Comment: Be religious, Prince – lessons from Machiavelli

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”. [1]

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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36 thoughts on “Comment: Be religious, Prince – lessons from Machiavelli”

  1. Damnn, that is one impressive ensemble of english words; mention of big books here and there dusted with ambiguous gibberish for good effect.

  2. This is an extremely good article applying the teachings of the renowned European political philosopher to modern day Maldives.

    I remember that during the time some Maldivians were fighting to overthow President Gayoom, who was a master at using religion to blindfold the Maldivian people so that he can remain in power for ever, Divehi Observer was announcing that they will not publish any criticism of Islam.

    President Mohamed Nasheed, on attaining his dream of becoming president, created an Islamic Ministry and gave away enormous political power to this Ministry.

    In a sense, Maldives became more Islamic than it was under Gayoom.

    How and why did this happen?

    Nasheed proved himself a shrewd politician. On assuming power, he became an ardent Islamist, at least for political purposes.

    Let the will of the people be respected in religious matters, President Nasheed seems to say.

    Nasheed is Machiavellian.

    He has shown wisdom, which is something that cannot be taught. You either have it, or not have it.

    Nasheed has it. It is a good thing he has it.

    Those, his enemies and opponents, who claim that Nasheed is either not Islamic enough, or even totally against Islam, are also playing politics and they are also Machiavellian.

    To know whether it is Nasheed or his opponents who will win the game, and it is a game, we have to wait until the next Presidential Election.

    That will be three years from now.

  3. History give us examples of how it has been done before,... we have the opportunity to improve on those examples!!

  4. Dear Machiavelli fan,

    It's nice to know some of us catch on some realities through books and other people's legacies.

    But these things are common sense and logic, which you ought to know anyway; and can only be applied at the right time and the right place or situation.

    So NM's philosophies could not be considered appropriate with the hand dealt for MN, even though some ideas could help guide you a bit. However, I'm sure MN must have also read these sort of books and a lot more; and is trying to deal with realtimeandsituationpolitik rather than realpolitik.

  5. Three things to consider:

    1. Yes, under Nasheed's government there has been an Islamic Ministry. In Gayoom's government there was a Supreme Council of Islam in which he sits at the top... And he used religion whenever he wanted, whichever way he preferred.

    2. How did the Islamic Ministry came about? Through a body called "Jumhoori Gulhun" in which Adalath Party was a member. Why didn't Adalath Party join Gasim's Jumhoori Party in the first round of elections instead of MDP? Because they knew they will have less bargaining power with Nasheed. They aren't a very organized political party and the only way they could influence is by being part of the government. Asadullah Shafi has very clearly said that in one of their rallies...

    Adalath Party or Islamic Ministry is a basket case for this government. It will continue to be used against this government by different people, whether it stays as part of the government or whether it is removed.

    3. As for the salafist, wahhabist or extemist movement, it has been growing for the past 20 years or so... They have been organizing and while the rest lagged they have come out as the most organized people in different forms. They have penetrated into all the state institutions, the media, the police, the defense forces and everywhere.

    And believe me, if we are a democratic country and support democratic values people who do not like what the Salafists or the Wahabbists or the Extremists are saying and doing, has to come out strong and loud instead of pointing fingers or being couch activists!

  6. Correction with apologies

    I meant to ask "Why did Adalath Party join Gasim's Jumhoori Party."..

  7. HOW doth the little crocodile
    Improve his shining tail,
    And pour the waters of the Nile
    On every golden scale!!

    How cheerfully he seems to grin
    How neatly spreads his claws,
    And welcomes little fishes in,
    With gently smiling jaws!

  8. I can get 2000 people on the road who want to have an Islamic Ministry.

    Can anyone get 500 people out on the road who do not want an Islamic Ministry?

  9. @ Sheikh
    You are absolutely right. But some people just do not like to accept that majority of Maldivians wants this country to be an islamic country - in other words they just do not really believe in democratic values.

  10. @Goebbels:

    Adhaalaath joined Gasim because he's got 4 wives to boot. He's adhaalaath's god.

  11. @Sheikh, if your 500 people appeared on the streets demonstrating against an Islamic Ministry, they would all be arrested by Police, whereas in the "infidel" Europe, such a demonstration would be permitted.

  12. Sextus Empiricus makes as if islam is some strange phenomenon taking hold over a budhhist Maldives! But is this the case? Nop ennu?

    Well, islam is basically a very simple, natural and an effective way to live. If (a big if) the whole world embraces islam, the suffering of the world would cease, because in islam nobody takes advantage of another via man-made laws. In islam we do not speak one thing and do another, atleast in theory.

  13. No problem having an Islamic ministry, as long as they stick to religion without extremism and don't use it just as a tool to get a foothold in politics.

  14. @muslim boy.."If (a big if) the whole world embraces islam, the suffering of the world would cease, because in islam nobody takes advantage of another via man-made laws."

    A big IF indeed. The grand plan of a Muslim dominated world will have a slight problem with China, which is not about to embrace Islam peacefully or forcibly.

    Also, it is my view that laws as laid down in Sharia and enforced in fundamentalist parts of the world cause quite enough suffering thank you!

    By the way, before I am agaín called an Islamophpobic buffoon, I am against ALL religious extremism, including the fundamentalist Christian movement in the USA.

    I await the issue of a Fatwa against me.

  15. @Ahmed


    The 4 wife theory sounds very plausible.

    Damn! That means the organ decides political or religious loyalty.

    Wonder what religion would the extremists(ofcourse a lot of Adhaalath members are not extremists) support if the expected 70 virgin theory is removed?

  16. Lame effort to explain Maldivian politics based on a piece of Machiavelli's writing.

  17. Your minion has written darker deeper sh!t online, trust me. Scandals abound for the religious regent, not since of course the Jawfish snatched the ugly `hara from his royal Hookah. What had caught my eye of course was the confession to his then beloved, of a certain dark forbidden love that had conspired many eons ago. To which the lukewarm reply was 'K'... her story is of course much more colorful, just as well documented by us.

    So from these porcine bowels has emerged this, a true con-artist. Summary justice is in order.

    Machiavelli pfft. The Romans and their visigoth amorality in place of tribal desertification..

  18. @Derek Postance:
    China needs not to embrace Islam. Infact nobody needs to. Islam does not force ppl to convert to Islam. Know the story of the old man (fire worshipper) prophet Ibrahim carried on his back to give him a meal? That's the real McCoy of Islamic values. Islam is all about peace. But unlikely Christianity, Islam permits, allows and even exhorts Muslims to jihad in defence and to remove oppression. Because if we allow all forms of oppression under the banner of love, the meaning of the word love will not serve a useful purpose. So Islam is a balanced no-nonsense religion. Want an example?
    Ok start with Somalia. Where the pirates have made the whole world's shipping a dangerous exercise. The whole developed world's navy is there patrolling vast amount of the seas surrounding that place and yet they cannot stop it. Why? Cos the pirates are taking advantage of a man made law. They know that it would be difficult to prove they are pirates in existing international laws, and even if proved that they will get a five star accommodation in a developed country's jail somewhere. So they are openly flouting the world's generosity. Now what would have been the case if an Islamic khilafa catches them and tries them according to Islamic law? IF they were found to be pirates engaging in piracy, they will be swiftly sent to their maker. Doing so other ppls tax money will not be wasted on criminals nobody has any need of.

  19. @muslim boy
    now listen to me, all religions call for good and are great if human's knew how to practice them and if most human even could comprehend the actual message of say either Jesus, MOhammed or Budha.
    IF all the world people follow (not just just islam) but any one religion, then your imagined utopia can be achieved. BUT today all religions are twisted beyong recognition and each is hostile to other. there is very less change human race will embrace one particular religion. especially from the Abrahamic rleigions.
    it'd be nice!but..

  20. Napolean hated Religion, yet allied himself closely with the Catholic Church for real-politik reasons. However, he was not strictly a realist in the rawest sense of the term, as he strongly believed in equality, though he had to filter his liberalism through a realist strainer. A "pure realist," if we take that to mean one who lives for power alone, will never succeed. The reality is never so black or white. A psychologist reported that US Presidents, even the "realist Republicans" such as Nixon, had deep convictions about the way a society should be, yet they had to filter the application of their ideals through what was achievable and how, never meant they had betrayed their ideals in their heart. Sure, politicians are forced by necessity to make compromises they don't believe in, they understand it to be necessary, yet the driving force is always something deeper than the 'will to power' which, if it were that alone, is too shallow a force to succeed for long. I see Anni as a pragmatic liberal, not as a realist or a pure liberal.

  21. @Sheikh

    I can get tens of thousands of people from Pakistan who not only agrees with the idea of wife beating, but actively engages in it.

    I can also get hundreds of thousands of people sympathetic to the idea of blowing up innocent people.

    Large numbers leaning to detrimental ideas doesn't make those ideas any better.

  22. That's a really good read.. probably one of the best opinion pieces I've seen in minivan news - it's insightful but short and to the point.

    Only thing I don't quite agree with is this "...conservatism still runs deep. Islamism is on the rise". I don't think culturally speaking that Maldives was ever a "conservative" nation.. The conservatism that we now see has emerged with the introduction of Islamism by those that were sent on scholarships to study in parts of the Middle-East who then returned with a form of knowledge that could be used to tap into the deepest insecurities and fears of an identity that is defined largely by the religion associated with it - although I also do believe that these "academics" are subject to that same manipulation.

    But this is a long and ongoing debate - whether Maldives is culturally conservative or whether that has been introduced by the religious fundamentalists.. and I still tend to believe the latter...

  23. Oh and one more thing.. All those people leaving comments about how islam doesn't force people to convert.. Look at our very own country.. how in the world does a whole nation convert to a single religion unless they were either forced to or conned into it? The only historical record that exists in the Maldives from the time when Maldives supposedly peacefully converted to islam, is a record of how the last buddhist monks in the Maldives were brought to Male' from Laamu Atoll to be executed.. I'm not necessarily defending Buddhism, there's Buddhist extremism as well - best example for us would probably be Sri Lanka.. Peaceful conversion? Bullsh!t!

  24. if nasheed was that religious then why did the uk ambasadder said that even now there are 3 christian missionary projects undertaken inside the presidents office? maybe he's religiously christian that's why he's too shy to say allah even once infront of an audience.

  25. The road less traveled,
    the songs unsung,
    the musicians last stand,
    aloft in lost perspective,
    23 tampons awaited
    and the tales of Endhi'mariyambu..

    meheh meheh. This a good piece of writing? who you k!ddin `N surely ye jest us for more

    transmission ends

  26. @Mr.Adhalaath, "how in the world does a whole nation convert to a single religion unless they were either forced to or conned into it?"

    I agree. Call me cynical if you wish, but IF the Constitution requires that ALL Maldivian citizens MUST be Muslim, and they have NO freedom to choose any other religion, or not to follow ANY religion at all, then the claims by Mr Gayoom and other Ministers that "Maldives is the only 100% Muslim nation", "All Maldivians are born Muslim" etc etc are not a ringing endorsement of Islam, they are ridiculous nonsense!

  27. And..I have just read up on the cases of Mohamed Nazim, and Ismail Mohamed Didi, which I somehow missed before. They are prime examples of what happens in Maldives if a citizen (who we remember MUST by law be Muslim!) is stupid enough to admit they have serious doubts about being Muslim.

    The communists in various parts of the world and at various times in history have made use of "re-education" to force comrades back into line. It seems there is an Islamic equivalent operating in Maldives.

  28. Anni say's in concluding his speech always "Al Hamdulilaah" meaning Thank you Allah! NOT Jesus Christ the so called SON of GOD!! So if you wann make Anni a Christian so be it! He is a dame typical Maldivian like you and me, BUT their are some athestist around MDP, DRP and many other parties like the hidden Gay community in the Maldives society who are true child abusers! Welcome the the reality!

  29. we must believe the reality..(3. As for the salafist, wahhabist or extemist movement, it has been growing for the past 20 years or so… They have been organizing and while the rest lagged they have come out as the most organized people in different forms. They have penetrated into all the state institutions, the media, the police, the defense forces and everywhere.

    And believe me, if we are a democratic country and support democratic values people who do not like what the Salafists or the Wahabbists or the Extremists are saying and doing, has to come out strong and loud instead of pointing fingers or being couch activists!

  30. @muslim boy, thank you for mentioning Somalia and claimíng that the pirates would not exist if Sharia law was in force there. Actually you are wrong. I see today that Al-Shabab, the Muslim extremists who control most of southern and central Somalia,(where the pirates operate!) are not too popular.

    They have banned...unrelated men and women from shaking hands, speaking or walking together in public, women from working in public, search buses for improperly dressed women or women travelling alone, publicly carry out amputations, whippings and stonings, men are forced to grow their beards but shave their moustaches,
    The Islamists have also banned the cinema, music, and bras because they say they are all "un-Islamic."

    These restrictions are imposed by foreign fighters practicing Wahhabi Islam, exported from Saudi Arabia.

  31. I have just read the Comment on Ismail Mohamed Didi: Cancer in our heart
    By Salim Waheed, July 18th, 2010.

    Really excellent piece of journalism, I commend the author (especially as heck didn't like it!)

    Heartening to see that all is not lost in Maldives, if there such people as Salim Waheed who can still think rationally and reasonably and who are not brainwashed into extremism.


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