Calls for religious tolerance “shocked the nation”: Chief Justice Faiz

The December 10 silent protest for religious tolerance is a “warning” of the Maldives’ weakening Islamic faith, Chief Justice Ahmed Faiz Hussein has said.

Faiz’s claim that the demonstration “shocked the nation” was made yesterday at the opening of the Islamic Scholars Symposium, reports local media.

“It was a warning that showed us the increased role religious scholars are required to play and the work they need to do,” he said.

Recommending that the scholars focus on strengthening the Islamic faith rather than debate contentious issues, Faiz said students and lawmakers required further education about the Shariah penal code.

The December 10 demonstration was originally planned for International Human Rights Day as a peaceful, silent protest. However, the 30 participants were attacked with stones, and blogger Ismail ‘Khilath’ Rasheed was taken to the hospital with head injuries.

Rasheed was subsequently arrested without charges following requests from religious NGOs and ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MP ‘Reeko’ Moosa Manik that police investigate the demonstration.

Rasheed’s detention was extended a second time last week, after Reporters Without Borders (RSF) criticised the claim that the gathering had violated national laws, and Amnesty International declared Rasheed a prisoner of conscience.

Meanwhile, Islamic Minister Dr Abdul Majeed Abdul Bari has requested the parliamentary National Security Committee to include appropriate punishments for those who call for religious freedom in the nation’s penal code. In discussions, he said the punishments available under Penal Code Article 88(a), (b) and (c) were “soft.”

Bari previously ordered the Communications Authority of Maldives (CAM) to shut down Rasheed’s blog on the grounds that it contained anti-Islamic content.

This weekend’s Scholars Symposium is attended by 60 scholars who are debating seven key points of contention, reports Haveeru.

Points include the method for handling controversial religious issues; the formation of prayer rows between mosque pillars; alms payment; the Qunooth prayer; and the traditions of the Prophet Mohamed.

According to local media, the conference is the biggest of its kind to be held in the Maldives. Originally scheduled for January it was allegedly postponed for reasons unspecified.

The conference comes one week after a coalition of religious NGOs and opposition parties rallied thousands across the country to “defend Islam”, setting off a game of chicken with the government which has lately put the tourism industry on the chopping block.

President Mohamed Nasheed attended yesterday’s opening ceremony.

Religious conservative Adhaalath Party President Sheikh Imran Abdulla and several other scholars from the party are participating in the conference.

Members of Adhaalath Party and Minister Bari were unavailable for comment at time of press.


Protests leave government and coalition awaiting next move

In the wake of the December 23 protests, coalition members who defended Islam and ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) members who called for a continuation of the nation’s moderate tradition await each others’ next move while attempting to articulate the differentiate between religious and political motives.

At an MDP rally held on Saturday night, party Chairperson ‘Reeko’ Moosa Manik claimed that he would not let President Mohamed Nasheed listen to the any of the demands without party approval.

“If you note down the demands and submit it to MDP, we will look into it and forward any demands we see worthwhile to send to the President,” Moosa noted.

He claimed that MDP is well aware of the Islamic history and government will not be forced into doing anything whenever a person says something or protest.

On Friday night, Moosa led an enervated crowd at Haruge in a protest against the demands and those calling for them.

The demands have not been formally presented to the government, President’s Office Press Secretary Mohamed Zuhair confirmed. He added that Moosa’s demand for a party review was in keeping with standard protocol.

Meanwhile, Adhaalath Party chief spokesperson and former State Islamic Minister Sheik Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed hopes the President “will accept the people’s voices.”

Furthermore, religious coalition spokesperson Abdullah Mohamed said no deadline has been set for the government to meet the protestor’s demand, however the coalition will meet this week to discuss the government’s reaction and next steps.

“We will observe very closely how much the government is doing to meet our demands. We will try to peacefully resolve the issues by discussing with the government,” he said, warning of another mass protest should the talks fail.

Meanwhile, no party has said it will formally submit the demands as requested.

The coalition of opposition parties and religious groups made five key demands of the government at Friday’s protest: to formally condemn UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay for her comments on Shari’ah law; to deny El Al and other Israeli airlines service to the Maldives; to remove the SAARC monuments in Addu; to reverse the decision on declaring areas of inhabited islands uninhabited in order to permit alcohol sales; and to close Male’ brothels.

In a significant shift from the Maldives’ tradition of moderate Islam protestors also called for the full implementation of Shari’ah law, including hand cutting and stoning. These requests have not been officially endorsed by any party.

While all demands stem from Islamic principles, Zuhair believes they have been made “for political gain and recognition by political leaders, not by religious scholars and for religious purposes.”

“This is actually deceit on a grand scale. We are all Muslims, and as such share that part of our identity. But each and every political party can compete politically under separate identities.

“Then, the opposition takes a side and calls on all Muslims to come over. It’s political trickery, and the people will be aware of it.”

Zuhair suggested that financial advantage was also part of the mix, pointing out that the religious scholars who accused former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom of not being a Muslim during the 2008 Presidential campaign were the “same people now speaking on the same platform as the former president.”

He claimed that the end goal was political and financial profit.

“The sheiks have been brought to the public as a people who say one thing for political gain during one period, and then change during another. Everyone has an agenda. The mullahs are taking the businessmen for a ride, Gayoom is taking the mullahs for a ride, it’s a win-win situation,” Zuhair said.

The loss, Zuhair suggested, could come on the international platform.

“In today’s interconnected world, information is disseminated by foreigner partners and concerns are raised beyond the government’s reach,” he said.

Foreign Minister Ahmed Naseem noted that few foreign reporters were sent to cover the protest due to its collision with the holiday season, but that foreign media outlets had picked up the event. “All governments are concerned,” he said. “I don’t believe this was good publicity for the country.”

However, the peaceful execution of both protests had reassured many, he concluded.

Minivan News asked DRP leader and MP Ahmed Thasmeen whether the protest was religious or political.

“It was organised by religious and civil society groups for issues concerning them, it was not a political event,” he said. He added that the protest would have no bearing on the 2013 presidential election, but said that the demands made must be discussed by political parties.

The purpose of the protest, according to Thasmeen, was to point out that the government’s habit of pursuing policies which “undermine religion” have created a “growing fear among the Maldivian people.”

Minivan News asked whether a distinction could be made between religion and politics. “The protest was organised by a variety of groups,” he responded, “and has achieved its goal of showing that the Maldivian people are deeply concerned.”

Minivan News inquired of Thasmeen, a resort owner, whether the demand to recall the resolution over selling alcohol on uninhabited islands would damage the tourism industry.

If approved, Thasmeen said the demand “would only impact tourism in a few locations. We are requesting that the government stop using technical loop holes to sell alcohol on these islands.”

Meanwhile, MDP party members spoke out against Thasmeen and Gassim at an impromptu party rally late Friday evening, calling for their arrest as well as the execution of former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

Thasmeen today accused the government of labeling the protest as “radical–which is not a label that fits in with the people who attended.”

Officials agree on one thing: the December 23 protests brought significant issues to the table, which both sides will be hard-pressed to ignore.