Parliament sitting adjourned amid disorder

Today’s sitting of parliament was adjourned by Speaker Abdulla Maseeh Mohamed amid vociferous protests by opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MPs over an amendment proposed to the parliamentary rules to require a vote ahead of debating bills and resolutions.

MDP MPs accused the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) of attempting to “silence the voice of the minority party” by blocking debate on resolutions.

The PPM together with the five MPs of coalition partner Maldives Development Alliance (MDA) have a combined 48 seats in the 85-member house.

Under the existing rules or standing orders, bills and resolutions submitted to the People’s Majlis have to be tabled in the agenda and debated on the floor ahead of a vote.

If MPs decide to accept a bill or resolution following preliminary debate, it would be sent to committee for further review ahead of a final vote.

Previously, motions without notice – which opens the floor for a one-hour debate on matters of urgent public importance – submitted by MDP MPs have been defeated by the majority party.

In July, pro-government MPs voted against a motion without notice submitted by MDP MP Imthiyaz Fahmy to debate the Judicial Service Commission’s (JSC) controversial decision to clear Supreme Court Justice Ali Hameed of misconduct over his appearance in a series of sex tapes.

Imthiyaz revealed to the press this week that Speaker Maseeh – a member of the PPM – had sent a letter on Saturday (August 16) to the general affairs committee requesting the revision.

Imthiyaz noted that a resolution he submitted in July calling for a parliamentary debate on the JSC decision regarding Justice Ali Hameed’s sex tapes has yet to be tabled in the agenda by the speaker.

Today’s sitting became disorderly during debate on a report (Dhivehi) compiled by the general affairs committee after evaluating the amendments proposed by the speaker.

The committee had rejected the amendment proposed to section 77(a) after MDA MP Ahmed Amir voted in favour of a proposal by Jumhooree Party (JP) MP Ahmed Mubeen to keep the section unchanged.

The proposal was passed with five votes after Amir voted with JP and MDP MPs on the committee.

However, PPM MP Jameel Usman proposed the same amendment during today’s debate, prompting MDP MPs to object with points of order.

Several MDP MPs also sprang from their seats and surrounded Usman while he was proposing the amendment. Under the rules, once an amendment is proposed to a committee report and seconded, the speaker must put it to a vote.

MDP and JP MPs accused the ruling party of attempting to overrule the committee decision by using their majority in the full house floor.

However, Usman reportedly said later that he was not in favour of requiring a vote ahead of preliminary debates for bills and resolutions, claiming that he was going to propose giving each party and independent MP five minutes during debates but was shouted down.


Committee rejects amendment requiring vote for debating resolutions

The People’s Majlis’ general affairs committee yesterday rejected an amendment proposed to the parliamentary rules to require a vote ahead of debating bills and resolutions on the floor.

At a press conference on Sunday (August 17), opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MP Imthiyaz Fahmy revealed that Speaker Abdulla Maseeh Mohamed – a member of the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives – had sent a letter to the general affairs committee requesting the revision.

Under the existing rules or standing orders, a resolution submitted to parliament has to be debated on the floor ahead of a vote.

Imthiyaz contended that the move by the majority party – which holds a comfortable majority in the 85-member house – was intended to “silence” the minority.

According to opposition-aligned private broadcaster Raajje TV, Maldives Development Alliance (MDA) MP Ahmed Amir voted in favour of a proposal by Jumhooree Party (JP) MP Ahmed Mubeen to keep the section unchanged.

The proposal was approved despite PPM MPs voting against it after JP and MDP MPs voted in favour. Amir’s was the deciding vote.

The MDA is a coalition partner of the ruling party.

MP Imthiyaz had noted that a resolution he submitted in July calling for a parliamentary debate on a controversial decision by the Judicial Service Commission clearing Supreme Court Justice Ali Hameed of misconduct has yet to be tabled in the agenda by the speaker.

The resolution was submitted after pro-government MPs voted down a motion without notice submitted by the MDP for a parliamentary debate on the issue.


ICC membership expected to reform Maldivian judicial system

The Maldives has become the 118th country to adopt the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the world’s first and only permanent international court with jurisdiction over crimes against humanity, crimes of aggression, genocide and war crimes.

The Maldives is the third state in South Asia to become an ICC member, following Bangladesh and Afghanistan. It is the ninth in the south asian region alongside Cambodia, Japan, Republic of Korea, Mongolia, the Philippines and Timor-Leste; plans to ratify the statute are advancing in Malaysia and Nepal.

Asia has been slower than other regions in adopting the ICC regulations, allegedly because they maintain the death penalty which is prohibited by the ICC. William R. Pace, Convenor of the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, said the Maldives’ decision to accede to the Rome Statue was a significant step for the region.

“It is vital that the momentum towards increasing respect for the rule of law and accountability for those responsible for the most serious crimes is seized by other states in the Asia-Pacific region, many of whom are close to joining the ICC,” Pace said in a press release. “Joining the Court represents a strong deterrent effect that will contribute toward the prevention of gross human rights violations in the Asia-Pacific region and to the global fight against impunity.”

Acceding to ICC regulations as defined by the Rome Statute has been a long process for the Maldivian government. In 2003, the Maldives took steps to reject its judicial authority.

Wikileaks cables published on 1 September 2011 cite the Maldivian government’s intent to “never turn over a US national to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The Maldivian government would not sign the ICC treaty and would not respect its claim to universal jurisdiction.” Other cables indicate that then president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was seeking approval for a visit with then US President George W. Bush, allegedly to improve his chances of re-election.

Speaking to Minivan News today, the President’s Press Secretary Mohamed Zuhair said ratification of the ICC statute highlighted the different values of the current administration.

“For us, it’s transparency that is at the top of our priorities. So right now, our highest priority is to improve the judicial system of this country.”

The ICC covers major crimes which are widespread, systemic and of concern to the international community. The ICC does not deal with small cases, even if the victims may be in the hundreds.

Among the criteria for the ICC to take on a case in the Maldives is doubtful willingness and capacity of the country’s own judiciary to handle the case in question.

Zuhair said it was important for Maldivians to have access to an international judicial system. “Individuals who feel they have a complaint, even against a leader, could refer the complaint to the Maldivian judicial system or to the ICC. This is a big step for a country whose previous leaders have been accused of human rights violations. I believe their cases would be fairly addressed in the ICC,” he said.

Evelyn Balais-Serrano, Asia-Pacific Coordinator for the ICC’s advocacy NGO Coalition for the International Criminal Court (CICC) told Minivan News that ratification would support domestic legal reform, and that heads of state would face new levels of accountability.

“The ICC only deals with the big fish. In the past only the small fish may have been sacrificed to show a semblance of justice – but the ICC targets the highest level of responsibility: the head of state, generals, kings,” she said previously.

The Debate

In October 2010, the debate to join the ICC created sparks in Parliament.

MDP MPs condemned the “unlawful and authoritarian” practices of the previous government. Group Leader “Reeko” Moosa Manik referred to 2009 legislation protecting former presidents who he considered “the worst torturers in the country’s history,” and said the purpose of the international criminal court was to “arrest torturers like Maumoon [Abdul Gayoom], people like Ilyas Ibrahim [brother-in-law of the former president] who stole state property and funds, and Attorney Generals like Hassan Saeed who tried to hide it.”

MPs from opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party-People’s Alliance (DRP-PA) said MDP MPs were overlooking the fact that Gayoom had never been reprimanded in a court of law, and accused the current administration of disregarding rules of law. MP Dr Abdulla Mausoom accused the MDP government of formulating policies only to “benefit certain people”, which he argued could be “considered a crime in international courts.”

The question of religion was also inflammatory. DRP MP Dr Afrashim Ali said convention should not be signed if it could lead to “the construction of temples here under the name of religious freedom.” Other MPs pointed out that several Muslim countries had not joined the ICC, and the MPs were concerned that ratification would “shatter Islamic principles” and encourage gay rights.

Shari’a experts in ICC signatories and Muslim countries Afghanistan, Jordan and Malaysia have not found conflict between the Rome Statute and Sharia.

On 14 June this year, Parliament voted almost unanimously to sign the Rome Statute of the ICC.

The Effects

Speaking to Minivan News today, Balais-Serrano pointed out that ratification of the Rome Statute was well-timed.

“As a chair of the SAARC summit, Maldives will have quite an influence on south asian countries attending this year’s event,” she said. “It will certainly be constructive in reviewing human rights, a key point we plan to address at the summit.”

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit is scheduled for Addu City in mid-November this year.

Balais-Serrano also pointed out that by ratifying the Rome Statute, governments are committing to adapt current domestic legislation to meet international standards. She said ICC members could receive “training of local judges and prosecutors and other officials responsible for lawmaking and implementation”, and hoped the Maldives would forward with judicial reform.

“The judicial system in Maldives can benefit from the rules and procedures by which the ICC operates, for example, in the nomination and election of judges, in the protection of witnesses and victims and in ensuring due process,” said Balais-Serrano.

She said that ICC membership would expand Maldivian court procedures. “One of the motivations of joining the ICC is to let go of a commitment to include the domestic judicial system alone. Now, Maldivians can also refer to the ICC provisions and regulations. This is a timely event for the Maldives to review domestic law while making the ICC a reference point.”

As an ICC member, the Maldives will be able to send judges and lawyers abroad for internships and exchange programs in member countries. Balais-Serrano said that all member countries are obliged to send employees to the ICC to learn and assist with proceedings.

International liability

ICC membership could affect international relations. The Maldives recently made news headlines by supporting the Sri Lankan government, which is facing war crimes allegations by international human rights groups. A report from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has raised the likelihood of an investigation by the Human Rights Commission.

A Relationship Agreement between the ICC and the United Nations calls the UN “potentially the most important partner of the ICC on various levels,” and suggests that investigations by the UN are based on the same human rights standards put forth by the ICC.

“The Maldives cannot do anything if the ICC decides to investigate and put into trial the perpetrators of crimes in Sri Lanka,” said Balais-Serrano. “If suspected criminals from Sri Lanka seek refuge in the territory of the Maldives, as a state party to the ICC, the government is obliged to cooperate to the Court by arresting  the criminals.”


Democracy growing, but gender equality a key issue: UNDP

The UNDP International Day of Democracy was celebrated today under the theme “Youth Inclusion and Democracy” at the Nasandhura Palace Hotel. Representatives from the government, UNDP, and the Human Rights Commission spoke on democratic progress in the Maldives.

Youth in civil society were widely recognised as a key factor for democratic growth in the Maldives.

UN Advisor on Social Cohesion and Governance, Ferdinand von Habsburg-Lothringen, delivered the opening speech.

“Civil society in the Maldives is impressive. It is an important avenue for young people to engage with their community and to hold leaders accountable,” he said.

Habsburg-Lothringen noted that “democracy is still a new concept in the Maldives, and will take many years to mature,” and encouraged the Maldivian government to enact “crucial” laws, such as the penal code.

Gender equality remains one of the biggest issues in the Maldives, said Habsburg-Lothringen. He noted that only 5 of the 77 MPs are female.

“Gender equality is an area in which the Maldives is lagging behind most countries in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs),” he said. “Democracy is dependent on not just 50 percent of the people. With only half of the eligible work force participating, growth will not flourish in the Maldives.”

Home Minister Hassan Afeef called this year’s theme “relevant to the country – a majority of our population are young people.”

The ceremony featured a presentation of the report, “Comprehensive Study on Maldivian Civil Society” by FJS Consulting.

Managing Director Fareeha Shareef summarised the report’s findings on CSOs in the Maldives. Among the issues addressed was the disorganised categorisation of CSOs.

“The government is trying to provide aid but the structure of how to do it is not specified,” said Shareef. “Some sports clubs and organisations didn’t even engage in sports activities,” she said.

Shareef also commented on the CSO sector’s unique work force. According to the report, only 0.7 percent of employees are paid, and the average employee is age 25 with an education ranging between grades 6 and 10. There are 1100 CSOs registered in the Maldives.

Funding is also a struggle. The report found that donors were the least common source of funding, and many CSOs organise events to generate income. One example was a CSO that went fishing to generate program funding. The report notes that these events only cover about 30 percent of the total program cost.

The report recognises that the Maldives has the resources to support a strong civil society, but recommends bringing in older employees to provide guidance. “Imagine the potential of the sector if the resources were channeled in an effective manner,” said Shareef.

Chief Guest speaker Mariyam Azra Ahmed, Chair of the Human Rights Commission, said “a vibrant civil sector and independent media, among others” were essential for growth. She also advised a stronger dialogue between citizens and the government. “Lifestyles incorporating compromise, cooperation, and consensus building should be a consistent, recurring feature in  a democratic society,” she said.

The event included a performance by musician Yes-e and singer Grey, for whom the performance was her debut. “I was a bit nervous, and the audience wasn’t very lively, but it was a good event,” she said.

Following a tea break, a vigorous student debate was widely attended by members of civil society, UNDP, and the government. Gesticulating throughout the debate, the students of Aminiya and Dharumavatha schools demonstrated passion and ambition for democracy in the Maldives.


Debate between contenders for the MDP’s top post canceled

A debate due to be televised between candidates running for the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP)’s top post has been cancelled, along with a debate between candidates for the vice-presidency.

MDP’s official website said the debate was cancelled after former Fisheries Minister Dr Ibrahim Didi, a candidate running for MDP presidency, decided to boycott the debate citing “concerning issues”.

Dr Didi sent a letter to the Chairperson of MDP and MP Mariya Ahmed Didi saying that he would not participate in the debate as he was experiencing “issues” related to the debate, according to the MDP Official website.

Debate between candidates for the vice-presidency was also cancelled after MP Alhan Fahmy decided to boycott the event, alleging undue influence.

The debate was canceled after Alhan also sent a letter to Chairperson Mariya Didi raising “issues” with the advertised debate.

Alhan wrote that he did not wish to publicly reveal his objections to the debate as disunity or discord within the party was not his intention, adding that he did not want members to lose confidence in a cabinet minister.

Last night, speaking to the media, Alhan said that he was unsure whether his opponent was unaware of the questions that might be asked during the debate, in which case he said his opponent would be sure to win.

Both Alhan and Dr Didi have not yet revealed the details of the issues concerning the debate.


Q&A: Young Muslim Advisory Group

Four young British Muslims from the UK’s Young Muslims Advisory Group (YMAG) visited the Maldives this week to learn about the Maldives and speak about their own experiences growing up as Muslims in a western society. During their visit they met ministers, civil society, school students and numerous community and religious leaders across Male’, Kuludhufushi and Hanimadhoo.

Minivan News spoke to Fahad Khan, YMAG’s chair and a graduate in International Relations from Leeds, Aisha Iqbal, a biochemist with an MSc in toxicology, Saadeya Shamsuddin, a London-based journalist and author, and Waliur Rahman, founder of the Bristol Active Youth Service (BAYS) and Project Manager for the Council of Ethnic Minority Voluntary Sector Organisations (CEMVO).

JJ Robinson: Can you explain what the Young Muslims Advisory Group does, and the purpose of your visit to the Maldives?

Aisha Iqbal: The organisation was set up in 2008 by the previous UK government to engage young Muslims with the government on issues relating to violent extremism, which has now expanded to other issues including Islamic justice, religious and sex education, and foreign policy.

Waliar Rahman: We have a relationship with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office – therefore this visit – and we also advise other governments, including the US, Syria, Bangladesh and Algeria.

Fahad Khan: We’re not in the Maldives on behalf of the British government. We are here to promote and express our own views, to explain what it is like being a young Muslim in Britain, what Islam is like in Britain, and what the benefits and challenges are.

JJ: How did the group come about?

Saadeya Shamsuddin: Since the [London bombings] of 7/7, and 9/11, the UK’s government has made a whole range of changes in terms of how it gets in touch with Muslims on the ground. YMAG is part of something they created called ‘Prevent’.

FK: After 7/7 the government released a policy document as part of its wider counter terrorism strategy aimed at preventing violent extremism. At the time it was formed it had a strong focus on al-Qaeda. There was quite a large backlash from Muslims in the UK, down to how the document was worded, and its use of rhetoric they found offensive.

What we want to do is engage with the gov to change the policy and make it more positive. Currently the document is under review, and it is looking more likely that the policy will change to focus on all forms of extremism, such as the current surge of right -wing extremism in the UK. It is trying to challenge ideology in a positive way, and bring extremism into the mainstream so it can be challenged.

WR: [YMAG] is not representative of Muslims. We are not elected. But we are a channel between young Muslims and the government, and we are in a unique position because we can see both the government’s strategy and the thinking at a grassroots level.

AI: We are the first group so have had so much access to cabinet ministers and government. ‘Prevent’ was a very top down policy imposed on Muslim communities, with no prior engagement with Muslim communities, which had settled into different parts of the UK and been left alone – there was no interaction [with government].

It addressed Muslims in a very security-focused way. Our role is to make sure the government understands the need for dialogue and consultation, and not just imposed policies.

JJ: What changed with regards to the treatment of Muslim in the UK following the July 2007 bombings?

FK: I’m from Leeds, where three of the bombers came from. The experience in Leeds was very different and exaggerated compared to other parts o the UK – there was a massive influx of the world’s press wanting to speak to locals about the bombers, wanting to know about them, and asking how extremism had taken root.

A lot people walking down street had a microphone put in front of them. It made the Muslim community in Leeds very uncomfortable, because a lot of those speaking were young people aged 14-15, people without confidence or skill to speak clearly. As a result, the community became very insular and closed off. The spotlight was on them, and they were saying “we don’t want this, it’s not fair.”

Five years later the Muslim community has started to open up, and is willing to talk to people and address the issue.

JJ: How did people’s reactions change to you as Muslims living in Britain?

SS: One of the crucial things was that these were so called ‘home-grown’ terrorists. Prior to 7/7 terrorists from different parts of world had attacked America – but now it was British people attacking their own country.

AI: The whole question of identity and ‘Britishness’ came up. People asking who were you loyal to – to your faith first or to the country?

SS: The government made it an issue. it was never an issue for us.

AI: People on the street would wonder. We had huge debates and people were asked to choose [between their faith and their nationality]. It was really unfair – nobody asked Hindis or Jews. They targeted Muslim communities.

WR: In Bristol a young person was arrested on charges of planning to blow up a shopping centre. He was self-radicalised – there wasn’t a terrorist recruiter involved, which was quite unusual. He was vulnerable, disengaged, and that fed it even more. What was different was that the Muslim community stood up and worked with police to prevent this from happening.

After that the Muslim community formed the Muslim Advisory Network, a single point of contact. Because Muslim communities [in the UK] are under the spotlight, they have had to be more proactive in promoting their faith and putting in safety blankets so it doesn’t happen again.

SS: There was a media storm – it was overwhelming after 9/11 and 7/7. I’m from London and the bus bomb in Tavislock square happened a few meters from my university. There was a climate of fear – I use the tube a lot, and you could really feel the sense of fear.

A few days afterwards I was at Finchley Road station and saw two bearded men giving bags to a policemen with a resigned look. I thought it was so sad it has come to this.

AI: A lot of young people felt targeted. Young boys were so disengaged by police and felt targeted just because they were Muslim. Stop and searches went through the roof, and every time I went to the cinema they would look through my bag. A lot of people were feeling targeted and under suveillance.

In Birmingham, with no community consultation, the authorities put up £3 million worth of number-plate cameras ring-fencing the majority Muslim areas, so that anyone coming in or out would be under surveillance. The community was so angry – before that the counter-terrorism unit had great links with Muslim community, but a separate department funded it with counter-terrorism funding and said it was targeting anti-social behaviour.There was huge debate in the community, and eventually police lobbied for the cameras to be taken down.

JJ: Is there a sense that Muslim communities in the UK do isolate themselves because of this kind of reaction from the authorities?

WR: What happened was that after 7/7 people felt targeted and marginalised, especially young people. They were disaffected an disillusioned, and they felt not done anything wrong, and were being targeted because of their faith. Because of that they became increasingly isolated. One of our roles was to be that channel and identify where this disengagement was happening.

FK: In response to the question, very bluntly – yes, Muslim communities did become very insular, and I think generally speaking if your way of life is under the spotlight you will shut off, and you will only speak to people that have same beliefs as you, the same culture, and understand things the same way. That’s what happened.

WR: Let’s remember – it’s not even a percentage of the population that have these terrorist ideologies. But 100% of the faith was tarred with this brush.

FK: I work closely in schools, and one of the messages I hear is segregation in schools of young Muslim males. But that’s not just the case with Muslims – you see that with other ethnic minorites. In the UK we do not want to become isolated. We don’t want to become divided to the point where communities live in different parts of cities and there is no cultural crossover.

AI: I do think that although the majority of communities have withdrawn from politics, we are seeing a lot more young people engaged in politics and civic engagement. It is more visual now – especially at universities. I became much more active, and the events held were interesting and engaging. There is also lots of investment in leadership skills and empowerment of young Muslims.

JJ: Would you say the situation for Muslims in the UK has improved since 7/7?

WR: When Prevent was introduced, there was a large group of people who would not apply for funding – they would not go near it.

AI: It has taken a long time.

WR: The government does seem not sure where taking the strategy. A minister described it as a “fluid process” – which to to me means they have no idea where it is going.

FK: Mosques are now a lot more engaged with statutory authorities. There are programs to go out and train Imans as community leaders, run workshops in mosques, debate and discuss Islam in a way that young people can get involved in the conversation.

AI: Initially, Muslims felt attack and went on the defensive. But people are breaking from the mold and becoming self-critical, and improving governance in the mosque. Often [mosque] council members stay the same for a long time and it is very hard get the change that is needed, but the fact is that Muslim communities are slowly taking on the challenges rather than burying their heads in the ground.

JJ: What is your impression of Islam in the Maldives?

SS: We’ve been learning. We’ve had a crash course over the last week or so, starting with the Maldives High Commissioner in the UK [Dr Farahanaz Faizal] last week.

AI: Some people here are saying the religion is very similar to the culture, other people said they are seeing new influences of conservative Islam from abroad which is concerning them. We need more time to understand it.

JJ: What are some of the things that have struck you so far?

SS: I’m familiar with the culture and lifestyles of countries such as India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, and what I really like about the Maldives is the progressive equality of men and women. At all the offices we visited we’ve seen women working alongside men – in many of these other countries women seem few and far between – even the UK has gender imbalance. It is very impressive here – women have freedom to go out, do shopping, and without a chaperone. It was a huge shock, I wasn’t expecting that.

I’m not sure about the economic status of the Maldives, but it’s clean, has nice pavements – and it’s really impressive in terms culture and religion. Even though women are wearing headscarves, they are also out enjoying themselves and being independent.

WR: I think for me it’s been a shock to see the segregation of the tourism and the locals.

AI: It struck me the way people dress here. I thought coming to a Muslim country people might be conservative or there might be a traditional way of dressing, but what I found was that everyone looked Western – skinny jeans and tops. I was really shocked because I thought a conservative country would be covering itself or wearing baggy clothes. But it reminded me a lot of Indonesia and Malaysia, where faith is seen as more internal, and people aren’t judged so much by their image and their exterior.

Even where I’m from in Birmingham, a predominantly Muslim area, you get judged for what you wear. People tend to make judgements on how religious you are by your exterior appearance.

WR: Although there appears to be a rise in that here, judging from the concern of ministers and NGOs.

FK: For me what has been fascinating was to find that divorce for women is not a social taboo. In the UK, particularly for Muslim women, divorce probably means she will find it very difficult to get married again – she is seen as tainted. Whereas over here a divorced woman is not looked at as any less than a single woman.

AI: The High Commissioner told us a very funny joke about it when we were in London: “A tourist comes to the beach and sees a very pretty Maldivian girl. He wants to know who she is so he goes up to three guys and asks them.

The first guy says, ‘She’s my ex-wife.’ The tourist is very embarrassed by this, and says sorry. The guy next to him says ‘Oh, don’t worry about it, she’s my wife.’ The tourist is now really apologising. Then the third guy says, ‘Don’t worry, she’s my future wife.’” And that’s how relaxed marriage is. We were really shocked.

FK: We find this fascinating, because divorce is talked about a lot in Islam – scholars say you should avoid it.

JJ: Some Maldivians who travel overseas meet a lot of criticism back home from people who say they have been exposed to corrupting, decadent Western influences, and that these make you less Islamic, less Muslim than those who live in a 100 percent Muslim society. As young Muslims living in the West, what is your reaction to that?

SS: We visited a school and spoke to a class of 25 teenagers. We asked them to describe what they thought our experiences in the UK were. A lot of answers were quite conflicted: “tough”, “difficult”. We gave our own experiences, and I can understand why Maldivians might have this myth of British Muslim youth being corrupted.

It couldn’t be further from the truth. Actually, because we’re not a 100 percent Muslim country, because we have such a diverse mixture of colours, cultures and races, especially in London, it is a good test of your faith. You have freedom to choose, freedom to wear the headscarf, freedom to fast, freedom to pray five times a day.

Aisha’s family in Pakistan is always asking her: “you must have boyfriends – how many boyfriends do you have?” Then they come over and see the way we live, that we are far more conservative than they are, in terms of what we want to do and don’t want to do. I think it is a complete myth.

AI: I think it is true to some degree that external appearance shows that someone is more religious. But religiousity is different everyone. I’ve seen people who follow a very spiritual Islam, and for them it is about making sure their character is correct. Culture also influences you – when I first went to university nobody wore the hijab. I was one of the few to wear it, but wearing it has become a trend. People wear it in a funky way, and it’s also an identity thing. It can be very trendy.

SS: That said – there are definitely corrupt Muslims in the UK, maybe as much as in the Maldives – but no one’s watching them. Of course we have option of drinking alcohol when our parents aren’t looking, or to go out with friends to nightclubs, or have boyfriends. But it’s a very strong test of your faith to set your boundries yourself.

Because Islam is such a diverse religion, with different thoughts and cultural influences, it’s such a generalisation to think that because we are exposed to corrupting influences that we are therefore by default corrupt ourselves.

JJ: The authorities are strict in policing [unIslamic] things here, and there is antagonism towards questioning these rules, at least publicly.

WR: But then you drive it underground, into secret communities. It gives the authorities even more of a headache in terms of enforcement. What we advised when we spoke to ministers was to let people have a dialogue – people are going to have ideas that don’t conform to what you would want them to think. But let’s have a dialogue and celebrate diversity rather than trying to control it.

JJ: How do you promote debate within Islam? There is a case made here that you are only allowed to participate in a debate if you are a scholar, if you have a particular level of training.

FK: In the UK I do talks on Muslim cultural awareness – I’m not an Imam, I’m not a scholar, and I don’t have as much knowledge as them. But we can comment on Muslim culture in the UK – and certainly Islam does allow you to quote verses, and give information – so long as it is the right information. Of course I think the reason the Maldivians are more conservative about this is because they don’t want the wrong information being given out by the wrong people, which can then cause deviations from the faith, or traditional school of thought.

But in the UK, because we have the freedom to debate, we have different schools of thought. Ultimately we believe there is one God, and that Mohamed (PBUH) is his last messenger. That, and the five pillars, are universal among all schools of thought. We celebrate that.

AI: In response I would say that the first thing the Prophet Mohamed (PBUH) commanded was “to read” – to read and find out about religion for yourself. We cannot just expect scholars to teach us about religion, we have to find out and take our own conclusions on the faith – to have a dialogue. Having only lectures is not empowering – it is disempowering. It’s important to learn and engage through dialogue, and if somebody doesn’t agree with you, the fact you have made your point means they have a choice; to reflect on their position, to adjust their position or maintain it.

WR: This is a difference in our cultures regarding education. It’s common in South Asian countries to learn by ‘read, regurgitate, put on paper.’ Whereas in UK we are taught to debate, to analyse, think on our feet and think for ourselves. That’s reflected in the way we practise our religion as well.

SS: I think having scholars commenting and reflecting on passages in Islam is only effective if it is in conjuntion with all these other things, such as young Muslims going out and reading the Quran for themselves, understanding the different interpretations and engaging with that inforamtion on all levels – not just sitting there and being talked to. It should be organic, not stilted.

JJ: What you are talking sounds similar to the human right of freedom of expression, which is stated in the Maldivian constitution as ‘freedom of expression subject to the tenets of Islam’. There is a perception that freedom of expression let fundamentalism out of the bag, as well as the liberal side, but such a caveat gives the moral authority in any debate to the conservative side – the liberal element feels it cannot debate publicly for fear of social ostracism. Can you have the kind of debate you are promoting with such a precondition?

SS: That’s very interesting – I think it’s about tolerance, and tolerance goes both ways. If you are liberal, you should be tolerant of extremist ideas – not accept them but give space to accept them. Freedom of expression is a good thing – but you can’t have it both ways. If you stop that debate, you will only hear the liberal debate and ideas – and that isn’t a democracy, or probably what the Maldives is striving to be.

AI: I would say that under the tenets of Islam you have 73 different groups that are going to be coming out – so I’m sure that both liberalism and conservatism will fit somewhere within those 73 groups. There is room for that debate and dialogue.

WR: I think that in a true democracy you have debate both sides of the argument, and do not control that debate to surpress one side or the other. I think what the Maldives will do is allow this new conservative view and allow people to have these ideologies, but also allow people to have the right information so it doesn’t become an extremist ideology. And to have control measures in place so there is no violent extremism. I think the only way you can empower people is to allow them to come to their own conclusions.

AI: I think the fear in the government here is that this new wave of conservative Islam may be eroding their culture. Any culture for them is integral because of their history. But I think that’s something for the people to decide, not the government.