Many Maldivians are depressed and “collapsing inside” under the weight of the silence enforced on their questions of belief in Islam, Mohamed Nazim has said.
Nazim, now often referred to as ‘The Apostate’ by many, openly expressed doubts over his belief in Islam at a public lecture given by Dr Zakir Naik, an Indian religious speaker, towards the end of May this year.
Days later Nazim re-embraced Islam, equally publicly, having received counselling from religious scholars while on remand at Dhoonidhoo. Both events – Nazim’s renouncing of belief in Islam and the rapid reversal that followed -elicited a strong response from both liberals and conservatives both within the country and overseas.
Whatever the opinion on either side, Nazim told Minivan News, the issue of faith – or lack thereof – was not going to go away “simply because it is ignored.”
“Both the state and non-state agencies need to, at the very least, acknowledge that there are a substantial number of Maldivians who think about their faith and, sometimes, question it,” he said.
Nazim said that acknowledgement of their existence was not tantamount to calling for a secular state, as many seem to assume, but rather the first step towards addressing the problems that inevitably accompany any serious questions regarding faith.
Nazim’s repentance and return to Islam after his public proclamation that he was ‘not a Muslim’ happened within days. Reports said the change had been the result of counselling which Nazim had received while on remand. Details of what followed after his proclamation of ‘apostasy’, until now, have been vague.
‘I am not a Muslim’
“I do not believe in Islam”, were Nazim’s exact words to Dr Naik. He asked Dr Naik whether being born to practising Muslim parents made him a Muslim. If so, he asked, what would his status – and penalty – be in Islam?
‘That means you are not a Muslim”, replied Dr Naik, a medical doctor who owns ‘Peace TV’, a religious television channel based in India. During a meandering reply to Nazim’s question, Dr Naik told Nazim that the State was in a better position to advise him than a religious scholar like himself.
However, he added, the death sentence was not mandatory for apostates in Islam. It is only if the State itself is Islamic that the death sentence could be the ultimate penalty: “The Maldives is a Muslim state, not a Islamic State”, Dr Naik said.
Nazim said he sensed the hostility of the audience from the moment he asked his question. Intermittent jeering and calls for violence against him interrupted the rest of his dialogue with Dr Naik. Once Dr Naik’s answer was over, Nazim chose to return to an aisle seat near the exit.
Despite the strategic decision, a man wearing a long knee-length shirt over baggy trousers – a type of dress relatively new to the Maldives but long favoured by Afghans and Pakistani Muslims – punched Nazim in the neck before he ran towards police seeking protection.
After apparently suspecting initially that Nazim was running at them with hostile intent, the police took him into protection and escorted him to Iskandhar Koshi, a police barracks not too far from the lecture venue.
Some people followed him as he ran to Iskandhar Koshi, flanked by policemen. While waiting for the police to decide what was to be done with him, Nazim said, a policeman in plainclothes approached him.
“I know what you guys are up to. It will never happen in this country,” he said ominously, before leaving.
Nazim said his decision to publicly announce his doubts about Islam was one that he had made his own. He had neither discussed the matter with anyone else nor sought anybody’s advice on the matter. He had simply expressed doubts “that I sincerely entertained.”
“I felt as if I was suffocating. The extremism that was taking hold in the Maldives was increasing so rapidly. I could not travel in any vehicle anywhere without having to listen to extremist material,” he said. “I needed to speak about it.”
‘Protective custody’ or protected by default while in custody?
Although officially under police protection, Nazim was taken to Dhoonidhoo, the remand prison, and processed as any other accused. He was first put into what he described as ‘a cage’ – named ‘Arrival’ – while the necessary paperwork was done. An investigation by four officers, who Nazim describes as ‘invariably pleasant men’, lasted around two hours until 2:30am in the morning.
Nazim said he could see the reasons why an investigation was necessary. As the police noted, his actions had become a national issue. Some of the public reaction also implied that it could threaten public order or even national security.
The unprecedented nature of his actions also meant that the police were unsure whether he had committed an offence as defined in Maldivian law. He was told he would be held in Dhoonidhoo until the investigation was completed. He was there for four nights.
Nazim spent the first night sitting on a swing. He had been offered a bed, but he was sleepless and did not need one. The following day he was allocated a cell.
“It was disgusting”, he said. Everything was as left as used by the previous ‘tenant’. In the cells both to his right and to the left were people accused of murder. The cell was cleaned the following day, after his protestations.
He was able to talk to his lawyer the following day, when he was brought to court to be officially remanded in Dhoonidhoo. His lawyer also told him that the Human Rights Commission of the Maldivian (HRCM) would be unlikely to be able to intervene on his behalf as a case of apostasy would not fall within their remit.
The two scholars visit
The Ministry of Islamic Affairs appointed two scholars to counsel Nazim while in custody. They arrived on the third day of his detention. Inside half an hour of talking to them, Nazim said, he told them he was ready to accept Islam as his faith.
The discussion, he said, was honest. He expressed his doubts openly, and agreed that embracing Islam was the best thing for him.
In a discussion with his lawyer, who had visited him ahead of the scholars, they had both agreed that Nazim’s interests would be best served by “living as all other Maldivians do”. He would be a Maldivian, abide by the laws of the country, and live according to its Constitution.
An hour after meeting him, a brief counselling session and a prayer performed together, the two religious scholars who had visited Nazim as an apostate left him a Muslim.
The decision to read the Shahaadhath on national television, he said, was his own. His proclamation of apostasy was made in front of an audience, broadcast on national television, and played out across the Internet. He needed a public forum to demonstrate his return to the folds of Islam, he said, for his own safety.
It was only after he agreed to ‘revert to Islam’, as Dr Naik had referred to the process, that Nazim was allowed a pen and paper, which had requested numerous times during the time he was held in Dhoonidhoo. He had wanted to write to President Mohamed Nasheed as well as international NGOs to highlight his plight.
Once a ‘born-again Muslim’, he had pen and paper and a new cell that was far cleaner than the one he had before. He was also allowed to walk and leave the cell at times.
He was returned to court in Male’ on the fifth day of being held in Dhoonidhoo. Once he recited the Shahaadhath in front of the sitting judge, he was told he was a free man. There was no case against him.
The legal black hole
Nazim said he was not aware of a pending legal case against him, as has been reported by the media. A report of the investigation of his actions had been sent as a matter of routine to the Prosecutor General. The case, as it were, was closed as far as Nazim was aware.
Did Nazim commit a crime? Article 9a (3) of the Constitution states that anyone who was a Maldivian citizen at the commencement of the 2008 Constitution is a citizen of the Maldives. Article 9c states that despite the provisions in Article 9a, a non-Muslim cannot become a Maldivian.
In between however, is Article 9b, which is unequivocal and unambiguous in its statement that ‘No citizen of the Maldives maybe deprived of citizenship’. It does not stipulate any circumstance whatsoever in which a person, once a citizen, can be deprived of their citizenship. The wording of Article 9a, which states that ‘a non-Muslim may not become a citizen of the Maldives’, understood in common parlance, suggests that it applies to those who wish to become a Maldivian.
How does this apply to Nazim? Had he not been ‘born a Muslim’, according to Dr Naik’s opinion on the matter? Was there then a need for him to become one? If he could not be deprived of his citizenship under any circumstance, why would he have had to ‘become a Muslim’ in order to ‘become a Maldivian’?
“When I did what I did,” Nazim said, “legally I was absolutely convinced that there was no way I could not be a Maldivian.”
There is no statutory law covering the issue of apostasy, which means, as stipulated in the Constitution, it is an offence ‘on which the law is silent’, to be considered according to Islamic Shar’ia. If he remained a non-Muslim and, therefore, a non-Maldivian, would Shari’a still have applied to him?
A silence similar to the one that Nazim describes as forcing Maldivians to keep quiet about questions over their faith appears to hold forte over public and official discourse on the subject of Islam.
Life as the only post-apostate Maldivian
Nazim is an affable, dignified and unassuming 38-year-old. He is heavily involved in community development projects, volunteers with many such projects, and is engaged in the development of social policy.
The reaction to his declaration of non-belief in Islam, he said, has been mixed – angry and supportive, superficial and profound. He lost 65 friends on Facebook, the social networking site to which almost every computer literate Maldivian subscribes. He did, however, gain 246 new ‘friends’.
His own friends and colleagues, he said, are uneasy talking about it. Very few have actually discussed it with him. He can feel its presence however, unspoken yet potent, in his every social interaction with another person.
Among the general public, apart from a few threatening text messages and threats left on his ‘wall’ on Facebook, the reaction has been muted since his public recitation of the Shahaadhath.
He does not regret what he did, he said: “Somebody had to do it, it needed to be spoken about. The repression of thought, the lack of debate and a lack of a proper public sphere in which such discussion can take place, is dangerous.”
He recalled Ismail Mohamed Didi, the 25 year-old air traffic controller who hung himself from the control tower of Male International Airport in July after he was ostracised by colleagues, friends and family when he expressed his doubts about his belief in Islam.
One of the two men who publicly expressed their doubts over faith decided to re-embrace Islam and live life as the Constitution says a Maldivian should. The other decided life was not worth living.