The Maldives’ Islamic Affairs Minister has said religious scholars have not been politicised by the rhetoric of various parties since February’s controversial transfer of power, as his ministry had sought to counter the “ideological problems” of extremism in the country.
Sheikh Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed told Minivan News that since President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan came to power on February 7, scholars representing the government-aligned, religiously conservative Adalaath Party had been “calling for peace” in the country between rival political factions. He said that he did not believe scholars were taking sides in the current political deadlock.
However, Shaheem did contend that his party was “much more comfortable” working with the present government addressing potential concerns about the nature of the country’s faith. He indicated that the threat of home-grown terrorism was a key issue needing to be addressed in the Maldives – something he alleged the previous government had neglected to assist through funding.
The Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), which contends that it was ousted from governance back in February through a “coup d’etat” sponsored by opposition politicians, businessmen and mutinous section of the police and military acting on a platform of extremist Islamic rhetoric, has since seen some of its local councils refuse to authorise sermons in mosques by prominent scholars of the Adhaalath Party. The party claimed its elected councils had refused certain scholars over fears allowing them to speak could “disrupt the peace and create unrest”. The action led Shaheem’s Adhaalath Party to criticise such protests as “lowly and secular acts”.
While both Shaheem and Sheikh Ilyas Hussein, head of the Adhaalath Party’s scholar’s council, both participated in protests against the government of former President Mohamed Nasheed on December23 in order to “defend Islam”, the Islamic Affairs Minister stressed he was not in the country during the events of February 7.
Shaheem claimed that having not taken part in the transfer of power, he did “not think there was a concern” about some scholars being politicised among party lines for taking positions under the new government.
Pointing to other nations like the UK, where serving monarch Queen Elizabeth II was both the head of state and the church, Shaheem said that political leaders in the Maldives focusing on religion was no different.
Shaheem himself previously served under the Nasheed government as Islamic State Minister before resigning back in December 2010 over differences of opinion with the administration over issues such as claims it was strengthening links with Israel.
Shaheem added that in working in line with a coalition government of former opposition parties and President Waheed, he was “much more comfortable” and confident that religious issues raised on December 23 would be addressed – particularly funding of religious programmes.
“At present, we follow a moderate view of Islam here in the Maldives. We are requesting a comfortable amount to oversee our work from next year’s budget,” he said, adding that he was confident that the present government would be able to address the issues raised on December 23.
Extremism and terrorism
Shaheem claimed that amongst the present challenges facing the Islamic Ministry, a need to focus on addressing social issues and improving the manners of young people were needed, as well as “ideological problems” linked to religious extremism.
“The previous government did not give us the budget we needed to run programmes to address these issues,” he said. “There are problems here with extremism and terrorism, these are idealogical problems that need to be targeted through religious awareness campaigns.”
Shaheem’s comments were made as Vice President Waheed Deen yesterday stressed the need to provide children with a “proper Islamic upbringing” based around laws and customs of the faith.
Speaking during the 27th National Quran competition held at the Islamic Centre in Male’, the vice president said that upholding Islam was vital to ensure nationhood, while also addressing “weak social standards” .
According to the President’s Office website, Deen claimed that the progress and prosperity of a nation was the satisfaction of its people; and the people will be content only when they are truly faithful and devoted to their religion.”
President’s Office spokesperson Abbas Adil Riza said that the vice president’s comments yesterday were based on wider government policy relating to economic reform, particularly within its aims to reduce the gap between the country’s richest and poorest people.
He added that Deen had raised the issues of a need for “good discipline” through Islamic principles. However, Abbas said that the speech was not outlining a specific government focus on Islamic developments across the nation.
“The Maldives remains a moderate country and will remain so. We do not encourage acts of extremism here,” he said.
Without directly responding to Sheikh Shaheem’s comments regarding the former government’s commitments to try to eradicate religious extremism, the MDP said it wished to let the Islamic Affairs Minister’s own “ethics and comments” made during the December 23 protests speak for itself.
Increased diplomatic relations with Israel, including possible service of El Al airlines, and recent debates over Shariah law, were among examples given by speakers at the December 23 demonstrations as examples of the Nasheed government’s alleged attempts to undermine Islam in the Maldives.
Party Spokesperson and MP Hamid Abdul Ghafoor claimed that with the MDP failing to recognise the legitimacy of the current government, the same was true for ministerial appointments like Sheikh Shaheem.
Ghafoor also alleged that issues such as Islamic fundamentalism were a well established tool used during the 30 year rule of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom to pit different factions in the country against each other, something he believed was once again happening with the present government.
“I see Shaheem as a just a little cog inserted into the larger machine of Gayoom’s political control,” he said.
Last year’s December 23 protest was established by NGOs and six political parties as part of a demonstration to “to defend Islam” in the nation amidst allegations the Nasheed government had sought to introduce freedom of religion and un-Islamic “idols” to the country – a charge it vehemently denied.
Speakers from various religious and political opposition parties addressed an estimated 5,000 men, women and children of varying ages and attire. Protesters were handed t-shirts and banners reading “Maldivians in defense of Islam” along with Maldivian flags.
Banners bearing slogans including “We stand united for Islam and the nation”, “No idols in this holy land”, “No to the Zionist Murderers”, “No to [Israeli transport group] El Al Airlines” and “We stand for peace” led participants to gender segregated areas across from the Tsunami Memorial area, where approximately 20 protest leaders spoke from a mounted podium.
“We don’t know there is a moderate, higher or lower Islam. We only know Islam, which is above all the religion. The only road we must follow is based of Allah’s callings,” said Jumhoree Party (JP) Leader and tourism tycoon Gasim Ibrahim during the protest.
Sheikh Shaheem also spoke on the day reiterating that his party does not support terrorism, adding that the security forces would know the actual people provoking such acts.
Meanwhile, the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) Leader and MP Ahmed Thasmeen Ali said that he was there on behalf of his party to assure Maldivian citizens that the party will stand with the religion of Islam.
”We are gathered here to uphold Islam for the future of the next generations,” Thasmeen said, accusing the current government of trying to establish anti-Islamic policies such as non-islamic idols and strengthening relations with Israel.
“We are here to show that will not support those policies yet we are not extremist,” he said. ”We will stay forever as an Islamic nation.”
However, in a counter-protest held the same day, former President Nasheed called on then opposition leaders of political parties to explain their exact stance on religious issues to the public ahead of a 2013 presidential election.
“Should we ban music? Should we circumcise girls? Should we allow nine year-olds to be married; is art and drawing forbidden? Should we be allowed to have concubines? We have to ask is this nation building? Because [the government] won’t allow these things, we are being accused of moving away from religion,” he said.
Nasheed also urged MPs to discuss the inclusion of Sharia punishments in a revised penal code “without calling each other unbelievers.”
“At this moment we may not realise how important this gathering is, but years down the line we will look back and realise this was a crucial moment,” he said at the time.
“I asked you to come here in support of the middle, tolerant path. And I believe that most citizens want to continue our traditional form of Islam,” Nasheed said at the time.