Tourists blissfully unaware of Islamist tide in Maldives: Irish Times

“On arrival in the Maldives, holidaymakers bound for the exclusive resort of Gili Lankanfushi are whisked from the airport to a speedboat, given a freshly prepared coconut to sip and a cloth bag bearing a slogan: ‘No News, no Shoes.’ The idea is to place your shoes in the bag during the 20-minute boat journey and forget them, along with distressing world events, for the duration of your stay at the tropical island paradise,” writes the Irish Times.

“Avoiding the headlines may be no bad thing while watching sea turtles swim under your luxurious water villa, or while walking barefoot along the sparkling lagoon’s palm-shaded white beaches. It is certainly no bad thing for the Maldivian tourism industry, because the news is not good from this resort archipelago of some 1,200 low-lying coral islands in the Indian Ocean.

“In April, following a 60-year moratorium, the Muslim country’s government reactivated the death penalty. Facilities are being built at a prison on Maafushi Island to have murder convicts executed by lethal injection. The age of criminal responsibility in the Maldives is 10, but children as young as seven – who may be found guilty of certain crimes under Islamic sharia – could now potentially face a death sentence.”

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Comment: The long road from Islam to Islamism

This article first appeared on Dhivehi Sitee. Republished with permission.

Popular Maldivian history does not go much further back than the 12th Century, when King Dhovemi Kalaminja converted to Islam and ruled that all his subjects must follow suit. Long forgotten or neglected history books, however, tell us that life in the Maldives—or MaladvipaDheeva Maari; or Dheeva Mahal as it was known in antiquity—began centuries previously.

The ancient Sri Lankan chronicle of The Mahavamsa connects the origins of Maldivian people to the Sinhalese through the story of excommunicated Indian princes from the Kalinga kingdom in the 6th Century. More recent Maldivian research, A New Light into Maldivian History (1958), traces Maldivian life even further back to the 3rd Century. Some historians have theorised that the first settlers in the Maldives could have emerged as soon as Greco-maritime trade began in the region making it very likely that the first Maldivians were “Prakrit speaking Satavahanas of the Deccan, Tamil speaking Chera, Chola, Pandyas of South India, and Prakrit speaking Sinhalese of Sri Lanka.”

Among these early Maldivians who predate the arrival of exiled Indian princes were descendants of the Tivaru people of ancient Tamil origin who later came to be known as ‘Giraavaru people’. They practised an ancient form of Hinduism involving Dravidian ritualistic traditions venerating Surya, the Sun god. The Giraavaru people, although now so totally assimilated into Maldivian society as to be indistinguishable from the rest, maintained a variety of their distinct traditions and culture until as late as the 1980s. It took a concerted, and often inhumane, effort by the government to finally make them conform to the majority’s norm.

Successive governments also made sustained and systematic efforts to wipe out all history of the Buddhist community that had long existed in the Maldives until about 900 years ago. Just like the history of the Giraavaru people, however, the digging does not have to be too deep to uncover just how ingrained Buddhist ways and culture had been in Maldivian life for years. While archaeologists like HCP Bell have uncovered Buddhist structures buried underground, ethnologists like Xavier Romero-Frias have traced the origins of much of classical Maldivian cultural, linguistic, and traditional traits to the Buddhist era.

The beginning of the end of Maldivian Buddhism came with Arab domination of trade in the Indian Ocean in the 7th Century. Just as the rise of China and India, and the US foreign policy’s Asia Pivot, have made the Maldives geo-strategically important today, so it was with the ancient Silk Route. Foreign powers were drawn to the Maldives by its location and its abundance of cowry shells, the currency of many. The spread of Islam along the Silk Route is well documented.

In the Maldives, it is a widely accepted ‘truth’ that the conversion of the Maldives population to Islam was peaceful—people willingly converted with their King. There are, however, historical accounts that dispute the narrative exist in the form of writing on copperplates (Isdū Lōmāfānu) dating back to the 12th Century. These have not been made widely accessible to the public. In their place is a legend, first told orally then formalised as historical fact and included in primary school text books, which depicts Maldivian conversion to Islam as a reaction to the cruel deeds of a sea demon.

As the story goes, the demon appeared like a ‘ship of lights’ once a month, demanding virgin girls to be delivered to it at night to a designated location. In the morning the demon would be gone, and the virgin would be found dead. A Berber or Persian, who was visiting Maldives at the time, volunteered to go to the demon in place of the chosen virgin one night. He stayed up all night reciting the Qur’an. When the demon appeared, the sound of the Qur’an gradually diminished it in size until it was small enough to be put into a bottle. The Arab traveller sealed the bottle and disposed of it into the deep blue sea, banishing it forever. A grateful King Kalaminja converted to Islam, and his obedient subjects followed suit. Hundreds of years of Buddhism disappeared, allegedly, without trace. From then on King Kalaminja became Sultan Muhammad Ibn Abdullah and Maldives became 100 percent Muslim.

The first major threat to the new Maldivian way of life came four centuries later, with Portuguese occupation in the 16th Century. Unlike latter colonial powers like the Dutch and the British, the Portuguese occupiers did not allow Maldivians autonomy in their internal affairs. Stories of Portuguese wine-drinking and merry-making abound in Maldivian historical accounts of their presence. One of the most potent weapons used to rally Maldivians behind the efforts to oust the Portuguese was religious rhetoric—the biggest threat from the Portuguese occupation, it was said, was to the Islamic faith of Maldivians. The day on which the Portuguese were defeated is now marked as the National Day, and the chief protagonists in the story of their ouster are venerated as the most heroic of figures in the history of the Maldives.

Religious rhetoric as a means of rallying support for political change, established as a success during the battle against the Portuguese, was once again deployed with similar triumph in the 20th Century. In 1953, while Maldives was still a British Protectorate, Mohamed Amin Didi became the first President of the Maldives. Amin Didi is largely credited with ending monarchy and steering the country towards a Republic. He is also known as a moderniser and an advocate for women’s rights. Amin Didi’s presidency—and the First Republic—lasted less than a year. Just as religious rhetoric was successfully used in ousting the Portuguese, so was similar discourse produced to brutally end Amin Didi’s presidency. Even the famine caused by WWII was tied to religious discourse and blamed on Amin Didi.

The Maldives’ first experiences of ‘Western modernity’ began during the Second Republic, with the arrival of tourists from Europe. The world had just lived through the counter-culture of the 1960s, the Maldives was no longer a British Protectorate, the Second Republic had been established, and Ibrahim Nasir was the president. Unlike its neighbours and contemporaries in other parts of the world, modernity was not enforced on the Maldives by a foreign power—it arrived with tourists and was adopted voluntarily by many locals, especially in the capital Male’ and surrounding areas.

The Islam that existed in the Maldives at this time was an amalgamation of Islamic teachings, Buddhist Eveyla traditions and Sufi practises and rituals. Writers and historians such as HCP Bell, Clarence Maloney, Francois Pyrad and Xavier Romero-Frias have provided rare insights into Maldivian Islamic traditions. Many of them have now disappeared, or been made to disappear, as Western modernity and Islamism took hold of and begun to dictate Maldivian life. The total obliteration of Islam as it was practised in the Maldives for centuries began in earnest with the assumption of power by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

Gayoom, who ruled the Maldives for 30 years (1978-2008), was the country’s third president. Gayoom had spent most of his adolescent years in Egypt, having arrived there at the age of 12 in 1950 and left in 1969 as a graduate of Al-Azhar University. His politics, faith and worldview was largely shaped by what he saw and learned during almost two decades in the Middle East. When he was sworn in as president of the Maldives in November 1978, Iran was paralysed by demonstrations that heralded the Islamic Revolution. Relations between ‘the Arab world’ and the West were tense after the Arab-Israeli War of 1967 and the OPEC-led oil embargo in 1973-74.

From the moment Gayoom assumed power, he intertwined Maldivian identity with that of his own, i.e. influenced and shaped by Egyptian culture, outlook, and beliefs. Maldivian Islam was, for the next thirty years, shaped, directed and dictated by Gayoom, the Egyptian graduate.

The Maldivian Constitution of 1968 stipulated Islam as the state religion. In 1997 Gayoom enacted a new constitution in which he gave the head of state—then himself—the power to be ‘the ultimate authority to impart the tenets of Islam’. This formalised what had been the status quo since his rule began. The first real challenge to Gayoom’s religious authority, granted to him by a constitution he more or less drafted, came from the Maldivian Islamic revivalist scholars educated in Pakistan, mostly on scholarships provided by external sources.

Several of the returning graduates challenged not just Gayoom’s religious authority but also his right to dictate what form of Islam Maldivians should practise. Gayoom was brutal in his crackdown on the practise of fundamentalist Islam, driving those who practised it to unite against his authority. Adhaalath Party was the result.

Since then the party has undergone many changes, and has evolved into the most vocal Islamist party in the history of the country. Its founding members are no longer together, some having left to join the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) while others have remained with Adhaalath which has, in a volte face hard to fathom, now aligned itself with Gayoom and his People’s Party of the Maldives (PPM).

Adhaalath’s most successful time came during the first three years of democracy in the Maldives, flourishing in the environment of free expression fostered by President Mohamed Nasheed.

The global roots of Islamism

Changes in religious practises the Maldives has undergone throughout its history have invariably been linked with changing international patterns of behaviour. Islam came, for example, with burgeoning trade on the Silk Route. Portuguese influences that are said to have threatened Maldivian Islam came with the beginning of the European colonisation project. Gayoom brought with him Egyptian Islam at a time when Iran was going through the Islamic Revolution and tension was high between ‘the Arab world’ and ‘the West.’ Islamism arrived with a vengeance as the world began to talk to of a ‘clash of civilisations’ between Islam and the West.

In attempting to understand the current religious habits of the Maldivian population, it is helpful to look at what Islamism is, and how it has progressed through history to become the force it is today.

The Columbia World Dictionary of Islamism describes political Islam as having emerged in its modern form as a movement against secular pan-Arabism and/or autocrats endorsed by the West. Its objective is to return to a ‘Golden Age of Islam’ where Shari’a is implemented and the State is Islamised at all levels. Intellectual heavy-weights of the movement such as Mawlana Abdul A’la Mawdudi, Sayyid Qutb and Abdulla Azzam shared and propagated the idea that man-made law is tantamount to apostasy and is denotive of Jahiliyya.

Osama bin Laden was a great admirer of Qutb’s ideas and thinking. [Incidentally, in his authorised autobiography, Gayoom, too, professes to be a Qutb admirer.] The ideas made popular by Qutb and his contemporaries were, however, not new; they have been around for centuries. Thirteenth century Salafist thinker Taqi al-Din Ibn Taymiyya floated such ideas during the Mongol Empire’s expansion into the Middle East; Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab, whose thinking engendered what is today known as Wahhabism, propagated similar ideas in the eighteenth century; and, Indian Muslim activist Sayyid Ahmed Rei Barelvi did the same in the early nineteenth century.

Following in their footsteps, Islamist leaders have mobilised resistance against various types of regimes—imperialists, Muslim secularists, autocrats, liberal democracies—that were grappling with a shift from the traditional to the modern. Some analysts have contextualised Islamic fundamentalism as a strand of anti-colonial resistance to European expansion into territories previously held by the Ottoman Empire which began after the Enlightenment. In Al-Qaeda and What it Means to be Modern, John Gray points out, for instance, that Qutb—a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood—borrows heavily from European anarchism. His ideas were influenced, Gray has noted, by the ‘Jacobins, through to the Bolsheviks and latter day Marxist guerrillas.’

A similar explanation for the phenomenon of Islamism has been offered by French professor Olivier Roy inGlobalised Islam: the Search for a New Ummah. Roy asserts that ‘fundamentalism is both a product and an agent of globalisation, because it acknowledges without nostalgia the loss of pristine cultures, and see [as] positive the opportunity to build a universal religious identity, delinked from any specific culture.’

Islamism in the Maldives

Being poor, under-developed and geographically isolated, and lacking in rich natural resources (other than beauty), foreign powers left Maldives pretty much to its own devices for most of modern history. Almost all of the Maldivian population remained oblivious (and a substantial part still does) to ideological changes that re-arranged human life—communism, socialism, Marxism, etc. It remained similarly impervious to changes and evolution in Islamic jurisprudence, ideas and thinking. Life, and faith, was simple. All Maldivians accepted themselves as Muslims and adhered faithfully to its core tenants, principles and values without much ado.

There appeared no need to declare one’s ‘Muslimness’, and, apart from Gayoom’s efforts to become the Supreme Leader of Islam, religion and politics remained separate. All Maldivians accepted themselves as Muslims and adhered faithfully to its core tenants, principles and values. The change that Maldives could not remain impervious to, however, came in the form of globalisation in the 1990s.

As the Maldives opened up to tourism, the world was becoming more inter-connected. The ripples of what happened in one part of the world could now be felt everywhere. With the end of the Cold War came the end of the bipolar world in which the United States and the Soviet Union kept each other and the rest of the world in check. For years, the US used Afghanistan to wage a war against the Soviet Union, and armed militant Islamists as weapons against USSR as part of its Cold War strategy.

Violence in the Israel-Palestine conflict increased with the First Intifada; the first Gulf War was fought; and tensions between the Middle East and the United States was high. Back in the US, any acts of violence committed against Western interests by Middle Eastern actors began to be labelled as ‘Islamic terrorism’, and analysts began to predict a doomsday scenario in which ‘religious terrorism’ was going to annihilate the world as we knew it. In 1993, American scholar and analyst Samuel Huntington published his now famous theory predicting of an impending ‘clash of civilisations’, the worst of which was going to be between ‘the West and Islam.’

Just as Islamist leaders of the past mobilised against various types and forms of regimes they saw as a threat, modern Islamists began to rally the troops against what they saw as US imperialism. This time, the leader was Osama bin Laden and, with globalisation at its height, the effort was truly worldwide. For the first time since King Kalaminja embraced Islam as the state religion of the Maldives, Maldivian Islam became a subject of enormous interest to people in other parts of the world. Maldivians soon began receiving funds for religious education abroad.

In contrast to the small numbers of Maldivian students who had previously acquired Arab-influenced education in respected Middle Eastern universities such as Al-Azhar of Egypt, students now left in droves to institutes of learning not just in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries, but also in the nearby Pakistan. Waves of Islamism were about to crash onto the sheltered Maldivian shores.

Gayoom, under whose control Islam was made a central focus in Maldivian life, was determined to remain in full control of all religious affairs. He cracked down on the newly arrived fundamentalist scholars; going to the extent of not just jailing them, but also torturing them in jail. But the days of Gayoom were numbered; and a new wind soon blew across the globe that he was powerless to control: the War on Terror.

Despite frenetic denials by the West, the new war was widely seen as a war between ‘Islam and the West’. Led by Osama bin Laden, the nuanced meaning of the word Jihad was hijacked by both sides of the War to denote only one thing – Holy War. Another event of global magnitude—the 2004 Tsunami—became a powerful weapon in the hand of Maldivian Islamists who quickly labelled the catastrophe as ‘God’s wrath’ for not practising the ‘right Islam’. The ‘right Islam’ was, of course, the fundamentalist, puritanical, and often violent, Islam they preached. It was a message many believed.

In the Maldives, one of the most peaceful and crime-free places in the world until early 21st Century, the first religiously motivated act of violence in a public place in living memory occurred in September 2007. Radical Islamists detonated an IED in the tourist centre of the capital island of Malé, injuring twelve tourists. The perpetrators fled to the island of Himandhoo, 89 kilometres from Malé by sea. By the time police traced the perpetrators to the island in October 2007, a large percentage of residents had subscribed to the radical ideology of the militants and were ready for a violent confrontation with the security forces.

Since then many Maldivian Islamists have become a part of the global ‘Jihadist’ movement of militants who travel to conflict ridden areas in the world to participate in what they see as a global Holy War. A Maldivian handpicked by Jamia Salafia was, for instance, funded by an American and trained by Kashmiri Mujahidin to become one of the suicide bombers who attacked the Inter-Services Intelligence headquarters in Lahore, Pakistan in 2009. The same year, Pakistani authorities detained eight Maldivians planning to create a terrorist group in the Maldives.

Maldivian radical Islamist is also reported to have been part of the 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai and, more recently, in late 2013 intelligence that eight Maldivians had been called to join a similar attack on another Indian city sparked a major coastal security alert in India.

Democracy and Islamist radicalism

Maldivian experience with democracy and Islamism demonstrates that would be a mistake to subscribe to the widespread belief that democracy is an antidote to radical ideologies. The transition to democracy in November 2008 proved a godsend for believers in fundamentalist Islam and radical Islamists. The new president Mohamed Nasheed, a former Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience, was determined to end torture in the jails and promote freedom of expression for all. Radical Islamists, as they do the world over, made full use of the freedoms and modern technology to advance their ideology.

The Internet, mainstream media—the entire public sphere—was saturated with their messages as they went all in to educate and indoctrinate people. The change from dictatorship to democracy also ushered in multi-party politics, another opportunity for Islamists to further their agenda. Faced with a choice of losing the election to Gayoom or forming a coalition with Adhaalath Party, Mohamed Nasheed’s MDP chose the latter. It proved a fatal mistake for his presidency, and a golden opportunity for fundamentalists.

A number of changes followed that tightened their grip on governance and on society at large. Gayoom’s Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs was replaced by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. Under the coalition agreement, most members of staff at the Ministry were members of the Adhaalath Party. All Islamic discourse was now officially in the hands of fundamentalists.

The party quickly moved to tighten the grip on education; ensure alcohol was banned from all inhabited islands; issue Fatwas banning music, dancing and other such matters; dictate women’s clothing and behaviour; above all, proselytise, proselytise, proselytise.

Unsurprisingly, the Adhaalath Party was in constant conflict with its coalition partner MDP. One party was formed to further fundamentalist Islam while the other was—originally, at least—driven by a secular democratic agenda. It is a mark of Adhaalath’s proselytising success that, with a vociferous and radical public having been made to fall in behind its Islamist agenda, the MDP conceded to Adhaalath’s demands so often on religious issues that by the time the 2013 election came about, its original ideas of maintaining a safe distance between religion and politics were nowhere in sight.

In September 2011, after many skirmishes, Adhaalath severed its coalition with the MDP government, and dedicated itself to bringing down the Nasheed administration. Adhaalath’s role in orchestrating the events of 7 February 2012, which prematurely ended the first democratically elected government of the Maldives, is now well documented.

Without Adhaalath and other other fundamentalist radical actors labelling of Nasheed ‘an enemy of Islam’ and creating the discourse of ‘Nasheed’s devious plot to destroy Islam’, it is unlikely that Maldivians would have acquiesced to abandon the democratic experiment so soon after it began. The Maldivian habit of exploiting religion for political purposes successfully deployed many times in the past to bring down governments, remains a powerful weapon in its present.

It is another measure of Adhaalath’s success that it used the freedoms given by democracy to associate it, in the minds of their radicalised followers, with irreligiousness. They also successfully projected democracy as an extension of colonialism, a concept which undermined sovereignty. Largely through their subscription to this fundamentalist rhetoric, a majority of Maldivians remain convinced that democracy is a form of governance that Islam frowns upon, and which no proper Muslim should associate themselves with.

A recent study by the NGO Transparency Maldives on Maldivians’ relationship with democracy categorised 75% of Maldivians as non-democrats, or people who do not believe in ‘democratic values’. The Transparency Maldives survey did not explore the relationship between people’s perceptions of democracy and their religious attitudes; if it had, there is no doubt the results would have shown a significant correlation between negative attitudes towards democracy and current religious beliefs of a majority of people.

On 7 February 2012, amidst the chaos that ended Nasheed’s presidency, one of the first actions carried out by the radical Islamists was to break into the National Museum and destroy a number of invaluable artefacts from the country’s pre-Islamic history. It signalled the beginning of a new era of intolerance, xenophobia and radicalism in the history of the Maldives.

Within months, Islamists attempted to kill Hilath Rasheed, the country’s only openly gay blogger and human rights activist, and a few months later the same year, they succeeded in brutally hacking to death one of the country’s more moderate Islamic scholars and Member of Parliament Dr Afrasheem Ali.

Since Yameen Abdul Gayoom, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s brother, was elected the new president of the Maldives on 16 November 2013 after the most farcical of election processes, the Adhaalath Party has fallen curiously silent. They are no longer on the streets, rousing crowds into action in the name of religion. It does not mean they are not active—it is more likely a sign that they no longer have to fight the government for the right to further their agenda.

This year alone, for example, they have quietly made several significant changes to laws and regulations that solidify their authority over religious practises and beliefs. Last month, amendments were made to the Religious Unity Act bringing all mosques back under the control of the Islamic Ministry and made Islam a compulsory subject in all schools from grades one to twelve. There is little doubt that the syllabi will be under complete control of the fundamentalists.

There is a reason such moves are officially condoned instead of met with concern. In 2011 Maumoon Abdul Gayoom announced that his party, then called Z-DRP, shared the same ideology as Adhaalath. Yameen Abdul Gayoom, although not known for his staunch religiosity, was happy to associate with Adhaalath for the downfall of Nasheed’s government and the promotion of his own bid for presidency. Since his government came to power it has ended the 50 plus years long moratorium the Maldives maintained on the death penalty, while failing to express any concern or take any action to stem the normalisation of radical views in society.

Now that Islamic fundamentalists have more or less won the fight for the hearts and minds of the people, if not the fight to govern the country, it is very unlikely that the Gayooms will attempt to curb their freedoms as they once did.

How did they do it?

The success of Islamic fundamentalism in the Maldives has been the result of external influences and the exploitation by Islamists of internal weaknesses. Since the borderless and endless War on Terror began, religion has been pushed to the forefront of many national political and social agendas across the world. In the globalised world where national identities are said to matter little and borders even less, Islamic radicals exploited all available means of communication to reach out to the ‘Islamic Ummah’ to unite against a ‘common enemy.’

The Maldives, one of the few countries in the world to bill itself as ‘100% Muslim’ and with a constitution that demands every citizen to be a Muslim, is an attractive prospect for those pursuing bin Laden’s agenda of an Islamic Caliphate. All studies of radicalisation so far analyses ‘Muslim communities’ within societies that are also home to other religions, ethnicities and races. In the Maldives is a whole Muslim population, living in relative geographical seclusion, with relatively little knowledge of, let alone participation in, worldwide ideological changes or debates.

Global funders of radical Islamist movements poured large sums of money into changing the entire Maldivian population into fundamentalist Muslims, if not radical Jihadists. In the decade since the War on Terror began, converted fundamentalists began opening up small shops all over the capital Malé.  They were usually fabric shops aimed at women. It was a means of establishing a foothold within society. A large number of people—especially disaffected youth addicted to drugs who had been jailed in their hundreds by Gayoom—were specifically targeted by the Islamists.

Once converted, the men would return home to do the same with their families. Radicalisation in prisons is now a well known phenomenon in many societies. Maldivian preachers trained in Pakistani seminaries, meanwhile, returned to their home islands where conversion of the entire population was easy. Fundamentalists also recruited local celebrities such as singers and musicians who then gave up their own careers and previous ways of life to become preachers or recruiters themselves. It is by now a well-known tactic of radicals and fundamentalists to recruit people from prisons.

In a decade, most Maldivians had changed their religious beliefs to that of fundamentalist Islam, and hundreds of men had been recruited into the radical Jihadi cause.

The most clearly visible signs of the fundamentalists’ victory over the Maldivian people’s hearts and minds is in their appearance—in a short span of a decade or so, the female Maldivian population went from one in which only older women (usually at least over fifty) wore a head scarf to one in which approximately eight out of ten women, from teenagers to the elderly, wear it. It is now de rigueur for most men to wear a long messy unkempt beard and clad themselves in Pashtoon/Arabic attire. Even women who do not subscribe to fundamentalist views wear the headscarf for a variety of reasons—to be sexy; to be fashionable; to appease their husband/boyfriend; due to peer pressure; even to hide double-chins.

It is a remarkable situation that in the Maldives, mothers and grandmothers have been pressured into wearing the headscarf by granddaughters who wear it. Only a handful of Maldivian women over the age of sixty can now be found without a headscarf. A Muslim woman, it is now accepted in Maldivian society, is not a proper Muslim woman unless they wear the headscarf; and the ‘more Muslim’ they are, the more they cover-up. To turn-around the beliefs and outlooks of an entire population—even their very idea of beauty—is no small feat.

The grassroots social networks that the Islamists laid through their presence in the community with shops, prison visits, and the groups established in mosques, were augmented by the formalisation of these networks through political power. Once the Adhaalath Party was given control of the Islamic Ministry, it—and those approved by it—began controlling what Maldivians could think, speak and practise as ‘true Islam.’ Any words spoken or written about religion by any individual or party not sanctioned by the fundamentalist Muslims were banned or dismissed as ‘nonsense.’

Only scholars educated in Arab or Pakistani institutes of learning, preferably at institutes that endorse Wahhabism or other puritanical forms of Islam, were given approval to speak of or discuss the religion. The Islamic Ministry also began procuring fundamentalist and radical preachers from abroad such as Zakir Naik of Peace TV, and Bilal Philips – banned in many countries for preaching hate – to address Maldivians. While it can be argued that such people have the right to address their beliefs and views; the tragedy is that only such views were allowed.

Visitors who failed to express similarly fundamentalist interpretations of Islam were ridiculed, insulted, and hounded out of the country. When UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay addressed the Maldivian parliament and called for a moratorium on Hadd punishments—especially the practise of sentencing people who have sex outside of marriage to a 100 lashes—Islamist leaders condemned Pillay and rallied their followers to protest outside the UN building in Male’. MPs and prominent politicians jostled each other for airtime to condemn as vociferously and colourfully as they could Pillay’s championing of human rights ‘because nobody has the right to speak against the Shari’a.’

Taking full advantage of the freedom of expression provided by democracy to saturate society with their messages about Islam while simultaneously banning everyone else from speaking of Islam altogether has been one of the most powerful tools used by Maldivian Islamists in their successful campaign to take charge of religious faith in the Maldives.

The real-life social and political networks formed by the fundamentalists and Jihadists is enhanced and made more powerful by their use of social networking on the internet. Radicals have been infinitely more open to the use of modern communications to spread their messages than non-radical, moderate, or liberal Muslims. Compared to a handful of liberal bloggers and one or two Facebook pages promoting secularism and/or discussing more moderate Islam, Maldivian followers of fundamentalist and radical beliefs have scores of websites, Facebook pages and YouTube channels that publish and broadcast their material.

They prolifically publish translations of Wahhabi and other fundamentalist literature from all over the world in Dhivehi, and make them freely available for download. There are Fatwas available online on anything and everything ranging from the ridiculous to the bizarre—from the forbidden nature of music, the question of whether it is haram to wear contact lenses when praying, to the manner and frequency for conducting conjugal relations and exorcising demons and have them expelled to Saudi Arabia for conversion to Islam and to calls for violent Jihad in Syria.

Public spaces such as ferries between islands, taxis and buses play sermons freely distributed on CDs by radical preachers, forcing passengers to listen. Most of the public, who now either subscribe to the fundamentalist view of Islam or think it is wrong not to, lap it up and believe these messages to contain ‘true Islam’. Others have no choice but to put up with it and shut up. Such monopoly of all religious discourse and knowledge means that, when confronted with an issue of national importance such as, for example, the death penalty, a majority of the population is only privy to one side of the debate.

Most Maldivians are not even aware of arguments within Islam that Shari’a cannot be applied today because it is impossible to replicate the conditions under which such punishments are justified or those which argue that Islamic jurisprudence allows for the abolition of the death penalty. Controlling what can and cannot be considered true knowledge of Islam, without a doubt, has been the most powerful means by which Islamists’ fundamentalist beliefs have triumphed over the Maldivian Islamic faith and identity that evolved over hundreds of years.

Despite the continued proselytising for puritanical Islam, the overtly political among Maldivian Islamists have on many occasions demonstrated an astonishing willingness to sacrifice principles for power. Quite apart from participation in anti-government activities and the toppling of a legitimate government in 2012—neither of which is condoned in Islam—Adhaalath has also failed to speak against Supreme Court Justice Ali Hameed for his highly publicised fornication, a Hudd crime that Adhaalath wants everyone else sentenced to a 100 lashes for. Although it is loud in its calls for the establishment of Shari’a as the only legal system of the Maldives, it has shown absolutely no concern for the many injustices carried out by the farcical justice system currently in place.

Nor has any Islamist leader spoken out against the rampant corruption at all levels of government. The ultra-nationalism which it showed towards the tumultuous end of Nasheed’s government, including whipping up pseudo-religious hate against Indian company GMR’s contract to handle the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport, appears to have been no more than a political tactic. Taking shelter behind the religious rhetoric, the government declared the US$500 million contract as ‘void ab initio’ at the potential cost of US$1.4 billionReports say the current Maldivian government is soon expected to award a contract to develop the same airport to Singaporean company Changi for an estimated US$800 million. Also this month it signed a contract with Chinese state-owned company Sinohydro to develop a new apron at the same airport. Not a peep out of the Adhaalath or any of the Islamists on how Islam and Maldivian identity would suffer when foreign contractors are put in charge of ‘the gateway to the Maldives’.

This hypocritical pragmatism, although obvious to those who have resisted the call to fundamentalist Islam, appears to the converted as of little importance or consequence. They remain impervious to the facts in front of them: the same people who are calling them to fundamentalist Islam, or violent Jihad in conflict ridden areas of the world are themselves often deaf to what they preach, and are quite happy to remain safe in the Maldives while dispatching scores of young people to war in distant places in the name of Islam.

Maldivian life of the present is dominated by fundamentalist Islam, and its future is haunted by the spectre of radical Jihadi violence. Last Sunday, local newspapers led with the report that a Maldivian Jihadist had killed himself and several others in a suicide attack in Syria. It was followed by the news on Tuesday that another Maldivian had been killed in a gunfight at another Syrian location. On Wednesday local paper Haveeru reported that several Maldivians fighting in Syria were under siege from government forces. This was almost immediately denied by, according to online newspaper CNM, ‘a Maldivian fighting with Jabhat Al-Nusra’. Jabhat Al-Nusra is a Syrian Jihadist organisation fighting to establish an Islamic state in Syria.

As always, changes to Maldivian Islam reflect global changes. The Syrian conflict is coming to be known as ‘the world’s first YouTube war‘; and Maldives is already represented. A group known as Bilad Al Sham Media has its own channel with the obligatory video of a fighter with a gun, calling Maldivians to ‘Jihad’ in Dhivehi. Bilad Al Sham Media are not just on YouTube, but are present on all social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter. Their media presence, and Maldivian papers’ easy access to Jabhat Al-Nusra’s Maldivian fighters signal a new chapter in the violent radicalisation of Maldivians.

Unlike earlier times when news of Maldivians joining the ‘Holy War’ reached Maldivian news outlets long after the fact, today’s ‘Jihadists’ are eager to bring news of their fighting and deaths, keen to glorify it as ‘martyrdom’, eager to recruit more to the cause. There appears no need for violent Maldivian Islamists to hide any more—they are confident that no action will, or can, be taken against them. A substantial number of Maldivians, without a doubt, support the violent Jihadists. Many have responded to the news of the suicide bomber with joy, seeing the dead man’s actions as ‘glorious martyrdom for Islam.’ The response from the Islamic Ministry has been to deny all knowledge of Maldivian involvement in the global Jihadi movement and, astonishingly, to say that the matter is of no concern to the Ministry.

Meanwhile, President Yameen reduced the issue of Maldivians joining the ‘Holy War’ to bad behaviour, claiming thatthe government had always urged Maldivians to maintain discipline when living abroad.’ The official line is: there is nothing the government can [or will] do about the increasing number of Maldivians committing acts of terrorism abroad—if people want to kill themselves—and others—it is their business. As long as they do it in the name of Islam, that is.

With the government wilfully ignoring the radicalisation of Maldivians and other actors, including the civil society, unable or unqualified to do anything about it, it is hardly surprising that Maldives has become a place where fundamentalist views of Islam have become more or less the norm rather than the exception. Everyday the number of people who shun non-Arabic education as anti-Islamic are increasing, along with the number of people who refuse to send their children to school altogether ‘for religious reasons’.

Even members of the security forces, it was recently alleged by MDP, have been radicalised. Recruitment, meanwhile, continues unabated in the prisons. Lawyers have reported that the only books allowed in the prison these days are what is described as ‘religious literature.’ Female genital mutilation is on the rise, just as sexual abuse of young girls who are increasingly accepted as adults once they reach puberty. Waves of infanticide have shocked the country in recent years which, too, can be linked to the harsh punitive attitude Islamists have fostered towards ‘women who sin’ as much as they can be to government failures.

Rape and other violence against women are also on the rise. Tragically, a large percentage of the population have developed the attitude that victims of such crimes bring it upon themselves for ‘not staying at home where women belong’, or not being modest enough as required by Islam. It is very likely that the Maldivian gender inequality gap, at least as far as the general population’s attitudes are concerned, has never been wider in Maldivian history.

Consecutive governments have failed the Maldivian people by not making any serious efforts to stem the flow of fundamentalist and radical ideologies into the country. Gayoom tortured the radicals, which drove them underground and ultimately led to their unification as a political force. Nasheed’s government, on the other hand, failed to take strong enough measures against the rapid spread of their radical ideologies and made too many concessions to their demands for political reasons. This created the space in which fundamentalists and violent radicals could take control of all religious knowledge and discussion, thus facilitating their winning the ideological war and the ‘hearts and minds’ of most voters.

The current government, which could not have come to power without the Islamists, looks almost certain to pursue a policy of appeasing them. Its chief strategy so far has been to deny that there are any violent extremists in the country or, when confronted with evidence of the opposite, say it has nothing to do with the government.

If things continues as they are, the new chapter in the history of Maldivian Islam will be one written entirely by the victors, that is, the fundamentalists and the Jihadists.

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]


Maldivian militant killed in Syrian suicide attack, claims online jihadist group

A Maldivian fighting in the Syrian civil war was killed today in a suicide attack against soldiers loyal to Bashar Al Assad, online Jihadist groups have claimed.

According to these sources the Maldivian man was identified as 44-year-old Abu Turab – a man reported to have a wife and children in the Maldives.

One picture posted by the group allegedly shows the man bidding farewell to other militants on top of a tanker which the group claims was loaded with 6 tons of explosives about to be driven into a target, killing all those inside.

Speaking to Minivan News today, Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) spokesperson said they were unaware of such an incident or of any Maldivians leaving to fight in Syria.

The Ministry of Islamic Affairs said it has not had any such reports while the Maldives Police Service stated that such issues are handled by the MNDF until individuals are brought to the Maldives.

A second picture posted today shows the man identified as a Maldivian sitting around a gun with three other armed militants from America, Syria, and Central Asia.

According to online jihadi groups, Abu Turab was killed in a joint operation by Jabhat Al Nusra (with whom Turab was operating) and the Islamic Front, targeting soldiers loyal to Bashar Al Assad on Mount Arbain in the northwestern city of Edlib.

Abu Turab’s vehicle was one of four vehicles packed with explosives that was used in today’s attack.

The news was first broken on twitter by a group called Bilad Al Sham Media (BASM) stating that a Maldivian had been “martyred in Syria in a martyrdom attack against the Nusayri [Shiah] soldiers of Bashar”.

According to the group, the Maldivian bomber entered Syria after a “long tiring journey” but remained fasting and spent months in the mountains before the attack. Turab, they said, asked a preacher named Sheikh Abu Burhan al-Suri to pray for him, upon which the Sheikh said he was no longer in need of such prayers.

BASM tweets were responded to by Sheikh Abu Sulayman al-Australi (an Australian preacher) who said that “Maldivians are some of the most courageous & well-mannered Mujahideen”.

According to BASM, Abu Sulayman is a member of the shariah council of Jabhat Al Nusra (Al-Qaeda affiliated fighters in Syria).

Within few hours the message was posted across local Islamist groups on the internet.

“Those who cheered their nation in that useless football tournament, will you not cheer the man from your nation who has just a few hours ago has been martyred in Syria blowing himself up in middle of the soldiers of Bashar?” A post in one Facebook group with nearly 3,400 members stated.

Turab’s final words, according to the group, were; “If one understands the true nature of this life, he would not feel happy to let out a single breathe except that he thanks Allah for it,” and “People really need to correct things, especially useless speaking.”

Maldivians in Syria

In October 2013 local media reported that two Maldivian men, aged 25 and 35 years, were apprehended from Ibrahim Nasir International Airport on suspicion that they were leaving to join the Syrian civil war.

In a document published on their blog, BASM stated the members of their group had traveled to Syria through a transit country from numerous points of origin, noting that some of them were university students.

Their hope, according the document, is to establish an Islamic state which would ultimately “liberate the Islamic world” and establish the global Islamic caliphate.

“When we first came, we were met by an Islamic battalion of FSA [Free Syrian Army] who were guarding the borders and then we had to stay with them for a few days before we were able to move away from them to Ahrar al-Sham and after about a half month, we were able to move to our most desired group Al-Qaida of Sham, Jabhat a-Nusra which we found to be the best group in Syria and closest to the Salafi methodology,”  read the document.

This was reflected in their tweets which were critical of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) who disassociated themselves with Jabhat al Nusra (Al-Qaeda in Syria) and have since fought each other frequently.

Minivan News has learned that BASM is a small but organised group with members situated in both Syria and the Maldives.

While no intent have so far been revealed of attacking local targets, BASM has criticised President Abdulla Yameen, describing his presidential win as “a victory for Jahiliyya [ignorance] over Jahiliyya” and has condemned the Maldives National Defence Force (MDNF) as “fighters in the devil’s path”.

They also criticised Shiah Muslims and claimed there are Maldivian Shiah Muslims whose growth should be “chopped off from its roots before it spreads”. Pamphlets against Alawites and Shiah Muslims have been distributed at local mosques.

BASM has also uploaded a number of religious lectures and songs to their Youtube page including ones from Osama Bin Laden, Ayman Al Zawahiri and Maldivian members who are said to be fighting in Syria.

One video titled ‘The obligation of Jihad’ shows a masked man dressed in black holding a rifle preaching in the Dhivehi language. In the video, he says Muslim lands are being occupied and ruled by unbelievers from within and without, and any man who refuses to go to fight in such a situation will be punished in hell.

“The Maldives is even today being ruled by unbelievers, and if they are unbelievers we have to wage war against them,” says the preacher in the video – uploaded in December 2013.

Earlier this month Sri Lankan terrorism expert Dr Rohan Gunaratna suggested there were terror cells in the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and India which are a “severe threat” to the South Asia region.

He also claimed that a Sri Lankan national Zakir Hussein who was recently arrested in India was planning to target locations in the Maldives.

The opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) has meanwhile claimed there is a prevalence of extremist ideologies within the Maldives security forces.


Comment: The politics of the death penalty in the Maldives

In a presidential campaign rally in 2008, former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom dismissed the issue of death penalty:

“Maldivians won’t accept it. The international community no longer accepts it…this can’t be done in the Maldives.”

Five years’ on, and such a statement from a major politician seems unthinkable. In fact, in 2012, in the aftermath of the murder of Afrasheem Ali, Gayoom stated: “Death penalty is an option.”

Not mainly a religious or human rights issue

Coming from a secular liberal background, a person may conveniently blame the changing nature of this issue to a rise in ‘fundamentalist Islam’, Islamism, or Salafi puritanism.

Without denying the reality of re-Islamisation, this explanation comes partly from a fundamental fear of Islamism by secular liberals. The death penalty goes deeper than religion or liberal human rights.

While none in this debate claim that criminals should be set free, in 2008 Gayoom eloquently argued that forgiveness is more preferred in Islam. The Islamist side has been largely silent on the emphasis of mercy in Islam, thus making it difficult to limit the Islamist calls for death penalty to religion.

Even during President Amin’s time, the execution of the death penalty was not particularly meant to fulfill a religious obligation by a religious state. Amin’s constitution – based on Ceylon’s constitution granting dominion status – was one of the most secular and authoritarian of all Maldivian constitutions. Back then, Ibrahim Shihab claimed: “I could not find in the Republican Constitution any concern for Islamic principles and Divehi conventions’. Amin himself was accused of being ladini (irreligious).

Now take human rights. The right to life is the main basis for rejecting capital punishment under mainstream liberal conception of human rights. Yet, the death penalty has no equal juridical, advocacy, or enforcement status to other basic rights like freedom of religion, which has been completely denied in the Maldives.

In reality, for both sides, death penalty is about the very identity, the very nature of the state. It is indeed one test case for the ‘Islamist state’ – or the ‘secular state’, depending on which side one stands in the debate. The death penalty is about this mutual fear of the perceived influence and control by one side over the other with regards to the nature of the Maldivian state.

A matter of secular yet illiberal politics

While the death penalty may be a life-and-death issue about the nature of the state for liberals and the Islamists, the real actors and the real issues in this debate are neither religious nor liberal – though Islamism and human rights now feed into the background context of this issue.

The real actors who will determine the issue one way or the other are the secular (yet illiberal) politicians.

The real issue is instrumentalisation of religion and Islamo-nationalist sentiments of the people for political gain by ordinary politicians. This has created a vicious cycle in which every politician/party has a high premium to show their religious or Islamo-nationalist credentials, and discount the opponents’ credentials.

The result is what I call the ‘instrumentalist dilemma’ – the situation where a person (or a group) individually or privately holds a position/belief that they collectively or publically can’t hold. The instrumentalist dilemma is at play not only in the death penalty, but also in religion-based discrimination such as citizenship restriction.

Gayoom’s apparent turnaround or Foreign Minister Dunya Gayoom’s position seems to be none other than this dilemma. More clearly, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) chairperson’s recent support for it, or the MDP’s retraction of a statement rebuking the death penalty in 2012 – is this dilemma in action.

Stop the instrumentalist madness

The upshot of these instrumentalist dialectics is the irrational, out-of-hand outcome that the collective don’t necessarily want as individuals. If anything will see the death penalty implemented, it’s such secular, illiberal instrumentalist madness – not Islamism, Salafi puritanism, or religious fundamentalism.

But an outcome of madness neither serves religion nor human rights. And, much less does it address the issue of murder.

As for religion, irrespective of the question whether or not capital punishment is a religious obligation, without personal pious intention (niyah) the act doesn’t become a religious act. As for human rights, saying no to capital punishment is saying yes to the right to life.

As for murder reduction, a 2009 survey of criminologists – people who know the stuff about crimes and crime reduction – revealed that an overwhelming 88% believed death penalty was not a deterrent to murder. Similarly, murder rates have remained consistently lower in non-death penalty states over death penalty states.

Therefore, the religious and the liberals and those who are genuinely concerned about religion, human rights, or crimes should oppose this political madness, not each other.

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]


Government shuts down mosque due to congregation of “extremists”

Malé City Council has shut down the Dharumavantha Rasgefaanu mosque to stop unauthorised Friday prayers by a group described as “extremists” by the Minister of Islamic Affairs Sheikh Mohamed Shaheem Ali.

A City Council notice posted at the mosque said that on the Ministry of Home Affairs’ request it was to be temporarily shutdown following yesterday’s morning prayers.

Minivan News observed at the time of A’sr prayers that the mosque did not have any group congregation, however the notice posted at the mosque was no longer visible. Only a few individuals worshippers were present.

A copy of the Home Ministry letter signed by Minister Umar Naseer – posted along with the notice –  requested the shutdown “as a first step” against unauthorised Friday prayers performed in the mosque.

The large congregation gathered at the mosque last Friday expressed their opposition through prayers asking Allah to weaken and current government and it’s leaders, CNM reported.

The worshipers at the mosque also prayed against the heads of the government, Islamic ministry and city council, asking for their ill-health and for a calamity to befall upon them.

The congregation asked Allah to destroy the government and to give victory against the “irreligious” government which attempts to obstruct the spreading of Allah’s message and to shut down mosques. Requesting victory, they also asked from Allah to destroy and send his wrath upon military and police officer who implement the government’s orders.


Following the Decentralisation Act of 2010, jurisdiction for all mosques falls under the island and city councils.

Malé City Councillor ‘Jambu’ Hassan Afeef who is in charge of managing the city mosques said the council will cooperate with the government, whether it is the police or the Islamic Ministry, in whatever measures needs to be taken to resolve the issue.

He said the Islamic Ministry had earlier sent a letter to the council regarding the mosque.

“We replied saying that the council’s mandate is to provide basic services for the public. If there is some irreligious activity going on, the ministry should get involved. And if something unlawful is going on, the Home Ministry and police should be involved,” said Afeef.

While police would not comment on the issue, the Ministry of Home Affairs said that the length of the mosque’s closure remains up to the city council and that the ministry has not yet decided on any future steps to be taken regarding the issue.

Minister Shaheem has previously stated that the ministry had no mandate to act against “undesirable activities” carried out in mosques. Shaheem and his Adhaalath Party have on various occasions demanded that mosques and Imams function under the Islamic Ministry’s authority.

“Broadening the role of mosques” was among the key eleven policy objectives recently revealed by the ministry.

Religious divisions and moderation

Umar Naseer has earlier acknowledged the existence of religious divisions in the Maldives and pledged to put an end to it. “Creating divisions in Islamic nations is the handiwork of enemies of Islam,” Naseer was quoted as saying in local media

Moderation was at the center of the Islamic Ministry’s recently revealed policies, while it was earlier criticised by members of the ruling coalition.

Minister Shaheem has earlier stated that the preaching at the Dharumavantha mosque can sometimes be “very extreme”.

Praying in congregations separate from the state-approved mosques under state-approved imams has often been described as a sign of Islamic extremism. Despite opposition from repeated governments, the practice has continued with the rise of religious extremism in Maldives.

An Azhar educated Islamic Scholar himself, President Gayoom has been accused of persecuting radicals and Wahhabis, including torturing religious scholars and groups who rejected the then-state approved version of Islam.

Commenting on the situation, a former member of the Dharumavantha mosque congregation told Minivan News that shutting down the mosque or arresting the members of congregation was unlikely to end it.

“You can’t change what people believe using force. Under Gayoom, I was arrested and kept in solitary confinement for weeks and sometimes months for praying in separate congregations and being involved with such groups. If anything, my convictions became even stronger and my thinking more radicalised,” he said.

He explained that many of his friends stopped going to the mosque around 2009 after being convinced it was wrong after dialogue with Islamic scholars.

“We are not one hundred percent happy about the way things are, but we realised we should be part of the community and not creating divisions. Now we are currently working with Islamic NGOs to create awareness – not just in Islamic issues but also social and even health issues,” he said.

“There is concern that things might be returning to how they were. But that will only make things worse. They should be educated and guided. I don’t agree with what they are doing either. But this is not how it should be dealt with,” he said.

Under President Mohamed Nasheed’s administration, regulation of religion was left mainly in the hands of conservative Adhaalath Party. More radical elements that strayed from the state-approved version of Islam were not persecuted at this time, despite their actions still being unlawful.

The government’s policy in combating extremism shifted to a rehabilitation model within this period.

Questioning the success of these efforts, the current Islamic Minister Sheikh Shaheem – who had earlier advocated for a similar model – has labelled it a failure.


Comment: The mixed story of the rise of Islamism in the Maldives

One of the many lessons of the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s magisterial book, A Secular Age, is how religion continues to exist and continues to be relevant.

The relevance is not only limited to religion’s potential for creating identity and meaning in life.

Religion’s relevance also lies in the moral and epistemological limitations of the virulent forms of atheistic exclusive humanism and hardcore naturalistic ‘science’ that Richard Dawkins, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and their ilk seem to be promoting.

Religion’s potential for solidarity and taking the cause of justice and vulnerable forms of life, is as relevant as ever.

Its potential for an ultimate explanation against an unfounded scientific reductionism cannot be blindly and arrogantly dismissed.

Rise of Islamism and electoral democracy

During the last seven or so years, coinciding with (or in response to) democratisation, the most spectacular religious phenomenon in the Maldives is the rise of Islamism. At least twelve Islamic/Islamist NGOs were registered between 2004-2010. Prior to 2004, there were no more than three organisations with the specific goal of religion.

But re-Islamisation led by Islamism itself should not be taken as alarming for at least ‘electoral democracy’.

If popular participation in politics can be an indication of support for democracy, the voter turnout in February 2011’s local elections stood at around 70%, which is comparable to past turnouts for parliamentary elections. Equally important, Islamist Adalath Party fared quite badly in all three elections since 2008.

However, re-Islamisation seems to have had, and will continue to have, mixed results for the society and politics.

Questioning religion

As late as the mid-1970s, ethnographic research in the Maldives could conclude that Islam of the people was largely limited to ‘washing, praying and fasting’.

What this means can best be contrasted by describing what James Piscatori and Eickelman call ‘objectification of Muslim consciousness’. They explain that this is ‘the process whereby basic questions come to the fore in the consciousness of large numbers of believers’.

This process has become a salient feature of all Muslim societies. Similarly, this growing objectification of consciousness, largely over the past decade, became the most important religious development in the Maldives. Its main feature includes fragmentation and pluralization of religious discourses.

For sociologists like Jose Casanova this could ultimately mean an Islamic aggiornamento, or a sort of reform that took place in the Second Vatican when Catholicism finally endorsed democracy and human rights in the 1970s. But should we be so optimistic?

Judging from data and people’s comments, often here on Minivan News, it would be hard for some of us in the Maldives to see any positives from objectification of our religious consciousness.

Indeed, in the Maldives what we have seen is a sort of reflexive re-Islamisation: through responding to the terms of alternative discourses (e.g. democracy and human rights) and processes of global modernity, the society seems to be undergoing a new re-traditionalization.

Mixed Results of Islamism

We could observe two parallel processes led by Islamism in the Maldives. It seems to be a striking reversal of what had happened since the 1970s.

First, there is an attempt at de-secularising the actual community. The most obvious example is public piety such as the Muslim veil.

But there is also an attempt at re-Islamising the functional spheres like the economy. Islamic banking or riba-free business is a case in point.

Call for re-Islamising the national curriculum, call against music and entertainment, and rise in ‘creationism’ pseudo-science, are important examples too.

Perhaps a more important example is greater de-privatisation of religion: Islamist organizations and Islamist media outlets have proliferated in the public sphere. Their influence in the political society and the state has increased (e.g., a religious ministry led by Islamists).

But here is the other side of the picture. Islamist attempts at ‘rationalisation’ and ‘objectification’, or in short ‘purification’ of the society, seem to have mixed results for the dominant national consciousness.

The powerful motif of a ‘100% Muslim nation’ may no longer serve as a taken-for-granted, internalised background. It may no longer be a largely unconscious sacralised background understanding of the nation.

The signs of this change could already be seen from the increased sarcastic deployment of ‘sattain satta muslim qaum’ (e.g., ‘are we really a 100% Muslim nation?’), especially by Islamists to decry the alleged failure of officials to make the society ‘Islamic enough’.

If this is so, there is not only de-secularisation. There is a sort of ‘secularisation’ taking place too. This is a secularisation of the imagined community, of the taken-for-granted national consciousness. Ironically, reflexive re-Islamisation is driving this secularisation.

Now, why does this matter? Here is one reason why it matters.

Freedom of religion

This sort of secularisation of the national consciousness seems to be a condition of effective religious liberty. Even if political secularism was to be enshrined in the Constitution, freedom of religion might not be effective without this sort of secularisation of the ‘imagined community’.

The poignant suicide of a young man, possibly because he felt he betrayed his ‘comrades-in-identity’ (i.e. the rest of us Muslims) is a case in point. His desperate email is telling: ‘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.’

One cannot only legally be non-Muslim; but more importantly such a person may be dismissed as unworthy. If this is so, political secularism itself may not be a sufficient condition of liberty without secularisation now seemingly driven by reflexive re-Islamisation. (Here then is also a lesson for the arrogant global (i.e. the US) project of bringing freedom of religion to the world.)

Awareness of the Other

If the above interpretation is correct, we could increasingly experience these phenomena:

i) Through objectification of the taken-for-granted national consciousness, an increased awareness of the existence of some fellow Maldivians with different worldviews and faiths.

ii) Through a process of de-secularisation of the actual community, intense reflexive and political bulwarks (especially by Islamists) against this cross-pressured awareness.

I think both of these things are taking place.

Political Reconciliation of the Cross-Pressure

How we finally politically reconcile this awareness is the ultimate condition of the possibility or impossibility for democracy – and therefore equality, liberty, fraternity – in this over two-millennia-old country.

This is not a place for advocacy. But for this political reconciliation, a necessary, but not sufficient, condition is a dose of humility from the full political and social spectrum.

As a colleague at the government once pointed out, as a first step, the government needs to get over with its ‘hubris’ of going it alone.

Azim Zahir has a BA in Philosophy and Politics and is completing his MA degree at the University of Sydney.

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]