Is there anything to doubt about the government of President Mohamed Nasheed’s commitment to protecting Islam in the country?
There is a full-fledged Islamic Ministry, granted almost limitless freedoms to go about its work – which is hitherto unseen in the country. There is also a minister from the religious Adhaalath Party sitting in cabinet meetings, provided at least one day a week to raise issues with the president and his cabinet.
Religious intellectuals also have a free reign in preaching and practicing whatever interpretation of Shari’a they deem is valid. This is new too.
There is a thriving religious civil society with dozens of highly active and wealthy religious NGOs; NGOs that could hold mass rallies with a days notice. We have also seen the largest religious gatherings ever in the country’s history entertained by such popular and high-profile figures as Zakir Naik.
A whole subculture, with apparently increasing outward religious symbolism and traditionally unusual practices, has been made available in the country.
Now, there is no reason why all the above should not be the case. After all, under a chapter entitled “Social Justice” the Maldivian Democratic Party’s (MDP) election manifesto, there is a whole section devoted to “Protection of Islamic Faith”. 
Yet from a modern liberal democratic point of view, some of those policies are chillingly discriminatory and well beyond the legitimate role of a democratic state.
If so, one wonders what has gone wrong with the government’s religious policies?
One explanation can be gleaned from nothing other than Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince. Besides the book’s dizzying insights into the existence of different values systems, chapter XVIII of the book shows great wisdom about the power of religion in politics.
In the book’s characteristic style, Machiavelli says:
“And you have to understand this, that a prince, especially a new one, cannot observe all those things for which men are esteemed, being often forced, in order to maintain the state, to act contrary to faith, friendship, humanity, and religion. Therefore it is necessary for him to have a mind ready to turn itself accordingly as the winds and variations of fortune force it…
For this reason, a prince ought to take care that he never lets anything slip from his lips that is not replete with the above-named five qualities, so that he may appear to him who sees and hears him altogether merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious. There is nothing more necessary to appear to have than this last quality….” [Emphasis added]
While for many people Machiavelli’s advice can be nothing but realpolitik, there is a double lesson here: insights into the fact that morality is not reducible to a single overarching value.
That is, our life is a sort of moral multiverse with several different values and considerations that could sometimes conflict with one another, forcing us to sacrifice one good value for another.
For instance, for a government, “survivability” and “stability” are extremely important values. Yet survivability or stability can conflict with the “right to privacy”, “political legitimacy”, or “liberty”. This can be the case when, for instance, a government eavesdrops on the private telephone conversations of opposition MPs, subscribes to a highly undemocratic interpretation of the Constitution on cabinet confirmation, or arrests an MP without due process.
We ask: unless you are a sort of fundamentalist monist, why should one value always override the others?
Government stability (for example, having a functioning cabinet) can conflict with due process, such as running parliament. Yet, seven out of the president’s 12 cabinet nominations were rejected!
We ask: what can be always more important: process or outcome? To what extent can a president let processes run their course and let outrageous outcomes result from them?
That is the first lesson from Machiavelli.
The other lesson is that although it is not the only value, religion is extremely important in politics.
History teaches us that a state cannot and should not try to downplay religion when religion is a key marker of social identity. Shah-era Iran was an example.
For the majority of Maldivians, identifying with Islam is part and parcel of being a national citizen. Religion is a key marker of our social identity. Like it or not, conservatism still runs deep. Islamism is on the rise.
The perceived downplaying of religious salutations and symbolism in public speeches, the perceived closeness with Jews and Christians and distance to Islamic countries, the public display of play, fun, “relaxation” and dance, the attempts to change regulations and traditions without popular legitimacy, all mean there is a perceived anti-religiosity about the work of government. This includes president Nasheed himself.
So what lessons can we take from Machiavelli? Well, for one:
There is nothing more necessary to appear to have than this last quality [i.e. religiosity]
Sheikhs Fareed and Shaheem do it masterfully – although, for instance, rumours about their secret affairs and secret riba-incurring bank accounts abound.
Gayoom was almost flawless at that too – although, for instance, he led a brutal autocracy.
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