Comment: Islam is for tolerance of the Other

It is disturbing and saddening to see that we dare to curtail basic human interests and entitlements of others that some of us take for granted.

What Islam stands for: According to Article 16 of the Madinah Charter (al-mithaq al-madinah) of 622 CE, social, legal and economic equality was promised to all loyal citizens of the state, including non-Muslims.

Similarly, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab’s Covenant following the Arab conquest of Jerusalem reads:

“[‘Umar ibn al-Khattab] has given [people of Jerusalem] assurance of safety for their lives and property, for their churches and their crosses, for their sick and their healthy, and for all the rituals of their religion.

Their churches shall not be used as dwellings, nor shall they be demolished and nothing shall be diminished…”

Now all this has basis in the Qur’anic injunction that “there is no compulsion in religion”. Have we then lost our humanity and humaneness?

It is hypocritical of us to ban and curtail such basic freedoms by saying that the Maldives is a ‘sattain satta muslim qaum’.

How we became ‘sattain satta muslim qaum’

It is true that we have a strong Islamo-nationalist identity. But we must know that identities are artificial and they are constructed through symbols and discourses.

Our national identity is a construction of a discourse largely engineered by President Gayoom.

President Amin may have been behind the initial promotion of nationalism. But his nationalism was not based on an exclusionist Islam. None of his national day statements that I have read promoted such an oppressive conception of of Islamo-nationalism.

The discourse of an exclusionist Islamo-nationalism is found in Gayoom’s speeches, writings and policies. In fact, according to Gayoom’s official biography, A Man for All Islands, Gayoom, from the beginning, ensured that an Islamo-nationalism was a priority of his regime.

Gayoom-controlled radio, TV, and the education system promoted and socialised us into this discourse of exclusionist Islamo-nationalism.

We may not readily realize that we are influenced by and socialized into this mythical discourse of Islamo-nationalism based on ‘sattain satta muslim qaum’. The power of this discourse is so perverse that even the most natural word association for ‘sattain satta’ probably is ‘muslim/Islami qaum’.

And all major oppressive measures in the country have been justified based on the discourse of ‘sattain satta muslim qaum’.

Thanks to the 30-year efforts of Gayoom, today our ‘imagined community’ is thoroughly based on an exclusionist and oppressive conception of Islam.

Islamo-nationalism’s oppressions

According to Daniel Brumberg, total autocracies such as Saudi Arabia spread the idea that the state’s mission is to defend the supposedly unified nature of the nation or the Islamic community.

Gayoom’s regime may not have been a total autocracy. But his stated political justification of the state was his mission of defending a unified community.

We must know that, just like his Arab counterparts, this was just a ploy for political control. Hence, any differences of views to that of his vision are taken as ‘anomalies’ or ‘deviations’ or ‘falsities’ threatening national unity.

Such people must be ‘rectified’, exiled, imprisoned, deported, tortured, or if need be exterminated. Exclusion or extermination can also find more poignant forms such as civil death or suicide.

Gayoom’s discourse of ‘sattain satta muslim qaum’ often oppressed two kinds of opponents: Islamiyyun such as Sheikh Hussain Rasheed Ahmed and non-religious challengers like current president Nasheed.

Islamiyyun were brandished as ‘Islam din rangalah nudanna meehun’. And non-religious political opponents were brandished as either ‘fundamentalists’ or ‘Christian missionaries’.

The outcomes of this oppressive Islamo-nationalist discourse are naturally not limited to Maldivians.

Hence the migrant workers in the Maldives also cannot practice their religions as respectable and equal human beings.

Undoing Islamo-nationalism

Identities cannot easily been undone. But it is not impossible to undo them. As an immediate step, the government must stop spreading Gayoom’s discourse of ‘sattain satta muslim qaum’.

Even the current government spreads the discourse that ‘Maldives is the only 100% Muslim liberal democracy’. While this discourse is presented often to the donors, this is just the same Gayoomist myth. We are neither 100% Muslim nor a liberal democracy.

We are still a borderline democracy according to comparative democratization research. The Freedom House still designates the Maldives as an ‘electoral democracy’, and our donors know this. Instead of promoting Gayoom’s discourse, we must acknowledge our oppressive laws, practices and attitudes, and try to change them.

Secondly, we need to create a Divehi equivalent for ‘tolerance’. Divehi word ‘tahammal’ or ‘kekkurun’ does not fully convey the meaning of the concept of tolerance. Tolerance means accepting people and permitting their differences and practices even when we personally strongly disapprove of them.

We may not want to become Buddhists or Hindus, nor may we approve of Buddhism or Hinduism. But we must accept the Buddhist and Hindu Sri Lankans or Indians in the Maldives and we must permit their religious practices.

Third, our education system must promote tolerance, mutual respect, and a critical-history of the country and Islam in general.

Textbooks must problematize the mythical narrations like Rannamari, which as Maloney said, served to render other historical events peripheral. Instead, the real age and images of Divehis must be re-taught.

The age of the Divehi is not 900 years, but more than 1500 years. The real Divehi is indeed indicative of a far richer adventurism, innovation, cultural practices, linguistic uniqueness, adaptability, and the sheer incredible strength of spirit and survivability in these lands against numerous odds, not least foreign interventions.

The real Divehi is indicative of an incredible story of inclusiveness, of co-existence of political exiles and immigrants from India or Sri Lanka. This Divehi story must be our discourse for re-doing our historical identity.

Gayoom’s mythical unity as found in the oppressive Religious Unity Act is not even our historical reality in the Muslim period. Maliki madhab was dominant until 1573, when Muhammad Jamal Din advocated Shafi’I madhab.

Thus, whether we approve of it or not, we have both intra-religious and inter-religious differences. There is no way to stop this diversity except through despotic oppression.

We cannot remain ignoring this reality and deluding ourselves into a utopian umma. We must embrace the ‘fact of pluralism’ and tolerance as basis of our new national identity.

That, after all, is also what Islam stands for.

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]