The new regulations under the Religious Unity Act of 1994 drafted by the Islamic Ministry contain “ambiguities” and provisions that could be in conflict with the government’s stated policies, said the President’s Press Secretary, Mohamed Zuhair.
The President of the Human Rights Commission of Maldives, religious scholars, people from the entertainment industry and NGOs have expressed concern with the regulations, he said.
“The attorney general only looked at legal aspects before he approved it,” he said. “He did not have to consider the implications for policy or conflicts with stated government policy, mainly on freedom of expression.”
He added that Attorney General Husnu Suood had “reservations” about some provisions and favoured a cabinet meeting before publication of the regulations in the government’s gazette.
Zuhair said the “points of contention” included provisions that deal with Islamic codes of conduct and ambiguities in the terminology of some provisions.
“Codes of behaviour are not codified in Islam,” he said. “[People] have suggested that the phrase should be changed to tenets of Islam.”
There were also fears that the advisory board to be constituted under the regulations could become “the moral police” and exercise excessive powers.
Some religious scholars have also “personally called and asked for a wider discussion.”
“The president has three main concerns,” he said. “First, social implications of the regulations, second policy implications and whether there could be legal obstacles [to enforcement].”
Moreover, some of the provisions could be “extraneous” as laws already existed to tackle the problems the regulations target.
Meanwhile, State Minister for Islamic Affairs Sheikh Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed urged the president’s office to resolve possible policy conflicts and publish the regulations.
As well as “all respected religious scholars in the country”, other government authorities were consulted in the formulation of the regulations Shaheem said.
Shaheem stressed that the attorney general’s office, the legal department at the president’s office and the Maldives Police Service have all cleared the regulations.
The state minister downplayed fears that the regulations would give coercive powers to the ministry.
“It is not our intention to put people in jail,” he said. “[For example], if someone writes an article mocking Islam, we will only advise that person and offer counselling.”
He added that the ministry did not want to discourage criticism and the regulations were necessary “for democracy and to build a stable society”.
The regulations were important to deal with social problems caused by disputes over religious issues, he explained.
Shaheem noted that he has received complaints this week from two islands with independent or breakaway prayer congregations.
“The islanders told me they [the breakaway group] threatened to attack foreigners if the islanders tried to stop them,” he said.
Meanwhile, the HRCM has denied Zuhair’s claim to local daily Haveeru yesterday that the commission raised concern with the regulations.
The commission’s statement denies that “any complaints” were made by any HRCM official.
It adds that the report in the media was “regrettable” and that the commission was not officially consulted in the process of drafting the regulations.
The Haveeru story quoted Zuhair as saying that the Tourism Ministry and Maldives National Broadcasting Corporation have also expressed concern.
However, the press secretary said today that Ahmed Saleem, president of the HRCM, had called “a senior official” of the government and voiced his concerns.
Saleem told the official he has not had time to review the regulations as he had to fly abroad soon, he said.
The HRCM statement could therefore mean “one of two things,” Zuhair said.
“They have either reviewed it and decided to endorse it or this is miscommunication inside the commission,” he said.
Ahmed Saleem could not be reached for comment at time of press.
Tourism Minister Dr Ahmed Sawad said he has not read the regulations yet.
“We’d like to go through it and see if there are any issues,” he said. “We will attend to it in the next two days.”
Ibrahim Khaleel, managing director of MNBC, said he has not officially complained or expressed concern.