Opposition coalition to hold “national symposium” on February 24

The 23 December Coalition of religious NGOs and opposition political parties has decided to hold another mass gathering on February 24, calling the government to yield to the demands of the December 23 protest to “defend Islam”.

In press conference held today, coalition spokesperson Abdullah Mohamed clarified that the coalition is not organising a protest, while referring to the gathering as a “national symposium” to raise the voice of the people.

“We welcome people from all the islands to come and join the symposium on February 24,” Mohamed said.

The coalition representatives declined to give information to the press on the how the symposium would proceed, though Mohamed pointed out that the symposium will be organized according to the “pulse of the people”.

Hinting that “it will not be held under a roof”, Mohamed said only that “the symposium will be held in a location similar to where we held the previous rally”.

Five demands were previously addressed to the government: prohibit Israeli flights from operating in the Maldives, close all massage parlors “and such places where prostitution is practiced”, reverse the decision allowing the sale of alcohol in areas of inhabited islands declared ‘uninhabited’ – such as in Addu City and Fuvahmulah where the government plans to build city hotels – condemn UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay and apologise for her comments against flogging, and remove allegedly “idolatrous” SAARC monuments in Addu City.

The government subsequently addressed each point, most notably ordering that spa operations be shut down across the country and announcing that it would consider a ban on pork and alcohol in the interest of “respecting Islamic principles.”

The 2012 State Budget leans heavily on expected revenue from tourism.

Speaking at the press conference opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) Deputy Leader ‘Mavota’ Ibrahim Shareef said that the symposium is among a “series of actions” to be organised by the coalition.

“This time we are calling to defend Islam and the nation”, he observed.

Shareef said a delegation from the coalition will visit Sri Lanka to explain the December 23 protest and demands to officials of embassies unspecified, as it claims the Maldivian government has spread “many lies” to defame the coalition.

The coalition also intends to meet with international press to give accurate information.

Furthermore, the coalition intends to mark a “special day to inform the demands to President Mohamed Nasheed”, Shareef said, adding that the President is deliberately “twisting the meanings to aggravate us”.

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MATI sues as government seeks Supreme Court legal counsel on spas, pork and alcohol

The government has asked the Supreme Court for a “consultative opinion” on the legality of spa operations and sale of pork and alcohol in resorts, claiming that legal clarity is needed to properly address the current controversy involving Islam and the tourism industry.

The government last week ordered resorts to shut down their spa operations, and announced it was considering a ban on pork and alcohol. The announcements were made in response to five demands made during a demonstration organised by a coalition of NGOs and opposition parties on December 23 to ‘Defend Islam.’

Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI) meanwhile filed a case at the Civil Court yesterday challenging the Tourism Ministry’s order to shut down massage parlors and health spas in resorts.

Speaking to local media, Attorney General Abdulla Muiz said, “We believe that the people have expressed genuine concerns over the circular issued by the Tourism Ministry ordering resorts to close down their spas.

“Investors will have confidence when they are clear of the judiciary’s position on these issues.”

The Attorney General was unavailable for comment at time of press.

Although the import of alcohol and pork to the Maldives is allowed under a regulation, there is no regulation or set of guidelines specific to spa operations in resorts.

The State, however, claims that Article 15(a2) of the Goods and Services Tax Act clearly stipulates that spas are legally accepted in the Maldives as tourism goods.

Under the article, “goods and services supplied by diving schools, shops, spas, water sports facilities and any other such facilities being operated….at tourist resorts, tourist hotels, tourist guest houses, picnic islands, tourist vessels and yacht marinas authorised by the Tourism Ministry” are tourism goods.

Officials at the Supreme Court and President’s Office were unavailable for comment today.

MATI Secretary General Sim Ibrahim Mohamed was unable to comment on the case in the Civil Court, but said that the government’s decision had incurred “irrevocable damage” to the tourism industry and had become a “legal issue to which we are trying to find legal clarity.”

“We are trying in the lower courts while the government has filed at the Supreme Court to see what this is about. We need to know whether the Maldives can legally provide tourism services within the confines of the constitution,” he explained. “A lot is riding on the court verdicts.”

Sim conceded that the verdicts would not close the discussion. “As to whether the public or the opposition parties will accept the verdict is not for us to say. They will have to weigh their own agendas against what is good for the economy at the moment,” he said.

Former Attorney General and lawyer representing MATI, Aishath Azima Shukoor, said the case addressed two key points: that the government’s decision to close the spas violates the contracts it holds with resort operators, and that the timing is unconstitutional.

Shukoor pointed out that the contracts between the government and resort operators include a clause entitling the operators to the peaceful operation of land leased. She maintained that the government had violated the agreement by closing operations without presenting any substantial reports, investigation or evidence justifying the action.

MATI has also applied for an injunction. If granted, resort spas would be allowed to operate until the court case is concluded.

Shukoor said MATI was hoping for a hearing on Wednesday, January 4, but that nothing has been confirmed.

Complaints that the tourism industry compromises the Maldives’ status as a 100 percent Muslim nation have brewed for some time, but the protests in “defense of Islam” in December 2011 threw officials into the crucible of religion, politics and tourism currently before higher and lower courts.

Article 10 of the Maldivian constitution states that “Islam shall be one of the basis of all the laws of the Maldives” and prohibits the enactment of any laws “contrary to any tenet of Islam”.

Although members of the coalition defending Islam originally called for the closure of “the spas and massage parlors and such places where prostitution is conducted”, as well as a reversal of a policy which permits the sale of alcohol on areas declared “uninhabited islands” – such as in Addu City and Fuvahmulah were the government plans to build city hotels – the government’s all-or-nothing response has driven those members to alter their position.

After telling a gathering of thousands that “The only road we must follow is based on Allah’s callings,” Jumhoree Party Leader and tourism tycoon Gasim Ibrahim sued the government when it closed spa operations in five of his Villa Hotels resorts over allegations of prostitution.

Upon realising that the protests had prompted the UK to issue a travel advisory, and after refusing to answer an inquiry about rumors that Taliban members had entered the country to participate in the protest, religious Adhaalath Party said it “calls on the international community to visit Maldives without any fear, assures that there is no terrorism in the Maldives, and that it will never give space to terrorism in this country.”

The statement further assures the international community that Maldivians are capable of protecting tourists.

Speaking to Minivan News today, Adhaalath Party chief spokesperson Sheik Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed did not wish to comment on an ongoing court case but called on the government to take national decisions slowly.

“Maldivian people have no problem with the tourism industry. The Maldives is the best country in the Islamic world with dealing with non-Muslims. Doctors, teachers, all are living here in Maldives and we have nothing against them. The thing is social problems are increasing daily, and people are concerned,” he said.

Minivan News asked whether it was worth risking the tourism industry in the name of Islam.

“Everyone knows the tourism industry is the backbone of our national economy. That’s why no one wants to damage any side of the tourism industry in the Maldives. I am 100 percent sure there is no prostitution in the tourism industry here. It is very professional, it is the most famous tourism industry in the world and is accepted by the international community. Why would we want to attack ourselves?”

Shaheem recommended that the industry foster alcohol-free resorts to develop the nation’s economy and add variety to the tourism sector. “In 2011 there was a project with a company from Dubai trying to do an alcohol-free resort. And I know there are resorts not selling pork,” he observed.

Minivan News asked whether it was acceptable for the government to support resorts which do sell alcohol and pork.

“This is a religious issue, and it is in the Supreme Court, so I can’t talk about this issue,” Shaheem said, adding that he could not say whether the court verdicts would settle the matter.

The Tourism Ministry announced earlier this week that it was considering revising the ban on spa operations in resorts.

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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.

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]

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The President will not apologise for Pillay without Parliament: Zuhair

President Mohamed Nasheed will neither condemn nor apologise to the people over the statements made by UN human rights chief Navi Pillay about flogging, Press Secretary Mohamed Zuhair has said.

Zuhair explained that the comments were made before Parliament, which has not yet spoken against the comments.

He said the President would respond after “the head of the particular state body cites a valid reason to speak against Pillay’s comments.”

During her visit in November, Pillay told Parliament that flogging as a punishment for extra-marital sex was one of the most degrading punishments for women, and asked that the government issue a moratorium on the Shariah-based penalty.

According to Haveeru, Zuhair said that former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom earlier made statements similar to those of Pillay.

The demand that the President apologise for Pillay’s remarks is one of five demands made the coalition which protested in defense of Islam on Friday, December 23. Since then, the government taken steps to address the demands which include removing SAARC monuments in Addu, preventing Israeli airlines to operate flights into the Maldives, closing down brothels and places where prostitution is practiced, and reversing the decision to declare areas of inhabited islands uninhabited in order to permit the sale of alcohol.

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Tourism Ministry may revise spa ban

The government is looking to revise the circular issued late last week requesting that resorts, hotels and guesthouses close down their spas over public allegations that they double as brothels.

“As specifying a certain distance from Male’ would not be a wise decision [in closing down spas] and that other resorts, which also cater for locals, are located close to inhabited islands, the government has decided to close down the spas in all the resorts on a fair basis and by giving a higher priority to the allegations made,” the circular read.

The decision to reconsider the circular was made after several resort owners and the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI) expressed “serious concern”.

A statement signed by MATI Secretary General ‘Sim’ Ibrahim Mohamed released last week expressed concern with financial losses as a result of the decision as well as effects on holiday-makers currently in the Maldives.

MATI urged the government and opposition parties to “find a peaceful solution” to the dispute.

“The tourism industry wishes for all actors in the political sphere to prioritise the domestic economy, development and security over differences and disagreements among political parties and not involve the economy’s main industries in these disputes,” reads MATI’s appeal.

MATI’s Chairperson M U Manik and Vice Chair ‘Champa’ Hassan Afeef have made statements in the media urging the government to reverse its decision to shut down resort spas after considering the consequences for the economy.

Meanwhile the government has also announced that it is considering banning pork and alcohol across the country, in response to the large number of Maldivians who protested against the government’s current purported “anti-Islamic” policies.

Tourism Minister Dr Mariyam Zulfa told Haveeru yesterday that the circular was issued in response to demands made by the coalition of religious NGOs and opposition parties during the protest to defend Islam on December 23. These demands included the closure of places which support prostitution, namely spas and massage parlors.

Zulfa noted that a policy shift towards strict Islam would have a profound economic impact on the Maldives.

“We can only sustain our economy by following the moderate form [of Islam] which has been in the Maldives until now,” she told Haveeru. “We [ministers] are labelled anti-Islamic because we support the tolerant form [of Islam]. But that label is a disgrace to our parents as well.”

According to Zulfa, several resorts had raised concern over the circular, and while they “are aware of the reasons that led us to take the decision,” the ministry is investigating a compromise.

The Minister was unavailable for comment at time of press.

Minivan News understands that several tour operators have also been calling resorts to inquire if indeed their spas and massage services have been closed down. Hulhule Island Hotel, near Male’, has closed its spa indefinitely.

Maldives Association of Travel and Tour Operators (MATATO) earlier issued a statement condemning the government’s decision to close five Villa Hotels’ resort spas over allegations of prostitution. MATATO noted that local and foreign resorts, tour operators and travel associations had expressed concern over the decision and that the damage to the industry would be grievous.

“The spa and wellness concept is very popular among tourists,” read the statement. “We urge the government to keep politics away from Tourism and also advise various
Tourism stakeholders as well to do same, as majority of Maldivians depends on Tourism for their livelihood and is something to be dealt with extreme caution and care.”

Today, MATATO did not respond to phone calls.

Speaking at a press conference held the day before the circular was issued, President’s Office Press Secretary Mohamed Zuhair justified the strong measure by saying that given the difficulty of distinguishing spas which endorse prostitution from those which do not, and that many high-profile Maldivians visit resort spas, it was important that strict measures be taken to protect those Maldivians’ good names.

Meanwhile, members of the coalition which made the demands have accused the government of “making a mockery of the demands” and “making excuses.”

Alleging that the government is targeting protesters, coalition spokesperson Abdullah Mohamed announced a sixth demand–that the government “stop causing harm to anyone who participates in the religious movement”.

The coalition has given the government until January 5 to fulfill the demands made on December 23, and has warned of further mass protests or direct action in the event that the deadline is not met.

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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.

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Comment: Maldives: ‘Political Islam’ here to stay?

Maldivians, particularly the security authorities in the country, may have heaved a sigh of relief after the competing rallies by the NGOs and the political Opposition on the one hand, and the ruling MDP on the other, went off peacefully on Friday last. They had anticipated rioting and violent clashes for which public protests of the kind are often known in the country. Yet, the fact also remains that the competitive posturing on the type of Islam that the moderate Muslim country should follow may have made ‘political Islam’ the core of public discourse in the country in the long run-up to the presidential polls that are however due only in October 2013.

UNHRC chief Navi Pillay thus should be contented, if not happy, for what Maldives is doing since her proposing a national discourse on the kind of Islam that the country should be following. She made the suggestion during a visit to the country in November, both inside and outside Parliament. While protesting Navi Pillay’s proposal making Islam a debatable issue, the otherwise divided Opposition parties lending support to seven NGO organisers of the rally, have done precisely that. By competing with them, the MDP, particularly President Mohammed Nasheed, has thrown a challenge to the rival camp, declaring that the nation had to decide the kind of Islam it wanted to follow.

Addressing the MDP rally on Friday evening, President Nasheed said it was a ‘defining moment’ in the nation’s history. “At this moment we may not realise how important this gathering is, but years down the line we will look back and realise this was a crucial moment,” he said.”This is an old country, people have lived here for thousands of years and we have practiced Islam for more than 800 years. In 2011, we are faced with a question, how should we build our nation: what we will teach our children, how should we live our lives, and what will we leave for future generations?” President Nasheed, according to a Press release issued by his office, stressed that he wanted to continue to practice a tolerant form of Islam.

The President said that he believed that the Maldivians wanted “a better life, the ability to travel, not to have to beg for medicines, for each Maldivian to be able to fend for themselves, feed their families and stand tall.” He said, “To build our economy we need foreign investments and we need to create an environment in which foreigners can invest. We can’t be scared of foreign countries; we can’t just stay within our shells without development. History shows this is the path to economic failure…We can’t achieve development by going backwards to the Stone Age or being ignorant.”

Taking the political battle on moderate Islam to the Opposition camp, President Nasheed asked: “Should we ban music? Should we mutilate girls’ genitals? Should we allow nine year-olds to be married? Should we forbid art and drawing? Should we be allowed to take concubines? Is this nation-building?” Even while standing up for values that he has reiterated that he stands for steadfastly, President Nasheed was also setting the agenda for his re-election campaign for 2013, and by his strident position on moderate Islam, possibly hopes to retain much, if not all of the youth voters that had contributed to his success in the 2008 polls. In a country where the 18-25 age-group accounts for 40-45 per cent of the population, that is saying a lot.

This may not end here, though. The Opposition’s protest for protecting Islam has also provided a platform for them to come together after the Dhivehi Rayyathunge Party (DRP) of former President Maumoon Gayoom split earlier in the year, with the splinter group identified with his leadership floating the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) more recently. Both DRP, now under Gayoom’s 2008 running-mate Thasmeen Ali and PPM leader Abdulla Yameen, half-brother of the former President, shared the dais with other Opposition party leaders at the Friday rally. This need not mean that they would settle for a common alliance and candidate to challenge the incumbent in 2013, but that has since become a possibility, nonetheless. This would be more so if the presidential polls run into a second, run-off round, as in 2008.

An ‘Afghanistan’ in the making?

Ahead of the rally, Foreign Minister Ahmed Naseem too cautioned the nation that an increase in extremist rhetoric might affect the country’s international image and the ability of its citizens to freely travel abroad. Maldives had “a lot to lose” should such intolerance continue, the local media quoted Naseem as saying. “A large number of Maldivians travel outside the country and such rhetoric will have implications for the average Maldivian travelling abroad, and on those Maldivians already living abroad,” he said, pointing out that Maldives was a liberal democracy “with a Constitution based upon respect for the human rights of all.”

Appearing before the National Security Council of Parliament, Police Commissioner Ahmed Faseeh reportedly expressed concern that Maldives was heading towards becoming another “Afghanistan” – except that unlike Afghanistan, it was not able to produce its own food. Organisers of both the ‘Defend Islam’ and ‘Moderate Islam’ protests also assured the committee that there would be no violence at the rival rallies. As subsequent events proved, the rally organisers proved the police chief wrong, after he had said that local gangs had potential to capitalise on the opportunities to their own benefit if political parties ended up using them, even if for a good cause.

However, there was no immediate response to a report in the Indian newspaper, The Hindu, in which top Government sources claimed that Pakistan funding was available for the Opposition rally. Interestingly, the ‘Defend Islam’ protest and movement has its origins in fundamentalist elements destroying the Pakistani monument for the 17th SAARC Summit in the southern Addu City, describing it as idolatry. The Navi Pillay observations only hastened the process, even though indications are that the fundamentalist Adhaalath Party, which is at the back of the pro-Islam protests has been targeting the US and Israel, and their purported influence on the Government of President Nasheed, in matters that they argue are anti-Islamic.

‘Prisoner of Conscience’

The US has been made the villain of the piece in Afghanistan and Iraq, two Islamic nations, while Israel has been targeted over the Palestine issue, with the Nasheed Government’s decision to permit the Israeli airliner to operate flights to Maldives providing the immediate provocation and justification. Fundamentalist groups, as also the political Opposition, are not convinced that Maldives could not cast its vote on admitting Palestine into UNESCO owing to a communication gap, which meant that the official delegation had flown home early on. In private, they argue that either the decision did not make sense or the Government did not do its homework properly as Palestine was admitted into UNESCO, after all. Here again, they see a western hand.

A day after the Friday rallies, reports said that the Afghanistan monument for the SAARC Summit at the southern Addu City had been vandalised and thrown into the sea, like those of Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal. A replica of Afghanistan’s Jam minaret, featuring Koranic phrases and a UNESCO World Heritage site, the monument could not be restored, reports from Addu said. The Haveeru quoted local MDP leaders as saying that the party was not behind the vandalism, adding that it owed to ‘political reasons’.

Interestingly, Amnesty International has described as ‘prisoner of conscience’, blogger Ismail ‘Khilasth’ Rasheed, who was arrested after being attacked when he was addressing a small group, defending religious freedom in the national capital of Male a fortnight back. Foreign Minister Naseem said it was a matter of concern to the international community. Rasheed’s initiative followed UNHRC’s Navi Pillay’s call for religious freedom and for a national discourse for ending flogging of women in the country. As may be recalled, Amnesty had named President Nasheed a ‘prisoner of conscience’ for his pro-democracy political and public initiatives, after he was imprisoned more than once by the erstwhile Gayoom leadership.

For now, the ruling party has called off the ‘moderate Islam’ rallies that were to have continued for two more days, what with the Opposition too ending its protest at the end of day one. After the Friday rallies, presidential spokesman Mohamed Zuhair acknowledged people’s participation in the Opposition protest, and said that the Government would consider their demands. However, he wondered who had made those demands, political parties, or individuals and/or NGOs, which needed to be treated differently. Ahead of the MDP rally, many party seniors, including MPs, had urged President Nasheed not to have their programme on the same day. Some of them also publicly suggested that as Head of State, President Nasheed should not participate in what essentially was a political rally.

While this may have quietened the situation, it remains to be seen how various political players take off from here — or, listen to the voice of reason among a substantial section of the people, who do not want them to make Islam a political issue. There is large-scale apprehension among the masses and the current rallies could trigger societal divisiveness that goes beyond politics and elections, and could also concern larger national interests, starting with security issues, in the months and years to come.

N Sathiya Moorthy is a Senior Research Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.

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]

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Blogger detained another 15 days as Bari requests proper punishment

The detention of controversial blogger Ismail ‘Khilath’ Rasheed has been extended by another 15 days, following Sunday’s Criminal Court hearing.

Meanwhile, Islamic Minister Dr Abdul Majeed Abdul Bari has requested that appropriate punishments for those who call for religious freedom be added to the nation’s penal code.

Rasheed, a self-declared Sufi Muslim, was arrested on December 14 by a Court Order for his involvement in a silent peaceful protest calling for religious tolerance in honor of International Human Rights Day. The protest ended violently when a group attacked the approximately 30 protestors with stones, sending Rasheed to the hospital with head injuries.

His detention was extended by 10 days on December 17. He has been held without charges.

The Criminal Court has cited Rasheed’s blog, which was shut down on the Islamic Ministry’s order in November for its alleged anti-Islamic content, as grounds for his extended detention, Haveeru reports.

Ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MP ‘Reeko’ Moosa Manik called for an investigation into the gathering, along with religious conservative Adhaalath Party and NGO Jamiyyathu Salaf.

The parliament’s National Security Committee (NSC) currently reviewing the silent protest had summoned Rasheed for questioning today, however it was cancelled when officials decided “not to proceed with the hearing at this time,” said an NSC official.

The parliamentary committee did hear Islamic Minister Dr Bari, who observed that the law lacks any clear punishment for individuals promoting religious freedom.

“The protestors did not announce that they had abandoned their religion but they called for religious freedom. The law has no defined punishment. They are just defying the religious unanimity of the country. I don’t believe there is any legal action against the call as no legal action can be taken until one publicly declares apostasy,” he said.

Dr. Bari requested parliament to pass these “much-needed legislations”, and advised that the punishments be added to the Penal Code currently under review.

Guraidhoo MP Ibrahim Riza pointed out that in cases where no clear penalty is stated, punishments can be given under Penal Code Article 88(a), (b) and (c), reports Haveeru.

Dr Bari countered that the code only provides soft punishments.

In a statement protesting Rasheed’s detention, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) challenged the claim that the December 10 gathering violated the Maldives’ national religion.

“The Maldivian constitution bans the promotion of any religion other than Islam but guarantees freedom of assembly and expression as long as it does not contravene Islam. Rasheed professes to be an adherent of Sufism, which emphasises the inner, spiritual dimension of Islam,” reads the statement.

The Maldivian laws state that those seeking elected political office must be Sunni Muslims.

Police commissioner Ahmed Faseeh responded to Bari’s concerns at the NSC meeting by assuring a thorough investigation would be completed within 15 days. He called the case a serious matter.

“I will give the details [later] and I will point out everything even if it includes negligence on our side,” he said.

“We have done a lot and several have been summoned. We are determining the identity of those believed to have participated in the gathering via CCTV footage and video clips received from the public and we are summoning them,” he is quoted as saying in Haveeru.

Meanwhile, Rasheed’s detention has also attracted concern from Amnesty International.

Following RSF’s statement, Amnesty International declared Rasheed a prisoner of conscience and called for his “immediate and unconditional” release.

Calling the attack on Rasheed and his subsequent detention a “clear example of the erosion of freedom of expression in the Maldives,” Amnesty stated that,

“The continued detention of Ismail ‘Khilath’ Rasheed is in breach of international treaties on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the Maldives is a state party.

“Amnesty International is dismayed that instead of defending Ismail ‘Khilath’ Rasheed, who has peacefully exercised his right to freedom of the expression, the government of Maldives has detained him. Moreover, the government has taken no action to bring to justice those who attacked the ‘silent’ demonstrators, even though there is credible photographic evidence of the attack.”

The debate over religious tolerance has been gathering steam for several months.

Under new regulations published by the government in September, interpreting the 1995 Religious Unity Act passed by parliament, media is “banned 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.”

Violation of the Act carries a prison sentence of between 2-5 years.

United Nation’s Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay spoke against flogging as a punishment for extra-marital sex in November, prompting protests and demands that she be “flayed”.

On December 23, the protests to defend Islam had members of various opposition parties and religious NGOs calling for full Shari’ah, while the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) stood for the national tradition of moderate Islam. The protests were executed peacefully, however the tense build-up prompted the United Kingdom to issue a travel advisory for the Maldives.

The Islamic Ministry today announced that it will hold a conference this Saturday and Sunday to discuss the religious controversies currently afoot in the Maldives. The ministry’s Assistant Director Admedullah Jameel has told Haveeru that 64 scholars will be in attendance.

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Pakistanis and other released from detention

The police have confirmed some foreigners in Male’ were detained as a “security” measure, prior to the mass religious rally on December 23.

Violent outbreaks and confrontations were speculated to take place during a religious rally organised by NGO’s and opposition parties “to defend Islam” in the Maldives and another led by ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) to exhibit support for a “moderate Islam”.

Contrary to speculation, the protests proceeded peacefully.

Sub- Inspector of Police Ahmed Shiyam said the foreigners were arrested before the protest and were released afterwards.

Shiyam did not specify the number of foreigners arrested and their nationality.

“We brought them under police custody as part of security measures taken during the protest. All of them have now been released,” Shiyam said.

Minivan News has learned that the arrested foreigners included Pakistanis and people of two other nationalities who had arrived in the Maldives on tourist visas. They were detained on suspicion of participating in the religious rally, according to a source.

Controller for Immigration and Emigration Abdullah Shahid told Minivan News that “there was a high number of Pakistanis coming into the country at the time” of protest.

Shahid noted it was part of the security procedure to investigate inconsistencies in arrival rates.

Meanwhile, religious groups in Maldives have been accused of using funds from extremist groups in Pakistan to finance their activities locally.

India’s The Hindu reported last week that Maldives believed Pakistani money was helping extremists, according to a top source.

However spokesperson for the religious coalition, Abdullah Mohamed, rejected the accusations and said that they have not taken any money from foreign organisations.

“We are funding our activities through donations by our supporters,” he added.

He also added that he is unaware of any foreigners who came to Maldives to participate in the protest or their arrest.

According to him a few Maldivians living in Sri Lanka and India came to Male’ for the protests.

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