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) 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.
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