Comment: Afrasheem, Rilwan, and the future of the Maldivian community

Writing in the 1970s, anthropologist Clarence Maloney remarked that religion in the Maldives was limited to “washing, fasting and praying”.

What he meant is similar to what MB Hooker observed in the Southeast Asian Muslim populations – Islam was characterised by “a ‘non-literally’ Muslim culture”, limited largely to practice without much theorisation and philosophising.

However, since the 1980s – and especially since the year 2000 – the most spectacular change in our culture has been the conscious appropriation and questioning of received religious doctrines and practices. Processes associated with modernisation and mass education have enabled this never-ending fragmentation of discourses, interpretations, and different visions at a larger scale.

This is what Eickelman and James Piscatori described as the “objectification of Muslim consciousness” that has now swept the whole Muslim world. Maldives is no exception to this.


It was in this emerging context of fragmented religious discourses and different religious interpretations that the regime of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom suppressed both those who embraced Salafi interpretations of Sharia and those drawn toward more pluralist Sharia.

It is in this context – now characterised by extreme political and social uncertainties – that one of the most prominent Maldivian religious scholars, Dr Afrasheem Ali, was murdered in October 2012. It was also in this same context that my friend, journalist, and human rights activist Ahmed Rilwan disappeared six weeks ago.

None of us yet knows the truth about those tragedies. But what we know is that both have significant religious context. Afrasheem had faced harassment and assault on several occasions because of his religious views. Similarly, Rilwan – once a Salafist – received threats because of his criticisms of certain understandings of Sharia.

More importantly, the murder and disappearance sends a chilling message to the rest of us – religious disagreements cannot be tolerated.

The fact of the matter is that, however small and homogenous, ours is now a society characterised by pluralism. We cannot wish away these disagreements on deep questions of what the good life is.

In need of a new moral order…

But ethical and religious disagreements do not mean there is no possibility of a moral order for collective life that we could come to agree upon.

Such a moral order must be based on political and moral principles that we all can – or should – value, i.e. liberty, equality, and peace. These are also among the higher values that Islam stands for.

In this moral order, there should be a maximum and genuine role for religion. It is not a secularist moral order where religion must be privatised, or religion is seen as something that will just disappear with the rise of ‘rationality,’ science, or modernisation.

In my view, both the Maldivian Democratic Party and the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party/Progressive Party of Maldives have failed to articulate a vision of democracy that genuinely respects the place of religion in democracy.

Officials of both governments have characterised religious people as somehow irrational or pre-modern. Both governments have tried to control or co-opt religion in their instrumentalist and ideological narrowness.

A democracy based on such a moral order does not make a fetish out of ‘secularism’ or ‘separation of religion from the state’. Secularism is not about separation as such. It is about certain moral ends, including liberty and equality.

Sometimes separation and at other times accommodation will promote those values. There is no a priori fixed solution (such as “a wall of separation”) to the relationship of religion to the state in order to achieve those ends.

Context is everything. And contextual reasoning is the way forward.

Thus the moral order the Maldives need is not that of the mainstream secularism we find in France, Turkey, or sometimes even the US – where the value of religion and the rights of religious people are not fully recognised.

In this new moral order, religious parties and religious scholars must have an equal place in the public sphere as their secular counterparts. Laws and policies based on religious values must have a place too. How else could it be, unless we think we can simply separate our religious selves from our political selves?

Only a ‘thin’ liberal conception of citizenship based on a ‘thin’ understanding of epistemology would think moral truth is somehow ‘secular’.

…for a new imagined community

To be sure, in concrete terms, this moral order means freedom of religion cannot be denied – citizenship cannot be denied on religious grounds. How can anyone of us in all religious honesty deny this basic and God-given right?

Even Gayoom, who was the architect of the prevailing insular nation-identity based on ‘sattain satta muslim quam/100 per cent Muslim nation’ had to acknowledge that the denial of religious freedom in the Maldives was in spite of Islam:

The real essence of Islam…is that it is non-discriminatory. Its tolerance of other beliefs and religions is clearly established in the Holy Quran…

We Maldivians…hold freedom of belief as sacred and we abhor discrimination…on any grounds whether of creed, colour or race. It is only that we are such a homogenous…society based on one national identity…that we are convinced that the preservation of this oneness in faith and culture is essential for the unity, harmony, and progress of the country.

Gayoom, Address at the Opening Ceremony of the Seminar on ”The Calls for Islam in South and South East Asia’, 1983

In other words, a universal precept of Quran was overridden by his attempt at creating a homogenous ‘imagined community’. While this imagined community had been homogenous, the real community has undergone fragmentation of religious discourse.

As a result, the national self-understanding that Gayoom – still leader of the country’s ruling political party – created is now being subjected to vigorous contestation from all fronts – both religious and secular. That is why we are in need of a new moral order for a new imagined community.

Why Afrasheem and Rilwan matter

Perhaps one of the biggest immediate challenges for a new moral order in the Maldives is related to the tragedies of Afrasheem and Rilwan.

Besides our human concern for them, the need for a new moral order is the long-term reason why we all must be concerned to find truth about them. That is why everyone should be calling for greater accountability of the government in these cases.

That is why I support the #suvaalumarch taking place tomorrow afternoon (September 19) in Malé.

For the future of democratisation in the direction of this new moral order is contingent on seeking truth and justice for Afrasheem and Rilwan.

Azim Zahir is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Muslim States and Societies, University of Western Australia.


Fuvamulah woman sentenced for forcing a child into sexual activity

Fuvamulak Magistrate court has found Saeeda Hassan, 30 to be guilty of forcing a child into sexual activities and sentenced her to 25 years imprisonment, Haveeru has reported.

G.A Villingili Ahmed Nazeer, was earlier this month found guilty of sexually abusing the child involved in this case and another girl repeatedly on several days between May 2012 and February 2013. He was sentenced for 18 years imprisonment.

Saeeda, 39 was found to have encouraged the child to engage in sexual activity with Nazeer on several occasions.


President reconstitutes six company boards

President Mohamed Waheed Hassan has this week reconstituted the boards of six national companies.

The president yesterday announced that the respective boards of Maldives Post Ltd, Felivaru Fisheries Maldives Ltd, and Maldives Road Development Corporation Ltd were being reappointed.

For the Maldives Post Ltd Board of Directors, Badhurunaseer Naseem was appointed as managing director, with Mohamed Nizam taking up the chairman role.

Mohamed Imthiyaz was appointed as Chair of the Board of Directors of Felivaru Fisheries Maldives Ltd. Ali Ahmed was appointed as managing director for the same company.

For the Maldives Road Development Corporation, Aslam Rasheed will take the chairman role, while Ibrahim Nazeem will serve as managing director.

The appointments were announced a day after the president reconstituted the Boards of Directors for Island Aviation Services Ltd, Maldives Ports Ltd and the Housing Development Corporation.

Bandhu Ibrahim Saleem will take up the Chair of the Island Aviation Services Board of Directors. Abdul Haaris will become Managing Director on the same body.

For Maldives Ports Ltd, Abdul Matheen Ahmed will take up the chairman role of the board.

Ali Shareef and Suhail Ahmed will take up the respective roles of Chairman and Managing Director of the Housing Development Corporation’s Board of Directors.


Inquiry not a criminal investigation: commission head Shafeeu

There will be no criminal investigation into the events leading to the resignation of of former President Mohamed Nasheed on February 7, and the subsequent transfer of presidential power to then-Vice President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik, the Committee of National Inquiry (CNI) said on Thursday.

The commission is charged with looking into the legality and legitimacy of the transfer of presidential power following allegations from former ruling Maldivian Democratic (MDP) that Waheed came to power in an opposition-backed coup in which elements of police and Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) were bribed to revolt against Nasheed and force him to step down at “gun point”.

Both security forces and then-opposition parties – which now largely represents key cabinet posts and ministerial positions at Dr Waheed’s administration – have steadily denied the allegations.

The commission members now including former minister of defence and national security during President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s administration, Ismail Shafeeu, members Dr Ibrahim Yasir and Dr Ali Fawaz Shareef on Thursday held its first press conference and briefed the journalists on the commission’s responsibilities, assuring that the members will conduct a “strictly impartial and independent inquiry”.

However, according to commission head Shafeeu, the commission will not conduct any criminal investigation against anyone while assessing the events leading to Nasheed’s resignation – suggesting that the report which will be submitted to President, Vice President and Prosecutor General before May 31, is unlikely to hold any party or person accountable to the transfer of power.

The commission’s “terms of reference” released to the press read that the “mandate of the commission specifically indicates that the inquiry will not be a criminal investigation. Any criminal investigation pertaining to the subject of the inquiry will remain the responsibility of the relevant authorities”.

Meanwhile it states the commission’s mandate as “exploring the facts, circumstances and causes of the events on 7 February 2012, resulting in the transfer of powers”.

Shafeeu further explained that “the inquiry is not intended to allege anyone of any crime” and said the final report will include opinions from three commission members which will be solely based on the personal assessment of the events and information gathered from the state institutions and concerned individuals.

According to commission member Yasir, many believe that commission is investigating criminal charges because former presidents had formed commissions tasked with criminal investigations.

“As soon as the commission was formed by Presidential decree, people began to ask about what sort of investigations we will conduct. But, we have not been asked to conduct any investigation. What we are doing is conducting an inquiry to identify the circumstances leading to transfer of power on February 7,” Yasir observed.

He added that the commission welcomes information from the public and the work is underway to set up a website where people can send information and follow the commission’s works. He also said that all political parties have been requested to co-operate and meetings are ongoing with independent institutions.

The commission has already met with the Police Integrity Commission, Attorney General (AG), Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM), Civil Service Commission (CSC) Prosecutor General (PG) and several NGOs.

Member Favaz meanwhile noted that commission has decided to seek technical assistance from United Nations (UN) and foreign ministry will facilitate the process. When asked whether Commonwealth will join the investigation Fayaaz responded: “We decided to channel UN’s assistance because the body compromise of all the nations while Commonwealth represents a specific group of countries. But we do welcome assistance from all international bodies and countries”.

The Commonwealth and Transparency Maldives has previously concurred with the need for international involvement, stating that it “strongly felt that there should be international participation in any investigative mechanism, as may be mutually agreed by political parties in Maldives.

Though government had shown willingness, the inclusion of international experts in the inquiry process is still pending.

MDP’s spokesperson Hamid Abdul Ghafoor meanwhile dismissed the inquiry commissions remarks claiming that it has “absolutely no substance”.

“The terms of reference of the inquiry commission has nothing to do with what the CMAG has asked or what we are asking for. This [commission] is tailor-made to the wishes of an politician who is trying to consolidate the rule of Gayoom’s factions. And now they are saying there will be no criminal investigation,” Ghafoor alleged.

“How can there be an impartial investigation when the members are appointed by those who were involved in the coup and denying international involvement in the inquiry process?” Ghafoor asked.


Commodity prices vary “significantly” between retailers, reports Economic Development Ministry

The Department of National Planning and the State Trading Organisation (STO) have conducted a price comparison exercise across Male’ in a bid to show that while some retailers are charging inflated prices for basic commodities, most prices have risen little.

Speaking yesterday evening from the President’s Office, Economic Development Minister Mahmood Razee said the statistics, which were compiled by the Department of National Planning in collaboration with his ministry, indicated that although certain prices had been found to have risen in the last few months, there was no pattern to link these costs solely to a controversial managed float of the local currency.

The opposition has maintained that demonstrations raging across Male’ this week were against the government’s decision to implement a managed float of the rufiya and are led by youth unhappy with rising commodity prices.  These claims were made despite the active involvement of dismissed opposition Deputy Leader Umar Naseer, and MPs Ilham Ahmed, Ahmed Mahlouf, Ali Waheed, and Ahmed Nihan.

However, Razee added that discussions were ongoing with the STO – a main buyer of goods to the country – to try and maintain import supplies of 27 key food items in attempts to try and keep prices stable as well as enacting a cabinet pledge to cut import duty on diesel fuel by 50 percent.

Speaking ahead of a fourth night of protests by young people, parliamentarians and political activists on the streets of Male’, Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) MP Ahmed Mahlouf said that although he had not been made aware of the content of the statistics at the time, he believed that protestors would not believe or be satisfied by the government’s claims and reaction.

“At this time, I think it would be difficult to accept that this is a genuine or positive message. At this point I don’t think [this] one press conference will help people,” he said.

Mahlouf added that he believed comments made by President Nasheed earlier this week, where he allegedly denied knowledge of the street protests concerning increased living costs that have garnered news coverage all over the world, had been extremely offensive to people gathering on the streets .

“It would be better to have a statement from President Nasheed apologising for the stupid comments he has made,” he added. “These comments have only made protestors more angry.”

Government findings, which were compiled on April 2 by officers visiting ten different stores across Male’, were said to highlight prices found to vary, sometimes significantly, between the retailers.

Speaking at press conference last night alongside Finance Minister Ahmed Inaz and representatives from the Maldives Monetary Authority (MMA), Razee said that when talking about changes in prices, it was important to try and determine how extensive they were.

“Yes, there are changes in prices, however, we should also see that in terms of essential commodities, what are the different brands that are there [in stores] and the price variations between them?” he said.

Following price comparisons conducted on May 2 at 10 different stores in Male’, Razee took the example of the prices of five powdered milk products, where prices between the stores were said to vary between Rf150 and Rf345. In addition he also pointed to the price differences in diapers, which he claimed varied between Rf118 and Rf150 for the same product.

The figures presently supplied by the government to Minivan News did not appear to verify these price fluctuations.

Razee added that he was unable to speculate on how long some of these potential differences in prices may have been present in stores across the capital or when and for what purpose they may have been implemented.

“What we are saying it, if you look at the price fluctuations that were there in 2006, 2007 and 2008, and if you look at the price fluctuations of the last few years, you will see there is no clear cut format or reason to believe this is directly related to the float of the currency,” he said. “Yes, it would have a bearing, but what needs to [be understood] is that there may changes to the prices. However, these are varied.”

Razee claimed that the government was not using this explanation as an excuse to avoid acting on public price concerns and said that measures were being taken to try and offer stable prices for certain “essential products”.

“We are in consultation with the STO and we have identified together 27 elementary items, out of which six are currently imported directly. [STO] is going to import the other items [on this list] as well to try and maintain price stability and ensure the availability is there,” he said. “In addition to this, the cabinet today advised the president to remove 50 percent of the duty on diesel. So this will give some relief to power generation, electricity bills and transportation costs.”

Finance Minister Inaz added that the government had decided to release some of its statistics to try and highlight current prices being paid by goods in relation to the last few years.

“It is very easy in a small economy to play with and manipulate the confidence of the economy,” he said. “Confidence is the most important factor to build an economy and it can be easily twisted. We agree the prices have gone up, but we want to maintain these price levels at a competitive level compared to other international rises.”

Cost statistics

The government, in figures compiled by Department of National Planning, outlined a number of changes in the average prices paid for goods between March 2010 and March 2011.

These price changes include:

• One kilogram of loose rice – up 1.07 percent from last year

• One kilogram of ordinary flour – down 1.89 percent from last year

• One kilogram of frozen chicken – up by 8.73 percent from last year

• One medium sized coconut – up 69.71 percent over last year

• One hundred grams of garlic – up 22.34 percent last year

• One kilogram of potatoes – up 8.74 percent last year

• One kilogram of imported onions – down 12.64 percent from last year

• One kilogram of yellow coloured dhal – up 17.63 percent from last year

• One 500 millilitre bottle of Kinley mineral water – down 30.30 percent from last year

• One 185 gram can of Felivaru brand fish chunks in oil – up 22.24 percent from last year

• One unit of state-supplied electricity – unchanged from last year

• Thirteen kilogram of cooking gas – up 12.12 percent from last year

• One litre of petrol – up 32.65 percent over last year

• One packet of Fitti brand small baby diapers – up 4.35 percent from last year


Man sentenced four years for sexually abusing stepdaughter

The Manadhoo court has sentenced a man to four years imprisonment after he was found guilty of sexually abusing his stepdaughter, reported Manadhoo Live.

The paper identified the offender as Ibrahim Mohamed, of Kinbigasdhoshuge, Noonu Manadhoo.

He is now under charge of Manadhoo Council to be handed over to the Department of Penitentiary and Rehabilitation Services (DPRS).