As the heady winds of revolution sweep across the Middle East, a startling moment last week proved to be a sobering eye-opener.
Former IAEA chief and Nobel Laureate Mohamed El-Baradei had to retreat from the polling booth without casting his vote after a crowd of Islamists threw stones at him.
It marks the precise moment when realisation hit global media outlets that the Egyptian revolution, which was fueled almost entirely by educated, liberal and non-ideologically driven youth, has been hijacked by Islamists.
Some might argue that with 77 percent of voters in favour of the referendum, which El-Baradei opposed, democracy has clearly spoken and that the issue merits no further discussion. But in fact, it needs more scrutiny than ever.
Who watches the watchmen?
On the walls of Cairo, posters signed by the Muslim Brotherhood were put up declaring that it was the ‘spiritual obligation’ for all Muslims to vote in favour of the referendum, which many believe gives the Brotherhood – the only organised opposition – a strong edge in short term elections. It is an outcome that many secular Egyptians, and the large Coptic Christian minority in Egypt are loathe to see.
In each of those posters lies one of the most crucial questions of our times – can democracy survive under the shadow of Islamism?
Democracy, by its very nature, relies on the ability of a population to use its free will and judgment to make informed decisions. When the writing on the wall literally ordains the faithful to vote in a particular fashion, upon no less an authority than God himself, whence lies the free will of the people?
There’s an inherent conflict of interest when an Islamist party enjoins upon the people, by invoking the name of God, to vote in a manner most suitable to its own political ambitions.
Nevertheless, Muslim democrats have, time and again, failed to challenge the Mullah on the impropriety of his partaking in politics on the platform of religion.
In what is an affront to both religion and democracy, deep issues of faith and morality, with their strong emotive underpinnings, have ended up as mere political tools for manipulating crowds and gathering votes.
The ramifications of this convenient marriage between politics and religion are not hard to spot.
With the Arab freedom movements engulfing it from all sides – Syria in the north, Yemen in the South, Bahrain in the east, and Egypt, Tunisia and Libya in the west – a frantic Saudi Arabian interior ministry was quick to pull out the preemptive religion card.
The Saudi state media carried the following statement:
“The Council of Senior Clerics affirms that demonstrations are forbidden in this country. The correct way in sharia of realising common interest is by advising, which is what the Prophet Mohammad established… Reform and advice should not be via demonstrations and ways that provoke strife and division, this is what the religious scholars of this country in the past and now have forbidden and warned against.”
It is disingenuous at best for the Wahhabi-monarchy nexus in Saudi Arabia to claim that Islam forbids protests against a ruler, considering the Saudi monarchy itself was established by a series of conquests beginning with a pan-Arab revolt against no less an authority than the Islamic Caliphate.
The enormous utility of religion as a political tool was reaffirmed by the Taliban’s strong run in Afghanistan, imposing one of the harshest theocracies in recent memory.
Democracy is all but lost in Pakistan as well, where at least two senior politicians have recently been murdered in broad daylight for refusing to toe the line of the hard line clergy that wields influence over an increasingly radicalised Pakistani society.
Misuse of religion also remains the predominant political gimmick in the Maldives.
Former President of the Republic, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, had no qualms about asserting himself as guardian of the faith, constantly hammering in the notion that the ‘100% Muslim’ nation’s cultural identity was defined entirely by its religious homogeneity which had to be protected against ever-present, invisible threats – an assertion that has put a paranoid Maldives in the list of top ten countries of the World noted for religious intolerance, according to a study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in 2009.
Outlandish theories brimming with conspiracy have found a mainstream foothold in the Maldives, with self-proclaimed “religious” groups protesting for weeks against a visit by Israeli “Zionist organ-stealing” doctors, displaying a fanatic zeal rarely before seen in public and certainly never exhibited for causes like rampant pedophilia and child abuse.
Highly-charged religious rhetoric permeates issues ranging from education to foreign policy; politicians privately admit to being unable to vote on bills in Parliament on merit, because of the guaranteed backlash from the clergy class.
The already indistinct line between fanatic militants recruiting youth in the islands, and the intolerant ideologues openly preaching on public podiums is increasingly blurred.
In one episode, the Maldivian government website of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs posted an article declaring the Haiti earthquake, where 316,000 people lost their lives and a million were left homeless, as the ‘wrath of God’ showered upon a deserving, wicked people.
The danger with that kind of rhetoric is, of course, that it creates a loophole where any Tom, Dick and Harry can – and will – assume the high seat of arrogance and presumption from which they unravel the divine reasoning behind everything from natural calamities to personal tragedies.
Following a report on the recent tragedy in Male’, where two women lost their lives in a fire that engulfed their home, a commentator was quick to ascribe it to ‘the wrath of God’, insinuating the deceased were deviants who deserved their tragic end, simply because he disagreed with their lifestyle.
Me Tarzan, You infidel
In the heydays of the reform movement in the Maldives, the pro-government media regularly depicted opposition leaders as Christian missionaries bent on destroying Islam.
Similarly, opposition propaganda channels exploited the religious insecurities of the public by presenting the ruling party as depraved alcoholics and homosexuals.
One political party with religious affectations, the Adhaalath Party, even took the former President – a religious scholar – to court on apostasy charges.
There appears to be not a single political party in the Maldives that has not indulged in the cheap political abuse of religion by abandoning discussions of governance and policy in favour of petty fear-mongering and emotive politics.
In this atmosphere of whipped up religious paranoia, a book by former Attorney General Hassan Saeed and Professor Abdullah Saeed of Melbourne University, titled ‘Freedom of Religion, Apostasy and Islam’ was banned in June 2008, amid accusations that Hassan Saeed would introduce freedom of religion if elected to power.
At the time, Hassan Saeed reportedly responded by claiming the ban was a “cowardly Act driven by a 30 year-long leadership that has made Islam as a political tool.”
That moment of lucidity, however, proved to be short-lived. Following a viewer poll on national TV regarding religious freedom in December 2009, Hassan Saeed’s own party repeated, almost verbatim, the exact same allegations against the present government – accusing it of attempting to import “other religions” into the country to “undermine Islam”.
In the first week of March 2011, the opposition-allied political party People’s Alliance (PA) accused the government of following the agenda set by ‘Zionist Jews’, and mentioned ‘irreligious’ people in the government.
The next week, MDP MP Ahmed Rasheed invoked the scriptures when calling for an amendment to the Clemency Act to uphold the death penalty.
The bill was co-sponsored by Independent MP Muttalib who has in the past found time to introduce bills of such national importance as rescinding the right of resident foreigners to worship in the privacy of their bedrooms – while crucial bills like the Evidence Act continue to be delayed.
Another MP further argued that even the country’s requisite Foreign Policy could be gleamed from a single verse in the holy book.
As with other countries, religion, in the hands of politicians, has transcended its spiritual role, and entered the domain of fear in the Maldives.
The rhetoric of the Mullah has reached a point where the media – the fourth pillar of democracy and defender of free speech – has spinelessly retreated into a shell of self-censorship and servitude.
Articles mildly critical of Islamists have been retracted after being published. Websites critical of Islamist parties have quietly been banned. Lifestyle magazines have been forcibly shut down after relentless harassment and intimidation from pseudo-religious groups, while authorities conveniently turn a blind eye.
The prevailing climate of fear prevents legitimate questions about the involvement of ‘religious’ NGOs in terrorist activities, and their role in promoting violent rhetoric, child abuse and abuse of women from being widely asked.
The few remaining liberals who dare raise these issues are confronted with reactions that range from the bizarre to the comedic.
In May 2010, the Adhaalath Party posted an article on its website with the fantastic claim that Minivan News was promoting ‘lesbianism’ and ‘national sissyness’.
The incredible claim, unfortunately, is symptomatic of a society where discussions are quickly ended by painting feminists as ‘lesbians’ and unilaterally declaring secular opponents as ‘atheists’ and ‘Zionists’ – a society characterised by paranoia, fear-mongering and dysfunction in the name of religion. In other words, a society where democracy cannot survive.
Each of the stones thrown at Mohamed El-Baradei represents an attempt to silence critique, to overwhelm reason with violence, to suppress disagreement with intimidation, an attempt to abort democracy in the womb.
One prays for the sake of Egypt’s rich civilization that their hopes for democracy do not get consumed by the petty fires set by self-appointed representatives of God.
The ancient Nile, after all, bears witness to a long chain of mortals who assumed the mantle of religion, only to end up mistaking themselves for God.
The Indian Ocean doesn’t.
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