yemen in 1291, an ancient ‘computer’ used to calculate time and triangulate location, relative to the sun and the stars. They were also used to determine the time for Salah (prayers).


Pakistan’s jihad against reason

‘Covered in the righteous cloak of religion… even a puny dwarf imagines himself a monster. Important to face. And call their bluff.’

The man who tweeted the above sentence was shot in the head from behind by his own body guard.

Two other armed guards, who knew of the impending murder, violated standard operating procedure and stayed quiet, their guns hanging limply by their sides while the assassin shot 27 times at the now lifeless, punctured body of Salman Taseer, the governor of the Punjab province of Pakistan.

The governor was given a state funeral, but the reactions from sections of the Pakistani society were more than jubilant.

An uneasy disquiet hung over the country’s democratic credentials as hundreds of lawyers showered the unrepentant body-guard with rose petals as he was being taken to court. The Rawalpindi District Bar Association, a body ostensibly designated to uphold the rule of law, has even pledged to fight his case for free.

A statement by 500 clerics of the Jamaat-e-Ahl-e-Sunnat religious group commended the bodyguard for what they proclaimed was a righteous killing.

“We pay rich tributes and salute the bravery, valour and faith of Mumtaz Qadri,” they said of the assassin, who shot the unarmed 66 year-old governor from behind.

The incident has brought into sharp focus the tenuous democratic freedoms and fragile rule of law in Pakistan – a country that ranks 10th in the Foreign Policy magazine index of failed states.

Mr Taseer, an outspoken liberal and fifth-most senior member of the ruling PPP, had been the most vocal proponent for repealing Pakistan’s stringent blasphemy law, which was in the news recently following the death sentence awarded to Aasiya Bibi, a Christian woman, for ‘insulting the Prophet’ – an allegation she strongly denies.

The blasphemy law was introduced by former Pakistani dictator General Zia-Ul-Haq, whose military regime oversaw Pakistan’s decided swing towards a more hardline wahhabi religious state.

The law has been criticised by Human Rights groups in Pakistan for allegedly being abused to settle scores against minorities.

In December 2010, an Ismaili Muslim doctor, Naushad Valiyani, was charged with blasphemy after he threw away a business card belonging to a man whose first name was Mohammed – an exceedingly common first name for many Pakistanis.

In the past, accused blasphemers have been lynched inside court premises; at least one Judge has been killed after acquitting an alleged blasphemer.

Pakistan appears to be caught in a vicious battle between the pro-democratic voice of liberal Muslims, who espouse an Islam of reason and tolerance – and religious hardliners who promote an Islam of fear and supremacy, which rejects the rule of law and democracy. After Salman Taseer’s assassination, the scales have decidedly tipped in favour of the latter.

Mumtaz Qadri revealed that he was inspired by a sermon from Sunni cleric, Mufti Hanif Qureshi, who preached that anyone who killed Salman Taseer would be granted Heaven, and become a hero of Islam.

“After the motivation I decided to kill the governor,” Qadri told investigators.

Section 503 of the Pakistan Penal Code makes it an offense to threaten any person with injury. Nevertheless the law appears to not be enforced when it comes to public remarks by religious conservatives.

There have been attempts in the past to curb the trend of religious right-wing parties using mosques to incite violence, especially against minorities.

In 2007, MP Minocher Bhandara presented a bill to Pakistani parliament to include Mohamed Ali Jinnah’s famous August 11, 1947 speech to the Constituent Assembly, as part of the Constitution.

In his speech, the founder of Pakistan had famously proclaimed that ‘in course of time, Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense… but in the political sense as citizens of the State.”

According to Bhandara, “The speech has been consistently downplayed by the government of Pakistan since 1949. Parts of the speech have been materially altered, or omitted altogether, in the past… On the one hand tremendous respect is shown for the memory of the Quaid-e-Azam, but on the other hand his political thoughts are desecrated to appease religious groups.”

In an almost parallel narrative, the ideals envisioned by founder Mujibur Rahman proved to be short-lived in the overwhelmingly Muslim-populated Bangladesh.

Right wing fundamentalist General Ziaur Rahman rewrote the constitution and declared Bangladesh an ‘Islamic’ state, following the overthrow of a democratic government in 1975.

His widow, Khaleda Zia, who took over the reins of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), flirted dangerously with Islamist parties in the years following Zia’s assassination.

Over 8000 madrassas sprouted in Bangladesh – many of them Saudi-funded and promoting the rigid, literalistic Wahhabi school of thought, while terrorist groups like Harkat-ul-Jehad-al-Islami (HuJI) and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen mushroomed under her government’s rule.

As with Pakistan, the experiment in home-brewed radicalism blew up in the government’s face when, in the span of half an hour on the morning of August 17, 2005, nearly 530 bombs exploded across the country.

There have been stirrings in Bangladesh in the past year. Following a series of assassinations that took out many of its top leaders, the secularist Awami League stormed into Parliament in late 2008, winning 263 out of 300 parliamentary seats.

In October 2010, the country’s Judiciary struck down the fifth amendment of the constitution and invalidated the military regimes of the 1970s, thereby re-declaring Bangladesh a secular state and realising Mujibur Rahman’s long lost dream.

Indeed, the battle between democratic ideals and religious dogmatism has followed a familiar script in the Maldives, following the rapid rise of wahhabism in the last decade.

Censorship and religious intimidation appears to be taking root in the country. Soon after the first multi-party elections, the newly instituted Ministry of Islamic Affairs controlled by the Adhaalath Party banned DJs, blogs and websites critical of them.

In an article on their website, a local Islamic NGO openly denounced democracy as a decadent, evil, western system incompatible with their version of Islam.

Islamist preachers have made anti-Semitic speeches in public, justifying their positions with highly literalistic interpretations of the scriptures. In an unprecedented move, religious conservatives recently took to the streets of Male’, yelling anti-Semitic slogans.

Among the many frictions between Islamism and democratic ideals, liberals would contend that the Religious Unity Regulations drafted by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, if imposed, would be an unheralded victory for Islamists: the Maldives would then have its own blasphemy law.

Notably, the liberal voice that lies buried in Pakistan is deafeningly silent in the Maldives.

In a chilling replay of Pakistan and Bangladesh, mainstream politicians and the public appear to have chosen to ignore the tide of Islamism – despite the Sultan Park bombing and a very visibly-changing Maldivian identity.

Liberals continue to await a Maldivian counterpart to Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the young chairperson of PPP, who has vowed to take up ‘jihad’ against Islamist forces.

Referring to violent Islamists in a speech mourning Taseer’s death, he said: ‘Allah has promised them hell, and we shall send them there.’


Comment: That evil democracy thing

A fool and his valuables are soon parted.

The general understanding of this adage is, of course, that a fool cannot truly appreciate the value of his prized possessions, and is easily swindled out of it.

Truer words have not been spoken, as evidenced in this article originally published on the website of a local NGO that calls itself the ‘Islamic Foundation of the Maldives’.

The article, titled ‘The Evils of Democracy’, is clearly inspired by the neo-conservative school of debate that absolves the writer from furnishing any intellectually honest evidence to support his claims, as long as he makes a decidedly passionate attack against a straw-man caricature – in this case, the Islamist’s skewed perception of democracy.

The post is riddled with such vacuous assertions as ‘Democracy is a system of infidelity..’ and ‘…openly hostile to the faith of monotheism’, but provides very little by means of actual evidence to justify these bizarre, sweeping statements.

It would be easy to dismiss the unfortunate article as mere farcical comedy, if it weren’t so highly irresponsible and dangerous.

As clueless as this NGO appears to be about the concept of democracy, there are actually ordinary, simple-minded folk who form judgments based solely upon information derived from such dubious and disreputable sources.

The author of the article betrays no evidence of an ability to distinguish between democracy, hedonism, capitalism and anarchy – all of which have been conveniently bracketed together as ‘evil democracy’. Nor does he suggest any alternatives to his rather bleak, dystopian portrayal of democracy.

The article mentions that, in democracies, the functions of the state are divided among three separate powers, but fails to mention why this is a bad thing.

As expected, it also criticises the existence of an opposition, and the din, commotion and confrontation this ensues. What it fails to mention is that this ‘noise’ is actually the sound of openly expressed opinions, and a public that actively participates in its own governance.

The often cacophonous noise of energetic democratic debate is much more soothing to the ear than the defeated, graveyard silence that pervades present day theocracies.

Democracy is definitely not a fool-proof system – nor is any other system, for that matter. That is because humans are flawed beings. We are all susceptible to greed, corruption and avarice.

But that is precisely why democracy is the best system we have today. Democracy has inherent checks and balances, and pays obeisance to concepts like Human Rights, accountability, public mandates and universal franchises on which the system is erected.

The tendency towards theocracy among neo-conservatives is baffling.

Would this NGO rather prefer the alternative, where every flood, famine and pestilence is conveniently pinned by authorities on the common man’s sins?

Would they rather Dhivehin lived under a system where the failures of an incompetent ruling clergy – the illiteracy, starvation and poverty that have become hallmarks of such societies – are routinely blamed on the common man’s defiance of God and lack of ideological purity?

When apologists for clergy-rule claim that democracy is an example of Human Law superseding ‘Divine Law’, will they also kindly point out to us a single example of a modern theocracy that is not a clear-cut case of a small group of humans dictating their ruthless will on others – only, this time with no accountability or room for redress?

It is an absolutely fatuous claim that clergy-controlled human-rights disasters like Saudi Arabia or Iran are somehow more sparkling examples of Islamic values than a democratic state like the Maldives.

The Maldives could have meekly followed the pied piper’s malevolent tunes, established a theocracy, and joined the league of failed states. Instead, Dhivehin have chosen to empower themselves with a modern democracy – of its own free will, without any foreign coercion.

The Muslims in this country, like the vast majority of Muslims around the world, have chosen a democratic system for the simple reason that IT WORKS. It has given its people a voice. It has prevented tyrants from abusing their authority with impunity. It has made their governments accountable to them.

The article finally comes to a head with a tired, worn-out, Chicken Little narrative about how democracy is a ‘conspiracy’ of the (entirely imaginary-) “diabolical forces of Jews and Christians” that, for unspecified reasons, have been compulsively harassing our fundamentalist friends since the dawn of time.

Even if we were to buy for a moment, for this NGO’s benefit, that democracy is a sinister plot devised by medieval Europeans (presumably in collaboration with ancient Greeks) to ‘divide’ and destabilise future Islamic societies they couldn’t possibly have foreseen, it is still a highly facetious remark.

For one thing, isn’t it rather absurd that the alleged diabolical agents of Judaism and Christianity have chosen to implement this ‘evil democracy’ thing in their own homelands – with much success to boot?

Modern democracies leave the clergy-states and dictatorships of the world biting the dust on every single human development index.

Today, the democratic Europeans and Americans are able to clothe and feed their people. Their elected governments have lifted millions out of poverty and starvation, and given them jobs and opportunities. They have the best health care systems in the world, the best schools, the top universities and made unparalleled scientific and cultural advances.

Far from being divided into tiny, squabbling factions, countries that were killing and bombing each other just a few decades ago, have opened up their borders to allow their people to travel and mingle freely.

Despite the diversity of their languages and cultures, their societies have stabilised enough to come together and form a common Parliament, implement a common currency, and adopt a common flag.

A spectacularly failed ‘plot to divide people’, by any measure.

Given this reality, the factions that continue to advocate a system where a limited group of people is allowed to oppress everyone else on the grounds of ideology can only be taken for those who seek to occupy the plush seats of authoritarian power. One suspects this is also the case for some of our own homegrown organisations.

May the Maldives beat back these retrograde forces, and continue to uphold the proud democratic freedoms that they have earned through sheer perseverance and sacrifices.

In the best democratic spirit, we must make Dhivehi Raajje a scintillating example of peace, democracy and harmony that so many other Muslim nations have failed to achieve.

Or else we’d end up like the fabled fool, too dense to appreciate the true worth of our invaluable freedoms, and caged once again in the all-too-familiar dark mental prisons of fear.

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: An identity for Maldivians

On the morning of the Maldives’ 45th Independence Day celebrations, President Mohamed Nasheed finally unveiled the new National Museum – a swanky, modern, grey building with high ceilings and polished interiors, that has been teasing the public for a few weeks now during the final stages of its construction.

The inauguration was greeted with much fanfare, and vows were made by both the President and the State Minister for Arts and Culture to preserve and promote Maldivian cultural heritage.

However, the reactions from commentators on many news websites to the opening were quite puzzling in their negativity and cynicism.

Or maybe not.

Despite the buzz surrounding the newly-inaugurated building, Maldivians have already had a National Museum since the middle of the last century; a tiny, old section of the former palace that former President Nasir had benevolently left standing.

Dusty, crumbling, and largely ignored by the general Maldivian public, the old museum had harbored the last surviving treasures of the long, unbroken chain of ancient Dhivehi civilization; the swords of the Sultans, ancient loamaafaanu copperplate grants, exquisite medieval lacquer-work, extinct scripts, and beautifully carved coral-stone sculptures of the Buddha that triumphantly showcased the skilled craftsmanship of our ancestors from centuries ago.

Yet somehow, the President had to remind the gathered citizens at the inauguration that Dhivehin have inhabited these ancient islands since 2000BC.

It seems ironic that despite being one of the very few countries in the world with such an ancient recorded history, we Maldivians show a strange disconnect from our cultural roots, and a feigned ignorance of our past.

Many Maldivians seek to satisfy themselves that their language, customs and cultural traits are of recent origin and, intriguingly enough, choose to whitewash whole portions of their history.

For instance, there are Maldivians who display a marked hostility for – and seek to disown – the entire culturally-vibrant Buddhist era of our past!

These attempts to sever the umbilical cord with the past have left Maldivians a culturally restless people, uncertain of their place in history.

It is hardly surprising then, that the swanky new museum has been built, not by Dhivehin as a monument to their proud heritage – but by enterprising foreigners.

It is perhaps befitting such a culturally aloof people that the new botanical gardens, being built on the very site where the former Sultan’s palace once stood, is also the product of foreign labor and initiative.

Interestingly, some of the most enlightening anthropological studies of the Maldivian people, our history, arts, poetry, folktales and traditions have also been carried out by foreign chroniclers like Pyrard, Bell and Maloney.

It would hardly matter to most Maldivians that the plaque outside the gate to the newest monument to Dhivehi culture reads, in bright red letters, ‘China Aid’.

Today, more than ever, there is a greater need to overcome this historical apathy of Dhivehin towards history itself.

The Maldives stands at a unique crossroads as a young, budding democracy about to seek its destiny and carve a niche for itself.

Maldivians have long been plagued by an identity crisis after decades of unfettered Westernization followed by rapid Arabisation. The moment is ripe for the newly assertive Maldivian public to permanently erase this.

If we take this moment to infuse ourselves with a strong national identity and cultural pride, we could overcome some of the most divisive issues burning our society today – the drugs epidemic and religious fundamentalism.

The opening of the new National Museum should hopefully provide the required spark to ignite a long overdue cultural revival in the Maldives, and a reawakening of Maldivians to embrace the Dhivehi identity that unites all mahl people.

If Dhivehin do not jump at this opportunity to rediscover our culture, and revel in our sense of common identity and inherited values (in much the same way our neighbors like India, Sri Lanka and Bhutan do) – then it would seem a rather wasteful expenditure by the Chinese government for an ancient people who have willingly betrayed their own culture!

In the words of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi:

“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”

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]