Comment: The mixed story of the rise of Islamism in the Maldives

One of the many lessons of the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s magisterial book, A Secular Age, is how religion continues to exist and continues to be relevant.

The relevance is not only limited to religion’s potential for creating identity and meaning in life.

Religion’s relevance also lies in the moral and epistemological limitations of the virulent forms of atheistic exclusive humanism and hardcore naturalistic ‘science’ that Richard Dawkins, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and their ilk seem to be promoting.

Religion’s potential for solidarity and taking the cause of justice and vulnerable forms of life, is as relevant as ever.

Its potential for an ultimate explanation against an unfounded scientific reductionism cannot be blindly and arrogantly dismissed.

Rise of Islamism and electoral democracy

During the last seven or so years, coinciding with (or in response to) democratisation, the most spectacular religious phenomenon in the Maldives is the rise of Islamism. At least twelve Islamic/Islamist NGOs were registered between 2004-2010. Prior to 2004, there were no more than three organisations with the specific goal of religion.

But re-Islamisation led by Islamism itself should not be taken as alarming for at least ‘electoral democracy’.

If popular participation in politics can be an indication of support for democracy, the voter turnout in February 2011’s local elections stood at around 70%, which is comparable to past turnouts for parliamentary elections. Equally important, Islamist Adalath Party fared quite badly in all three elections since 2008.

However, re-Islamisation seems to have had, and will continue to have, mixed results for the society and politics.

Questioning religion

As late as the mid-1970s, ethnographic research in the Maldives could conclude that Islam of the people was largely limited to ‘washing, praying and fasting’.

What this means can best be contrasted by describing what James Piscatori and Eickelman call ‘objectification of Muslim consciousness’. They explain that this is ‘the process whereby basic questions come to the fore in the consciousness of large numbers of believers’.

This process has become a salient feature of all Muslim societies. Similarly, this growing objectification of consciousness, largely over the past decade, became the most important religious development in the Maldives. Its main feature includes fragmentation and pluralization of religious discourses.

For sociologists like Jose Casanova this could ultimately mean an Islamic aggiornamento, or a sort of reform that took place in the Second Vatican when Catholicism finally endorsed democracy and human rights in the 1970s. But should we be so optimistic?

Judging from data and people’s comments, often here on Minivan News, it would be hard for some of us in the Maldives to see any positives from objectification of our religious consciousness.

Indeed, in the Maldives what we have seen is a sort of reflexive re-Islamisation: through responding to the terms of alternative discourses (e.g. democracy and human rights) and processes of global modernity, the society seems to be undergoing a new re-traditionalization.

Mixed Results of Islamism

We could observe two parallel processes led by Islamism in the Maldives. It seems to be a striking reversal of what had happened since the 1970s.

First, there is an attempt at de-secularising the actual community. The most obvious example is public piety such as the Muslim veil.

But there is also an attempt at re-Islamising the functional spheres like the economy. Islamic banking or riba-free business is a case in point.

Call for re-Islamising the national curriculum, call against music and entertainment, and rise in ‘creationism’ pseudo-science, are important examples too.

Perhaps a more important example is greater de-privatisation of religion: Islamist organizations and Islamist media outlets have proliferated in the public sphere. Their influence in the political society and the state has increased (e.g., a religious ministry led by Islamists).

But here is the other side of the picture. Islamist attempts at ‘rationalisation’ and ‘objectification’, or in short ‘purification’ of the society, seem to have mixed results for the dominant national consciousness.

The powerful motif of a ‘100% Muslim nation’ may no longer serve as a taken-for-granted, internalised background. It may no longer be a largely unconscious sacralised background understanding of the nation.

The signs of this change could already be seen from the increased sarcastic deployment of ‘sattain satta muslim qaum’ (e.g., ‘are we really a 100% Muslim nation?’), especially by Islamists to decry the alleged failure of officials to make the society ‘Islamic enough’.

If this is so, there is not only de-secularisation. There is a sort of ‘secularisation’ taking place too. This is a secularisation of the imagined community, of the taken-for-granted national consciousness. Ironically, reflexive re-Islamisation is driving this secularisation.

Now, why does this matter? Here is one reason why it matters.

Freedom of religion

This sort of secularisation of the national consciousness seems to be a condition of effective religious liberty. Even if political secularism was to be enshrined in the Constitution, freedom of religion might not be effective without this sort of secularisation of the ‘imagined community’.

The poignant suicide of a young man, possibly because he felt he betrayed his ‘comrades-in-identity’ (i.e. the rest of us Muslims) is a case in point. His desperate email is telling: ‘Maldivians are proud of their religious homogeneity and I am learning the hard way that there is no place for non-Muslim Maldivians in this society.’

One cannot only legally be non-Muslim; but more importantly such a person may be dismissed as unworthy. If this is so, political secularism itself may not be a sufficient condition of liberty without secularisation now seemingly driven by reflexive re-Islamisation. (Here then is also a lesson for the arrogant global (i.e. the US) project of bringing freedom of religion to the world.)

Awareness of the Other

If the above interpretation is correct, we could increasingly experience these phenomena:

i) Through objectification of the taken-for-granted national consciousness, an increased awareness of the existence of some fellow Maldivians with different worldviews and faiths.

ii) Through a process of de-secularisation of the actual community, intense reflexive and political bulwarks (especially by Islamists) against this cross-pressured awareness.

I think both of these things are taking place.

Political Reconciliation of the Cross-Pressure

How we finally politically reconcile this awareness is the ultimate condition of the possibility or impossibility for democracy – and therefore equality, liberty, fraternity – in this over two-millennia-old country.

This is not a place for advocacy. But for this political reconciliation, a necessary, but not sufficient, condition is a dose of humility from the full political and social spectrum.

As a colleague at the government once pointed out, as a first step, the government needs to get over with its ‘hubris’ of going it alone.

Azim Zahir has a BA in Philosophy and Politics and is completing his MA degree at the University of Sydney.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]


34 thoughts on “Comment: The mixed story of the rise of Islamism in the Maldives”

  1. "judging by the comments in minivan..."
    if the author really believes that what is spewed here in minivan as comments by a few kaafir loosers (actually bloggers like yaameen) is what is reality then salaams from troll-brigade! Inshallah we muslims will prevail and make this country better than it was. Disappointing reading cos so much of the author's understanding comes from Christian writers who tend to equate every faith with the mistakes of christianity.

  2. I don't think the government is going it alone int he first place.

    For example take the internationally funded media outlet Minivan News.

    Most of what you said is very rhetorical, indirect and shrouded in political veil.

    I did not understand why you sued "re"-Islamisation. Since this is the peak of Islam in this nation be it political or as a faith.

  3. Halaaku huri!

    An excecrable article! The Maldives has no place for other faiths, save for the worship of Allah, who is the Most Compassionate, wise and merciful!

    Apostates and proseletyzers must be garroted! The atheist infant must be strangled in its crib!

  4. Hey Haguraamaveri kujja! cool down man. There are ways to do things in islam. So ppl are not garroted or infants are not strangled. If you are too excited, we advise you to take deep breaths, calm down and seek some good muslim friends to explain what you think needs clarification.

  5. "Apostates and proseletyzers must be garroted! The atheist infant must be strangled in its crib!"

    Are we really going to do all of that in the name of Allah the most compassionate, wise and merciful? 🙂

    Nice one Haguraama, made me laugh! Thanks

  6. @Dhivehi Hanguraama

    "The atheist infant must be strangled in its crib!"

    First off, if you claim to be a Muslim, one of the first things you should know is that there is no such thing as an "atheist infant", as according to Allah every new born is pure in faith. Says so in the Quran, check it out.

    But really, more than that, just how do you sleep at night, with all this hatred bottled up inside you? I mean, come on! You're talking about killing an infant in it's crib. To kill just one human being, let alone an infant, is like as killing all of human-kind. Says so in the Quran as well.

    Or maybe it's just easier being hateful rather than having a meaningful rational discussion?

  7. Imbeciles! It was a re-framing of Winston Churchills famous phrase, that the "Communist infant must be strangled in its crib", it refers to an organized, sustained, ideological MOVEMENT, that is a danger to our national security.

    So yes, the Atheist movement in the Maldives MUST be strangled in its infancy. Of course adult, INDIVIDUAL manifestations thereof do merit the literal punishment.

    @Paid Adhaalath troll: If the apostates are given 3 days to repent and to cease from their evil and most odious ways, but yet they refuse to heed wise council and to obey the will of Allah - who is infinitely more sagacious and merciful than his creation - both in thought and deeds, an Islamic state should indeed garrot them on the spot!

    Of course, you are welcome to suggest other modes of execution! Indeed, I have had many pleasant discussions with some Iranians on just this very topic(and mind you, they were not of the heretical Shi'ite variety) and have received some very excellent suggestions; nonetheless the Persians posess many logistical capabilities that we do not, whereas we are blessed with an abundance of rope, (I suppose we could burn them, but the hadiths indicate that this is best discouraged). For this reason, I beleive garroting is a most proper and admirable method!

    @Peasant: “Are we really going to do all of that in the name of Allah the most compassionate, wise and merciful?”

    Yes. What is your point?

  8. What about the bloodthirsty mob that nearly lynched Mr. Nazim, the man who declared that he was agnostic during that lecture by self-proclaimed preacher Dr. Zakir Naik? The mob was acting exactly how muslims should act, which is killing all apostates wherever they may find them. Indeed, it is the religion of the merciful, just, and wise! A life is a life, whether it is an infant or an adult.

  9. Let us all calm down people. These opinion pieces, news angles and selective coverage serves exactly the purpose you feel it does.

    Iruthisham has promised the UN that the concept of freedom of religion will be introduced at a forum to be held next year.

    The government and its sympathizers are rushing to meet deadlines.

    No matter how much anyone tries, desperate people cannot listen to reason. Its not that they don't know reason when they see it. They just don't have any other choice.

    This government came to power with funding from the US/UK bloc.

    No wonder they have to return a couple of favors. Especially when it comes to Israel and facilitating the presence of certain individuals in our country.

    Our choice is not that hard either. Shall we all vote for the side which we are sure will not be indebted to the Anglo-American coalition next time?

  10. Reading this article made me think Azim Zahir is someone who has been living abroad for the most if not all his adult life and grasped the 'reality' back home through portals like Minivan News.

    Come home, bro, and live here with us, Maldivians for a few years so that you will know what we really are. It is only then, you can write the truth on an issue like this.

    Anyone can write articles based on what Minivan News publishes. But in such an article the reality would so filtered out that it may not be too different from fiction.

  11. Ah we see how the men of peace act when their carefully constructed alternative reality is challenged. They are the first to call for blood and death all the while decrying how the secularist are prosecuting them.

  12. Why we Muslims are mis-understood? Its because we have among ourselves people like Dhivehi haguraama who are poison to the society especially to a small society like ours. So much hatred? For what & for whom? A true believer carries love in his heart for humanity not hatred. Mother Thersa, a polish born christian served and spent her life in India serving poor people.

  13. Author wrote..."Religion’s potential for solidarity and taking the cause of justice and vulnerable forms of life, is as relevant as ever...."

    In all honesty, I don't really see Islamic scholars as the ones pushing for social justice in the Maldives as they do in nations like Turkey, Palestine, and many others. I went and heard many Khutbars, of course they had to be interpreted for me, and, a lot of fascinating topics. I see others struggling for justice, Ibra, velezinee, heaps of others, but not Islamic movements. The Islamic movements focus on personal change and maybe this is because they are frightened of being seen as Jihadists IF they focus on the judiciary etc...

  14. @tsk tsk,

    How come everything is an Anglo-American conspiracy? Assuming you are right they are the "mafa" bent on subverting everything to their favour, but seriously? us? Would they they really care what we do or about our opinion?

    $2 to every time UK and US policy makers thinks "Maldives" you still be a poor man in 10 years. They have bigger fish to fry. We would still be our benighted selves wallowing in the grandeur of being courted by world powers.

  15. Islam is a hot potato in the Maldives. Because it is hot, this potato is not to be touched.

    On the pages of Minivan News, it can be seen quite clearly that Islam , for and against, is one unique subject the mention of which agitates and arouses all Maldivians without exception.

    It arouses me too. Muslim religion and Muslim people will always occupy a special place in my heart and mine.

    But the unintellectual and ultra-nationalistic tones in which many Muslims speak endangers the spiritual health of Maldivian people.

    Maldives is an extremely backward country. The main reason for that is the kind of Islam that we have.

    Yemen, Syria, Egypt and Tunisia are in turmoil.

    Pakistan has not really established itself as a forward-looking country.

    By the overthrow of Gayoom, Maldives has taken one step to modernity.

    But Maldives has more to do.

    Islam must be tackled and modernised.

    Islam in the Maldives, in the current form, is no better than Zionism and the State of Israel.

  16. @hanguraama..
    It is quite obviously where your idealism lies. Just as you have an undying love Churchill's sayings, we muslims have better more refined sayings of Ali Ibn Abi Talib, Umar ibn Abdul Aziz etc.

    As for method of enforcing sharia there is no point in debate. The Americans kill their convicts with electric chairs, gas, lethal injections etc, so we muslims have our ways of disposing of evil ppl. You cannot have it both ways brother. You try your best to be nasty to ppl and work against sharia and claim god is sagacious and merciful.? These words will deter only an imbecile. Those who wage war against god do not deserve mercy. don't twist words cynically and expect ppl to look over. we are smarter than that.

  17. Actually this article feels me good. This shows how deperated minivan news is. And ya it is rising dont mix it. There is nothing to mix. 😀

  18. @Paid Adhaalath troll!

    Now, where did I make the detestable suggestion that those who wage war against God, or even quietly renounce the true faith should be shown any mercy!? Nonesense!

    They should be garroted on the spot, or have their heads chopped off as were the methods of Ayatullah Khomeini (may his name ever be praised). Indeed! I would never question the apostasy punishment, which I think is most admirable and proper - but I was merely responding to your first assertion that we should not garrot them.

    In fact, let us end on a happy note. We can jointly pray that the Iranian Youcef Naderkhani, who is a most odious and repulsive man for renouncing his faith in Allah to become a Christian pastor, shall die hanging from the crane if he does not cease from his evil ways - as a demonstration that I am perfectly content with other suitable methods, (wether imaginitive, traditional or mundane) and furthermore, as a token of friendship and expression of common faith and love for God!

  19. Can Islam prevail in 21st century, with its rigid adherences to the laws of savages? If Islam cannot be reformed to 21st Century norms, people with universal education will leave Islam. The more Maldivian get modern education will have less faith in Islam because Islam is still lagging behind the race of human achievements in socioeconomics and science. In Maldives we have no Islamists who have the true knowledge about religions and how the religions evolved. Adalathist are radicalized Islamists and have no theological literacy to reconcile modernity with religion. Adalath has become a divisive force between intellectuals and averages. With lower literacy we have in the Maldives, we will see some kind of radicalization by Adlathist and we can expect eruption of clashes between two extremes of religious and non religious divide. Adaltha has to be contained unless it is leadership is people of universal education.

  20. Agree with@rooster. The author needs to come n live with us so that he gets the true picture of the realities on the ground!

  21. Anyway, the secularists are completely our of touch with our culture. This verbose article, full of pompous political jargon, designed to impress the layman with his words, actually comes across as pseudo-intellectual sophistry with nothing relavent to policy, economics, society or for that matter, ANYTHING tangible/discussablegage.

    What an uttelry ineffective attempt at communicating to the average Maldivian layman; if all future attempts to advocate an already futile agenda are this incompetent, we've got nothing to worry about.

    With our economy in terribe shape, drug use skyrocketing, there are far more pressing issues than pushing for sinful lifesytles and religious freedom.

  22. Hey, Dhivehi Hanguraama, isn't Khomeini a Shi'ite? Cos seems to me you've already referred to Shi'ites as heretical, yet you also wish that Khomeini's name be praised forever. What's up with that?

  23. No, wait. I'm an imbecile. Probably a heretic as well. What say you, O Wise and Vicous Hanguraama?

  24. @peasant:

    All sarcasm aside, you need to follow the issues.

    Maldives has successfully thrust itself into international affairs.

    If you feel the British have never meddled in our country then you are mistaken. Look at the incidents surrounding the introduction of the concept of a constitution in our country. There is a reason why Naib Thuththu was screaming his ass off at Shamsuddeen then.

    Refer to the fact that our resorts are a valuable asset to the foreign investment that gets the major returns.

    Did the British ignore our country when they funded a secession in the South?

    There are reasons, very real ones behind their interests in the country. I am not talking about a conspiracy. I am talking about pure objective geopolitics.

    Our leaders have formed a pact whereby our country will be marketed as a Muslim country which supports Israel and aligns itself with the Western agenda.

    There are other forces at play in our tiny country as well. Surprising isn't it? Not so if you really understand the issues.

  25. Holy cow!

    Allah will punish us! Allah the merciful will destroy us! Allah the lot gracious will annihilate us!

    What shall we do? Oh dear!

  26. The rise of fundamental islam in Maldives will eventually destroy you........long before global warming has an impact. Somalia, Afghanistan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Tajikistan..........the list of 'failed states' keeps growing. Saudi Arabia has just given women the 2011!! The only muslim country that can be described as 'progressive' is Turkey...........but Turkey tries hard to be secular. The rest of you are stuck in a seventh century time warp. Thank you Jesus for making me a non believer!!

  27. tsk,

    Brits were the colonial power back then. The cold war with the communist bloc meant every country mattered, especially with the strategic location of Maldives, Brits had a vital interest.

    Today I'd gather they are happy if were don't become like Somalia or Haiti. Loss of business interest in our 1 billion dollar economy would hardly keep them awake at night. On the grand scale of things, especially with the stagnating world economy, we hardly would matter.

    You talk of everyone having bias, but you can't just pull stuff out of fantasy and rationalize your obsession with the evil west.

    They snubbed the Saudi's (with all their oil) over Israel, yet they covertly fund the MDP govt to ensure support for Israel? And of course to ensure the interests of Four Seasons, TUI and Kuoni? Kuoni alone has a revenue nearly 4 times our GDP, they will survive without us.

    I wish we were that important, but we really aren't.

  28. @Zayd

    He toppled the secularist regime of the Shah, and extirminated the Murtad. That is admirable, and I look kindly upon him as opposed to regular Shi'ite scum.

    If he is to receive punishment, then I can only pray that his sentence will be lightened - but only God knows best.

  29. We militant apostates are so misunderstood! 🙁

    And when I sell weapons to them, so that they may protect their children from blood-besotted tyrant so-called muslims, I'm labeled the bad guy.


  30. @peasant:

    Your measure of importance is not what I was implying it to be. However your observation is very relevant to what I am trying to say.

    I never suggested that our use was exactly based on monetary value. Or military value for that matter. But strategic value lies outside the bounds of money and weapons.

    The matter lies in our use as a suicide bomber. We are the hapless indebted and dispensable "ally" that is providing strategic help in diplomatic acrobatics at the UN.

    If you fail to understand based on your own observation then there would be no point for me to dictate such understanding to you. I leave it up to you to see in the coming days what I was trying to say.


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