Protesters calling for religious tolerance attacked with stones, threatened with death

Police are investigating a violent attack on a ‘silent protest’ calling for religious tolerance, held at the Artificial Beach to mark Human Rights Day.

Witnesses said a group of men threw rocks at the 15-30 demonstrators, calling out threats and vowing to kill them.

One witness who took photos of the attacked said he was “threatened with death if these pictures were leaked. He said we should never been seen in the streets or we will be sorry.”

Among those injured in the attack was Ismail ‘Khilath’ Rasheed, a controverisal blogger whose website was recently blocked by the Communications Authority of the Maldives (CAM) on the order of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs.

Rasheed suffered a head injury and was rushed to Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital (IGMH).

“They started hitting us with bricks. They were aiming at our heads – we could tell they were serious and wanted to kill us,” Rasheed told Minivan News from hospital. “I was taken on a motorcycle to IGMH, but I could see them behind me still hitting my friends.”

Police Sub-Inspector Ahmed Shiyam said police attended the scene after the attackers had departed, and were currently investigating the cause of the violence. No arrests had yet been made, he added.

The protesters, calling themselves ‘Silent Solidarity’, had earlier issued a press release stating that their intention was to “make the Maldives and the international community aware of the rising religious intolerance in the Maldives, and to condemn the Constitutionally endorsed suppression of religious freedom. We also denounce the increasing use being made of Islam as a tool of political power.”

“Silent Solidarity will be protesting against discrimination of all races, gender, sexual preferences and religious beliefs and supporting freedom of thought and expression. In our silence, we speak volumes,” the group’s statement said.

The Maldives has come under increasing international scrutiny following an apparent rise in religious intolerance.

Several monuments gifted to the Maldives by other SAARC countries during the recent summit in Addu have been defaced or stolen on the grounds that they are idolatrous. Islamic Minister Dr Abdul Majeed Abdul Bari has condemned the monuments while the opposition has hailed the vandals as “national heroes”.

Protests also erupted last month after UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay spoke in parliament calling for the government and the judiciary to issue a moratorium and debate on flogging as a punishment for extra-marital sex.

“This practice constitutes one of the most inhumane and degrading forms of violence against women and should have no place in the legal framework of a democratic country,” Pillay said.

“The issue needs to be examined, and therefore I called for a countrywide discussion. It is much better if the issue is transparent and debated.”

Pillay also stated that requirement under the Maldivian constitution that all Maldivians be Muslim ”is discriminatory, and does not comply with international standards. I would urge a debate again on the issue to open up entrance of the constitution to all.”

Challenged by a local journalist that the Maldives was both obliged to protect the religion of Islam, she replied: “You have a constitution which conforms in many respects to universal human rights. Let me assure you that these human rights conform with Islam.”

She added that the Maldives had signed international treaties that are legally-binding obligations, “and such a practice conflicts with these obligations undertaken by the Maldives.”

The following day protesters gathered outside the UN building, carrying placards stating “Islam is not a toy”, “Ban UN” and “Flog Pillay”, and called on authorities to arrest the UN High Commissioner.

MPs roundly condemned Pillay’s statements.

‘”What we should be worried about holding discussions against the fundamentals of Islam in a 100 percent Muslim country such as the Maldives is that we may start questioning about worshipping God Almighty tomorrow,” said opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) MP Dr Afrashim Ali.

Ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MP Mohamed ‘Colonel’ Nasheed said the Maldives “will never ever open doors for religions other than Islam in the Maldives. We’ll not give the opportunity to speak against the fundamentals and principles of Islam in the parliament.”

MP Riyaz Rasheed, from the opposition-aligen Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) condemned the Speaker Abdulla Shahid from allowing Pillay to complete her address.

“There is a good chance for us to directly say that Abdulla Shahid has made a good deal with this government to wipe out the religion of Islam from this country,” MP Rasheed said.

President Mohamed Nasheed has meanwhile said that Maldivians “should have the self-belief and resolve not to have our faith shaken by listening to statements or opinions expressed by others.”

“That the punishments and rulings of Islamic Sharia are not inhumane is very clear to us,” Nasheed said. “We have the opportunity to show the whole world how noble and civilised Sharia is. That is because we are the only Islamic nation with a democratically-elected government.

“Wasting that opportunity in a Jihadi spirit” with the claim of “defending Islam” was unacceptable, Nasheed said. “Opposition parties will always attack us by using religion as a weapon. [But] I believe that this country is the only Islamic nation where Islamic Sharia has been practiced uninterrupted for 700 years.”

Religious sentiment in the Maldives can often be vocal and heated, but has rarely led to physical violence.

In late May 2010, well-known Islamic preacher Dr Zakir Naik visited the Maldives and delivered a sermon in the capital Male’. During a question-and-answer session 37 year-old Mohamed Nazim stood up and declared himself “Maldivian and not a Muslim”.

Nazim’s declaration angered the 11,000 strong crowd, and he was escorted from the venue by police and officials from the Ministry of Islamic Affairs amid calls for his execution.

After two days of religious counselling in police custody, Nazim appeared before television cameras at an Islamic Ministry press conference and gave Shahada – the Muslim testimony of belief – and apologised for causing “agony for the Maldivian people” and requested that the community accept him back into society.

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

“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,” Didi wrote in a letter to an international humanitarian organisation, prior to his death.


Intolerance growing in the Maldives: Asia Times

The rising tide of religious intolerance in the Maldives is threatening the country’s young democracy, writes Sudha Ramachandran for the Asia Times.

Monuments donated by Pakistan and Sri Lanka were vandalised last week as they were seen to be “idolatrous” and “irreligious”.

Member-countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) donated monuments to mark the just-concluded 17th summit of the regional grouping that the Maldives hosted.

The monument gifted by Pakistan consisted of an image of its founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, and also featured figures, some of them drawn from seals belonging to the ancient Indus Valley Civilization. Historians have argued that these figures of animals and human beings point to early religion. The Sri Lankan monument was of a lion, the country’s national symbol.

On the eve of the unveiling of the Pakistan monument, a mob reportedly led by the opposition Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), the party of former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, toppled the bust of Jinnah. A day later, the monument was set ablaze and the bust stolen. The Sri Lankan monument was found doused in oil with the face of the lion cut off.

Sources in the Maldivian government told Asia Times Online that the vandalisation was driven by political motivations rather than religious beliefs. “This is the opposition’s way of damping the success of the SAARC summit,” a member of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) said.

The PPM has hailed the vandals as “national heroes” and promised to “do everything” it can to secure the release of the two men arrested over the incidents.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs has ordered the government to remove the monuments as they “breach the nation’s law and religion”. Islamic Affairs Minister Abdul Majeed Abdul Bari told the local media that the Pakistan monument was “illegal” as it “represented objects of worship of other religions”.

Adhaalath Party president Sheikh Imran Abdulla told Minivan News that the monument “should not be kept on Maldivian soil for a single day” as “it conflicts with the constitution of the Maldives, the Religious Unity Act of 1994 and the regulations under the Act” as it depicted “objects of worship” that “denied the oneness of God”.

Sunni Islam was declared the official state religion of the Maldives under the 1997 constitution. This was retained in the 2008 constitution. Article 9-d says that “a non-Muslim may not become a citizen of the Maldives”. While the constitution allows non-Muslim foreigners to practice their religion privately, they are forbidden from propagating or encouraging Maldivians to practice any religion other than Islam.

The island nation in the Indian Ocean is formed by a double chain of 26 atolls has a population of about 314,000. It is the smallest Asian country in both population and land area. With an average ground level of 1.5 meters (4 foot 11 inches) above sea level, it is the planet’s lowest country.

Although religion plays an important role in the daily lives of Maldivians, the kind of Islam practiced here has never been puritanical or rigid and it is suffused with local cultural practices. Faith in Islam has co-existed with belief in spirits and djinns. Traditionally, Maldivian women did not veil their faces or even cover their heads and men did not grow beards. That is now changing with a puritanical version of Islam taking root.

Religious conservatism has grown dramatically in recent years, as has intolerance. A small but vocal group of religious radicals espousing Wahhabi or Salafi Islam has campaigned for inclusion of sharia law punishments like flogging and amputation in the penal code, used intimidation to force women to veil themselves and declared listening to music as haram (forbidden).

Maldivians who are atheist, agnostic or profess the milder Sufi Islam have been hounded by radicals. In May last year, 37-year-old Mohamed Nazim, who professed in public to be non-Muslim, was threatened by the Islamic Foundation of the Maldives, a non-governmental organisation.

Three days later, he went on television and asked for forgiveness. Two months later, 25-year-old Ismail Mohamed Didi, who admitted to being an atheist and had sought political asylum abroad, was found hanging at his workplace.

Some blame the recent spurt in religious radicalism on the country’s nascent democracy. A Maldivian political analyst who Asia Times Online spoke to in 2009 pointed out that “unlike Gayoom, who jailed people like [controversial religious preacher] Sheikh Fareed for their views, under the new democratic government extremists are able to advocate their version of Islam without fear of being arrested and detained.”

Others blame what they describe as President Mohamed Nasheed’s “appeasement of religious elements”. Indeed, not only did Nasheed create a Ministry of Islamic Affairs but he also put it in under the control of the Adhaalath Party, a party of religious conservatives.

Although Adhaalath parted ways with the ruling MDP in September, Nasheed has retained Bari, who is a member of Adhaalath, as his minister of Islamic affairs.

Nasheed’s reluctance to take on religious radicals has eroded his support among young Maldivians who voted for him not only because they wanted to see the end of four decades of Gayoom’s authoritarian rule but also because they expected him to put in place real freedom, including the right to religious freedom. Their hopes seem to have been dashed by the government’s flirting with the fundamentalists.

Full story


Comment: Burning bridges – SAARC Summit exposes depths of Maldivian intolerance

Democracy strips a people naked by giving them the freedom to be who they really are. Recent events reveal that the Maldivian so exposed is not a pretty sight: she is bigoted, xenophobic, and ignorant.

First came the gutter press hullabaloo about an illustration of Jesus on a banner welcoming leaders of the SAARC region which, as it happens, is home to the largest collection of deities known to man.

Pardon me if I am bordering on the verge of apostasy here, but is Jesus not Easa? You may know him from such books as the Qur’an.

Perhaps the good people of the Sun magazine, which ‘broke’ the ‘news’, are not too familiar with the book. Be that as it may, truth is, Sun writers had not been this excited about alleged ‘anti-Islamic activity’ since they went under covers in a brothel.

When the public failed to foam at the mouth (not about the brothel, about Jesus), other plans had to be hatched to ratchet up hatred. Along came MP Ahmed Mahloof, our saviour from the unlikely Second Coming of Jesus as a line-drawing flapping about in the warm breeze of a tropical island.

The ex-footballer as a public figure is an interesting (side)step in the evolution of man. To begin with, he possesses a brain that accepts kicking a ball into a net for money is a life well lived. The capacity of such brains to adjust to other styles of living is minimal, though not non-existent.

It has been proven, for instance, that they can successfully switch from playing ball to building a career of provocatively displaying one’s own balls for couturiers of men’s underwear. But a career in politics? Mahloof is proof that electing ex-footballers to political posts is an own goal of epic proportions.

As if the MP and his idiocy were not enough to make us the laughing stock of South Asia, we then set about destroying a monument installed by Pakistan because it contains idolatrous images.

Maldivians destroying a Pakistani creation for alleged anti-Islamic imagery. Now, tell us – does that not make it clear once and for all who is the more Islamic of the two states: the Islamic Republic of Pakistan with its 97 percent Muslim population, or Always Natural Maldives, the tourist destination extraordinaire with a hundred-percent-minus-one-Muslim population? Surely we have won this religious pissing contest that Pakistan probably did not even know they were engaged in.

At least we cannot be accused of bias in our India-Pakistan foreign policy. Last month we deported an Indian for having on his laptop a religious hymn. This week we destroyed a religious display from Pakistan.

In fact, we are very even-handed in our policies and attitudes towards all our neighbours. Just ask any of our hundred thousand Bangladeshi Muslim brethren: we treat them all with equal inhumanity and cruelty.

And surely Sri Lanka would attest to just how seriously we take the commandment to love thy neighbour: for didn’t we, while on the UN Human Rights Committee, describe the UN’s condemnation of Rajapaksa’s war policy as ‘singularly counter-productive’?

Somewhere in this unpalatable exposé of the 21st century Maldivian is a lesson, not just for Maldivians but also for democracy itself. And it is not just that ex-footballers should not be elected to public office but also that, given the freedom, a majority of people are just as likely to choose intolerance as they are to choose tolerance.

That is the tragedy of three years of democracy in the Maldives: we have chosen to use its liberties to exercise our freedom not to be free.

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