Blog crack-down “is just the beginning”, warns censored blogger

The website of controversial Maldivian blogger Ismail ‘Hilath’ Rasheed has been shut down by Communications Authority of the Maldives (CAM) on the order of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. The Ministry made the request on the grounds that the site contained anti-Islamic material, a CAM statement read.

CAM Director Abdulla Nafeeg Pasha told Minivan News the Islamic Ministry has the power to regulate website content.

Pasha did not wish to comment on the procedures for closing down a website, but said “if the ministry tells us to shut it down, that’s what we do. We do not make the decision.”

Once closed, Pasha explained, a website can only be re-opened by order of the court.

Islamic Minister Abdul Majeed Abdul Bari had not returned calls at time of press, and Permanent Secretary of the Ministry Mohamed Didi had not responded to enquiries.

In a statement issued today Hilath defended his blog as an expression of his Sufi Muslim identity.

“I am a Sufi Muslim and there is nothing on my website that contradicts Sufi Islam. I suspect my website was reported by intolerant Sunni Muslims and Wahhabis,” he claimed.

Under the Maldivian constitution every Maldivian is a Sunni Muslim. The constitution also provides for freedom of expression, with Article 27 reading “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought and the freedom to communicate opinions and expression in a manner that is not contrary to any tenet of Islam.”

New regulations published by the government in September, enforcing the 1994 Religious Unity Act, bans the media from producing or publicising programs, talking about or disseminating audio “that humiliates Allah or his prophets or the holy Quran or the Sunnah of the Prophet (Mohamed) or the Islamic faith.”

“This also includes the broadcasting of material (on other religions) produced by others and recording of such programs by the local broadcaster, and broadcasting such material by the unilateral decision of the local broadcaster,” the regulations stipulate. Under the Act, the penalty for violation is 2-5 years imprisonment.

Hilath claimed he was being censored for expressing his version of Islam, and called for more freedom of interpretation within the faith.

“I call upon all concerned to amend the clause in the constitution which requires all Maldivians to be Sunni Muslims only,” his statement read.

“‘Unto you your religion and unto me my religion,’ and ‘There is no compulsion in religion’,” he said, quoting Qur’an 109:6 and 2:256.

Hilath believes the block of his website has a political edge. “If Sunni Muslims are the conservatives, then the Sufi Muslims are the liberals,” he told Minivan News. “I think this is a conservative attack on the site. They think if you’re not a Sunni, you’re an unbeliever.”

Hilath said he would approach the issue from its constitutional roots. “If I want to unlock my blog I will have to go to court, where they will say I’m an unbeliever which is illegal. So I will have fight the larger issue of the constitution,” he said.

The label of ‘unbeliever’ was tantamount to ‘enemy of the state’, he said, adding that bloggers such as himself were afraid of the consequences of being labelled as such. Hilath is one of only a few Maldivian bloggers who write under their own names.

In January 2009 the Islamic Ministry shut down several blogs for allegedly publishing anti-Islamic material. The action closely followed then-newly elected President Mohamed Nasheed’s statement that the Maldives would be a haven of free expression.

Hilath said he was ashamed of the government’s maintenance of its original declaration for a liberal democracy. “I know the President said this was a liberal democracy, but I am ashamed that the Islamic Ministry has assumed so much power,” he said. “I call upon the president to address this issue.”

A 2009 review endorsed by UNESCO’s International Programme for the Development of Communication defined freedom of expression in the digital age as dependent on “neutral” networks “in the sense that the flow of content should not be influenced by financial, cultural or political reasons.”

“In particular, in the case of filtering, the origin of filtering lists and the underlying criteria and processes should be publicly available,” read the report.

The report made three recommendations for the Maldives:

1) To stop blocking websites as was done in March 2009;

2) If blocking is necessary, it should only be pursued following a favorable court decision;

3) To foster open discussions on internet regulation among citizens, government members, NGOs and international parties.

To Hilath’s knowledge, this is the first time a websites has been blocked since January 2009. He believes his website is part of a “bigger conservative fight against the [ruling] Maldivian Democratic Party” and is only the beginning of a new wave of censorship.

“This time I think the conservatives behind the Islamic Ministry think they can put pressure on the government to see all these things as anti-Islamic, like with the SAARC monument issue. More blogs will probably be blocked. I think this is just the beginning.”

The opposition to Hilath’s blog “is a minority of the population, but it’s very vocal and active,” he said. By contrast the younger generation, which composes approximately half of the Maldives population, may take a different view, he claimed.

“The younger generation is educated and enlightened about religion and freedom and Islamic principles. I think the majority will support my move. But few feel free to speak out,” he said.

Mohamed Nazeef, President of Maldives Media  Council (MMC), said he was not familiar with the blog in question. However he said that the media – even bloggers – were subject to the society it served.

“Even when you talk about democracy there are ethics, and you have to respect the prevailing culture of the country and the needs of its people. Even in the name of freedom there are boundaries. That’s why we have a media code of ethics.”

When asked whether a citizen’s blog could arguably represent or oppose the greater good, Nazeef explained that a balance between people and the law was important.

“The constitution must be respected because people are under the constitution. Nobody is above the law. If you want to do something that is not allowed you have to properly amend the law.”


Mother of self-declared Addu apostate launches media appeal seeking scholars’ help

The mother of a 22 year-old girl from Addu City who publicly declared her apostasy has launched an appeal in the local Maldivian media seeking the help of religious scholars to make her daughter repent.

“She’s been a bit odd ever since she was in the seventh grade, but at the  time she did not say the things that she says now,” the 49 year-old mother told Minivan News.

“Every time I try to advise her she shouts at me and asks me what I was trying to make her believe, and says that she cannot believe the existence of Allah,” the mother said.

The mother said her daughter was currently being held under house arrest while being investigated for allegedly giving birth to a child out of wedlock.

“She has misbehaved since she was young, and is saying things that should not be said in front of the children. She has even been calling me balhu (dog).”

The mother said that whenever she tried to inform her daughter about death, the afterlife and the punishments for apostasy, her daughter would reply that it was “not a problem for her, and not to worry.”

“I admit that it was our negligence as well that allowed her to come this far. We knew about this a while ago and we could have been more careful then,’’ the mother said. “I have been asking around my neighbors and everyone about what to do, but all I can do is remain in this grief thinking about her.”

The mother said she “had no solution” to her grief.

“There’s still some good inside her. I know that because she has been advising her younger sisters not to be like her,’’ she said. ‘’It’s because she can believe that she is not going the right way.’’

The mother said there “was a reason why this had happened to [her daughter],” but said it was “a long story”.

President of Islamic Foundation of the Maldives, Ibrahim Fauzee said the organisation had heard of the appeal and that its local branch was looking into the matter.

“For sure, we will provide her assistance,’’ Fauzee said.

The Islamic Ministry said it had not received official notice of the matter.

The Maldivian Constitution states that the Maldives is a “100 percent” Sunni Muslim country, and the country maintains a reservation to article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on freedom of religion.

The last Maldivian to publicly declare apostasy, Mohamed Nazim, did so in front of an 11,000-strong audience attending a lecture in May 2010 by well-known Islamic speaker Dr Zakir Naik.

Nazim was escorted from the venue by police for his own protection after members of the audience attempted to attack him, and was held in police custody. The Islamic Foundation of the Maldives subsequently issued a statement calling for Nazim to be stripped of his citizenship and sentenced to death if he failed to repent and return to Islam.

After two days of religious counseling in police custody, Nazim declared that his misconceptions had been clarified and gave Shahada – the Muslim testimony of belief – on national television during a press conference held at the Islamic Ministry.

In a later interview with Minivan News, Nazim said that he did not regret his actions.

“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 said.

The reaction, he said, was 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, were uneasy talking about it, and very few actually discussed it with him. However, he told Minivan News he could feel the presence of the issue, “unspoken yet potent”, in every social interaction he had with another person.

In July 2010, 25 year-old air traffic controller Ismail Mohamed Didi hanged himself from the control tower of Male’ International Airport after seeking asylum in the UK for fear of persecution over his lack of religious belief.

Over two emails sent to an international humanitarian organisation on June 23 and 25, obtained by Minivan News, Ismail confessed he was an atheist and requested assistance for his asylum application, after claiming to have received several anonymous threats on June  22.

In the emails, he said he “foolishly admitted my stance on religion” to work colleagues, word of which had “spread like wildfire.”

“Maldivians are proud of their religious homogeneity and I am learning the hard way that there is no place for non-Muslim Maldivians in this society,” Ismail said, in one of his letters.

“I cannot bring myself to pretend to be something I am not, as I am a staunch believer in human rights. I am afraid for my life here and know no one inside the country who can help me.”

A colleague of Ismail’s told Minivan News that it appeared the 25 year-old had sought the early 3:00am shift and “came to work fully prepared to die.”

“His mother said she called him in the morning at 5:30am to tell him to pray, but there was no answer. They found his cigarette lighter on the balcony.”


Comment: Shariah not a solution

Yesterday, the Adhaalath party organised a large rally at the tsunami monument in Male’, to demand the implementation of Islamic Shariah in the Maldives.

The party was joined by “hundreds” of pseudo-religious NGOs whi lent their collective voice to the clamour for Shariah, supposedly an antidote to ‘murder, violent assaults, robbery, rape and drug abuse’ in the country.

“The whole nation is threatened and institutions have failed,” the party said in a statement. The ‘only solution’, according to large banners put up across Male’, is Islamic Shariah.

What the Adhaalath Party and its friends fail to mention here is that by ‘Islamic Shariah’, they’re referring to a single interpretation of Shariah suitable to their rigid world-view – a minority opinion among the world’s many Muslim schools of thought that all hold different views of Shariah.

Lady Injustice

One common criticism of clergy-controlled Shariah is the perceived injustice towards women. While these concerns are often met with heated denial, they’re also backed up by cold statistics.

In 2009, then Minivan News Editor, Mariyam Omidi, wrote a damning report highlighting the strong gender discrepancy in the meting out of punishment for ‘fornication’ in the Maldives. According to government statistics cited in the report, out of 184 people sentenced to lashing for ‘fornication’ under Shariah law, 146 were women.

Following his verdict in June 2005, a judge in the criminal court, helpfully offered his opinion that women were ‘deceptive creatures’ according to the scriptures.

Almost exactly two years later, another judge ruled that the gang-rape of a 12 year old girl by four axe-wielding men who’d broken in through her bedroom window, was ‘consensual sex’, because the child didn’t scream audibly enough.

Last week, Mukhtar Mai, a woman who was gang-raped and dragged out naked in front of 200 higher-caste men in her village in Pakistan, had her hopes dashed when the courts upheld a ruling by semi-literate, tribal judges against her.

Given these realities, and a long series of cases where Muslim women have been punished for the crime of getting raped, one awaits an answer from the proponents of Sharia as to why a woman should ever step into their courts expecting justice.

Judge, Jury and Executioner

In Islamic Shariah, there is no jury, no defense lawyers, no prosecutors, no pre-trial discovery process, no courts of appeal, no cross-examination of witnesses, no legal precedents, and perhaps most damaging of all, little room for modern evidence.

Former State Minister of Islamic Affairs, Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed, while graciously acknowledging the validity of long established forensic methods of DNA profiling, stated that such evidence could only be used as ‘supplementary’ evidence, presumably while relying primarily on eye-witness testimonies, as practised in Arabia 1400 years ago.

Furthermore, due to the lack of separation of powers in Islamic Shariah, the Mullah is literally the judge, jury and executioner on whose shaky whims the mortal life of the accused rests.

Coupled with the severe lack of capable judges, this is often a recipe for disaster.

Dr. Tarek Al-Suwaidan, a prominent Muslim scholar, blamed the poor quality of modern Islamic jurists on a curriculum that is limited to only subjects related to traditional Islamic jurisprudence.

Highlighting the necessity of familiarity with international law, and current commercial, copyright and cyber-crime laws, he prescribed a minimum requirement of at least a bachelor’s degree in business, law or other specialized field before candidates enrolled for Shariah studies.

Maldivian courts, on the other hand, are plagued by severely under-qualified judges with barely primary level schooling who, according to a February 2011 report by the ICJ (International Commission of Jurists), have also failed to act in an impartial manner.

Political farce

The ‘absolute Shariah’ practised in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan gives credence to Syrian Scholar Muhammad Shahrur’s theory that jurisprudence in the name of God is a farce by those wanting to maintain political power.

Photographs available in the public domain show the former Taliban government in Afghanistan showing off dead bodies of dissenters hung from poles in public, with their severed penises stuffed in their mouths.

In 2007 alone, at least six cases of torture and custodial death were brought against the muttaween, the Saudi Arabian religious police entrusted with enforcing a rigid Shariah state. In one case, a man was beaten to death for being in ‘illegal seclusion’ with an unrelated woman.

In May 2002, the religious police in Mecca prevented school girls from escaping a burning building as they were not wearing the ‘correct Islamic dress’, and to prevent physical contact between the girls and civil firefighters, which they feared might have caused ‘sexual enticement’.

Over forty people suffered severe burns that day, and 14 girls burned to death.

In the Islamic Republic of Iran, the basij militia brutally cracks down on pro-democracy activists in Universities and streets of Tehran, thereby prolonging the Ayatollah’s political reign in the guise of ‘upholding Islamic Shariah’.

The lack of judicial oversight or accountability, coupled with the promise of absolute power, has made Shariah an irresistible proposition for the Islamist political movement.

The political implications of a ‘Shariah’ legal system was painfully obvious in the original draft of the Maldivian Religious Unity Regulations of 2010, which forbade, among several other things, the criticism of ‘religious scholars’, and airing of any views on religion that contradicted the views of a select few who, very conveniently, happened to be the ones drafting the regulation.

Uncodified Law

When a Maldivian man publicly declared his lack of faith to a visiting preacher last year – he was met with a curious reaction.

On the one hand, the preacher on stage, in a long-winded response, ruled that Islam didn’t demand the death of all apostates. On the other hand, by day break, another set of preachers from a local NGO had issued an outright demand for his state sanctioned murder, failing an immediate repentance and conversion.

The dramatic contrast in judgement between the self-declared experts that – under a Shariah law system –  would’ve literally meant the difference between the man’s life and death, brings to the forefront the problem of Shariah not being a codified system of law.

There have been several attempts within the Islamic community to correct this grievous flaw, by compiling Shariah laws into a standard code. But observers note that since Islam has no central authority to universally  enforce such a codified law, it would depend on compliance, rather than enforcement.

Until such day, the law literally is whatever the Mullah with the gavel says it is.

The deterrence argument

Citing Islamic Shariah, the Maldivian Parliament recently introduced a proposed amendment to the Clemency Act, which would uphold a death sentence passed by the Supreme Court.

The proponents of the death penalty claim that it would act as a deterrent against violent crimes.

As it happens, a New York Times survey in 2000 revealed that American states which practise the death penalty have for decades shown consistently higher homicide rates than states that didn’t. FBI data for 2008 shows that murder rates were up to 101% higher in states that implemented capital punishment than those that didn’t.

According to Amnesty International, evidence shows that the faint threat of a possible future execution does not, in fact, enter the mind of a potential murderer in the throes of violent rage, mental illness, calm cold-bloodedness, or sheer panic.

Human Law

A vast majority of the world’s Muslims live under secular, constitutional law.

Even though laws in Pakistan and Malaysia are influenced by Shariah,  they have regular courts and cede ultimately authority unto the constitution, rather than the clergy.

Many secular countries like Britain, India and the Philippines allow religious discretion in civil and domestic affairs governing marriages, divorce and inheritance, but for criminal cases, they all employ modern law – with constitutional remedies, inviolable rights, principles of equality before law, provisions for appeals and the benefit of forensic evidences that has helped ensured justice for rape and murder victims even several years after a crime is committed.

A new thinking

In a sermon at the American Centre of the National Library last year, Imam Khalid Latif said that even non Muslims and people guilty of various sins felt free to openly speak their minds to the Prophet, without fear or hesitation, and fully expecting a patient hearing.

Times have clearly changed, as Islamist resentment against differing opinions has increasingly expressed itself as violent attacks on intellectuals and liberal reformists, further expanding the shadow of fear and intimidation under which Islamists operate.

Ibn Rushd, the celebrated philosopher from the Islamic Golden Age, also said that revelation and reason are not contradictory, but complementary.

Swiss born intellectual Professor Tariq Ramadan, one of Foreign Policy magazine’s Top 100 Global Thinkers of 2009, argues that the Qur’an should be interpreted in the changed historical context of modern times.

Citing a German law demanding equal treatment of sexes as an example of  proper Shariah, Ramadan asserted that “There are laws coming from non-Muslim minds that are more Islamic than laws coming from Muslim minds in Islamic countries.”

Indeed, those who swear by the immutability of God’s law, ignore the fact that Shariah has been compiled, polished, amended and refined by Islamic jurists for centuries after the Prophet’s death.

Dr. Abdul Fatah Idris, Head of Comparative Jurisprudence at Al-Azhar University agrees that with changing times, the traditional classical jurisprudence is no longer sufficient, and a ‘new thinking’ is required to deal with a changing society.

The failure of Islamic Shariah in modern times reflects this failure of the clergy class to adapt to changing times.

As with others before them, politicians in the Maldives are projecting an alluring vision of an idealistic sin free society to a disgruntled public as ‘Shariah’ – ignoring the fact that it has been a staggering, disastrous failure in every other modern nation that has experimented with clergy justice.

While loudly touted by vested interests as ‘the only solution’, Shariah is unfortunately ill-equipped to solve the average modern Muslim’s daily problems, and unlike modern law, has demonstrably failed to ensure justice and security for men and women in every part of the Muslim world.

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]

Comment: Extremism threatens our economy

We’ve heard in recent news government officials referring to rising fear of Islamic extremism in the Maldives.

We’ve heard about children not being vaccinated or not being sent to school in the name of religion; women being provided with a single bucket of water for the day, again in the respect of religious norms; children being restricted from music and other types of art; male children being forced to wear trousers shin high; schools threatened for asking male children to shave their beards; the classifying of many immaterial matters outright haraam such as smoking, watching movies or cartoons (Tom & Jerry, Mickey Mouse), singing, playing or listening to music, women travelling of women without a husband or family member, the showing of hair or wearing of perfume by women; or news and blogs promoting genital mutilation of females.

Another serious threat is the increased preaching of hatred against the west. The west (the majority of whom are understood to be Christians or Jews) is portrayed as the singular prime threat to the religious stability of the country.

This is a paramount danger to our economy given our dependence on foreign money. We should keep in mind that an act such as the one that happened at Sultans Park a few years ago could cripple our economy, slashing our foreign income.

Currently, the government is committing the Maldives to large contracts with foreign nations, with majority populations of Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and others. The Maldives is not self-sufficient and therefore we are at the mercy of other nations who are willing to ally with us and help us bear fruit. We cannot afford to live on the annual ration of a few tonnes of Saudi dates.

During recent years, many industries and public services are being capitalised on foreign investments. At such a time, how can we even allow the thought to draw a religious boundary around ourselves? We have been selling liquor and allowing illicit sex on all our resorts for almost 40 years because we cannot let religious boundaries starve us to death.

Our main politico-religious party is Adaalath Party, who also has its presence in the government sphere, ruling the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. They are assigned the responsibility of upholding the religion of the country – Islam – with a reported US$16 million budget.

Adaalath recently held one of their statutory meetings at a prominent public space (Alimas Stage). The whole meeting was aired live on Maldives National Broadcasting Corporation’s TV channel, MNBC one. The station is well known for its pro-government programming.

I was watching intently one of the speeches of this meeting. I found it really distasteful and offensive, to hear one of the famous preachers in the country, Sheikh Ilyas, known for being arrogant and blunt about religious statements.

He was saying that Muslims should not trust Christians or Jews in any way for they are not reliable on their word. He went on to say that any agreement made by them would never be kept. He mocked human rights and women’s rights as tools used to evade Islamic prudence. Every now and then he raised a copy of Quran above his head and said that he was presenting the word of God.

It is hard to imagine why the government, on one hand, is acknowledging the spreading extremism in the country, while at the same time is assigning public funds for the spreading of such extreme and radical ideologies.

The reason is that it is constitutional for the government to uphold and strengthen Islam as the religion of the country. And the government fulfils this part very smoothly: sets up a specific Ministry (the first religious ministry of the country), puts the leading religious political group in charge, and assigns a significant chunk of budget for their purpose.

Here is something the Ministry of Islamic Affairs published on their website (in local language), followed by a translation (by a blogger) during the Haiti disaster:

“Are there any Muslims in Haiti? Do we have to gain wisdom from this [disaster]? Haiti is a caribbean island nation, located not far from America. A certain number of Muslims live there. It is reported that they are not good people. There is no doubt about this; such earth quakes are moral lessons for everyone. Such [disasters] are caused by God because of the actions of mankind.”

Now, the public is at a loss for words. Those who are assigned the responsibility of upholding and strengthening Islam in the country, are advocating against the government’s policies and also promoting extremism. They are outright in saying that no deals should be made with infidels (such as Christians or Jews, who are not trustworthy as per God). They mock human rights and women’s rights in public.

It doesn’t take one to wonder, why this could happen? Why is the government apologetic about growing extremism but still allowing such things to preached in the public? Is our government crippled from doing anything about this?

Firstly, the Islamic Ministry was a promise the ruling party made during the elections. Protecting Islam was one of the major five promises of the ‘Other Maldives’ campaign. Since Adaalath sided with the MDP during the coalition to overthrow Gayoom’s dictatorship, MDP duly handed the reigns of the ministry to Adaalath. On top of this, our constitution demands our government promote and strengthen Islam. As such the government is carrying out their constitutional responsibilities.

Our constitution also says that Sharia is based on the Quran and those findings, judgments and rulings concurred by the majority of religious scholars. When the majority of the leading scholars of the country concur on hatred against Christians, Jews and other infidels, backed up by our Constitution, what should the government do instead of sleeping with the enemy? I think the government should change their partner, before its too late.

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]


Revelations of a former apostate: Mohamed Nazim speaks to Minivan

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.


Apostate publicly repents and rejoins Islam, after counselling

A Maldivian man who publicly declared himself an apostate during a speech by Islamic speaker Dr Zakir Naik on Friday evening has repented and offered a public apology on Television Maldives (TVM).

Mohamed Nazim gave Shahada – the Muslim testimony of belief – during a press conference held at the Islamic Ministry today.

He also apologised for causing “agony for the Maldivian people”, and said “major misconceptions I had regarding Islam have been clarified.”

He further requested that the community accept him back into society.

After describing himself to Dr Naik as “Maldivian but not a Muslim” on Friday night, Nazim was escorted from Maafaanu stadium by Islamic Ministry officials into police custody. Several officers were attacked for trying to protect Nazim when members of the crowd turned violent, calling for his death.

The following day the Islamic Foundation NGO issued a press release calling for Nazim to be executed under Islamic law if he failed to repent.

Apostasy is considered a grave sin under Islam, although scholarly opinion varies as to its punishment: in response to Nazim’s question, Dr Naik clarifed that the penalty was only death “if the person becomes a non-Muslim and propagates his faith and speaks against Islam. Just because a person who is a Muslim becomes a non-Muslim, death penalty is not the ruling.”

Speaking after the press conference today, Deputy Minister for Islamic Affairs Sheikh Mohamed Farooq told newspaper Haveeru that Nazim had reverted to Islam “on freewill” after the Ministry had sent two scholars to counsel him while he was in custody.

“[After] two days of counseling he said that his misconceptions had been clarified and that he wanted to become a Muslim,” Sheikh Farooq told Haveeru.

President of Islamic NGO Jammiyyathu Salaf Sheikh Abdulla Bin Mohamed Ibrahim told Minivan News he was very happy to hear of Nazim’s repentance and thanked God, adding that incident has “damaged the good name of the country.”

He further said that there were “many people trying to introduce other religions to the Maldives underground”, and that he would “release the names of these underground people at the appropriate time.”

”The incident was the result of a lack of Islamic studies in the school curriculum,” he said. ”That is one of the reasons why such things as this happen.”

The Adhaalath Party said it welcomed Nazim’s repentance and congratulated him for re-embracing Islam.

Police have meanwhile yet to reveal whether Nazim has been released from custody.

Sub-Inspector Ahmed Shiyam said the court had decided that Nazim should be released, but he would not reveal whether police had yet done so.

“Police will analyse the situation,” Shiyam said, regarding Nazim’s safety.


Islamic Foundation calls for death sentence if apostate fails to repent

The Islamic Foundation has called for self-declared apostate Mohamed Nazim to be stripped of his citizenship and sentenced to death if he does not repent and return to Islam.

Nazim claimed he was “Maldivian and not a Muslim” during a public question-and-answer session with Islamic speaker Dr Zakir Naik, the first time a Maldivian has publicly announced he is not a Muslim.

According to the Maldivian constitution all citizens are required to be Muslim, and the country is always described as a “100 percent” Muslim country.

The 37 year-old angered many in the approximately 11,000-strong crowd with his statement during Dr Naik’s ‘Misconceptions about Islam’ lecture on Friday.

Dr Naik responded that Nazim had read the wrong books and “deviated from Islam”, and requested him “to read correct books on Islam, and Inshallah, you’ll come back to Islam.”

However Nazim did not relinquish the microphone and pressed Naik to clarify the penalty for apostasy.

“In Islam, there are many cases, it doesn’t mean death penalty,” Dr Naik explained. “But if the person who reverts who was a Muslim then converts to and becomes a non-Muslim and propagates his faith and speaks against Islam, and if it’s Islamic rule, then the person should be put to death. But just because a person who is a Muslim becomes a non-Muslim, death penalty is not the ruling.”

Nazim was escorted from the venue by police for his own protection, after members of the audience attempted to attack him.

Police Sub-Inspector Ahmed Shiyam said two men who tried to attack Nazim were arrested after they attacked the police officers protecting him. Nazim himself “was not injured because police protected him,” Shiyam said.

He was taken to a police building where a crowd of protesters had gathered, calling for him to be punished. Shiyam confirmed that Nazim is now being held in an undisclosed location for five days while police investigate “in consultation with the Islamic Ministry and the Prosecutor General’s office.”

Today the Islamic Foundation of the Maldives issued a press statement calling on judges to give Nazim the opportunity to repent “and if he does not, then sentence him to death as Islamic law and Maldivian law agree.”

“The Islamic Foundation believes that the person who announces apostasy should be punished according to Islamic laws,” the NGO said, warning that Nazim represented “a disturbance to the religious views and the religious bonds that exist with Maldivians.”

“Hereby if this man does not do his penance and come back to the Islamic religion, the Islamic Foundation of the Maldives calls to take the citizenship away from this man as mentioned in the Maldivian constitution.”

If case crossed into areas not covered by the laws of the country, “then the judges should rely on Islamic law,” the NGO stated, as per article 142 of constitution which says judiciary shall look into Islamic shar’ia on matters not covered in law, and sentence accordingly.

“So it is requested that the commissioner of police run the legal research on this man and take this to the Prosecutor General’s office. We also request the Prosecutor General to go through this matter and to take this man to the criminal court for trial,” the Islamic Foundation said.

A government official involved in the legal process, who requested that his name and department be kept anonymous, said he was “really worried” and described the case as “a very sensitive subject”.

“Police are investigating the case,” he said. “My understanding is that the court authorities will give [Nazim] opportunities to change his mind. I think he will be given every opportunity to think about his decision.”

Minister for Islamic Affairs Dr Abdul Majeed Abdul Bari told Minivan News that Ministry officials had acted quickly to remove Nazim from the venue “for his own protection”, and had now handed the matter over to the legal system.

“I don’t know if there is a penalty for apostasy according to Maldivian law,” he said.

The Adhaalath Party issued a press statement claiming that the act violated the constitution of the Maldives and called on the government “to strengthen Islam and protect the constitution.”

Religious NGO Jamiyyathul Salaf declined to comment on the matter during a press conference held today on another matter, however NGO Jamiyyathul Musliheen expressed “concern and regret” over the incident.

”Not a few number of Maldivian youths are moving further from the religion, and many of them are going renegade,” the NGO said in a press statement, adding that “it is a responsibility of the government to strengthen Islam in the country.”

President of the Human Rights Commission to the Maldives (HRCM), Ahmed Saleem, said “what happened was really unfortunate.”

“I think the best thing will be to talk to him and to make him understand the situation and the repercussions, talks which HRCM will welcome,” Saleem said.

He said he was unsure how the Maldivian government would handle the incident.

“I’m afraid of the reaction from the international community should we resort to harsh action,” he said. “I don’t think it would be in our interest – we have just been given a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. This is something we need to think seriously about before we start using harsh language.”

Minivan News contacted several local human rights NGOs however they had not responded at time of press.

A senior government source, who requested anonymity, said he felt the case “will be a real test of how the government will abide by its international commitments.”

Press Secretary for the President Mohamed Zuhair was on medical leave and unable to comment.

Minivan News was unable to reach Nazim himself for comment, however a person close to the matter described him as “a very sensible guy who will think of the people around him. But he will not give up on calling for people to be more honest about themselves. I think he will become a genuine refugee if he refuses to take back his words,” she said.

A transcript Dr Naik’s response to Nazim is available here.