Maldivian journalist and blogger Ismail ‘Hilath’ Rasheed last week spoke at the United Nation’s Palace of Nations during the 21st session of the Human Rights Council (HRC).
In a side event dedicated to the Maldives, Hilath spoke of his fears of rising fundamentalism in his home country and called for the international community to keep a close watch on the Maldives to ensure the protection of human rights and democratic freedoms.
“Maldives may be a small country but it is not insignificant. It lies at a strategic crossroads and the cultural and political invasion of Maldives by Saudi-funded Wahhabi extremism will definitely have regional and global repercussions,” said Hilath.
Hilath was forced to flee the Maldives earlier this year after an assassination attempt left him within millimetres of death when a group of men slashed his throat just yards from his home in Male’.
Hilath later attributed the assassination attempt to Islamic radicals who had threatened his life on numerous previous occasions.
As well as making international headlines, Hilath’s case has been championed by both Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and, more recently, by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).
Both organisations called for an immediate investigation into the attack, the latter criticising the authorities for failing to adequately investigate the incident.
“Until 2003, for the past 800 years, the Maldives had been a moderate and liberal Islamic country,” said Hilath, whose speech is also available on his blog which has been blocked by the authorities since November.
“However, in the last years of [Maumoon Abdul] Gayoom, due to poverty and oppression, and also as a result of the forced imposition on the Maldivian people of Gayoom’s own version of Islam, extremism took a hold, and though it is still a minority, it is a very vocal and formidable one that both [Mohamed] Nasheed’s and [Mohamed] Waheed’s governments have been unable to tackle,” he continued.
“But a stark difference has been that while Nasheed’s government officially acknowledged there was an extremist problem in Maldives, Waheed is refusing to acknowledge the problem. While Nasheed sought to keep extremism in check by bringing them into his government, in the form of the Adhaalath Party, Waheed came into power on the back of extremism, and therefore is giving free reign to extremists,” said Hilath.
Prior to this year’s transfer of presidential power, Hilath suffered a fractured skull after an attack during a silent protest in support of religious tolerance last December.
He was later arrested in relation to the protest after the religiously conservative Adhaalath Party (AP) wrote a letter to the police.
This prompted Amnesty International to declare him a prisoner of conscience and to demand his immediate release.
The 2008 constitution defines the Maldives as a one hundred percent Sunni Islamic nation and makes observance of the faith a prerequisite of citizenship.
“What is worrying is that while Nasheed allowed extremists to spread their propaganda through private channels, Waheed’s government is directly sanctioning the promotion of the extremist agenda through official religious channels,” said Hilath.
“The Adhaalath Party, under whom extremists operate, and under whose umbrella the Islamic Affairs Ministry has been under both Nasheed and Waheed, is now using Friday prayer sermons, also known as khuthubas, to spew bigotry, mysogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, racism, sexism and other sorts of discrimination, and to issue fatwas or religious rulings proclaiming the arts and humanities, such as photography, art, music, singing, dancing and acting as haram or sinful,” he added.
Two days after Hilath’s speech in Geneva, the Islamic Ministry distributed a circular calling for the banning of mixed gender dancing.
This news put the Maldives in the global media spotlight for the second time this month after the sentencing of a 16 year old girl to 100 lashes for fornication – in accordance with Islamic Sharia – had already made international headlines.
Last Friday also saw a gathering of religious protesters outside of the United Nations (UN) building to register their anger at the anti-Islamic film “Innocence of Muslims”.
Protesters burned the American flag and waved banners, one of which read “Maldives: Future graveyard of Americans and Jews”.
Repeated chants were heard urging President Waheed to return America’s US$20,000 contribution to restore the historical Buddhist artifacts in the museum, which were destroyed by a mob of vandals during February’s political turmoil.
Some protesters stated that if the idols were restored, they would promptly destroy them again.
In response to the issue of dancing, President’s spokesperson Abbas Adil Riza told the Associated Free Press (AFP) this week that the circular was not legally enforceable and that the Maldives would always be “a very tolerant society”.
“It is deeply regrettable that both Nasheed and Waheed have done little or nothing to curb extremism as every political party in Maldives seems afraid of extremists,” said Hilath.
“What is really depressing now is that since Waheed’s government is backed by Islamic extremists, who in turn have been backed by rogue police and military officers, extremists are now acting with impunity,” he added.
“The only hope we have in saving the Maldives is by the international community keeping a close watch. I, therefore, welcome UN Human Rights Commissioner Ms. Navi Pillay’s decision to assign a Human Rights Advisor to the Maldives as rising Islamic extremism is causing serious setbacks to human rights, freedom of expression and democracy in the Maldives,” he said.
After visiting the Maldives last November, Pillay called for a moratorium on corporal punishment and criticised the Muslim-only clause in the constitution.
Protesters subsequently gathered outside the UN building, calling for Pillay’s own arrest and flogging.