The appeal of [Islamic NGO] Jamiyatul Salaf on June 12 is interesting for many reasons.
It is the first public statement by an influential organisation in the Maldives condemning democracy and political pluralism as ladini/un-Islamic and fasada/corrupt systems.
To be sure, an Islamist counter-discourse to democratisation is not new in the Maldives. It has its roots in the 2000’s.
Not one, too many
As early as July 2004, following president Gayoom’s June announcement of democratic reforms, Mauroof Hussain, now the Adaalath party’s deputy president, wrote a trenchant article decrying democracy. In the article, Hussain referred to the most influential Islamist ideologue Mawlana Abul A’la Maududi, who railed democracy as conflicting Allah’s hakimiyya/sovereignty.
To be sure, Maududi does not abandon democracy, but gives it an Islamised garb: Maududi’s ‘theodemocracy’ provides restricted popular sovereignty because the legislative function would be limited to ‘interpreting’ Islamic sources.
Sheikh Mohammed Shaheem Ali Saeed built along these lines in a 2006 book on the subject of democracy and Islam. He acknowledges democracy shares a lot of features with what he calls Islami nizam. However, he is emphatic that Islami nizam is not democracy, because the latter contradicts Allah’s hakimiyya.
In a more recent article, reacting to president Nasheed’s remarks that Maldives was a ‘liberal democracy’, Shaheem argued the Maldives constitution now provides an Islami nizam. Shaheem is quite emphatic: we now have an Islamic constitutional system.
It is worth quoting Sheikh Hussain Rasheed Ahmed response to a question on voting:
“If we [reject] voting, then we might as well [reject] all other things that we [Muslims] imitate and copy from non-Muslims. For example, minting or even printing Qur’an, or civil and infrastructure developments like building schools, universities or roads…these are worldly affairs. Those innovations depend on human needs and develop according to their knowledge and views. If a people reject such innovations, they will have to be behind others [in development]. Islam does not wish this from Muslims…the Prophet says: ‘You have better knowledge (of technical skill) in the affairs of the world’”.
Shaheem, Rasheed and Maududi go much further than Jamiyatul Salaf’s leader Sheikh Abdullah bin Muhammad Ibrahim in accommodating democracy. Sheikh Muhammad’s October 2008 article on Daruma magazine rejects democracy in its ‘essence’ as a system of kufr/un-Islamic. While he accepts voting in principle based on Islamic notion of shura, he has a highly restricted view on electing political leaders. Muhammad argued voting rights should be limited to a select few in the society: the ulama, followed by experts and the wise in the society.
Still in a more restrictive view of elections, jurist Abu al-Hasan al-Mawardi reasoned that a caliph himself was entitled to appoint his own successor. So there was no necessity for elections for Mawardi. In our times, influential Islamist Sayyid Qutb would not accept democracy at all because it is a jahiliyya product.
Disagreeing with most of the above views, influential Islamist cleric of our times, Yusuf Qaradawi, argues democracy in its ‘essence’ is fully compatible with Islam. He denounces those who say otherwise as ignorant of Islamic teachings.
Unlike Sheikh Abdullah bin Muhammad Ibrahim of Salaf, for Qaradawi, everyone could, or rather should, vote to choose their leaders. Unlike Maududi and Shaheem, for Qaradawi, popular sovereignty does not conflict with God’s hakimiyya. Again, it is telling that Qaradawi is Qutb’s severest critic in the Islamist camp.
What do we make of all these different views on democracy? I leave it to the readers to make up their minds.
Hypocrisy or politics
But to come back to Jamiyatul Salaf’s Appeal, few observations:
The Appeal is indeed right in highlighting the continued failures of the authorities to address political issues such as corruption and bribery, economic crises, and social issues like violence in all its manifestations.
Islamist utopianism feeds on such failures: Gayoom’s personal dictatorship failed, and now democracy seems to be failing too. So, Islamism says: Islam huwa al-hall/Islam is the solution!
Second, it is interesting that after condemning political pluralism and democracy, Salaf at the same time is prepared to participate in pluralism and democracy: Salaf announces their work to groom an ideal presidential candidate for 2018 elections.
Although the principle of maslaha/public interest is implicit in the Appeal, one wonders why Salaf is not seeking a systemic change, instead of grooming a salih/pious Dhivehi Son (note it’s not a Daughter). Salaf’s anti-political rhetoric in condemning democracy and political pluralism is then highly questionable, if not hypocritical. Narrow politics lurks behind anti-political moralism.
Finally, in the usual binary division of ‘Muslim Maldivians’ and the jahiliyya Other (Christians, Jews and Maldivians educated in the West), Salaf projects a Maldives drifting away from Islam under the corrupting influence of the Other. But there is no any empirical evidence that the Maldivians generally have become less Islamic since democratic openings in 2004.
If anything, the Maldives seems to be undergoing an ‘Islamic awakening’ unprecedented in its entire Islamic history since 1153, thanks to the democratic freedoms. The sheer number of women adopting the veil and men sporting the beard is testament to this.
So, the first lesson from our democratic experiment is this: whether or not democracy has delivered on other areas, it has surely freed Islam from the suffocating fist of Gayoom.
The second, more sobering, lesson is: democracy should not be taken for granted.
2018 is not an arbitrarily proposed year. It is only by 2018, Islamists foresee that sufficient numbers could be mobilized through outreach activities.
In the meantime, the ‘Call’ must go on.
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