Silence is not always golden, and never so under compulsion.
The Maldives is travelling on a road not just less travelled but abandoned by most other nations – the road of regression.
Reading the headlines of a Maldivian newspaper is like travelling back in time. Female genital mutilation (FGM), concubines, under-age brides, calls to bring back capital punishment, deportation of ‘suspect’ foreigners, increasing acceptance of man’s alleged superiority over women… concerned about this state of affairs?
The key, apparently, is to say nothing, because whatever you say is certain to be used against you as evidence of your apostasy.
This is the most common and invariably pejorative accusation against any critic of the current Maldivian condition. This emotive allegation is akin to Godwin’s Law, which states that the longer an Internet discussion grows, the higher the probability that a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler will arise, shutting off further discussion.
Similarly, criticise practices negating people’s human rights, obliterating traditions and marauding national identities in the name of ‘Islam’, and the probability of being called an apostate hits the roof, ending any further discourse.
Jürgen Habermas’ initial description of the public sphere may have been utopian, but a democracy cannot function without such a space for rational debate about subjects of societal concern.
Saying Maldivians are being robbed of their identity and culture by those importing a certain brand of Islam into the country is not a criticism of Islam itself. Nor is it a declaration of intent to follow in the footsteps of hate-mongering apostate Muslims who came pouring out of the woodworks following 11 September 2001 such as Dr Mark Gabriel, a doctoral graduate of Egypt’s Al-Azhar University, Brigitte Gabriel and Walid Shoebat (to name but a few).
To point out that it is wrong for Maldivian women to be pushed back from a position of relative equality with men to being nothing but obedient child-bearing vessels, and to single out such thinking for criticism represents neither the perusal of a hidden political agenda nor a criticism of Islam per se.
Indeed, Quran 3:195 states: ‘…be you male or female, you are equal to one another…’
It is those who ignore this spiritual equality between men and women that 3:195 makes so clear, and preach contrary messages, that are being put in the dock for thorough and thoroughly required cross-examinations.
When criticism is leveled against the practice of butchering the genitalia of young girls, again, it is not Islam that is being criticized but those who are forcing the Maldives to regress into ancient cruelties its people have virtually abandoned. There is absolutely no mention of ‘female circumcision’ (as some who prefer to package this cruelty refer to it as) made in the Quran either directly or indirectly.
Neither is there a Hadheeth stating the act is required in Islam. While Prophet Mohamed did not explicitly ban the practice neither did he condone it, advising that if it were to be practiced, it should not be needlessly cruel. Criticism of FGM is a criticism of those who, under the name of Islam, are taking the most vulnerable Maldivians back to the times before people knew better.
Nor is it a criticism of Islam to decry policies of intolerance against people of other faiths – the most recent example being the imminent deportation of an American family because they are ‘suspected’ of being missionaries. It is to point out that ‘Islam’ is being manipulated to achieve certain aims and to pursue particular agendas.
Quran 49:13 states: ‘O people, we created you from the same male and female, and rendered you distinct peoples and tribes, that you may recognize one another’ [own emphasis].
Recognition of differences, pluralism – not a false dichotomy between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – that is what Islam asks of its followers. For Muslims to do otherwise is ‘un-Islamic’ and for Maldivians to do so is, additionally, ‘un-Maldivian’.
Maldivians, until recently, were renowned for their openness and friendliness. The suspicions with which Maldivians now treat foreigners are consequences of this audacious robbery of Maldivian traditions and nature.
It is this loss that is being lamented by critics, the loss of the friendly Maldivian. The friendly Muslim Maldivian who welcomed foreigners with warmth and endearing curiosity. The Maldivians who have been indoctrinated into treating ‘the other’ with suspicion rather than with recognition as they once did – or as their religion tells them to do – it is they, and the practices that have made them so, that are the cause for concern and criticism.
No clash of civilisations
Islam is not monolithic. Nor is ‘the West’. Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilisations theory is a dangerous and vacuous idea based on Orientalism, colonialism and imaginary lines drawn across civilizations that he conjured up. Read the late Palestinian American intellectual and cultural critic Edward Said for a robust critique of the theory.
Unfortunately, it is a theory that many saw as proven with the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States. Criticism of what is happening in the Maldives in the name of Islam does not mean the critics are in favour of the so-called ‘War on Terror’, or are swooning fans of George W Bush who initially used the word ‘crusade’ to describe this seemingly endless ‘war’.
Nor does it mean being in favour of the illegal invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq that turned international law on its head and established the so-called Bush Doctrine of preemptive strikes. Neither does it automatically imply these critics are cheering at the inhuman treatment of ‘enemy combatants’ in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib; the ‘extraordinary renditions’; or the continuing surveillance and monitoring of Muslim communities in the name of ‘counter-terrorism’ and prevention of ‘radicalisation’.
Interpretations of Islam
It means none of those things because it is possible to be a Muslim and disagree with regressive and draconian policies that are being implemented in the name of Islam; and because it is possible for a Muslim to agree with certain ‘Western’ ideas and practices without abandoning their own faith.
Just as it is possible to be from the West and/or be a non-Muslim and disagree with inhumane and illegal policies implemented in the name of the ‘War on Terror’, or those that create the undeniably unjust North/South divisions of today’s world.
Such agreement and disagreement are possible precisely because, as quoted from the Quran before, human beings are ‘distinct peoples and tribes’ that should ‘recognise one another’ as such. It is wrong to try and erase these distinctions through violence and/or other means in order to establish a false homogeneity or hegemony of one group/religion/region over another.
In this disturbed world, the Maldives – had it been allowed to be itself and practice Islam the way it had done for centuries – could have stood as an example to the rest of the world that Islam is indeed a religion of peace, that it is diverse, and among its many followers are people of distinctive cultures.
Sadly, that Maldives is being taken away, its people being cookie-cutter-molded to fit the appearance and behaviours of a particular sect of Islam. A vast majority have allowed themselves to be led down this path, like rats by Pied Piper. Those that refused to be lured have been forced into silence, gagged by the implicit threat of being branded apostates, non-believers, Infidels.
Loss of identity
There still is time, yet, to fight the complete loss of Maldivian identity, to stand against the enforcement of this imported alien uniformity. It cannot be done if the first response to rational criticism is irrational accusations of apostasy.
Differences are inevitable and should be not just tolerated, but welcomed. Muslims are not the same world over. It may surprise some of those re-making themselves, willingly or otherwise, in the image of a particular sect of Islam to learn that the biggest concentrations of Muslim populations can be found in non-Arabic countries.
Not every Muslim is an Arab or every Arab a Muslim; nor does every Arab Muslim practice their faith in the same way. Seven percent of the world’s Muslims (over 50 million) live in Europe; two percent (over 7 million) in North America. Muslims today do not live in a world divided between an ‘Islamic civilization’ and a ‘Western civilisation’ nor do they conform to one look, one appearance, one set of customs – just the one God.
To sit and say nothing while Maldivian identity is taken away, while individuals are systematically turned into copies of a non-existent ideal with the argument that the right to individuality and to individual rights is but a covert tactic of ‘Western neo-colonialism’ – all in the name of Islam – now that would be a sin.
Accusations – of having been rendered brain-dead by the seemingly all-powerful silver bullets of Western media; political bias; and, above all, apostasy – should not, and will not, be allowed to silence the voices of reasoned criticism.
In the words, not of a lowly mortal critic, but the Quran itself: ‘there shall be no compulsion in religion’ (2:256).
Munirah Moosa is a journalism and international relations graduate. She is currently engaged in research into the ‘radicalisation’ of Muslim communities and its impact on international security.
All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]