‘Since Mohamed Nasheed of Kenereege who held the post of the President of the Maldives is an anti-Islamic, corrupt, authoritarian, and violent individual who abused the Constitution; and given that Vice President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik is the man to steer the country to a safe harbour, the Consultative Committee of Adhaalath Party has taken the unanimous decision to pledge allegiance to Dr Waheed and to support his government until 2013’. – Adhaalath Party, 7 February 2012
Maldivian Islamists played an instrumental role in the events of 7 February 2012, which forced the country’s first democratically elected president Mohamed Nasheed to ‘resign.’ Coup Deniers and followers of Islamists vehemently object to any such claim. The Islamists themselves, however, have been very public, and very publicly proud, of the ‘religious duty’ they performed by facilitating the removal from power of Nasheed – in their opinion an anti-Islamic heretic.
This is clear from the many proclamations and announcements they made in the lead up to and in the aftermath of Nasheed’s ‘resignation’. Having declared Nasheed a heretic on 7 February, Adhaalath Party put out a press release on 8 February, the worst day of violence since transition to democracy. It called on people to stand up against Nasheed, “with swords and guns” if needs be. Any Maldivian who failed to do so was a sinner, and had no right to live in the country. Fight Nasheed or emigrate; Jihad against him or be eternally damned, it said. The ‘truth’ of their words was bolstered by selective quotations from Islamic teachings. Accepting Waheed—”a just ruler”—was portrayed as a religious duty of Maldivian Muslims.
Replacing Nasheed with Waheed, the ‘haram’ president with the ‘halal’ president, appears to be what Adhaalath President Sheikh Imran Abdulla referred to on 31 January as ‘Phase Two’ of ‘the work we have been doing until today.’ What was the work Adhaalath and its allies had been doing until then?
Setting the stage: grooming the population
Out of necessity, Nasheed had to include Adhaalath Party in the coalition government he put together in 2008. To put it mildly, the liberal minded president and the ultra-conservative Adhaalath Party had nothing in common. Despite the frequent clashes over various issues—selling alcohol on inhabited islands, making Islam an optional rather than a compulsory subject in secondary school, introduction of ‘religious unity regulations’, provision of land for an Islamic College in Male’—Nasheed had no choice but to stick to his coalition agreement. The turbulent political marriage of convenience came to an end only in September 2011 when Adhaalath voted to sever the coalition agreement citing Nasheed’s lack of cooperation in its efforts to ‘strengthen’ Islam in the Maldives.
In the intervening period, driven by pragmatic reasons and by an oversimplified belief that freedom of expression is sacrosanct—no matter what the consequences—Nasheed failed to impose any restrictions on the increasingly extremist and hardline rhetoric of the Islamists. With Adhaalath’s Dr Abdul Majid Abdul Bari at the helm of the Islamic Ministry, radical preachers from abroad and from within the country were given free-reign, and funds from the public coffer, to address the Maldivian population. 2010 saw, for example, the Indian televangelist Dr Zakir Naik, as well as Jamaican Dr Bilal Philips and British Sheikh Abdurraheem Green address the Maldivian public. In addition to the foreign preachers, Maldivian missionaries trained at madhrasaas in Pakistan and ultra-conservative schools and universities in India, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere bombarded Maldivians with radical rhetoric from every available public platform.
Anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and intolerance of other religions became a part of daily discourse, broadcast on national television, played incessantly in public spaces from taxis and ferries to loudspeakers on the streets. Close to 90 percent of books stocked in most Maldivian bookshops during this period came to be those authored by the extremists whose words were designed to influence every little detail of a Maldivian’s life from toilet to conjugal relations. While extremist literature flourished and their voice took over the public sphere, the liberal voice floundered. When concerned liberals approached Nasheed asking for his help in countering the voices of extremism, his response was—more on less—to tell them ‘do it yourselves.’ The government, he said, could not impose restrictions on speech.
Despite the strong civil society that flourished during Nasheed’s government, the extremist movement had become too strong by then for individuals—acting without any support from the State—to organise against it. The labels of apostasy, heresy and anti-Islamic agent’ had become too powerful as political tools by then for any anti-extremist group or movement to be able to get a foothold in the public sphere. Many individuals attempted to organise into groups, but were shutdown as anti-Islamic before they could become a coherent voice in society. Anyone who expressed doubt about their faith in Islam was branded an apostate and ostracised. The strength of these prevailing sentiments was seen in the suicide of Ismail Mohamed Didi, a 25-year-old man who hanged himself in July 2010 after being hounded by friends and family for expressing doubt over his belief in Islam. The extremists were determined that the myth of ‘Maldives is a hundred percent Muslim nation’ will be maintained, even if it meant the oppression and death of those who did not believe.
Phase One: Nasheed as heretic
The push to drive Nasheed out began in earnest at the end of 2011. Many incidents towards the end of the year proved fortuitous for the extremists. In November Maldives hosted the annual summit meeting of SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation). Among bilateral gifts exchanged were various monuments and statues depicting the culture and traditions of the gifting country. In the spirit of ‘building bridges’, the summit theme, Maldives displayed a welcome banner at the airport in which religious figures dear to all members of SAARC were included. An image of Jesus was on the banner. Alleging that the banner promoted Christianity and that several of the gifts—including one from Pakistan—were anti-Islamic idols of worship, religious organisation and parties galvanised the public into what can aptly be described as mass-hysteria. The banner was taken down, and the monuments were put under police protection until they were destroyed. All in the name of protecting Islam.
On 24 November 2011, visiting UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay addressed the Maldivian parliament and spoke out against the practice of flogging, which continues to this day. The public furore incited over the ‘idols’ had not yet died down down. Islamists saw another opportunity to keep the hysteria alive. They led about a hundred or so angry people to the doors of the UN building to protest against Pillay’s call for a humanitarian approach to punishment. Although Nasheed’s Islamic Ministry unequivocally condemned the speech, Nasheed himself spoke in favour of Pillay’s stance. For the ultra-conservatives in Parliament and in socio-political positions of power, it was a sure sign that Nasheed was an anti-Islamic ‘Western puppet.’
The next plum opportunity for the Islamists came on 10 December, the International Human Rights Day, when a handful of young Maldivians staged a minor ‘silent protest’ against the growing religious intolerance in the country. Despite the fact that Nasheed’s government imprisoned one of the protesters, the Maldives’ only openly gay activist, religious conservatives were furious with Nasheed for not meting out severe punishment against the protestors. It was deemed as further evidence of Nasheed’s heresy.
It is against this backdrop, and armed with these pretexts, that the campaign to depose Nasheed was launched. Its first major public display was on 23 December in the form of a protest under the banner: ‘Maldivians Defending Islam.’ Having been bombarded since November by messages that Nasheed is a threat to their faith, and convinced by the relentless extremist rhetoric of years, thousands of Maldivians spilled onto the streets of Male’ in ‘defence of Islam’. What a majority of the people had not had the time or space to understand is that the threat to Maldivians’ faith has come not from Nasheed but from the extremists.
For hundreds of years, insulated as the country had been from the rest of the world, Maldivians were largely ignorant of the various conflicts within and around the ‘Islamic world’. The Islam that Maldivians practised was personal—a deeply held faith that did not need mediation by ‘scholars’ or preachers. Public displays of piety, such as having women shrouded in black or men hiding behind waist-length beards, were never part of the Maldivian belief system. Suppression of women as second-class citizens, violence in the name of religion, disputes over which prayer to be said at what time, insistence on imposing the death sentence, child brides, sex slaves—these were not part of the fabric of ‘Maldivian Islam.’ The extremists introduced such ideology and practices into the Maldives, and spread it across the country using the very freedoms of democracy they rally against. The success of the extremists had been their ability to use its newfound freedom of expression as a tool for convincing an unsuspecting population that until the arrival of these missionaries, Maldives had been ignorant of the ‘right Islam’.
It was in the defence of this extremism, which Nasheed had failed to act against—and which he was now being accused of threatening—that thousands of Maldivians gathered in Male’ on 23 December.
Phase One, Stage Two: the unholy alliance between ‘democrats’ and Islamists
It would be a mistake to assume that the Islamists, as widespread and powerful as their influence among the general population has been, would have been able to successfully depose Nasheed on their own. Rather, this occurred when opposition parties, having proven time and again their penchant for regarding Islam—and democracy itself for that matter—as open to opportunistic appropriation, allied with the Islamists with this very goal in mind.
Eight opposition parties of the Maldives and allied NGOs put their organisational and rallying tools behind the 23 December protests. That this was an alliance, for the political parties at least, wholly devoid of any Islamic piety is clear from who appeared as its leading members. A core group of them were resort owners—rich tycoons who have no qualms being purveyors of alcohol, pork, and ‘hedonistic’ pleasures to ‘infidels’. What smacked of hypocrisy and opportunism even more was the involvement of figures who had previously spoken out against the rising extremism in the country. Present among them were, for example, Dr Hassan Saeed who co-authored the book ‘Freedom of Religion, Apostasy and Islam’ which argues that Islam is a religion of tolerance. He is now the newly appointed President Waheed’s special advisor.
Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom had a statement read out in favour of the protests despite his long career being rich with seminars and papers arguing the tolerance and liberalism of Islam. Without the easy manner in which these figures dismissed their own convictions for the sake of political power, the Islamists would not have been able to push their agenda onto the Maldivian people so easily. It was a case of political parasites feeding off each other.
The next step was the publication of a pamphlet by Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP), or Maldivian National Party, that provided alleged details of a secret agenda pursued by Nasheed to undermine Maldivians’ Islamic faith. The 30-page pamphlet, ironically, can easily rival Dutch politician Geert Wilder’s hate-filled anti-Islamic film ‘Fitna’ in its use of the Qur’an to incite hatred. There was very little that matters to Muslims that was not exploited for political gain in the publication. Nasheed government’s decision to foster business with Israel was depicted as an ‘alliance with Jews’ at the expense of Palestinians and his bilateral ties with Western governments was portrayed as friendships with ‘enemies of Islam’. Blatant lies, such as Christian priests being appointed as Nasheed’s emissaries, were mixed in with facts that were twisted beyond recognition.
While using the democratic principle of freedom of expression, freely granted by Nasheed, it sought to convince Maldivians that modernity and Islam are diametrically opposed to each other. Equating the overthrow of Nasheed’s government with a religious duty, it called on all Maldivians to do what they can to unseat the immoral heretic from power. Dr Hassan Saeed, author of the book ‘Freedom of Religion, Apostasy and Islam’, is the deputy leader of DQP. Its leader is Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed. He is now the Minister of Home Affairs in Dr Waheed’s newly formed cabinet. In 2007 Dr Jameel was Gayoom’s Justice Minister, and resigned seemingly in protest against Gayoom’s failure to reign in the increasing Islamic militancy in the country. Less than five years later, his supposedly staunch principles were nowhere in sight as he pushed Maldivians to protest against Nasheed’s liberal government and embrace Sharia.
Phase One, Stage Three
Nasheed’s orders to have Judge Abdulla Mohamed arrested on 16 January 2012 was like a manna from heaven for the politico-religious coalition which was now calling itself the December 23 Alliance. Here was an opportunity to marry Nasheed’s alleged anti-Islamic activities with his violation of the constitution. Not one member of the opposition, nor the self-proclaimed champion of the constitution, President Waheed, has ever spoken out against the unconstitutional acts that has allowed Judge Abdulla to remain on the bench. The very same leaders, who now bellowed and whipped the people into a frenzy over the Judge’s detention, had presided over—and evidence exists, orchestrated—the events which allowed convicted criminals and sex offenders to remain on the bench in violation of Article 285 of the Constitution.
Deleted from public discourse, and therefore missing from public understanding, was the sad truth that at the time of Judge Abdulla’s arrest there were no democratic institutions capable of reigning in his many unlawful acts on the bench. He had no scruples over letting dangerous criminals walk free, espousing political views, and displaying sexual depravity in the courtroom. And he bestowed on himself the authority to overrule the Judicial Service Commission, the independent institution established by the Constitution to oversee the ethical and professional standards of the judiciary. That the opposition’s use of the judge’s arrest for inciting public protests was nothing more than political opportunism becomes clear in the fact that following Judge Abdulla’s release—on the same day that Nasheed was deposed—there has been no move to investigate the charges against him. Nor has President Waheed, taken any steps to initiate an investigation into the failures of the JSC. It is as if Judge Abdulla has no pending complaints of judicial misconduct against him, nor a criminal background. Exhausted by the ‘ordeal’ in which he seems to have had no role to play, he is now on a month-long holiday.
Phase Two: in the name of God and country
The two hundred or so members of the public who came out to protest against Judge Abdulla’s arrest for 22 consecutive nights were a motley crew. Some were there to defend extremism, others were there to defend the Constitution and demand the freedom of a politically biased, criminally convicted judge who remained on the bench in violation of the Constitution. It was their honestly held belief that reinstating a judge found guilty of political bias was the way to give themselves an independent judiciary. The rest were people who would protest the opening of an envelope, social deviants, and hired thugs egged on by opposition MPs and party leaders who incited them to continued violence daily for three weeks.
On 31 January, a week before Nasheed was forced to resign, the 23 December Alliance met in the wee hours of the morning. Presiding over the meeting was the President of Adhaalath Party Sheikh Imran Abdulla. At his side, displaying proudly the alliance between the political opportunists and the Islamists, is the Vice President of former president Gayoom’s new Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) Umar Naseer. They both announced that since Nasheed had stepped outside of the boundaries of the constitution, their alliance had made a unanimous decision to pledge their allegiance to the Vice President. Their decision was reached, they said, after meeting with Vice President Waheed earlier that night. Umar Naseer, who had repeatedly incited violence during the weeks of protests, calmly called upon the armed forces of the country to refuse to obey any orders by their Commander in Chief Nasheed as he had ‘violated the Constitution.’ Umar Naseer appeared not to know—or not to care—that calling on the nation’s security forces to disobey their leader did not figure anywhere in the constitution either. Giving credence and weight to this call to unlawful acts, at least for those who were convinced Nasheed was also a heretic, was Sheikh Imran and other religious ‘scholars’.
Would the mutinying police and military officers that joined them have helped overthrow Nasheed’s government were they not convinced they were acting, not just for the country, but for Allah too? It is possible—for reports suggest that Allah was not the only God worshiped on that day; Mammon, too, commanded much devotion. Yet, it is Allah that the men in uniform who took over the state broadcaster with such violence thanked loudly for their success. ‘Allah Akbar, Allah Akbar!’ is what a band of military men marching on the streets of Male’ on that day were calling out in unison. It is Allah’s name that 2013 presidential candidate and owner of the Villa Resorts chain took when announcing Nasheed’s resignation to the public before it happened. One of the first acts of violence carried out on 8 February was the destruction of Buddhist relics from the pre-Islamic history of the Maldives dating back to the eleventh century. It is not the first time that Madivian Islamists have emulated the Taliban in their actions, and it will not be the last for many are disciples of the same form of Islam practised by the Taliban and several are alumni of the same madhrassas and universities Taliban leaders attended.
It cannot be denied that a large number of those who celebrated the departure of Nasheed were glad to see him go ‘because he violated the constitution.’ But those who do genuinely believe in the constitution, and are convinced that following it is the way forward for the country, know that deposing a democratically elected president by a coup is hardly constitutional. They are the many hundreds who have taken to the streets in ‘colourless’ protests—they are not supporters of MDP, nor necessarily of Nasheed. They, however, disagree with how the democratically elected leader has been forced out.
Apart from the diehard supporters of former president Gayoom and his allies, paid-for supporters of Gasim, and other tycoons who have the country’s politics in a stranglehold, the only people who remain jubilant at the overthrow of Nasheed are those convinced beyond any reasonable doubt that he was an anti-Islamic heretic. In helping depose him, in celebrating his departure, they have performed a religious duty. Replacing the haram Nasheed with the halal Waheed may not be democratic but it has assured them of a place in heaven. Little do they understand that, in this life, the rewards of their toil will be reaped not by them or their children but by those who have so shamelessly exploited their belief in Allah.
President Waheed denies any knowledge of a coup, and refutes all allegations that he was party to the plot that forced Nasheed from office. Even if he is given the benefit of the doubt, and under the unlikely circumstance that he is, indeed, ignorant of the machinations of the politico-religious alliance that facilitated his assumption of office, he should be aware that his position is precarious indeed. The only reason he has been given the seal of approval, Adhaalath has made clear, is because he has not openly sided with Nasheed in his many stand-offs with the extremists. Reading between the lines of President Waheed’s utterances since assuming office, this was not out of choice—Nasheed did not allow him to participate in any decisions that mattered. This is, in fact, President Waheed’s biggest gripes against Nasheed, seemingly on a par with the deposed president’s unconstitutional arrest of the judge.
President Waheed has close to him as his Special Advisor Dr Hassan Saeed and as his Home Minister Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed. Two leaders of the party that authored the pamphlet of hate against Nasheed. One of the ‘sins’ the pamphlet alleges former president Gayoom committed as a leader was not forcing his wife to cover-up, and not bringing his children in line with hard-line Islamic principles. For this, the pamphlet condemns Gayoom. President Waheed’s wife is guilty of the same ‘sin’, and his children, Western-educated and brought up in the United Sates, are unlikely to heed any paternal demands to toe an ultra-conservative Islamist line. At least one of his children is a liberal and an outspoken supporter of democracy. Already, President Waheed is treading a thin line.
It is only a matter of time before the Islamists begin re-instating their position, and President Waheed becomes the focus of their ire. It makes little sense for them to have brought down ‘Nasheed the Heretic’ if not for a promised bounty that is not yet known. In their 8 February press release, it quotes from Islamic teachings as saying:
‘It is the duty of every Muslim to wage a Jihad against those who apply any law other than that of Islamic Sharia. And, until such time as they have accepted Sharia and begun applying Sharia among the people, it is your duty to wage war against them. ‘
Clearly, the Islamists’ work has only begun. Would President Waheed, who describes himself as committed to democracy, allow Islamic extremism to further takeover the country and destroy hundreds of years of peaceful, traditional Maldivian Islam? Would he stand up for his principles? Or would he allow them to be sacrificed at the altar of his political ambitions? It remains to be seen. As do details of the deal that was done between political opportunists and the Islamists to ensure Nasheed the haram president was replaced by Waheed the halal president.
Azra Naseem holds a doctorate in International Relations.
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