Comment: “No animal shall sleep in beds…with sheets”

One can’t help but recollect the lines from George Orwell’s brilliant 1946 satire, Animal Farm, after listening to the agitators on stage during the ‘big protest’ held in Male’ on 23rd December 2011 in order to “protect Islam”.

In the classic novel, the farm animals rise in revolt against their drunken owner and take over the running of the farm. They write down their Seven Commandments on the wall of the barn but, over time, as a totalitarian dictatorship takes root at the farm, they find mysterious qualifiers added to those commandments.

Curiously enough, one of the central demands made by the ‘protect-Islam’ brigade was to “Ban the sale of alcohol… on inhabited islands”.

The ‘…on inhabited islands’ qualifier has a lot of significance, for it reveals the unresolved contradictions that are central to the controversy currently raging in the shallow, but always turbulent waters of Maldivian politics.

No animal shall drink alcohol… in inhabited islands.

The term ‘inhabited’ is officially used in the Maldives to refer to commonly populated islands. The country’s famed beach resorts fall under the ‘uninhabited’ category, despite housing thousands of Maldivian staff for the larger part of the year, and a lot of the usual restrictions do not apply there.

While there is a general consensus among  Islamic jurists that both consumption and trade of alcohol is forbidden in Islam, the economic realities of heavy dependence on tourism has meant that certain un-Islamic vices like consumption of alcohol is permitted in the Maldivian resorts.

The issue of alcohol sales remains a controversial topic among Maldivians, and is wantonly exploited by every tin-pot politician seeking an audience.

Alcohol was one of the major “issues” highlighted at the recent protest on December 23 organized by seven opposition parties and a network of NGOs  who joined hands  against what they alleged were ‘anti-Islamic policies of the government’.

The turnout of over 5000 religious protesters was considerably less than the ambitious 100,000 originally anticipated by the organizers. The flags they carried were surprisingly not the bastardized offspring of the Maldivian and Saudi Arabian flags, as displayed on the protest’s official website.

Meanwhile, the ruling MDP had also called for another protest the same day, at a venue just a couple of hundred meters away, calling for ‘moderate Islam’.

Speaking at the MDP protest, President Nasheed claimed that the government was being accused of being ‘anti-Islamic’ simply for sticking up for traditional Dhivehi values, and rejecting the recently imported dogmatic versions of Islam that had room for concubines, marrying nine-year olds,  female genital mutilation and harsh punishments such as amputations and stoning humans to death.

The ill-advised protest concluded early, but gave enough ammunition for the opposition protesters to last through till midnight.

The opposition-allied mullahs tore into President Nasheed’s remarks against concubines and marrying children, claiming it amounted to a mockery of the Prophet. They steadfastly defended amputations and other punishments as being a central part of the Sharia penal code and – by extension – of Islam.

They demanded that the government to apologize for the UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s comments to Parliament condemning medieval punishments like flogging.

Swinging between Halal and Haram

One protestor on stage, criticizing the President, declared that one could not accept one part of the Qur’an, and reject the other.

“…unless it is the parts advocating religious tolerance”, one might presumably add, because the protesters demanded the removal of allegedly idolatrous monuments placed by neighbouring countries during the recently concluded SAARC summit in Addu City, amid repeated accusations that the government was trying to introduce ‘religious freedom’.

Leading the protesters in this righteous cause was DQP leader and former Attorney General Dr Hassan Saeed, who co-authored a book called ‘Freedom of Religion, Apostasy and Islam’, the opening paragraph of which curiously claims there is “a vast amount of Qur’anic texts in the favour of freedom of religion”.

The protesters further demanded that the Israeli airline El Al should be forbidden from landing in the Maldives with their Zionist crew.

The Cabinet Minister of Islamic Affairs, Dr Abdul Majeed Abdul Baree also threw his weight behind the idea, saying he was of the ‘personal opinion’ that Israel was ‘not a legitimate state’.  He nevertheless requested that his personal opinion be translated into a parliamentary resolution.

Also on stage was the cleric Dr Afrasheem Ali, who once had stones thrown at him at a mosque for his “liberal” remarks such as claiming that singing was permitted in Islam. Sharing the stage with him were pious clerics who all agree that music is ‘haraam’.

What was not haraam, however, was the official song of the protest, apparently sung by former pop-star and current Salafi posterchild Ali Rameez, extolling the sacrifices of the battles of Badr and Uhud, and calling upon good Muslims to take up Jihad to ‘protect Islam’.

… Some massage parlours are more equal

Another major demand made by the opposition speakers during the 8 hour long protest was that ‘spas and massage parlours’ should be banned, as they were clearly fronts for the flesh trade. One protest leader provided a surprisingly specific number of brothels in the capital, contrasting them with the number of mosques in Male’.

Leading the agitators on stage, without the slightest trace of irony, was MP Qasim Ibrahim, the business tycoon whose fortune was made on a business of selling liquor to tourists, and whose resorts proudly boast of luxury spas and exotic massage parlours.

He could have perhaps invoked the amended commandment from George Orwell’s book, and declared that ‘No animal shall drink alcohol…  to excess”.

Instead, he responded to the President’s call for moderate Islam by publicly retorting, “We don’t know there is a moderate, higher or lower Islam. We only know Islam, which is above all the religion. The only road we must follow is based on Allah’s callings”.

Scorched Earth politics

Despite the initial reactions from the MDP vowing to not give in to “the extremists”, the government somehow decided to one-up the opposition instead by ceding to their demands, and engaging in the dangerous game of political brinkmanship.

Following the protests, the government has issued a circular ordering the closure of hundreds of spas and massage parlours in the country, including the ones in resorts.

In doing so, the government has acted in a callous manner, with the maturity and foresight of a jilted adolescent.

The President’s Office has also said it is considering a nationwide ban on alcohol and pork – including in “uninhabited” islands. The unstated intention appears to be to call the Opposition’s bluff or, even worse, teach a lesson to political opponents such as Jumhooree party leader Qasim Ibrahim, DRP leader Thasmeen and PA leader Yameen Abdul Qayoom, who all have massive business interests in the tourism sector.

It is quite clear that the opposition leaders weren’t counting on the government to actually do anything about their demands; both Qasim and his political allies have condemned the government’s acceptance of their own unreasonable demands.

Confirming that the lunatics have indeed taken over the asylum, the principal opposition PPM has made a grand stand itself, saying it would “support” this move if ‘the government dares’ to actually go ahead and do it.

It appears both sides have decided to engage in a high-stakes game of Russian roulette, showing a disturbing willingness to put the even country’s economic lifeline at stake while they both dig deeper into their respective political trenches waiting to see who blinks first.

A Hotel in Medina, and other fairy tales

While the politicians engage in their scorched-earth politics, there are some realities that the Maldivian public has to learn to accept. The foremost among them is that, as detestable as the tourism industry maybe, we have grown to be dependent on it.

The income from tourism keeps the Maldivian economy afloat, pays the country’s bills and also props up other industries and employment sectors like telecom, health, education, catering and construction. It builds our roads, drainages, schools and hospitals, and pays for our fuel, electricity and drinking water.

It is not by accident that the average Maldivian’s life expectancy has jumped from under 45 years to over 76 years today since tourism was introduced.

When opportunistic politicians and clerics decide at their convenience that the bedrock of the country’s economy is no longer halal, then perhaps they owe the Maldivian public an alternate economic plan that does not involve alcohol or non-Muslims.

The last time any politician even attempted to offer such an alternative was when Adhalaath party leader Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed, then State Minister of Islamic Affairs, pointed out in March 2010 that the Intercontinental Hotel in Medina drew thousands of visitors every year, despite serving no alcohol.

Fortunately, it doesn’t take the Nobel Committee to figure out that the holy city of Medina would continue to see hundreds of thousands of visitors irrespective of whether there’s any alcohol – or even a hotel for that matter.

If only Sheikh Shaheem would clarify how he intends to replicate the ‘Medina hotel’ model of economic development in the Maldives, the issue of alcohol laced tourism would be forever settled.

Rewinding the clock

There are, of course, orthodox clerics who outright condemn the idea of progress itself, and advocate just living off the fish from the sea.

But would Maldivians who today complain of the rising prices of coffee willingly go back to living in huts, defecating by the sea, and starving in stormy weather?

In the 21st century, the nations of the world are interconnected and interdependent in ways that simply weren’t true a hundred years ago.

Could these orthodox ideologues point out to the public just ONE example of a developing country that is able to live in such romantic seclusion? There is a reason why isolated nations like the North Koreans aren’t able to just live off rabbits and groundnuts.  There is a reason why Pol Pot’s Cambodia became a blood-soaked failure.

Economies don’t run on hollow slogans, nor do romantic ideals feed the hungry.

Dr Hassan Saeed was right when – speaking at the protest – he paraphrased the Qur’an, stating that people’s conditions can only improve when they themselves take up the challenge of improving their own plight.

To do that, Maldivians need to settle on what kind of Islam we’re going to follow, and demand solutions from the elected officials, instead of mere slogans. We cannot afford to put up with politicians who wilfully destroy our country’s peaceful image, and complain about a suffering economy in the same breath.

As the Police Commissioner Ahmed Faseeh said recently, we’re living under the threat of becoming another Afghanistan – except, unlike Afghanistan, the Maldives produces no food to feed its own people. We’re dependent on international goodwill, and simply cannot afford to have leaders who engage in harmful rhetoric aimed at destroying our country’s standing in the international community.

The last few weeks of 2011 have set the precedent of hard line, no holds-barred brand of politics that could easily prove fatal to the country’s democracy, economy and social stability.

President Nasheed has recently made grand promises that 2012 will be a ‘year of happiness’. But it will take much greater political maturity and statesmanship from the country’s elected leaders to achieve this goal.

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