Maldivians, particularly the security authorities in the country, may have heaved a sigh of relief after the competing rallies by the NGOs and the political Opposition on the one hand, and the ruling MDP on the other, went off peacefully on Friday last. They had anticipated rioting and violent clashes for which public protests of the kind are often known in the country. Yet, the fact also remains that the competitive posturing on the type of Islam that the moderate Muslim country should follow may have made ‘political Islam’ the core of public discourse in the country in the long run-up to the presidential polls that are however due only in October 2013.
UNHRC chief Navi Pillay thus should be contented, if not happy, for what Maldives is doing since her proposing a national discourse on the kind of Islam that the country should be following. She made the suggestion during a visit to the country in November, both inside and outside Parliament. While protesting Navi Pillay’s proposal making Islam a debatable issue, the otherwise divided Opposition parties lending support to seven NGO organisers of the rally, have done precisely that. By competing with them, the MDP, particularly President Mohammed Nasheed, has thrown a challenge to the rival camp, declaring that the nation had to decide the kind of Islam it wanted to follow.
Addressing the MDP rally on Friday evening, President Nasheed said it was a ‘defining moment’ in the nation’s history. “At this moment we may not realise how important this gathering is, but years down the line we will look back and realise this was a crucial moment,” he said.”This is an old country, people have lived here for thousands of years and we have practiced Islam for more than 800 years. In 2011, we are faced with a question, how should we build our nation: what we will teach our children, how should we live our lives, and what will we leave for future generations?” President Nasheed, according to a Press release issued by his office, stressed that he wanted to continue to practice a tolerant form of Islam.
The President said that he believed that the Maldivians wanted “a better life, the ability to travel, not to have to beg for medicines, for each Maldivian to be able to fend for themselves, feed their families and stand tall.” He said, “To build our economy we need foreign investments and we need to create an environment in which foreigners can invest. We can’t be scared of foreign countries; we can’t just stay within our shells without development. History shows this is the path to economic failure…We can’t achieve development by going backwards to the Stone Age or being ignorant.”
Taking the political battle on moderate Islam to the Opposition camp, President Nasheed asked: “Should we ban music? Should we mutilate girls’ genitals? Should we allow nine year-olds to be married? Should we forbid art and drawing? Should we be allowed to take concubines? Is this nation-building?” Even while standing up for values that he has reiterated that he stands for steadfastly, President Nasheed was also setting the agenda for his re-election campaign for 2013, and by his strident position on moderate Islam, possibly hopes to retain much, if not all of the youth voters that had contributed to his success in the 2008 polls. In a country where the 18-25 age-group accounts for 40-45 per cent of the population, that is saying a lot.
This may not end here, though. The Opposition’s protest for protecting Islam has also provided a platform for them to come together after the Dhivehi Rayyathunge Party (DRP) of former President Maumoon Gayoom split earlier in the year, with the splinter group identified with his leadership floating the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) more recently. Both DRP, now under Gayoom’s 2008 running-mate Thasmeen Ali and PPM leader Abdulla Yameen, half-brother of the former President, shared the dais with other Opposition party leaders at the Friday rally. This need not mean that they would settle for a common alliance and candidate to challenge the incumbent in 2013, but that has since become a possibility, nonetheless. This would be more so if the presidential polls run into a second, run-off round, as in 2008.
An ‘Afghanistan’ in the making?
Ahead of the rally, Foreign Minister Ahmed Naseem too cautioned the nation that an increase in extremist rhetoric might affect the country’s international image and the ability of its citizens to freely travel abroad. Maldives had “a lot to lose” should such intolerance continue, the local media quoted Naseem as saying. “A large number of Maldivians travel outside the country and such rhetoric will have implications for the average Maldivian travelling abroad, and on those Maldivians already living abroad,” he said, pointing out that Maldives was a liberal democracy “with a Constitution based upon respect for the human rights of all.”
Appearing before the National Security Council of Parliament, Police Commissioner Ahmed Faseeh reportedly expressed concern that Maldives was heading towards becoming another “Afghanistan” – except that unlike Afghanistan, it was not able to produce its own food. Organisers of both the ‘Defend Islam’ and ‘Moderate Islam’ protests also assured the committee that there would be no violence at the rival rallies. As subsequent events proved, the rally organisers proved the police chief wrong, after he had said that local gangs had potential to capitalise on the opportunities to their own benefit if political parties ended up using them, even if for a good cause.
However, there was no immediate response to a report in the Indian newspaper, The Hindu, in which top Government sources claimed that Pakistan funding was available for the Opposition rally. Interestingly, the ‘Defend Islam’ protest and movement has its origins in fundamentalist elements destroying the Pakistani monument for the 17th SAARC Summit in the southern Addu City, describing it as idolatry. The Navi Pillay observations only hastened the process, even though indications are that the fundamentalist Adhaalath Party, which is at the back of the pro-Islam protests has been targeting the US and Israel, and their purported influence on the Government of President Nasheed, in matters that they argue are anti-Islamic.
‘Prisoner of Conscience’
The US has been made the villain of the piece in Afghanistan and Iraq, two Islamic nations, while Israel has been targeted over the Palestine issue, with the Nasheed Government’s decision to permit the Israeli airliner to operate flights to Maldives providing the immediate provocation and justification. Fundamentalist groups, as also the political Opposition, are not convinced that Maldives could not cast its vote on admitting Palestine into UNESCO owing to a communication gap, which meant that the official delegation had flown home early on. In private, they argue that either the decision did not make sense or the Government did not do its homework properly as Palestine was admitted into UNESCO, after all. Here again, they see a western hand.
A day after the Friday rallies, reports said that the Afghanistan monument for the SAARC Summit at the southern Addu City had been vandalised and thrown into the sea, like those of Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal. A replica of Afghanistan’s Jam minaret, featuring Koranic phrases and a UNESCO World Heritage site, the monument could not be restored, reports from Addu said. The Haveeru quoted local MDP leaders as saying that the party was not behind the vandalism, adding that it owed to ‘political reasons’.
Interestingly, Amnesty International has described as ‘prisoner of conscience’, blogger Ismail ‘Khilasth’ Rasheed, who was arrested after being attacked when he was addressing a small group, defending religious freedom in the national capital of Male a fortnight back. Foreign Minister Naseem said it was a matter of concern to the international community. Rasheed’s initiative followed UNHRC’s Navi Pillay’s call for religious freedom and for a national discourse for ending flogging of women in the country. As may be recalled, Amnesty had named President Nasheed a ‘prisoner of conscience’ for his pro-democracy political and public initiatives, after he was imprisoned more than once by the erstwhile Gayoom leadership.
For now, the ruling party has called off the ‘moderate Islam’ rallies that were to have continued for two more days, what with the Opposition too ending its protest at the end of day one. After the Friday rallies, presidential spokesman Mohamed Zuhair acknowledged people’s participation in the Opposition protest, and said that the Government would consider their demands. However, he wondered who had made those demands, political parties, or individuals and/or NGOs, which needed to be treated differently. Ahead of the MDP rally, many party seniors, including MPs, had urged President Nasheed not to have their programme on the same day. Some of them also publicly suggested that as Head of State, President Nasheed should not participate in what essentially was a political rally.
While this may have quietened the situation, it remains to be seen how various political players take off from here — or, listen to the voice of reason among a substantial section of the people, who do not want them to make Islam a political issue. There is large-scale apprehension among the masses and the current rallies could trigger societal divisiveness that goes beyond politics and elections, and could also concern larger national interests, starting with security issues, in the months and years to come.
N Sathiya Moorthy is a Senior Research Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.
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