Comment: Afrasheem, Rilwan, and the future of the Maldivian community

Writing in the 1970s, anthropologist Clarence Maloney remarked that religion in the Maldives was limited to “washing, fasting and praying”.

What he meant is similar to what MB Hooker observed in the Southeast Asian Muslim populations – Islam was characterised by “a ‘non-literally’ Muslim culture”, limited largely to practice without much theorisation and philosophising.

However, since the 1980s – and especially since the year 2000 – the most spectacular change in our culture has been the conscious appropriation and questioning of received religious doctrines and practices. Processes associated with modernisation and mass education have enabled this never-ending fragmentation of discourses, interpretations, and different visions at a larger scale.

This is what Eickelman and James Piscatori described as the “objectification of Muslim consciousness” that has now swept the whole Muslim world. Maldives is no exception to this.


It was in this emerging context of fragmented religious discourses and different religious interpretations that the regime of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom suppressed both those who embraced Salafi interpretations of Sharia and those drawn toward more pluralist Sharia.

It is in this context – now characterised by extreme political and social uncertainties – that one of the most prominent Maldivian religious scholars, Dr Afrasheem Ali, was murdered in October 2012. It was also in this same context that my friend, journalist, and human rights activist Ahmed Rilwan disappeared six weeks ago.

None of us yet knows the truth about those tragedies. But what we know is that both have significant religious context. Afrasheem had faced harassment and assault on several occasions because of his religious views. Similarly, Rilwan – once a Salafist – received threats because of his criticisms of certain understandings of Sharia.

More importantly, the murder and disappearance sends a chilling message to the rest of us – religious disagreements cannot be tolerated.

The fact of the matter is that, however small and homogenous, ours is now a society characterised by pluralism. We cannot wish away these disagreements on deep questions of what the good life is.

In need of a new moral order…

But ethical and religious disagreements do not mean there is no possibility of a moral order for collective life that we could come to agree upon.

Such a moral order must be based on political and moral principles that we all can – or should – value, i.e. liberty, equality, and peace. These are also among the higher values that Islam stands for.

In this moral order, there should be a maximum and genuine role for religion. It is not a secularist moral order where religion must be privatised, or religion is seen as something that will just disappear with the rise of ‘rationality,’ science, or modernisation.

In my view, both the Maldivian Democratic Party and the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party/Progressive Party of Maldives have failed to articulate a vision of democracy that genuinely respects the place of religion in democracy.

Officials of both governments have characterised religious people as somehow irrational or pre-modern. Both governments have tried to control or co-opt religion in their instrumentalist and ideological narrowness.

A democracy based on such a moral order does not make a fetish out of ‘secularism’ or ‘separation of religion from the state’. Secularism is not about separation as such. It is about certain moral ends, including liberty and equality.

Sometimes separation and at other times accommodation will promote those values. There is no a priori fixed solution (such as “a wall of separation”) to the relationship of religion to the state in order to achieve those ends.

Context is everything. And contextual reasoning is the way forward.

Thus the moral order the Maldives need is not that of the mainstream secularism we find in France, Turkey, or sometimes even the US – where the value of religion and the rights of religious people are not fully recognised.

In this new moral order, religious parties and religious scholars must have an equal place in the public sphere as their secular counterparts. Laws and policies based on religious values must have a place too. How else could it be, unless we think we can simply separate our religious selves from our political selves?

Only a ‘thin’ liberal conception of citizenship based on a ‘thin’ understanding of epistemology would think moral truth is somehow ‘secular’.

…for a new imagined community

To be sure, in concrete terms, this moral order means freedom of religion cannot be denied – citizenship cannot be denied on religious grounds. How can anyone of us in all religious honesty deny this basic and God-given right?

Even Gayoom, who was the architect of the prevailing insular nation-identity based on ‘sattain satta muslim quam/100 per cent Muslim nation’ had to acknowledge that the denial of religious freedom in the Maldives was in spite of Islam:

The real essence of Islam…is that it is non-discriminatory. Its tolerance of other beliefs and religions is clearly established in the Holy Quran…

We Maldivians…hold freedom of belief as sacred and we abhor discrimination…on any grounds whether of creed, colour or race. It is only that we are such a homogenous…society based on one national identity…that we are convinced that the preservation of this oneness in faith and culture is essential for the unity, harmony, and progress of the country.

Gayoom, Address at the Opening Ceremony of the Seminar on ”The Calls for Islam in South and South East Asia’, 1983

In other words, a universal precept of Quran was overridden by his attempt at creating a homogenous ‘imagined community’. While this imagined community had been homogenous, the real community has undergone fragmentation of religious discourse.

As a result, the national self-understanding that Gayoom – still leader of the country’s ruling political party – created is now being subjected to vigorous contestation from all fronts – both religious and secular. That is why we are in need of a new moral order for a new imagined community.

Why Afrasheem and Rilwan matter

Perhaps one of the biggest immediate challenges for a new moral order in the Maldives is related to the tragedies of Afrasheem and Rilwan.

Besides our human concern for them, the need for a new moral order is the long-term reason why we all must be concerned to find truth about them. That is why everyone should be calling for greater accountability of the government in these cases.

That is why I support the #suvaalumarch taking place tomorrow afternoon (September 19) in Malé.

For the future of democratisation in the direction of this new moral order is contingent on seeking truth and justice for Afrasheem and Rilwan.

Azim Zahir is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Muslim States and Societies, University of Western Australia.


11 thoughts on “Comment: Afrasheem, Rilwan, and the future of the Maldivian community”

  1. Accepting the inevitable that people are inherently different from one another and that there is no need to make them all think, act and behave in the same way should be the cornerstone for any new moral, political or social order.

    A first step would be to acknowledge and to respect differences and to teach tolerance rather than trying to force everyone, by whatever means, to act and behave in ways which are alien to their understanding of life.

  2. How can several unrelated random things can be tied up together with a common string, without any facts? How can Afrasheem, Rilwan, Secularism, politics (add more..) can be tied by a single string..

    Beats me. Perhaps only a PhD level mind possess this capacity.

  3. Today mass media and connectivity makes it nearly impossible to stop the march of ideologies. Especially theological marches would hold a strong grip in such a island specific community.

  4. @Dumb & dumber: Don't bother. They don't want us to have anything. We're just large bags of cash (men and boys), and pleasure tools (women and girls) to them.

    The only way to make them surrender is to shoot'em in the head. That's how zombies are dealt with.

  5. "Only a ‘thin’ liberal conception of citizenship based on a ‘thin’ understanding of epistemology would think moral truth is somehow ‘secular’."

    Obviously PhDs have been down-graded. You have to be a very 'thick' student to think that that an understanding of epistemology leads you to the definitive conclusion that moral truth cannot be 'secular' and, by extension, must be derived from religion.

  6. Ideologies is not the problem. Problem is when you try to shove your ideologies to someone's a** by force or other methods. Keep your ideas and opinions to yourself.
    Opinions are like a**holes, everyone has one and they all stink!!

  7. Why do some have the need to attack his PhD?
    Criticise or praise the artical, try not to get personal.

  8. @Dhivehi Rayyitheh

    That's the tell-tale sign of a frustrated paatey who can't stab someone over the internet.

  9. interesting article. i wonder what moral truths are however. are they the sort that can be derived through observation? what is their existential status? what sort of epistemology leads one to them? moral sentiments are understandable but truths? hmm.

  10. I love the article! A small confession, I have been engaging with the Secular Democratic Maldives page for some time and am a keen follower of their basic principles yet I never knew the meaning of secular. I was aware of the fact that I had little to no idea of it's definition as such but felt drawn to the page because it was hard to not like the ideas. We have many differences among our circle of friends, we are no longer restricted to one particular island, we are no longer speaking just Dhivehi, myself for example am able to speak, read and write Dhivehi, Hindi, Malayalam and English on top of being able to get away with a little bit of German. Our friends are not just our Muslim brothers and sisters at home. We are constantly changing, it is not that we have completely abandoned our faith, culture and identity and in fact it is the complete opposite. We are trying to find new ways to coexist while remaining true to ourselves. Our homes are all over the world and our loved ones scattered every where. The days of only Faarish Maumoon going to Pink Floyd concerts and making friends all over the world are long gone and the only people who could send their children abroad to study are no longer just the government fat cats and ministers. We do not wish to see our religion constantly being used against us in such a way that we are at a disadvantage because of it while the 'elite' Maldivian crowd live a life beyond imaginable and way above the laws enforced on the average Maldivian. They live a lavish lifestyle as they please completely untouchable even by their own laws and 'religious' principles yet continue to expect people to fall for their 'laadheenee' response every time we demand freedom. Has the fortune the Gauyoom family acquired and plundered from our country not been enough? How much longer will they continue with this? Where do we end this?


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