Comment: Adhaalath out of sight, out of mind?

The Adhaalath party has blown the popsicle stand, having declared defeat in its efforts to ‘reform’ the sinful government led by President Nasheed.

In the days leading up to its decision to leave the coalition, Adhaalath provided the public with what it considers a damning indictment of MDP-facilitated transgressions: invited Jews to preach Christianity in the Maldives; sent young Maldivians to a Christian seminary otherwise known as Christ College, Oxford University; and encouraged Maldivians to commit the haraam act of gambling by publicising the US Green Card Lottery.

Adhaalath’s departure from the ruling coalition, and the preceding days it spent in the headlines, provoked different reactions among different segments of society.

For some, the party and its departure are inconsequential. They have no political power, anyway. A substantial number of social media pundits think Adhaalath should be wholly exempt from mainstream media coverage. There are two primary reasons offered as support for this position: Adhaalath is too stupid to be worthy of attention or Adhaalath is too good (read too Islamic) to criticise. The inevitable conspiracy theorists, meanwhile, see media coverage of Adhaalath as evidence of a covert operation run (probably by Mossad) to discredit Islam in the Maldives.

Quite apart from the fact that no right-minded journalist would turn down the opportunity to cover displays of such gargantuan stupidity by politicians, there are many reasons for the public watchdog to keep a wary eye on this party.

A party of little consequence?

It is a mistake to assume that Adhaalath has no political power because it has few bodies in state institutions. Power is not exercised simply by those in government; and governing is not done merely by elected politicians. The power Adhaalath has is greater than the sum of its political seats – it governs by dictating faith and thus penetrates further into people’s lives than a democratic government can.

Consider this: the Constitution requires that every Maldivian citizen be a Muslim. Automatically, that puts every citizen within the legitimate reach of any authority that claims to know Islam best. It is this power to govern the conduct of every citizen through a supposedly privileged knowledge of ‘true Islam’ that makes parties like Adhaalath important. It is a power that is outside the boundaries of legislation and government policy, yet manages to carry the most legitimacy among the people.

Over the last few years, Adhaalath has positioned itself as The Religious Party. Given the emphasis that Islam places on truth and honesty, it is the most politically advantageous position that any political party can occupy in the Maldives today. People are daily disillusioned by reports of corruption at every level of government, and within communities. Two years of intensely partisan politics have created strife within previously harmonious communities. The decentralisation project is increasingly revealing itself to be deeply flawed with untrained local councillors and people clashing on a regular basis. The promise of ‘equal justice for all’ remains not just unfulfilled but is being intentionally ignored, there being neither political will nor courage to change the status quo.

Let there be truth

In uncertain times, people flock to those who can shepherd them towards certainty. Adhaalath’s position as ‘the only honest party’ is proving attractive to many disillusioned voters. The septuagenarian Gayoom’s recent political acrobatics was an added bonus for Adhaalath as disgruntled voters, unsure of which letter of the alphabet to choose from, signed up for the simplicity and straightforwardness of ‘Adhaalath.’

Gayoom’s ploy to stem the number of people leaving him by aligning himself with Adhaalath’s version of Islam backfired somewhat. For many Maldivians who regarded the right path to Islam as intertwined with the road leading to Gayoom’s favour, his endorsement of Adhaalath provided a way of leaving the increasingly erratic Zaeem without betraying their religious loyalties. It is a little wonder that Adhaalath boasted a bump in membership numbers in recent weeks.

For the minority who have been exposed to alternative ways of thinking, Adhaalath’s policies may appear formulated in an intellectual vacuum, and no doubt provides much cause for levity. For the majority, however, Adhaalath speaks the truth. It is a claim Adhaalath never hesitates to reiterate, invariably shoring it up with references to the Qur’an.

The power of such truth claims is evident in the religious right’s ability to convince the population of an entire island that they were about to be infiltrated by a group of Jews pretending to be philanthropic farmers, whose real aim was not the local cabbage patch but preaching Christianity. It would be a mistake to underestimate the power of any group capable of convincing a population that such a scenario is not just probable but imminent.

The known unknowns

The Maldivian people, like most people across the world, have been put through an ideological and political wringer in the last decade. Unlike most other countries going through the chaos of transition, however, a majority of the Maldivian population has been vastly shielded from the intense debates surrounding the enormous changes in the world’s political, economic and ideological landscapes.

Thirty years in which ignorance was used as a tool of governance would have that affect. The long cultural and educational stagnation has created a society in which a majority of people are incapable of critically engaging with the world around them. The democracy that flourishes in such a society cannot help but be different from a democracy that takes shape in a society more widely exposed to diverse views and opinions.

In the absence of alternative views, on what comparative basis can the majority question the policies Adhaalath advocates? After all, the leaders of Adhaalath can recite the Qur’an, often from memory, and always have handy a suitable interpretation of Hadith whatever the situation. When they have all the answers, what is there to question?

Among a population that is being directed to spend their lives preparing for afterlife, there is no authority greater than the one that offers them a straight path to heaven. Adhaalath has positioned itself to be just that.

For those who advise against scrutiny of Adhaalath – if not now, then when? After the first person is hanged for blasphemy? After the first woman is stoned? After all civil liberties have been eroded in the name of Islam?

Refusing Adhaalath the ‘oxygen of publicity’ is not going to wane its influence. With the pulpits theirs for the taking, Adhaalath does not need the mainstream media for its message. Ignoring Adhaalath, on the other hand, will allow it to quietly perpetuate its ideology among people until every follower will happily to make a detour to the ballot box en route to heaven.

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