EU demanded same sex marriage, freedom of religion, claim ministers

The European Union (EU) demanded legalisation of same sex marriage and freedom of religion in return for extending duty-free status to Maldivian exports of canned tuna, Economic Development Minister Mohamed Saeed and Fisheries Minister Dr Mohamed Shainee have claimed.

At a press conference this afternoon, Saeed said that the reason for the EU’s decision was the Maldives’ refusal to accept the condition for “allowing homosexual relations and the opportunity for people to follow any religion they want”.

“The Maldives is an Islamic state and will remain so. We will uphold Islam. We will not compromise on anything that conflicts with Islam,” he said.

Last year, the government’s application for a year’s extension under the ‘GSP Plus’ program was declined as it had not ratified all 27 required international conventions. The Maldives holds reservations concerning the freedom of religion component of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Dr Shainee said there was consensus among the public that same sex marriage and freedom of religion should not be allowed in the Maldives.

The ministers accused the opposition of attempting to deceive the public and obstructing the government’s development efforts.

Shainee said the opposition was twisting and distorting statements from government officials to divert attention from the government’s achievements during its first year in office, attempting to cast a “shadow” on the government’s achievements.

He accused former President Mohamed Nasheed of providing false information to foreign parties with the intention of “creating distrust towards the Maldivian people” and turning foreign nations against the Maldives.

The Maldivian people would suffer the consequences of the opposition’s alleged attempts to worsen relations with India and Europe, he said.

India has suggested remarks made in the People’s Majlis by Dunya last week regarding Sino-Indian talks on the Maritime Silk Road project were misleading, prompting government politicians to suggest the MDP was behind the confusion.

After publishing what is claimed to be evidence of the supposed discussions having taken place yesterday, Indian High Commissioner Rajeev Shahare tweeted a link to the official joint statement released at the conclusion of September’s talks between President Xi Jinpeng and Narendra Modi.

The 28-point statement contained no mention of the silk road project, while the Chinese press release referred to by the Maldives government mentioned that the two governments “should” work within the silk road framework.

Looking East

In his Republic Day address yesterday, President Abdulla Yameen accused the EU of imposing trade restrictions on the Maldives for refusing to change or abandon Islamic principles.

Until January 2014, fish exports to the EU – the single largest export partner by value – were duty-free under the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) programme, a non-reciprocal trade agreement extended to developing countries.

Thailand, Ecuador, and China also lost GSP benefits this year.

The Maldives was forced to apply for GSP Plus status as a result of its graduation from least developed country status – a change President Yameen has noted as bringing “enormous challenges and hardships”.

President Yameen said yesterday trade and economic cooperation with China does not involve the same challenges to remaining an Islamic state posed by “Western colonial powers.”

“Participating in business with China does not involve any such compulsion for us,” Yameen said.

Former Fisheries Minister Shafeeu told Minivan News in November 2013 that the Maldives would lose its competitive advantage over the larger fishing fleets of nearby Sri Lanka and Thailand with a 14-20 tariff on fish imports, and reduce profits to “a marginal value”.

President Yameen said there was “no way forward” for the country on the issue.

“The government’s thinking is changing towards the East,” he said. Under the Maldivian Constitution, all citizens are required to be Sunni Muslim and the practice of other religions as well as places of worship are prohibited.

Shainee noted that the EU was still the Maldives biggest partner for fish exports and stressed that closer ties with China does not entail worsening relations with India or other friendly nations.

The government has been looking for new markets for fish exports – such as China, the Middle East, and America – and have introduced longline fishing, he added.

Of the companies responding to request for proposals from the government for infrastructure projects, Saeed said today that a large percentage were from China.

An agreement has also been signed between China and Maldives to form a joint commission on trade and economic cooperation, he added, which would facilitate economic growth.

Saeed also noted that China represents 40 percent of tourist arrivals to the Maldives.

The government decided to participate in the Chinese 21st Century Maritime Silk Route initiative because China is currently the strongest and fastest growing economy in the world, President Yameen said yesterday.

As a result, Yameen continued, the government believes that the “multi-million dollar infrastructure investment” needed for economic development would “arrive through this door.”

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UNHRC panel grills Maldives delegation on human rights commitments

A Maldivian government delegation sought to defend the Maldives’ human rights record and commitment to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) before the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) on Thursday and Friday.

The delegation was headed by Home Minister Dr Mohamed Jameel, former Justice Minister during the 30 year rule of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and co-author of a pamphlet entitled ‘President Nasheed’s devious plot to destroy the Islamic faith of Maldivians’, published in January 2012.  The publication was released at a time when the home minister’s 2300 member Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) was in opposition.

Dr Jameel was accompanied by State Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dunya Maumoon – Gayoom’s daughter – as well as the Maldives’ Permanent Representative in Geneva, Iruthisham Adam.

Adam and Dr Jameel first read out a prepared statement from the government in response to a list of issues raised by the UNHRC. The delegation then faced questions from the panel, and were given the opportunity to respond.

Dr Jameel began by briefly outlining the current political situation in the Maldives, noting that the country had seen “significant changes” in 2012, which had “clear implications for rights protected under the Covenant.”

He explained to the panel that President Mohamed Waheed had ascended to the presidency according to the constitution following the resignation of President Mohamed Nasheed on February 7, emphasising that this elevation was “not a change of government, but a continuation of the democratic government.”

He acknowledged “disagreement over the nature and sequence of events that led to Nasheed’s resignation”, noting that this had “led Nasheed and his supporters to question the legitimacy of the new government” and “perpetrate the political tensions in the country.”

The government wished to accommodate peaceful protests, he said, but added that “Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) activists harass fellow citizens at odd hours of the day, conducting political demonstrations late at night without notifying authorities.”

“The government opposes acts of violence, but these protests are violent in nature,” he claimed. “Despite this police have used minimum force and shown maximum restraint.”

The UNHRC panel began by observing that the government’s list of issues had been generated in 2011, “and as the delegation has conceded, there have been dramatic developments since then.”

The panel noted that the statement given by the government had noted that the provisions of the covenant were not treated as law in the Maldives unless incorporated, noting that this “could give the impression that the covenant did not have the status of law, whereas it has the status of international law.”

While Ambassador Adam had claimed that the Covenant was “adequately domesticated” in the Constitution, “we cannot say it has been adequately domesticated when the grounds for discrimination do not include language and religion,” the panel stated.

The panel also raised the “sweeping provision” in the Constitution that no law could be enacted contrary to a tenant of Islam, and what the ramifications of this were for the government’s commitment to the Covenant.

The panel drew on a report submitted by anti-torture NGO REDRESS, containing testimonies of 28 victims of torture while in state custody.

“Forms of torture and ill-treatment included the use of suspension, lengthy use of stocks, being beaten with fists and bars, kicked, blindfolded, handcuffed, the dislocation of joints and breaking of bones, being forced to roll and squat on sharp coral, being drowned or forced into the sea, being put in a water tank, being burned, having bright lights shone in eyes, being left outside for days while tied or handcuffed to a tree, being covered in sugar water or leaves to attract ants and goats, and in one case being tied to a crocodile’s cage. Sexual assault and humiliation was also routinely used. Many testimonies suggest the only limit to the torture and ill-treatment imposed was the imagination of those whose control they were under,” a UNHRC panel member read.

“Surely this is something that refers to before 2008,” the panel member stated, “but the [present government] has a responsibility to pursue and investigate and bring to justice if these [allegations] are indeed correct. If there is an atmosphere of impunity regarding torture, I would offer that the present situation would not be treated differently by those who would want to violate the office they have, and abuse those under their care, or those going peacefully about their business.”

The panel member also raised the question of judicial flogging, and asked the delegation to identify what crimes were punishable by flogging, and to what extent it was used.

“You say you identify a notion of discrimination because more women are flogged than men, but you don’t say what you intend to do about it,” the panel member stated. “To me the easiest way to do that is to abolish flogging.”

Another panel member questioned the delegation as to whether Dr Waheed had been publicly announced as Vice President before the 2008 Presidential election, whether his name had appeared on the ballot, and asked why the government had retreated from promises of early elections.

“I am aware that at the time of the transfer of government – and I’m not using the word some others would use – there was an undertaking for new elections to be held this year. And that undertaking was withdrawn. I can certainly see why, whatever the constitutional provision, there is a sense that a retesting of the government’s legitimacy might be a good thing,” the panel member stated.

He asked Dr Jameel to clarify a contradiction in his opening statement, in which he claimed that the government was involved in diagloue to generate consensus and that as a result Maldivians had been able to “enjoy their daily lives as normal”, but then went on to describe violent protests “which are making normal life in the capital impossible.”

The panel member also raised the “troubling role of the judiciary at the centre of many of these [recent] developments.”

“The judiciary – which is admittedly in serious need of training and qualifications – is yet seemingly playing a role leading to the falling of governments,” he observed.

One panel member raised the concern of the current push in the Maldives towards the cessation of the practice of the President commuting the death penalty.

Another, identifying himself as from a Muslim country himself, asked whether the universal recognition of rights guaranteed by the ICCPR “ fully coordinated” with the status of religion accorded by the Constitution in the Maldives, and asked about the ramifications this had towards the Maldives’ treatment of women, criminal sanctions, citizenship and freedom of expression.

“We face two trends: the universalist trend which places emphasis on human rights, and the cultural trend, which places the emphasis on Islam. The problem lies in reconciling the two,” he said, asking whether the Maldives was seeking the “modernist” approach of reconciliation.

In response, Dr Jameel said human rights in the Maldives streamlined with Islam “with very few minor exceptions.”

“The general acceptance of Muslim jurists is that Islamic human rights were there long before we subscribed to universal human rights,” he said.

“We declare that there are no apparent contradictions between human rights and what is there in the Maldives constitution.”

Dr Jameel observed that on the subject of religion and language, “As I highlighted, the Maldives as a Muslim country clearly stipulates that the rights enshrined in the constitution should be interpreted in a way that do not contradict Islamic Sharia.”

The Maldives was, he said, a homogenous society that spoke one language, was of one race and one religion, and therefore there was “no debate in society calling for the removal of the provisions [relating to] language or religion, because of the characteristics of the Maldives as a society.”

Dunya noted that “being a Maldivian and being a Muslim have become interlinked and inseparable. There is strong public support for the Maldives being and remaining a 100 percent Muslim country. Indeed if anything, the introduction of democracy have intensified [this perception].”

There were no plans to withdraw the reservation, Dunya said: “This is not dogmatic government policy or preference, but rather a reflection of the deep societal belief that the Maldives always has been and always should be a 100 percent Muslim nation. Laws, like government, should be based on the will of the people.”

On the subject of justice, Dr Jameel emphasised that any citizen could bring their grievances before the judiciary, over which the executive had “little or no influence.”

Regarding the “very useful” REDRESS report containing torture victims testimonies, “I admit we have a history that we need to go back and study to avoid what we have witnessed in the past. That was the reason why the Maldives has always been a very progressive society,” Dr Jameel said, noting the improvement in consecutive constitutions.

In the light “of many unfortunate incidents in the Maldives”, Dr Jameel noted, the Maldives had no period of limitation – and that therefore incidents such as the Addu and Huvadhoo uprising and the 1988 coup would also be open for victims to seek compensation.

“As a government we believe we have an independent judiciary. We leave it to the victims to invoke these instances before a court of law,” Dr Jameel said.

“We are a very poor country. Our budget for this year is in deficit, therefore any question of compensation will put the rights of many others in jeopardy.”

On the subject of the death penalty – which Dr Jameel himself has previously stated the government was prepared to implement – he noted that the Maldives was in the grip of a crime surge “which worries many”.

“For example, this year alone we have had seven murders in a country of 350,000. The country is really struggling to address this surge of crime. It is in the light of these occurrences that this debate has occurred. There is no official government discussion, but there are scattered debates across every section of society,” Dr Jameel said.

On the subject of the transfer of power in February, “if the Commission of National Inquiry (CNI) find any criminal offences that occurred during that period they may draw these to the attention of the relevant institutions, such as the Maldives police services,” Dr Jameel told the panel.

“There are various elements, this includes the judiciary and the Prosecutor General, who can order a probe if it warrants a criminal investigation, and compel police to investigate. HRCM is also mandated to investigate and appear in trials,” he said.

HRCM had already produced a report on the former President Nasheed’s “abduction of the Criminal Court judge”, Dr Jameel noted.

UNHRC Maldives webcast 1. Panel begins at ~42 min

UNHRC Maldives webcast 2

Maldives’ response to panel questions:

Maldives response and panel:

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Comment: Sun, sand and intolerance

Saturday’s attack on a group of people silently protesting against religious intolerance is just the latest in a series of orchestrated, well-choreographed acts of violence, hatred and intolerance sweeping across the nation in recent months.

Independent journalist and blogger, Ismail ‘Hilath’ Rasheed, whose personal blog was censored by the Maldivian government last month, was among those attacked, sustaining serious injuries to the head. Others who attempted to intervene also suffered minor injuries.

Ahmed Hassan, one of the protesters, said, “We planned a silent sit down protest in order to make a statement over the lack of religious freedom for minorities, especially those who aren’t Sunni Muslims.”

“We are entering the fourth year of democracy but unfortunately, many basic freedoms and rights have yet to be achieved for all Maldivians. It is unacceptable in this day and age that non-Muslim Maldivians are discriminated against in their own country,” he said. “This is their country as much as ours.”

He further added “I would like to say to those that attacked us today that violence is not a part of Islam. Islam is a religion of love, peace and shura (consultation). The unprovoked attack is clearly an act of intimidation. We realize that as our movement grows, we could face many more such attacks, but we will not be backing out. We will not be intimidated into silence.”

Local writer and blogger, Aminath Sulthona, who was also among the protesters said, “These are not people worthy of being termed ‘religious’, but they are misguided thugs spreading terror and violence in the name of religion.”

Sulthona complained that the police at the scene failed to carry out their duties. “I was being openly threatened and verbally abused in the presence of a police officer who paid no heed to the man… I managed to take pictures of the attackers, but as soon as I got home I started receiving calls saying I would be attacked on the streets if the pictures were leaked.”

The injured protester, Hilath, has also previously faced death-threats over his vocal criticism of Islamic radicalism on his personal blog.

Million-Man March of bigotry

As the rest of the world celebrates the International Human Rights day to commemorate the adoption of the UDHR, a network of NGOs in the Maldives and seven political parties are preparing to conduct a large protest on December 23 – with organisers vowing to assemble a rather ambitious 100,000 protesters, including mothers and their newborns, in order to ‘protect Islam’.

The protests were announced in the aftermath of a speech delivered in parliament by Navi Pillay, the visiting UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, after she sought the removal of discriminatory clauses in the Constitution towards non-Muslims, as well as an open debate on the subject of degrading punishments like public flogging that are still practised in the Maldives.

Pillay argued that flogging as a form of punishment was “cruel and demeaning to women”, while pointing out that apart from just one other Islamic country, the practise wasn’t condoned even among Muslim nations.

Available statistics appear to support the claim that women are disproportionately affected by punishments such as flogging. Mariyam Omidi, then Editor of Minivan News, reported in a 2009 article that according to government statistics, out of 184 people sentenced to flogging for ‘fornication’, 146 were women.

However, the report was met with outrage from conservative sections of the public who gathered with placards at the same venue where the protesters were attacked yesterday, and demanded that the journalist be deported.

There was simply no room for intelligent discussion on the subject and the offending statistic mysteriously disappeared from government websites not long afterwards.

Similarly, the response to the UN Human Rights Commissioner’s recommendations has been a brutish all-out war on the very idea of having a debate on the subject.

One gimmick to rule them all

One might wonder how in a country where Islam is safeguarded by the Constitution, and where there is overwhelming support among both leaders and the general public for mandating Islam’s role in state affairs, and where educating the public on other religions is not only taboo, but also illegal by law – could there still exist such insecurity among citizens that they need to rally in order to ‘protect Islam’.

The explanation is simple.

For 30 years, former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom carefully consolidated the state’s authority over personal beliefs by successfully selling the idea of a ‘100 percent Sunni Muslim’ nation, and making the Dhivehi Identity virtually synonymous with Sunni Islam, which needed to be fiercely protected at all times from ever-present, invisible threats.

One of Gayoom’s most damaging legacies is that a paranoid Maldives found itself among the top ten countries in the world noted for religious intolerance, according to a study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life published in 2009.

Employing religion to keep his citizens in check was a master stroke that ensured him a long reign, but Gayoom’s chickens came home to roost in the dying days of his regime when the democratic uprising threw up a medley of ultra-conservative mullahs who would take over the religious mantle from Gayoom.

Following the first democratic Presidential elections, the ultra-conservative Adhaalath Party assumed control of the newly created Ministry of Islamic Affairs, and took upon themselves the onerous responsibility of deciding who were the ‘true Muslims’ and what constituted ‘true Islam’.

It didn’t help matters that despite the freedom of speech granted by the constitution, the mainstream Maldivian media continues to exercise strict self-censorship when it comes to issues of religion and human rights.

The subject remains taboo among other public institutions and agencies as well, as evidenced by the statement released by the Maldivian Human Rights Commission yesterday on the occasion of Human Rights day, which glaringly omits any mention of minority rights or non-Muslim Dhivehin.

Speaking at a National Awards ceremony last month, President Nasheed gently rebuked his citizens for reacting ‘in a jihadi manner’ over the Navi Pillay controversy.

Instead, he exhorted the citizens to “have the courage to be able to listen to and digest what people tell us, what we hear and what we see”

President Nasheed would have done well to foster this spirit in his own government which, in the first few months after coming to power, shut down several websites that were allegedly critical of his then coalition partner, the Adhaalath Party.

Less than two weeks before he implored his citizens to have the courage to digest others’ opinions, President Nasheed’s government banned the blog of independent journalist Hilath who had been critical of Islamists in the government.

Even more startling was the reaction of his foreign Minister, Ahmed Naseem, to the controversy over Navi Pillay’s recommendations for doing away with degrading punishments.

“You cannot argue with God”, he said, in what was a clear surrender to the politics of bigotry.

The President would also do well to convey his ideas to his erudite Islamic Minister, Dr Abdul Majeed Abdul Baree whose response to the call for open discussion on the subject was merely, “No Muslim has the right to advocate against flogging for fornication.”

The Islamic Minister had also previously condemned the presence of commemorative monuments presented by participating nations in the recently concluded 17th SAARC summit in Addu.

Burning Bridges

The destructive outcome of emotive politics of hatred, strife and fear was clearly demonstrated by the hyper-paranoid religious vandals who burnt, damaged and stole multiple SAARC monuments because they allegedly depicted ‘idols of worship’.

One police officer on duty guarding the monument recollected being approached by hostile members of the general public asking why they were guarding “temples”.

The opposition parties, seeing political expediency even in the most unfortunate acts of xenophobic vandalism, quickly hailed the vandals as “national heroes”.

In a related incident, some MPs of the Progressive Party, including MP Ahmed Mahloof apparently hijacked a ferry in a valiant effort to save Islam from a banner hung at the International Airport, before they were intercepted by the Police and diverted to another island.

The offending banner at the airport depicted an image of Jesus Christ, a Buddhist chakra, and other religious motifs symbolising the religious diversity of South Asia, which the design consultants who came up with the concept said was in keeping with this year’s SAARC summit’s theme of ‘Building bridges’.

Notably, none of these MPs had anything to say on the young non-Muslim Maldivian man who hung himself from a tower at that very airport in July 2010, following immense pressure from family and state religious authorities after he, in his own words, “foolishly admitted (his) non-religious stance” to friends and colleagues.

If the 17th SAARC Summit proved anything, it is that building bridges is impossible when there are greedy political trolls ready to pounce on anyone willing to cross it.

Uphill struggle

It also appears that the Mullah and the MPs seem to be firm in their understanding that Islam has no room for thinking, no room for debate, no room for tolerance and no room for intelligence.

The seemingly endless series of ugly incidents and violence carried out in the Maldives in the name of Islam only reinforces the reputation of Islam as an intolerant, backward religion fit for narrow minded thugs who are incapable of dealing with 21st century realities or co-existing peacefully with the international community.

According to a March 2011 Universal Periodic Review Report for the Maldives, the Maldivian government had pledged to raise awareness and public debate around the issue of freedom of religion and religious tolerance.

The report states that “The Maldives commits to begin domestic awareness-raising and an open public debate on religious issues. Moreover… the Maldives requests international support to host, in 2012, a major international conference on modern Sharia jurisprudence and human rights.”

However, this may be a difficult task given the sense of over-entitlement prevalent among sections of the Maldivian public that, though it demands – nay depends – on foreign aid, income and expertise to keep their families clothed and fed, nevertheless scoffs at the very thought of having to fulfil any obligations to the international community at large.

When confronted by the UN Committee on the the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in August 2011 on the constitutional clause depriving non-Muslims of citizenship, the Maldivian delegation reportedly had this to say:

“It was not true that under the new Constitution existing citizens could be arbitrarily deprived of their nationality if they were to stop practicing Islam… The Muslim-only clause under the citizenship article of the Constitution only applied to non-Maldivians wishing to become naturalised.”

However, just one month later, the government published new Regulations under the Religious Unity Act of 1994, making it illegal to propagate any other religion than Islam, or to be in possession of any material or literature that contradicts Islam. Any violations of the regulations would carry a 2 to 5 year prison sentence.

In other words, as the silent protesters attacked in broad daylight yesterday learned, the struggle to achieve universal human rights in the Maldives is a seemingly impossible and uphill task that only keeps getting harder, thanks to the cesspool of paranoia, hatred and violence generated by a band of short-sighted politicians who are happy to abuse religion and opportunistic religious clerics who dabble in politics.

As with last year, where a motorcade of fundamentalists rode around the capital yelling loud anti-Semitic slogans about visiting Israelis, this year too the Human Rights Day has been marred by gloomy incidents of intolerance that only remind us of how the idea of mutual respect and civility still eludes us as a nation.

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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Comment: The right to remain silent

When a non-Muslim man publicly declared his disbelief in religion at a well-attended public lecture by Dr Zakir Naik in May 2010, the preacher on stage reacted with wide-eyed surprise and told his audience he was told the Maldives was a ‘100% Muslim’ society.

Now that he knew better, he corrected the statistic to “100% minus 1”.

The new statistic did not sit well with certain local Islamist NGOs and by day break there was already a press release demanding the man’s death, failing immediate repentance.

After a couple of days of national pandemonium, with multiple online groups demanding the apostate’s murder, order was finally restored when the man publicly declared his faith in Islam and apologised for the “agony” he had caused.

However, this delicate balance would be upset again less than two months later when another non-Muslim Maldivian, 25 year old Ismail Mohamed Didi, was discovered hanging from the ATC tower of Male’ International airport.

There was a swell of outrage – not because a young man was driven to suicide – but because news websites had published emails he’d sent to aid agencies shortly before his death.

Other reactions were even more confounding, with some even suggesting that the whole thing was a devious plot by “enemies of Islam” to undermine National Security – what other motive could possibly have led him to choose to so publicly hang himself from an airport tower?

Maybe it was because he had worked there for seven years? Maybe he was unable to handle the combined stigma of an internal workplace investigation, and ostracism by friends and family after he – in his own words – ‘foolishly admitted’ his non-religious views to his friends? Perhaps he thought his life in the Maldives was worthless and devoid of any value if he did not keep paying lip service to a belief he did not feel?

Perhaps he should have just exercised his right to remain silent. But he didn’t, and the sacred statistic tragically changed to ‘100% Muslim minus one dead man’.

Then in August 2011, reports emerged of a Maldivian girl in a southern atoll who professed to be non-Muslim, once again changing the statistic to ‘100% Muslim minus one dead man, and one deviant girl’.

“Unique country” – “Special case”

Research conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life estimates the number of Maldivian Muslims at 98.4% of the population.

The report was met with derision by then State Minister of Islamic Affairs, Adhalaath party leader Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed, who claimed the researchers did not have ‘appropriate information’ and reiterated the familiar assertion that the Maldives continued to be 100% Muslim.

The Maldives holds an unenviable 6th position on a global index of severe government restrictions on religious beliefs. In comparison, the State of Israel – often accused of by many Maldivians of curbing minority rights – comes in at the 41st position.

Even in the aftermath of the democracy movement, the Maldives has continued to lodge a reservation on Article 18 of the UDHR and ICCPR, which proclaims the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion as an inherent right of all humans.

The Maldives, which sits on the UN Human Rights Council, pleads that we should be treated as a ‘special case’ – a unique country where an entire population, barring one dead man and one aberrant girl, has always held exactly the same beliefs for centuries.

A US State Department report made public last week observed that religious freedom continued to be ‘severely restricted’ in the Maldives. The report added that there were “limited reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice.”

While there has been no papal style inquisition to systematically weed out minorities, this hasn’t been for the lack of trying. In November 2009, MP Muttalib proposed that non-Muslim foreigners should be barred from practicing their religion even in the privacy of their own bedrooms.

The first draft of the Religious Unity Regulations produced by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs criminalised the act of depicting or describing any other religion in a positive manner, while also arming itself with the power to deport foreigners at will.

A brotherhood of intolerance

The comments in the media following news reports about the US State Department’s observations were marked with familiar hostility – with many responders questioning the United States’ right to even comment on Maldivian law.

In heaping scorn on the audacity of America to comment on our constitution, however, the commentators seek to avoid facing the hard question – does the repeated assertion that the Maldives is ‘unique’ and ‘special’ also allow it to claim exemption from explicit declarations of the Qur’an as well?

Decades of carefully exercised political control over religious narrative in the Maldives has left in its wake a culture of intolerance among the general public that is not only unsympathetic to wider views on non-Islamic religions, but is also hostile to Islamic academics and Muslim religious scholars who espouse a more humane form of Islam.

In other words, our society is not only hostile to other religions, but also to the myriad other available interpretations of Islam as well.

When Dr Abdulla Saeed of Melbourne University and his brother, former Attorney General Dr Hassan Saeed, published a book titled ‘Freedom of Religion and Apostasy in Islam’ arguing that the law of apostasy and capital punishment was out of sync with modern times, there was a massive uproar leading ultimately to a ban on the book.

In early 2008, Dr Afrasheem Ali, generally regarded as a “liberal” religious scholar, came under fire after he argued that singing was not un-Islamic – thus contradicting the position of the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs. The man reportedly had stones thrown at him outside a mosque.

Secular Muslim Maldivians as well as anonymous, non-Muslim Dhivehi bloggers who dare to demand a more pluralistic society often find themselves facing undisguised contempt, harassment and violent threats.

Islam says what?

Muslims scholars around the world repeatedly affirm that Islam does not permit compulsion in religion.

Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, uses explicit Qur’anic verses such as “To you is your religion and to me is mine” to arrive at the ruling that “the Qur’an permits freedom of belief for all of mankind.”

Quoting further from the Qur’an, he says “God does not prevent you from being kind to those who have not fought you on account of your religion or expelled you from your homes, nor from dealing justly with them, indeed God loves the just.”

And yet, self appointed guardians of Islam in the audience rushed to physically attack Mohamed Nazim immediately after he proclaimed his disbelief, and one also remembers the swift press release demanding his murder the next morning.

Regarding such intolerance, the Grand Mufti Ali asserted in an article that “none of these extremists have been educated in genuine centres of Islamic learning. They are, rather, products of troubled environments and their aim is purely political and has no religious foundation.”

Syrian Imam Mohamed Bashar Arafat, who recently visited the Maldives, said in an interview to Minivan News that “We cannot deny the basic human right to life in the name of culture.”

The Imam also said “The Quran… gives people the freedom to worship, the freedom to choose their own religion, right or wrong”.

Political suicide

Many Maldivian MPs and senior government officials privately admit their hands are tied when it comes to the issue of freedom of religion. Simply put, to advocate universal human rights is the easiest way of committing political suicide in the Maldives.

The problem of religious discrimination had already been identified by the visiting UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Asma Jahangir, in a 2006 report that expressed concerns about lack of religious freedom in the Maldives. It noted that while the old constitution did not technically demand all citizens to be Muslim, it presumed this was the case.

While any thoughtful person would readily see the absurdity of a state unilaterally declaring a citizen’s beliefs, the average Maldivian voter continues to justify this position by clinging to the “we’re special” argument.

The new Maldivian constitution, drawn up during the highly polarised and unstable political climate of the Maldivian democracy movement, where everyone and their grandma was being accused of attempting to import “other religions” to the Maldives, went one step further and made it explicitly unlawful for a Maldivian to profess any faith other than Islam.

Many interpret this to mean that a Maldivian Muslim who chooses to abandon the faith would automatically be stripped of citizenship and become a stateless refugee (In direct contravention of Article 15 of the UDHR, which states that no citizen can be arbitrarily deprived of nationhood but – why not? – the Maldives could presumably plead a “special” exemption in this case too).

However, a Maldivian government delegation, answering questions from the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, denied this saying the constitution was clear that no citizen could be deprived of citizenship under any circumstance, and that the Muslim-only clause applied only to foreigners seeking Maldivian citizenship.

In the absence of a legal precedent or court ruling, the provision remains ambiguous.

Yet, the refusal of mainstream media and politicians to touch this human interest issue and a severely outrage-prone public sentiment has made one thing astoundingly clear: non-Muslims in the Maldives may exist as physical flesh-and-bones entities, but if they value their lives, liberty and security, then they must adhere to the strict code of conformity and total silence.

Surely, then, the statistic must in this case be updated to read ‘100% Muslim minus one dead man, one impious girl, and thousands forever condemned to silence.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Somebody had to do it, it needed to be spoken about. The repression of thought, the lack of debate and a lack of a proper public sphere in which such discussion can take place, is dangerous,” he said.

The reaction, he said, was mixed – angry and supportive, superficial and profound. He lost 65 friends on Facebook, the social networking site to which almost every computer literate Maldivian subscribes. He did, however, gain 246 new ‘friends’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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TVM asked to ‘take measures’ against poll staff

The Maldives National Broadcasting Corporation (MNBC) has asked Television Maldives (TVM) to investigate its poll on religious freedom and take measures against those responsible.

Speaking to Minivan News today, Ibrahim Khaleel, managing director of MNBC, said the board has asked Mohamed Asif, deputy director general of MNBC currently in charge of running TVM, to look into the matter after opposition Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) accused the government of attempting to establish other religions in the Maldives.

“I’ve asked Asif to investigate how it happened, and if anyone is responsible, to take measures [against them],” he said. “He will investigate to see if it happened the way they said it did, and take measures based on the findings.”

The poll asked whether freedom of religion should be allowed in the Maldives; the investigation will look into how the topic was chosen and for what purpose, Khaleel said.

In a press release on Monday, the DQP condemned the poll as unconstitutional and accused the government of attempting to introduce religions other than Islam into the Maldives.

The former coalition partner claimed the poll on Sunday night was part of “a devious scheme” intended to show that other religions could be practiced in the country.

The party referred to article 10 of the constitution, which states that Islam shall be the state religion and the basis of all the laws in the Maldives.

Khaleel said he has since watched the show and it was clear that the DQP had taken the poll out of context.

“The discussion was about differences of opinion within Islam, like different sects, and to what extent it should be allowed,” he said.

Two religious scholars, MP Dr Afrashim Ali of the opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party and Sheikh Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed, state minister for Islamic affairs, were on the programme.

“If something unconstitutional was being talked about, I find it hard to believe these two scholars would stand by and let it happen,” said Khaleel.

He added it was apparent from DQP’s press release that they did not watch the programme.

Khaleel said it was “regrettable” that a political party was acting “irresponsibly” in issuing such press releases at a time when freedom of speech was in its infancy.

He denied the DQP’s allegation that the poll was taken on orders from the president’s office.

Mohamed Afruh Rasheed, producer of the show, told Minivan News it focuses on “controversial social issues” that were not being openly debated in society or suppressed.

Some of the issues discussed in the programme have included the rights of expatriates and neglect of the elderly as well as press freedom.

The results of Sunday night’s poll were 14 per cent in favour and 82 per cent against.

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DQP condemns TVM poll on religious freedom

The opposition Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) has condemned a poll on state television about freedom of religion, accusing the government of attempting to allow religions other than Islam into the Maldives and undermining Islamic faith.

A press release by the party yesterday states that the poll on a Television Maldives (TVM) programme on Sunday night was “a devious scheme” intended to show that other religions could be practiced.

“Maldivians have remained 100 per cent Muslims for over 800 years and no effort was made in the name of religious freedom to see whether Maldivians could practice religions other than Islam,” it reads. “We call upon [President Mohamed] Nasheed’s government to cease its efforts to show through TVM or any other state institution that there is space for religions other than Islam in the country.”

The party believes that the purpose of the poll was to “philosophically” weaken Maldivians’ faith and “encourage the people trying to bring other religions to the Maldives”.

It adds that Islam in the Maldives was under threat due to the government’s policies.

DQP is led by former presidential candidate Dr Hassan Saeed, who resigned as special advisor to the president on the anniversary of the government’s 100 days in power. In October, the party left the coalition government, arguing it was failing to deliver on campaign promises.

Speaking to Minivan News today, Mohamed Zuhair, the president’s office press secretary, said the president’s office had no connection to the poll.

“The[Maldives National Broadcasting Corporation] is a company now,” he said. “There is no official mechanism to interact with them, apart from inviting them to press conferences like everyone else.”

He added DQP’s line of attack was “a joke” and clearly politically motivated. “It’s like saying the dried buns sold at some teashop tasted too spicy today – let’s blame the president’s office.”

Zuhair claimed the party were resorting to the same attacks it deployed unsuccessfully in last year’s presidential election because “they can’t accept defeat”. He predicted the DQP would disseminate more press releases in the near future to prove it was an active party, as the Elections Commission will soon be allocating funds for political parties.

Ahmed Afruh Rasheed, editor of TVM news, told Minivan News today the DQP had taken the poll out of context as the programme hosted a discussion on disputes within Islam.

“Their press release shows that they didn’t even watch the programme,” he said. “The question wasn’t whether other religions should be allowed in Maldives. It was about whether space should be given to disagreements about Islam in our society.”

The show focuses on “controversial social issues” that were not spoken about publicly, he added, with the purpose of raising awareness in society.

Afruh denied the poll was meant to encourage religious freedom or that it was put up on the orders of the president’s office.

Other issues addressed by the programme have included the rights of expatriate workers, the neglect of the elderly and media freedom, he said.

Zuhair said there was no reason to harbour ill will towards the new government apart from “an inability to digest defeat”.

“This government hasn’t used devious means to torture an inmate to death. This government hasn’t used tried to meddle in a judicial trial. This government has not had high-level officials accused of corruption,” he said.

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