Minister of Islamic Affairs Sheikh Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed has voiced concerns that Friday prayers conducted in the Dharumavantha Mosque in the capital city Male’ are conducted by Imams who do not hold state-issued authorisation to preach.
Shaheem emphasised the importance of putting an end to the practice of Dharumavantha Mosque conducting Friday prayers in a manner different from all other mosques in the country. He furthermore said that he had personally received reports that the sermons given in the mosque preached a “stricter, more extreme ideology [of Islam]”.
“In the Maldives, we follow the practices of Sunni communities, especially when it comes to matters concerning religion. And then [they] refuse to pray in other mosques behind authorised Imams and form their own prayer congregations elsewhere. The ‘Imams’ conducting Friday prayers at Dharumavantha Mosque do not have permits to lead Friday prayers, nor are they even well-educated. I’ve also been informed that sometimes very extreme preachings are made by them,” Shaheem said on Sunday, speaking to local media.
The minister added that mosques in the capital are now under the jurisdiction of the Male’ City Council, and that the Islamic Ministry no longer has the mandate to act against any “undesirable activities” being carried out in mosques.
Mosques were transferred from being under the watch of the Islamic Ministry to the councils in late 2011 after the ratification of the Decentralisation Act.
Shaheem stated that he had nevertheless worked to ‘reform’ people who attended these prayers with the help of various religious scholars who provided advice to these individuals.
A Male’ City Council official noted that Councillor Hassan Afeef is in charge of overeeing mosques. Afeef was not responding to calls at the time of press.
Dharumavantha Mosque (Miskiiy) is recorded to be the oldest mosque in the country, according to the former National Center for Linguistic and Historical Research.
The mosque, which is exclusively for men, is a one-room structure with an attached veranda, located near Sultan Park.
Dharumavantha Mosque is attributed to Mohamed-Ul-Adil, the first Sultan of the Maldives, who was the first to enforce Islamic law in the country.
On March 6, 2013, the mosque was robbed and vandalised. The matter was reported to police by those attending early morning prayers.
Police have so far not publicised details of the investigation, and the case is believed to remain unsolved.
Dharumavantha Mosque is the only known mosque in the capital which refuses to read out pre-written sermons issued by the Islamic Ministry during Friday prayers, as is the current practice.
Islamic Minister Sheikh Shaheem Ali Saeed was not responding to calls at the time of press.
My husband sits next to me on the steps outside the Imperial Gates of Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, Turkey. The sky is overcast and there is no breeze. It is as if the world itself is hushed by the breath-taking splendour of our surroundings.
‘Allah Akbar. Allah Akbar…’ Suddenly, the melodic call for Asr prayer spills from the imposing minarets of Aya Sofya. The sound reverberates with a lyrical beauty that silences the crowds streaming in and out of the buildings around us.
There are occasions in one’s life, when, what has been, what is, and what might be, unite in total harmony and the moment is enough; a rare privilege in these changing times. I feel the pull of this moment as the call for prayer is echoed by several minarets that repeat these centuries-old words. “It’s harmonised,’ says my husband quietly.
Such occasions demand reflection. Recent travel around Turkey has rekindled powerful childhood memories which were the gifts of an Islamic upbringing. My sister and I, the designated readers to a family devoted to the written word… the long hours of Ramadan… the heat of the sun and the warm breezes conspiring to lengthen the day-light hours… taking refuge in the shade of the trees… an enchanted world where imagination and spirituality reigned.
The biography of Prophet Mohamed. The Thousand and One Nights. The legendary exploits of Amir Hamza. It was a realm of jinni and giants, dragons and dancers, invincible heroes and indestructible holy men. As much as our lessons in Islam and the daily reading of the Quran, these stories developed our connection to the community of Islam and the understanding that our collective heritage was something of which to be proud.
And it is an undeniably proud heritage. At the peak of its culture, its artistic and intellectual accomplishments influenced the entire world. What is most striking about the spread of this culture is that it was open and inclusive; its horizons were wide and flexible. Muslim philosophers helped the spread of Greek philosophy into Europe; Baghdad became the medical centre of the world having translated into Arabic works from several non-Islamic cultures. Huge progress was made in chemistry, physics, astronomy and mathematics.
It is sufficient to remember that the decimal system of numbers which allowed the scientific explosion of the later centuries was passed on to Europeans by this rich culture. Islam’s was the quintessential knowledge-based civilisation.
But these were not the only signs of its positive engagement with the wider world. Muslims were well known seamen and travellers. Improved methods of map making and geographical nomenclature were passed on to Europe by Islamic geographers such as al Idrisi and Abdallah Yaqut. Almost a century before Columbus and De Gama ventured on their explorations, Ibn Battuta documented his travels which were to become some of the best ethnologies in the world.
In a week of frenzied sight-seeing in Turkey, I have seen how the Ottoman Empire, at a much later date, continued this sense of inclusiveness and tolerance. Aya Sofya itself was once Emperor Justinian’s great Christian symbol of temporal and spiritual power in Constantinople. When Mehmet the Conqueror came to power, he simply had the church converted into a mosque. He did not feel the need to vandalise the building or smash it to the ground. Its beautiful mosaic work is testimony to the fact that religions can co-exist in proclaiming the bounty of God. But more than that, it was a statement of confidence and maturity; that Islamic culture – its teaching, its art and its literature – is powerful enough to withstand other ways of thinking and behaving.
My generation of Maldivians grew up confident and strong, nurtured by the greatness of this culture combined with our own Maldivian heritage. But we were the lucky generation. Less than half a century later, the religion, that was the basic building blocks of our childhood, is struggling to find its place in the Maldives. It would seem to be suffering from an extreme loss of confidence.
Although the answers are complex, we need to ask ourselves why such a profound change has taken place. Perhaps the most important reason for this is the cynical pact that the Saudi royal family made with the politically troublesome Wahhabis. The result of this is that a primitive, isolated, desert-based, and distorted version of Islam came to be the state religion of Saudi Arabia. This of course would not have been important if Saudi Arabia did not become the dominant, oil-rich American ally of the Middle East. This meant, what should have been a minor piece of political wheeling and dealing in a poor, uneducated Arab backwater, instead became the dominant evangelising force of Islam in the late 20th century.
But the reason is merely academic now. In recent years, the Maldives has been ‘gifted’ with mosques and madrassas funded by Saudi money under various guises. Groups of Maldivians have been converted to radical Islam. They have shown very little interest in the broad, all-encompassing values of the religion or how a religion and a culture interact over centuries, as it did in the Maldives, to produce a way of life that is unique and worthy of our respect. Just as fear and intimidation are the weapons of their choice, their focus is on selected dogma that suits their inward looking version of Islam.
They would have us believe that to save the faith, Muslims should ignore change rather than learn to live with it. Their romantic hankering to return to a time when women were dependent and servile is dangerous and unrealistic in the 21st century. Islamic dogma was never intended to be exercised in a vacuum; in the Quran, Allah is consistently and forcefully associated with terms of compassion and mercy, both of which should work closely in the interpretation of religious dogma.
I am not an expert in Islamic Law but I have no trouble claiming that for generations of Maldivians, Islam was, and still is, a call to live a good life. But this concept of living a good life has been high- jacked by a group of self-appointed people who have selected isolated facets of the religion and reassembled them to achieve their own bizarre social and political agenda. What has a good Islamic life to do with a preoccupation with facial hair or a propensity to drape one’s entire body in metres of black cloth?
In the absence of any strong, open objection to this new version of Islam in our midst, or any healthy debate by more moderate Islamic scholars in our country, the radical elements have prospered. They have organised themselves to a degree where many Maldivians, with different points of view, are afraid to speak out. There are shades of Pakistan and Afghanistan here. In Afghanistan the Taliban killed over 10,000 moderate Muslims so that they alone could claim to represent Islam and thus dominate their society. In the Maldives, they have infiltrated the political arena by shamelessly changing allegiances as they see fit. Disproportionate to their electoral success as a political group, their voices are the loudest in condemning people who do not fit into their narrow version of Islam.
I would like to believe that MP Dr Afrasheem’s shocking assassination was not related to his moderate Islamic views. But it would not surprise me if it was. Unfortunately violence is often a way of life for those who can only see things in black and white. So, unless their intense motivation to take the country back into the Dark Ages is contained, the fate of the Maldives will become synonymous with countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan- arid landscapes of abject poverty, punctuated by mindless violence. It will become a hell on earth except for a joyless few who see that hell as their exclusive way to heaven.
If Islam is to stay relevant to the new generations of Maldivians, it has to go back to its Maldivian roots. Here, Islam has always been moderate, caring, sharing and inclusive – a combination of cultural and Islamic values that served us well in the past. In a world literally drowning due to the greed of its inhabitants, the values of our Maldivian ancestors who managed to live more cooperative and less selfish lives are hugely relevant to our 21st century society.
As I leave the steps outside the Topkapi Palace, I remember my own maternal grandfather – Kudahuthu Mohomaidhi. This beauty would have moved him, just as it does me. He was a devoted Muslim who spent much time in prayer and the reading of the Quran. However, this was not all he did. What he earned, he gave away to others. When neighbours, friends and family members needed support, he was their first port of call. He accepted change with a readiness that surprised me. In his youth he was a great sportsman; as he aged he became fascinated by wood turning, jewellery making and gardening. His mind remained open to new ideas and new ways of doing things. He celebrated life. But, he died on his prayer mat. He was an exemplary Muslim Maldivian; a combination of what is best in both.
Such role models are not limited to the past. There are thousands of Maldivians living good, generous, tolerant and positive lives today. I am privileged to know several such people. These people do not need to live claustrophobic, intolerant, self-centred lives to be good Muslims.
Heaven can be achieved without making a hell of this world.
All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]
Local NGO Hope For Women has released a book on women’s rights in Islam in an effort to counter what it has described as a growth in “conservative Islamic teachings or religious justifications, that use Islam as a tool to intimidate and repress women”.
Minivan News was told during the launch that the publication attempts to challenge a perceived emergence of more religious conservative viewpoints in Maldivian society regarding the role of women and gender equality.
Issues addressed by the book include polygamy, a husband’s right to beat his wife, inheritance and the right to divorce.
Hope For Women’s co-founder, former Gender Minister Aneesa Ahmed, expressed particular concern over the growth of conservative views that she argued were limiting the role of women in society to domestic spheres and portraying them as being inferior to men.
She recalled hearing an Islamic scholar preaching on television that women become a “property” of their husbands following marriage, and said such preaching has to be stopped.
“This kind of conservative views that belittle a person is a major obstacle to building harmonious relationships on which a strong family and society is built on,” Aneesa noted.
“Many of the problems existing in our society roots back to inferior roles women and girls have within their households,” she observed. “I hope these publications will clarify the rights and status of women in Islam and create more awareness within our society.”
Musawah is described as a holistic framework created by a group of 12 Muslim activists and scholars from 11 countries on “promoting concepts of justice and equality in Islam, and the Muslim family in particular,” according to its website.
Hope for Women said it had “become incumbent upon all civil society actors to speak out and stand up against the widespread prejudices that encourage women to be relegated to a marginalised existence and sometimes subjected to extraordinary acts of violence.”
Speaking at the launching ceremony of the project yesterday (July 30), newly appointed Gender Minister Dr Aamaal Ali observed that “outdated ways of thinking are being preached today as the Islamic way, and this has resulted in a backlash against women’s role in society”
“My students tell me they hear a certain sermon when they get into a taxi. They face discrimination at some gatherings from other women and outside forces are influencing their family life. Some girls also tell me their husbands are pressuring them for a second marriage,” explained Dr Amaal, who has served as a teacher and principal at the all-girls Ameeniya School in Male’.
“Sometimes when I think, I wonder if women are seen as disposable, to throw away once they become old. Because women are today often being treated as disposable beings,” she added.
The minister noted that if young women in the country informed themselves about religion with education, as well as providing themselves with empowerment and economic emancipation, it would help reduce many of the problems they faced such as domestic violence.
Marx said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.
In an isolated country such as ours, with a culture that goes back thousands of years, history has become twisted beyond all recognition and ended up as an unnavigable tangle of myths and falsehoods. And it appears we are not done yet.
An unreliable history
The story goes that in the mid-16th century, the Maldives was dominated for a period of 15 years by thePortuguese who – for reasons lost to history – attempted to forcibly pour alcohol down pious Maldivian throats.
Three brothers from the island of Utheemu – Mohamed, Ali and Hasan Thakurufaanu – then intervened heroically, in a tale of cunning and tact, to overthrow the infidel Portuguese, and became heroes of Islam who saved our pious nation from the alcoholic, Christian invaders.
This grand, sanitised version of the story, where an Islamic hero defends the faith of the Maldivians from evil infidels would prove very useful for later rulers of the country, like Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who constantly stoked fears of evil Christian missionaries trying to take over the Maldivians precious Islamic faith – a tactic that persists to this day. In 2009, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found a paranoid Maldives to be among the world’s Top Ten most religiously intolerant nations.
Over time, it became apparent that it was not just foreign invaders that threatened to take away our Islamic faith, but our own dead forefathers whose entire rich Buddhist culture was swept under the carpet so tidily that to this day, it cannot be properly acknowledged – much less celebrated.
As much as we tried to erase it from memory, a vexatious history kept throwing at us evidence of a rich pre-Islamic cultural past in the form of statues, Buddhist stupas and ancient coral stone engravings uncovered from all parts of the country that became impossible to entirely ignore.
Thus, a legend came into existence; a fantastical story of a sea-demon, the Rannamaari, who came from the oceanic depths and had to be appeased by a virgin sacrifice every month. Then, Abul Barakat, a Berber scholar from Morocco arrived in the country in the early 12th century and heard of the story from a grieving family.
When it was time for the next girl to be sacrificed, Abul Barakat volunteered to step in. He stood vigil throughout the night, reciting from the Qur’an at the idol-house where the virgins were left every month to be ravished and killed. That night, the sea-demon rose from the depths and drew close, only to plunge again beneath the waves upon hearing the holy recitation which continued till dawn. In the morning, the islanders rejoiced, and upon hearing this, the King was pleased and instantly converted to Islam – willingly followed by the entire population of the country who discarded their idols and got enlightened overnight.
This happy outcome continues to be the version of history taught in schools today, although local historians have since discovered copper plate inscriptions from the 12th Century that describes a much more blood-soaked process of conversion – with Buddhist priests being summoned to Male’ and beheaded. Many terrified islanders buried their beautiful coral stone idols in the sand, covered with palm leaves, to protect it from the King’s men.
The idols survived the king’s men. But they could not survive the religious paranoia of their descendants, who are left with a toxic relationship with reality, having been brought up on a diet of distorted history.
In December 2011, this writer wrote a piece mentioning the statue of Gautama Buddha recovered from the island of Thoddoo in 1959, that was decapitated and soon afterwards had its body smashed to bits by paranoid Islanders, leaving behind only its serenely smiling head.
Less than two months after the piece was published, Islamic radicals vandalised the National Museum, and completed the job by destroying the head in a fervour to protect their Islamic faith from this perceived historical threat.
An embellished past
As far as stories go, the tale of the demon Rannamaari is only slightly more embellished a truth than the tale of a model Islamic hero overthrowing the Portuguese who were trying to force alcohol down our throats.
Maldives chronicler Abdul Majid points out that Buraara Koi, an ancient narrator of history, described Mohamed Thakurufaanu as “an adulterer, a necromancer, a cheat and someone who enjoyed trapping birds into his extended adolescence” – characteristics unworthy of an Islamic hero.
To set right this historical glitch, Hussain Salahuddin, a conservative twentieth century chief justice and a former royal commissioner of history, “openly purged the traditional versions of ‘objectionable’ events and accounts and inserted politically correct material in their place – some of it fabricated by his own admission”.
While no authoritative version of our history could survive our endless assault on facts, the end result of both these tales – the Rannamaari and the Portuguese invasion – is very politically convenient. In both cases, the tale inextricably weds our national identity with Islam in a grand, exaggerated and sanitised recalling of past events, while simultaneously assigning our history to be as much as an enemy of our identity as any foreign invader.
Recently deposed President Nasheed, a self-proclaimed history buff, marked the Independence day by narrating tales of Maldivian history on the radio. He added another spin on this already convoluted story by saying that there isn’t evidence that Islam was ever under threat by the Portuguese – asserting that Maldivians were simply more pious than that.
Nevertheless, the Portuguese, whose archives interestingly seem to record no evidence of direct rule of the Crown over the Maldives, ended up as being yet another incarnation of the Rannamaari; another woven yarn about a demon that had to be defeated to demonstrate the valour of Islam that finds resonance to this day.
For instance, Umar Naseer – one of the primary actors in the overthrow of the elected government last year – has described his actions as being equivalent of the overthrow of the infidel Portuguese. In the Maldives, anything can become a Rannamaari. Even an elected government.
As a population, we revel in collective myths.
Muddying up the present
President Nasheed is also fond of pointing out the cyclicality of history – and how we are a nation with a long history of subterfuge, conspiracy and coup d’etats.
After all, the first Maldivian republic collapsed in 1954 after President Mohamed Amin Didi was deposed in a coup engineered by his Vice President Ibrahim Mohamed Didi, who in turn was deposed and exiled to make way for the restoration of the monarchy.
Yet, the police and military backed coup in 2012 that installed Waheed in power seemingly came out of the blue. For a nation as fearful and hostile to its own past, learning from history is out of the question and the cyclic nature of events becomes inevitable.
And thus, all the pieces fell into place on Friday night, on the occasion of the country’s Independence day, for a farce so gigantic that one could almost hear the giant wheel of history grind in motion.
On that night, Mohamed Waheed, installed in power in last year’s coup d’etat, conferred upon the former dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the NGIV (Nishan Ghaazeege ‘Izzatheri Veriya, the Most Distinguished Order of Ghazi) – the highest civilian honour recognized by the Maldivian state.
The location chosen for this travesty could not have been more appropriate. It was the very museum hall where the priceless, exquisitely carved coral stone remnants of our Buddhist history were reduced to dust last February as the coup was unfolding. Disregarding expert advice, the surviving artifacts in the museum were moved aside to make way for this momentous sham. Outside, the muscular SO riot police had forcibly shut down the neighbouring Art Gallery and held back protesters.
The coral stone dust of our forgotten past still lingered in the air when Waheed proceeded to essentially give a giant one finger salute to two generations of Maldivians – including, as many point out, his own mother and brothers – who have suffered under the yoke of Gayoom’s tyranny.
As far as this writer is concerned, the title bestowed upon Gayoom is about as legitimate as regime that conferred it upon him – which is to say, not at all.
Nasir spins in his grave
Another President – President Ibrahim Nasir – was conferred the same honour by the Sultan of the time. However, President Nasir – who introduced modern English medium curriculum, and radio and television and civil aviation and tourism and mechanized fishing boats that breathed life into, and continues to prop up, the Maldivian economy in the decades ever since – was stripped of his kilege and other titles by his successor, the Gayoom regime.
Much like former idols, spirits and sea goddesses were demonised overnight to fit a new historical narrative, former President Nasir was vilified, exiled to Singapore and sentenced in absentia in the early days of the Gayoom regime. Indecent cartoons and songs mocking him were played by the Gayoom regime on the very government radio stations that Nasir introduced.
Today, Nasir’s reputation lies impossibly tangled. On one hand, he is praised as the hero of our national independence and architect of the modern Maldives who was harsh on corruption. On the other hand, he is criticised as a heavy handed autocrat who allegedly stole from the public coffers. He lived out his final years in ignominy and disrepute but, having died just after the fall of the Gayoom regime, was given a hero’s burial in Male’ alongside his royal ancestors.
Whether Nasir was a hero or a villain, we can no longer rely on our muddled history books to tell. Gayoom’s attempt at manipulating history and his muddying his predecessor’s legacy was thus an unqualified success.
And last Friday, Waheed stacked yet another card on the house of cards that we call our nation’s history; another attempt to muddy up the waters, another perversion of history itself in a bid to whitewash Gayoom’s indefensible legacy.
To quote from Hegel’s Philosophy of History, “What experience and history teach is this—that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it”.
In a country where gods have morphed into demons, and falsehoods have become the basis of our faith, and myths explain our origins, and history itself is a giant farce – it is clear that Gayoom intends to be remembered not as the vain leader of a corrupt, nepotistic, iron-fisted regime who never faced justice for his decades long crimes – but as someone who can now point to his shiny new medal and count himself among the highest, most distinguished and honourable among our citizens.
And it looks like he just might get away with it, and history will be none the wiser.
All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]
Handfuls of sand are sprinkled are carefully onto glass, and a single finger pokes the grains to magically morph them into a moving painting as an animation unfolds telling important narratives about the survival of a nation, against the soundtrack of haunting music.
The form of an old man takes shape, holding a cane in his hand. All around him a street scene of buildingsis developed under the sleight of a single hand sprinkling sand, asthe other creates perfectly drawn images. Behind the old man is a wall of people, and one of them is brandishing a Maldivian flag. Suddenly the music tempo changes. On the other side of the road a brace of helmeted police officers appear all brandishing riot shields and shaking their batons at the old man and the people. Suddenly, these images of the people are “wiped out” and in their place, a single menacing bulbous face appears.
All these scenes capture the moment that the Maldives was changed forever.
They were created by an enigmatic artist called Afzal Shaafiu Hasan, also known as Afu. He has decided to use his unique talent of drawing with sand to describe what he calls Baton Day, the day after the coup which destabilised the country and toppled the first democratically elected president the Maldives had seen in 30 years.
Afu learned his craft by watching you tube videos. In a short space of time, he had perfected it enough to perform a moving sand art play to a delegation of eight nations at the SAARC Summit in Addu. Later it was performed at an audience of thousands at Raalhugandu area earlier this year as part of an artists’ drive for democracy. Later his recorded performance went viral on Maldivian social media,
“Being noticed is a blessing, but it can bring pressures as well,” he said.
But how did he learn this incredible talent?
“About three years back I saw some videos of sand art by Ksenia Simonova and it was simply amazing. I wanted to try it,” said Afu. “So I taught myself how to do it through hours of experimentation and practice.
“Then just when I got the hang of it, I was given the opportunity to perform for the Heads of States of eight Asian countries, who all met for the SAARC Summit.
“The first performance I did after that was watched live by almost 8,000 people. That’s incredible for Male’.”
Of course practice makes perfect and it takes a lot of pre-planning to get right, just as any animation does. “It is important to get the story right and fit it into the least number of key frames and transitions, while keeping the emotion at all times,” he said.
“Since it is live I don’t have a second chance to get it right.”
To draw the images he uses his hand, and he has grown a long fingernail especially for the purpose of fine tuning details. He refers to this as his “paintbrush”.
Afu’s Sand Art has the air of the theatrical to it. Perhaps that is not so surprising as he counts the great performance artist and choreographer Mohamed Munthasir, known as Munco, among his friends from school.
In fact it was Munco who drew his attention to the very opportunity to perform at the SAARC Summit.
“Sand Art combines drawing, creative story-telling, skill and performance” said Afu.
“As soon as I started doing it, I fell in love with the medium, it expresses emotion on so many levels.”
He is also a classmate of the famous Dinba music creator Ishaantay Ishan. Music is a vital ingredient to Afu’s sand art performances. He often uses Hamy on the keyboard or piano and Shambe on the guitar to build up the drama and tension as Afu’s incredible artistic fingers work their unique magic.
Afu also sometimes performs sand art exhibitions to entertain tourists in resorts.
“Sand art is extremely versatile, it can be a pure art form as well as a commercial opportunity for tourism in resorts, but we still have a lot of work to do to develop this art in the Maldives,” he added.
“So far I am the only sand artist in the country. If people are interested in learning it, I would be more than willing guide them.
There is also a connection between Afu’s sand art and Maldivian tradition. Sand is used as a medium to teach children the alphabet and shapes. It is put in a large shallow container and the teacher uses their fingers or a little twig to write on it.
He currently has an exhibition in the National Art Gallery entitled ‘Breathing Atolls,” which features a video of “a sand animation based upon a traditional Maldivian fisherman’s life, called A Maldivian Tale.”
Afu believes that the Maldives is undergoing an artistic renaissance which is helping to enrich the culture of this island nation.
So what motivates Afu?
“The chaos of course, I feel it necessary to say something about it as an artist. That alone pushes me to do something – not just in my sand art, but in my paintings as well.”
And so, Afu’s artwork is constantly pushing boundaries. He is an enigma who seems to be constantly innovating and experimenting with any art form which takes his fancy. He has mastered everything from stamp design, to oil painting and now as his self -taught sand art proves, his talents to innovate know no bounds.
As well as politics, Afu’s oil paintings and sand art also showcase the simple lifestyle of Maldivians in the past.
He is also interested in the environment. One of his sand art animations called “Forever”, which was performed live at Thudufushi Resort in January 2012 shows how human interference and rubbish is causing the coral reefs to die.
He has a talent for showing the fragility and beauty of a moment, something which defines him as a truly great artist.
“Chaos. I feel it necessary to say something about it as an artist. That alone pushes me to do something -not just in my sand art, but in my paintings as well.”
Afu has painted since childhood, but surprisingly has had no classical training.
Asked how he learned of his talent, he said. “I was born with it, I guess. I was good at art at school so when I finished formal education, I joined the Post Office and drew stamps. This is the point I started taking art as a serious profession.”
During the 13-years he worked at the Post Office, he was responsible for creating almost a hundred stamp designs.
Later he was accepted to study a three-year diploma course in graphic design and multimedia in Malaysia.
“I did this, and then I developed my fine art side as a hobby with paintings, performing arts and sculptures. It is mainly all self-taught.”
He says he was encouraged from a young age by his father to be creative, although none of his siblings went into art.
“Dad was a man of many talents – carpentry, calligraphy, poetry and so on, and he inspired me to develop my artistic talent,” he said.
Afu says his inspiration includes local artists Maizan Hassan Maniku and Hassan of Pink Coral as well as more traditional muses such as Van Gough and Picasso.
Painting has always been one of his great loves. Over the years he has created many works of art, and many have been exhibited in the National Gallery.
However during some periods, some of his paintings have also been banned for being too evocative, especially during the Maumoon administration.
A series of paintings Afu did during this time was called the Man-Wall series, which saw man as the people, and wall as the Government. It deals with feelings such as hope, fear and freedom – themes which have returned since the events of 07/02/12.
“One particular painting was removed from the exhibition ‘Maldives Contemporary’ because the Government felt it was not appropriate. At that time there were a series of people going missing, in jails or just randomly disappearing. The wrapping says police line do not cross. The tree was our future and the zebra crossing was the point where our people will have to cross to reach that future,” he said.
“Religion is killing art”
Afu counts himself among part of a “new wave” of artists and craftsmen in Male’, who inspired by the political changes have been promoting innovative artforms and paintings.
All are facing challenges from the establishment, political and religious figures who believe creative arts are sinful.
“They have destroyed the ancient artefacts and they preach art as hara’am,” said Afu. “They have even preached against drawing human beings with eyes as this is supposedly directly ‘challenging God’.”
“In a country where the idea of art is limited to drawing it’s dangerous going beyond that limitation. Art has been off mainstream for a very long time, from the point we converted to Islam back in 1153 AD. That’s my opinion and there’s evidence to back it up too,” said Afu.
Art only very recently entered the mainstream – around 15 years ago due to religious restrictions. Psychedelic art in particular is growing fast, especially digital and doodle art, which is flooding social media right now.
Another artist, who goes by the name of K.D, acts as Afu’s agent. He was also the project coordinator for the SAARC Summit where the sand art was first displayed.
“The situation is as simple as this – religion is killing art,” said KD who is also a painter. “That’s my open view on it.”
He revealed how recently religious scholars in the Maldives had banned drawing human figures with eyes and noses, which they believe go against god. The exhibition was created by an artist known as Siru Arts who held an exhibition of political art without these features.
Afu said: “This exhibition was an asset to the current regime because it has a twisted narrative to the events of the coup.
“Some follow blindly because it’s about religion. It’s sad, but it’s happening all over the world, why not here?
“Here everything that happens reaches to every individual. It matters here more than countries with millions of people where only a little portion of it the population is directly affected.
“This can be dangerous because we’re a nation of just 350,000 people. Here everything is magnified.”
In the modern Maldives the art world is growing, but at the same time, due to religious restrictions, artists have gone in hiding and dare not express their opinions.
“The government needs to keep artists like Afu and others safe and secured away from all these dangerous people,” said KD, who classes Afu as his mentor.
“In my own personal opinion I believe that artists should be more open in their views because the more we stay hidden, the more damage will be done,” he added.
Education, KD believes, is the key to challenging these ideologies.
“This place is filled with talent but no proper guidance or guidelines are implemented. In the current situation we can see how art is growing.”
Former President Mohamed Nasheed’s government actively supported the arts, introducing venues and practice rooms, intellectual rights for the artist and open forums, the artists say.
Many people in the country have talent, but they have not learned the fundamentals.
Each artist is self taught and as yet no National Art School exists and for the moment art is off the mainstream curriculum. There was an art school called Salaam school, which collapsed following the tragic death of its founder in 2011, Aminath Arif ‘Anthu’.
As an event manager KD has worked with many painters, musicians and performance artists. His main concern is to encourage the government to invest in art in the mainstream education system.
“I believe if art is involved more in the current education system, Maldivian art will grow,” said KD.
Overall, Afu has taken Maldivian art in a new direction.
“My utopian view as a Maldivian is that I live in one of the most beautiful places. My community is small and loving and live a simple life. We are happy.
“But my view on the political chaos is different. I believe what we are going through is healthy and necessary for our country’s future.
“Change shall come, but at a cost. We will be the generation who has to deal with it.”
His beautiful images are crafted out of the very sand which makes up the dazzling beaches that so many tourists frequent.
This in itself is quite symbolic.
The medium makes a statement as much as the art. An image or scene can be wiped out in an instant to make way for a new image.
As the Maldives approaches crucial elections, this also says something about the state of the nation and the events of the last 18 months.
Sand is also strong and fragile at the same time. Can the sand beneath their feet holds the country together or will the single grains just blow away in the wind?
The religious conservative Adhaalath Party (AP) has declared it has entered into a coalition agreement with resort tycoon Gasim Ibrahim’s Jumhoree Party (JP).
The AP recently severed its coalition agreement with President Mohamed Waheed, following his remarks to the AFP newswire that it was “better to work with” the self-claimed Islamist party, despite suggesting some elements in the party held “extreme views”. He told media at the time that excluding the party from mainstream politics risked marginalising its members, having a “negative long-term effect”.
In a statement announcing its new coalition partner, the AP praised Gasim’s campaigning for the 2013 election and said it believed the presidential candidate was “the person most capable of defending the country from foreign influences, to safeguard the country’s highest of priorities, and that he is capable of working in an independent manner.”
Local news outlet Sun Online observed that the AP had similarly allied with the JP ahead of the 2008 presidential election, noting that the party’s then spokesperson and current Minister of Islamic Affairs, Sheikh Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed, had qualified the alliance on the grounds that “a person capable of controlling four wives is more than capable of controlling the country.”
Following its departure from Waheed’s ‘Forward with the nation’ coalition last week, the Adhaalath Party was reported to have been in talks with the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM).
While the extent of the Adhaalath Party’s electoral support in the coming elections is uncertain (the party received 0.9 percent of the votes in the 2009 parliamentary election), its numbers make up the bulk of the ranks of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and it remains a loud voice in Maldivian politics.
Independent MP Ibrahim Muttalib, while not elected as an Adhaalath MP, has since declared association with the party. His bills have included motions calling for a blanket ban on the sale and import of pork and alcohol in the Maldives, a luxury tourism destination with an economy dependent on over 100 resorts targeting the lucrative UK, German, French and Russian markets.
Gasim Ibrahim meanwhile remains one of the country’s single largest importers of alcohol, with customs records for 2011 showing his Villa Hotels chain – including the Royal, Paradise, Sun, and Holiday Island resorts – importing approximately 121,234.51 litres of beer, 2048 litres of whiskey, 3684 litres of vodka and 219.96 kilograms of pork sausages annually, among other haram (prohibited) commodities restricted to ‘uninhabited’ islands.
The Adhaalath Party also endorsed a flogging sentence given in February to a 15 year-old rape victim found guilty of a separate fornication offence, on the grounds that “if such sinful activities are to become this common, the society will break down and we may become deserving of divine wrath.”
After an Avaaz petition calling for the repeal of the sentence reached more than two million signatures – double the country’s annual tourism arrivals – Waheed’s administration pledged to appeal the matter. The case remains stalled in the High Court.
Gasim in March 2013 complained he had lost US$16 million as a result of a selective tourism boycott, orchestrated he claimed by his political rivals the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).
While in coalition with Waheed, the Adhaalath Party also notably clamped down on singing and dancing, including requesting in April 2012 that the Education Ministry cancel the Maldives’ inter-school singing competition on the grounds that singing was haram in Islam.
“He doesn’t understand what the law says, so a crazy person like him may say that he would give the opportunity for people to limitlessly entertain themselves. Look, it is not something Allah has given us human beings,” Gasim declared.
Progress toward achieving gender equality has not kept pace with other development achievements in the Maldives, as reflected by the 12 percent of women who have suffered sexual abuse before the age of 15 while one in three have been the victim of violence, a Department of National Planning study has found.
The study examined how much human development progress has been achieved in the Maldives in terms of population and development, reproductive health and rights, gender equity, equality and empowerment of women as well as education during the period 1994 – 2012.
The “Maldives Operational Review for the ICPD Beyond 2014” study was conducted under the supervision of the Department of National Planning (DNP), in collaboration with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), to determine whether the Maldives has met the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) thematic Programme of Action (PoA) goals.
The study found that “Despite impressive advancements in all development areas, the progress towards achieving gender equality and equity and the empowerment of women have not been the same.”
“Even though, the Maldivian Constitution guarantees equal rights and freedom for all Maldivians without any discrimination, prevailing traditions and socio-cultural norms have limited women’s participation in the workforce and in the community,” the study determined.
“The increasing level of religious fundamentalism and conservative thinking has worsened the situation,” it added.
Although the Domestic Violence Act 3/2012 was “a historical milestone for women in the country,” domestic violence and violence against women remains a “major concern” in the Maldives.
“One out of three females aged between 15-49 years has experienced some form of violence within their lifetime. Further, 12 percent of women reported having experienced sexual abuse before their 15th birthday,” the report stated. “Most of the time, the perpetrators are a close family member or intimate partner and the incidence goes unreported and undocumented.”
Victims to not receive appropriate and timely support, since domestic and sexual violence are perceived as a private matter and often go unreported, the study found.
Additionally, “Women continue to be stereotyped and underrepresented at professional decision making levels,” noted the report.
The low level of women being represented in senior level positions is partly due to the “high domestic burden on females,” with women heading 47 percent of households in the Maldives, one of the highest rates in the world, the study determined.
Although women are represented in the workforce, they are “mostly represented in stereotypical roles” such as education (72 percent), health (68 percent), manufacturing (65 percent) and agriculture (64 percent), said the report.
Meanwhile, 40 percent of young women remain unemployed, with 10.5 of the overall youth population being neither employed nor seeking to further their studies, the report added. Employment opportunities for many have been obstructed primarily due to inadequate employment opportunities as well as the mismatch between skills and job requirements.
The report also found that the number of women continuing their studies beyond secondary education is low compared to men. This disparity is the result of “limited access to educational institutions at the island level, domestic responsibilities and hesitance to allow females to study on another island.”
“Special affirmative actions are needed to create more employment and livelihood opportunities for women and to increase the number of women in public and political life,” stated the report.
Despite the Maldives achieving the Millennium Development Goal target to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, malnutrition and anemia are still limiting women’s equality, equity and empowerment, noted the study.
“Poor nutritional status and anemia are significantly high among pregnant women and women of reproductive age, [which] puts them in high risk for maternal mortality,” the report found. “Malnutrition among women puts them in high risk during pregnancy and hinders their full participation in education, employment and social activities.”
“With regard to reproductive rights, men often control decisions regarding women’s reproductive health, often based on religious and cultural grounds,” the report noted.
“[Furthermore,] the sudden growth of religious fundamentalism and conservative thinking is an emerging challenge, particularly for women and young girls,” the study stated. “There have been increase towards certain trends such as preference for home schooling and refusing vaccination and other medical services for women based on religious beliefs.”
Violence against women
Despite the extensive provisions in the Domestic Violence act, it has done little to curb the abuse of women, minors and other vulnerable people; the police, the judiciary and wider Maldivian society have made minimal progress addressing domestic violence and abuse, former Gender Minister and Chairperson the Hope for Women NGO, Aneesa Ahmed, recently told Minivan News.
“Despite the freedoms that the constitution has provided for women, attitudes towards women’s empowerment show a negative trend,” stated Andrew Cox, the former UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP representative in the Maldives.
“Alarmingly, the study also suggests that there has been a regression in people’s sensitivity towards domestic violence and gender based violence,” he added.
Male attitudes have become “more conservative” regarding women’s rights issues, whereas female views have become more supportive of rights in some areas, the report stated.
In a reversal from the 2005 human rights study, more women than men now consider it inappropriate for men to hit their wives. However, significant numbers of respondents stated where there was a “substantive justification” – as opposed to something trivial – “violence against wives was justified,” the report determined.
Both genders in the Maldives were also found to believe that in the husband/wife relationship, women should play a “subordinate role”.
Of those polled, 62 percent supported an outright moratorium on the practice of flogging, while 73 percent declared existing punishments for sexual crimes were unfair to women.
The international community has echoed this sentiment, particularly in regard to the recent
case in which a 15 year-old rape victim was sentenced to 100 lashes and eight months’ house arrest for a separate offence of fornication garnered substantial international attention and condemnation.
In March, an Avaaz petition calling for the repeal of the sentence and a moratorium on flogging in the Maldives collected more than two million signatures – a figure more than double the number of tourists who visit the country annually.
Currently, British couples are being asked to avoid the Maldives as a honeymoon destination to force the country’s government to overturn the conviction of the girl, who was given the draconian sentence after being raped by her stepfather, while UK Prime Minister David Cameron has been asked to intervene in the case, writes Jane Merrick for the UK’s Independent newspaper.
Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MP Eva Abdulla explained the current context of women’s rights in the Maldives to the publication.
“Consider the statistics on flogging: that 90 per cent of the cases are women. Consider the statistics on rape charges: 0 per cent success rate of prosecution, with the latest being the release of four men accused of raping a 16-year-old, on the grounds that there wasn’t enough evidence,” said Abdulla.
“The increasing religious fundamentalism followed by the attempts to subjugate women, both politically and otherwise, should be cause for alarm. This is a country of traditionally very strong women.
“However, increasingly, the Adhaalath Party, a self-claimed religious party which is in alliance with the current government, uses the religious card to scare off women. We women MPs are often threatened whenever we speak against the party,” she added.
The State Bank of India’s refusal to roll over loans at the start of the year has seen central bank reserves at the Maldives Monetary Authority (MMA) “dwindle to critical levels”, as noted by the World Bank, to barely a month’s worth of imports.
The State Electric Company (STELCO) – the country’s main supplier of electricity to inhabited islands – meanwhile revealed this week that the government had failed to pay electricity bills to the tune of MVR 543 million (US$35.2 million), and warned Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee in a letter that it faced cash flow problems and an inability to roll out new projects as a result.
T-GST rise contentious
Tourism industry figures have previously warned that a sudden increase in T-GST would have an immediate effect on the industry’s bottom line, as many resorts are locked into year-long supply and pricing agreements with tour operators.
An overnight near-doubling of the tax to 15 percent would have “serious ramifications on tourism and the Maldivian economy,” warned one resort manager.
“Most wholesalers will not accept price increases mid-contract irrespective of what clauses we put in a contract, as laws within the EU prevent this. Hence, this will have to be absorbed by the resorts,” he explained.
“I am aware that many resorts are struggling financially and this may be enough to put them over the edge. It will be very difficult to attract much needed foreign investment when the government continues to give these signals,” he added. “Why hamper and reduce demand to a destination that is already struggling to attract its core and traditional markets?”
The resort manager said that it was unreasonable to expect the resort industry to foot the bill for the state’s financial irresponsibility, “considering there have been limited efforts within the government to reduce its expenses. [The proposed tax increase] is short term thinking that will lead to a major default within the Maldivian economy and industry, if this proceeds.”
“What continues is a large bureaucracy that makes it as difficult as possible for tourism to provide high end service to its guests in order to maintain our positioning [in the market],” he observed.
“What is basically required is that these slow and lethargic government departments to go through a productivity and efficiency program. Make the processes more efficient, make civil servants accountable for productivity targets, reduce the government workforce and increase the percentage of Maldivian workers in resorts,” the manager suggested.
The issue here is that the resorts will need to cut costs and increase efficiency to counteract this. This may hamper guest service, product enhancements and refurbishment, and staff benefits which is again detrimental to the industry as a whole. The Maldives is a premium destination with premium levels of service and this tax increase would hamper this positioning. The Maldivian people will need to expect cost cutting and in some aspects retrenchments.”
New tax fatwa
Prior to the submission of the government’s proposed increase to the T-GST, local media reported that the Fiqh Academy had issued a fatwa (an Islamic ruling) prohibiting the government from levying taxes of any sort except under exceptional conditions.
Announcing the Fiqh Academy’s ruling in a statement on May 22, the Islamic Ministry noted that taxation was only permitted under Islam in certain circumstances.
“Tax can be taken from citizens to fulfill their basic needs, and only up to the amount required to fulfill these needs in cases where the state does not have enough money [for this],” the statement read.
According to local media, the fatwa requires that any tax money collected be “invested fairly and according to Islamic principles”.
The report highlighted “increasing reports of abuses of religious freedom, religious intolerance and governmental restriction of religious freedom and pressure to conform to a stricter interpretation of Islamic practices” in the Maldives.
The report concluded these concerns were especially relevant after the controversial transfer of power in February 2012.
The US State Department said it had emphasised during regular missions to the Maldivian government the importance of the right to religious freedom. It detailed that “the embassy advocated for the right of all residents of the country to practice the religion of their choice, and encouraged efforts to promote religious tolerance.”
Pointing out that the Constitution of the Maldives and other laws and regulations restricted freedom of religion, the report found the government to have enforced these in practice.
“The law prohibits citizens’ practice of any religion other than Islam and requires the government to exert control over all religious matters, including the practice of Islam. There were reports of societal abuses and discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief or practice,” the findings reported.
“There was an increasing trend among political leaders to call for greater limits on religious groups and activities. There was an increasing use of religion in political rhetoric, which led to derogatory statements about Christianity and Judaism, and harassment of citizens calling for a more tolerant interpretation of Islam. Anti-Semitic rhetoric among conservative parties continued.”
The report added that according to government records, all 350,800 citizens are required to be Muslim, with the majority of this number practicing Sunni Islam. Non-Muslim visitors to the country are only allowed to practice their religion in private, it added.
Increasing abuse of religious freedom
The US issued study claimed there was also an increase in reports of abuse of religious freedom, ranging from detention of individuals to pressure to conform to a stricter interpretation of the religion.
Pointing out that conversion to Islam from another religion can lead to the rescinding of the convert’s citizenship, the report stated that no such incidences were reported in 2012.
“The government subjected individuals who made public calls for religious tolerance to extended extrajudicial police detention”, the US State Department said in the report. It added that the government had also “deported individuals found with Christian images” while detaining “several individuals for periods of several weeks on charges of ‘anti Islamic’ behaviour before releasing or deporting them”.
The report found that the government continued to control all religious matters, mainly through its Ministry of Islamic Affairs.
The State Department also stated that the Ministry published a weekly newsletter advocating a line of religion thought as that of the ministry itself. The report added that government officials had said the newsletter was aimed at “maintaining a moderate Islamic environment.”
Banning ‘unauthorised gatherings’, state inaction against violence
The US State Department noted a number of incidences that occurred in 2012 to back its findings.
These included a government ban on discos and the deployment of police to conduct patrols to close down ‘unauthorised gatherings’. It also refers to the mob attack on the National Museum, which saw pre-Islamic artifacts destroyed. The attack occurred at the time of last year’s controversial power transfer on February 7.
“The ministry continued efforts to curb what it described as the ‘prevalence of un-Islamic practices’ in the country due to lack of religious awareness,” the US State Department claimed.
The report highlighted the case of a Bangladesh national who was kept in detention for 23 days prior to deportation, without being charged with any crime. According to the report, his employer alleged that he was deported after police discovered books on Christianity in his possession.
The report also accused the government of inaction over the attacks on local freelance journalist Ibrahim ‘Hilath’ Rasheed, who is described in the report as being “known for his moderate views on Islam.”
The report states that Hilath believes the “attack was carried out by violent extremists in the country.”
The report claimed that the blocking in the country of Hilath’s personal blog by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs in 2011, on the justification that it had anti-Islamic content, remained in effect.
Meanwhile, the US State Department said that one of the “more prominent theories” about the murder of moderate Islamic scholar and parliamentarian Afrasheem Ali October 2, 2012, was “that violent extremists viewed Afrasheem’s very public moderate approach to Islam as apostasy and killed him to send a message to moderate Muslims that a strict interpretation of Islam is the only acceptable approach.”
The report highlighted incidences of societal harassment and abuse targeted towards citizens, especially women, who do not conform to strict, narrow “acceptable guidelines”.
Religion in political rhetoric
The report claimed there had been an increased use and continuation of anti-Semitic rhetoric by public officials throughout the last 12 months.
One example given was a pamphlet titled “President Nasheed’s Devious Plot to Destroy the Islamic Faith of Maldivians”, authored by a former home minister of the current administration, Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed.
Dr Jameel was recently removed from his cabinet post by President Waheed over concerns of a potential conflict of interest after he became the presidential running mate for the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) – becoming a direct rival of the incumbent.
“The pamphlet received wide-spread attention upon it’s release and played a role in the events that eventually led to the February 7 transfer of power,” it read.
The report further refers to statements made by President Waheed, who came to office following last year’s transfer of power.
“During the year, President Waheed warned the nation that foreign parties were attempting to influence the country’s ideology and promote secularism; he urged citizens to resist these impulses,” the report read.
Laws governing religion
According to the findings of the report, the government interprets the Constitutional clause naming Sunni Islam as the official religion and the government regulations being based on Islamic law as imposing a requirement that all citizens must be Muslim.
Stating that Civil Law is subordinate to Islamic Law, the report points out that the law prohibits the making of public statements which are contrary to Islam, leaving offenders subject to a two to five year jail sentence.
Furthermore, all are prohibited to publicly discuss Islam unless by prior government invitation, and Imams are not allowed to prepare sermons without government authorisation.
Several constitutional articles declare the practice of Islam as mandatory, and all schools are required to “inculcate obedience to Islam” and “instill the love of Islam” in students.
The report said that any actions found to breach the country’s Religious Unity Act were subject to criminal penalties.
Specific crimes included in the act, which is highlighted in the US issued report, include “working to disrupt the religious unity of Maldivians”, “delivering religious sermons or engaging in public discussions in a way that infringes upon the independence and sovereignty of the country” and “propagating any religion other than Islam”.