The biggest threat to Maldivian democracy, it is increasingly said, is ‘extremism’.
Yes, there is an existential threat to Maldivian identity and its traditional belief system from specific sects and ideological movements claiming a monopoly on Islam.
But, how effective a counter strategy is it to pin the broad label of ‘extremists’ on them, describe them as a threat to our democracy, and place them outside of rational engagement? Is it not a contradiction in terms to describe as a threat to our democracy what are in fact the strongest, loudest and most influential voices within it?
Ignoring the role that democracy has played in their success reduces the chances of mounting a credible challenge. Consider how they came to be such change-makers in the first place.
The campaign for the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Maldivian people, which the Wahabbis or Salafis (and/or other groups yet to be officially documented) have run for the last decade is as thoroughly modern a campaign as any in the world’s most established democracies.
It was launched at the grassroots level and taken to the very top, sustained throughout by clever use of modern media. Their message is simple and powerful as most media-savvy messages are: “We come with The Right Islam. Reform, or forever be damned”.
From every available media platform – traditional and new, mainstream and niche – they have, for the last ten years, repeated the same message: “Our Islam is The Right Islam. Embrace it, or go to hell.”
These movements, just like any other successful democratic campaign, did not merely saturate the media with their message, but made their presence felt deep within the community. They pounded the pavements to talk the talk, made door-to-door calls, opened corner shops, performed acts of charity and carved out for themselves important roles within the community.
Their representatives are in Parliament, lobbying hard to push through changes that would make the law of their choice the dominant (or only) law in the country. With the same goal in mind, they impede the progress of any legislation they deem incompatible with their own ideologies, dismissing them as ‘un-Islamic’.
In doing so, they reiterate the same message at the top as they do at the bottom: “We have brought with us The Right Islam, the only Islam. Reform, or be forever damned.”
Their presence is similarly strong in the administration itself, with their representatives holding office at all levels from the ministerial cabinet to the filing cabinet. They have forged strategic political alliances that allow them leverage in key policy decisions they deem are in conflict with their ideologies. They have eager activists ready to take to the streets to protest against policy decisions they are unhappy with. Their presence is prominent in the judiciary to an even greater extent than it is in the other two branches of power.
From educational qualifications to dress code and type of punishment meted out – it is their beliefs that are being pushed as the judicial norm.
Bolstered by their unprecedented success on the domestic front, they have tried to stretch their reach to foreign policy and beyond, offering ‘extremist rehabilitation expertise’ to the wider world. Throughout all this, their campaign remains on message: “We have brought you The Right Islam. Reform, or be forever damned.”
The successes of their campaign to establish themselves as the official form of Islamic belief in the Maldives cannot be denied: it is most startlingly visible in our appearance – from the way we dress and how we comport ourselves to our demeanour.
Beyond the visible, these movements are rapidly changing the very fabric of Maldivian society. They have: (re)introduced draconian practises long since abandoned such as marriage of under-age girls, sex slavery and genital mutilation; legitimised domestic violence by providing instructions on a ‘right way’ and a ‘wrong way’ to hit a woman; sanctioned marital rape as an inviolable right of every husband to demand sex from his wife(s); reduced the female gender to no more than objects of sex, servitude and reproduction; and sexualised girls, some times as young as four or five, by making them wear the veil. This is a practise that, in effect, condones paedophilia with its underlying assumption that it is natural or normal – not aberrant or abnormal – for adult males to be sexually aroused by prepubescent children.
These movements, along with others, are fundamentally changing what it means to be Maldivian, what it means to be Muslim in the Maldives, and what Islam means to Maldivians.
But, whatever we may think of these movements – enlightened, misguided or crazy – it would be unwise to place them outside of our democracy. Such a claim is based on the assumption that democracy is an antidote to extreme thoughts, beliefs and any resultant violence.
To the contrary, research has shown that democracy – precisely because of its inherent freedoms – offers a more conducive an environment to the expression of extreme views, thoughts, and violence, than other forms of government. If we are to adequately deal with these movements, we need to do it within, and with, democracy.
We must first recognise the movements for what they are: political actors engaged in a democratic battle for power. They are running on the platform of religion, heaven is their campaign promise, and they have taken Islam hostage as their running mate.
Instead of labelling them ‘extremists’ – synonymous now with ‘crazies’ – they need to be confronted as rational actors with a specific political agenda. Without that recognition, it is not possible to adequately challenge their bid to establish a religious hegemony in the Maldives.
Seeing them as political contenders rather than a purely religious presence also creates the opportunity to loosen their stranglehold on Islam. Their success in convincing Maldivians that they have brought us ‘The Right Islam’ is most evident in how any criticism of their practices, rituals and beliefs has come to be immediately and unequivocally equated with criticism of Islam itself.
The myth that Islam is not just monotheistic but also monolithic has been propagated so successfully by the campaign machines of these pseudo-religious ideologues that it has come to be accepted as the ‘truth’, a given that is rarely if ever questioned.
It is this deafening silence of the opposition and their inability to perceive of, and engage with, these movements as legitimate forces within our democracy that pose the biggest challenge to its existence. None of the organs of democracy – of the state or within civil society – have so far challenged their campaigns and their Messiah-like claims of having brought The Right Islam to ignorant Maldives living in Jaahiliyaa.
The Maldivian Constitution ties its people unequivocally to Islam, but it does not demand that citizens follow a particular sect or ideology within the religion.
These ideologues – as part of our democracy – have every right to their beliefs, but they do not have the right to coerce or force all other Maldivians to follow them in their chosen path. It is the democratic right of every Maldivian to refuse to listen to their messages, to freely discuss, and observe, other ways of practising Islam and to deny them a monopoly on God.
Neglecting to do so is not just self-censorship but a betrayal of the democratic ideals that the Maldives and a majority of its people have embraced.
These religious sects have gained such influence within the Maldivian society not only because of the strengths of their campaign but equally because of the weaknesses of the opposition.
As a democracy, the government cannot be in the business of regulating people’s beliefs; it is up to the people to stand up for themselves and refuse to become subservient to another. If those who disagree remain silent – either as hostages to the dogma that to oppose these politico-religious movements is to oppose Islam; or because they are branded ‘extremists’ and denied rationality – their success is assured.
If that is not the direction in which we wish to take the Maldives, we need to find out who these people are, what they believe in and what they really want. We need to create a public sphere in which we can openly challenge these beliefs and goals. The biggest threat to our democracy is our failure to use our democratic right to disagree. It is in this silence that the frighteningly real prospect of a democratically-elected theocracy is growing stronger every day.
Munirah Moosa is a journalism and international relations graduate. She is currently engaged in research into the radicalisation of Muslim communities and its impact on international security.
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