New religious unity regulations have been published in the government’s gazette cracking down on extremist and unlicensed preaching of Islam in the Maldives.
The regulations reflect the enforcement of the Religious Unity Act and were originally put forward by the Islamic Ministry, but have undergone numerous drafts and revisions over the past year. The penalty for violating the regulations under the Act is 2-5 years imprisonment, banishment or house arrest.
Under the regulations – the government’s interpretation of the Act – scholars foreign or local must be licensed to preach in the Maldives by the Islamic Ministry, and have received at least a first degree at one of 36 listed universities.
None of these are Maldivian institutions, although the regulations stipulate that new institutions would be evaluated on a case by case basis, and the list reviewed every three months.
The regulations contain general principles for the delivery of religious sermons. These include an emphasis on specifically referencing the Quran when statements are made, and clarifying the authenticity of Hadith.
Preachers are instructed not to express anything “against general agreement” reached among Islamic scholars, or provide any information “ about issues disputed among Islamic scholars that serves to create disunity among the people and result in internal conflicts.”
The regulations also require preachers to refrain “from passing off as Islam one’s personal stand – that may result in obstruction of human progress and development and hinder modern findings and intellectual advancements.”
Controversially, preachers are also asked not to preach in a manner that flaunts human dignity, that may be interpreted as racial and gender discrimination, prevent people from education or health services in the name of Islam, or demeans the character or creates hatred towards people of any other religion.
Foreign scholars preaching in the Maldives “should not talk against Maldives’ social norms, nor should they criticise Maldives’ domestic policies and laws,” the regulations state.
It remains illegal to propagate any other religion other than Islam, and to carry or display in public books on religions other than Islam, “and the translation into Dhivehi language such books and writings on other religions.” Proselytising by foreigners remains punishable by deportation.
Articles involving comparisons between Islam and other religions, “and description of sayings and expressions about Islam by people of other religions, and dissemination of Muslim expressions on other religions”, are exempt, according to the regulations.
Media is banned from producing or publicising programs, talking about or disseminating audio “that humiliates Allah or his prophets or the holy Quran or the Sunnah of the Prophet (Mohamed) or the Islamic faith.”
“This also includes the broadcasting of material (on other religions) produced by others and recording of such programs by the local broadcaster, and broadcasting such material by the unilateral decision of the local broadcaster,” the regulations stipulate.
At a press conference today, the Islamic Foundation of Maldives (IFM) contended that the regulations conflicted with both the Maldivian constitution and the Quran.
In February this year, the IFM filed a case at the High Court requesting that outdated provisions in the Protection of Religious Unity Act of 1994 be abolished.
Article 2(b) of the Act states that permission to preach or offer instruction in religious matters must be sought in writing with the President.
Islamic Foundation Lawyer Shaheem Ahmed argued today that the Act conflicted with article 27 of the constitution, which states that, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought and the freedom to communicate opinions and expressions in a manner that is not contrary to any tenet of Islam.”
“Sadly however no hearings have been conducted in this case so far. We don’t know why this is so,” he said.
In addition, Shaheem argued, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs did not have the legal authority to enact regulations that restricts or limits fundamental rights and freedoms enumerated in chapter two of the constitution.
Article 16 states that the rights and freedoms contained in the chapter could be restricted “only to such reasonable limits prescribed by a law enacted by the People’s Majlis”.
“After this regulation was approved, from this day onward no one without a degree could teach Islam in any school in the country,” he said, adding that imparting knowledge of Islam by a person without a degree would also be illegal.
As provision 5(l) of the regulations prohibits speech that could “incite hatred among the public, demean or undermine the human dignity of followers of another religion,” Shaheem noted that the Quran described Jews as “evil people and liars” and cautioned against “taking Jews as your friends.”
“Would expressing something like this from the Quran incite hatred or love towards us from Jews?” he asked. “The people who formulated this regulation should consider that the basis of Islam is the Quran.”
Quran 2:120 states that, “Never will the Jews or Christians be pleased with you till you follow their religion” while 5:51 reads, “Take not the Jews and the Christians as Auliya’ (friends, protectors, helpers, etc.), they are but Auliya’ to one another. And if any amongst you takes them as Auliya’, then surely he is one of them. Verily, Allah guides not those people who are the Zalimun (polytheists and wrong-doers and unjust).”
Sheikh Ibrahim Fareed Ahmed meanwhile called on Islamic Minister Dr Abdul Majeed Bari to “repent” for approving a regulation that conflicted with the Quran.
“[The regulations] obstruct the freedom granted by Almighty God to spread Islam. It is therefore completely void,” he claimed.
Fareed called on the government to review the regulations and reconsider enforcing the new rules, urging Islamic Minister Bari to consult religious scholars who were not Adhaalath party members and “not make such decisions on your own.”
“We urge very respectfully and with affection, to reconsider this and change [the regulations] so that it does not conflict with the Quran,” he said. “And don’t try to narrow Islamic matters in the country.”
IFM President Ibrahim Fauzee meanwhile revealed that the foundation was preparing to mount a legal challenge to the regulations at the Supreme Court.
Adhaalath Party condemns regulations
The Adhaalath Party, which controls the Islamic Ministry, issued a press statement today criticising the removal of “very important principles” from the original draft, and distanced the party’s religious scholars from the regulations.
The statement notes that the regulations were drafted by a legal team from police and 11 prominent religious scholars and approved by three Attorney Generals.
“We would like to inform the beloved Maldivian people that the party condemns [the changes] in the harshest terms and the party’s religious scholars and members renounces the gazetted regulations,” it reads.
“We note that provisions from English law have been added that were not in the regulations before and are not suited to a 100 percent Islamic community. We also note that other dangerous changes have been made to the regulations,” reads the statement signed by Sheikh Ilyas Hussein, vice-president of Adhaalath party’s council of religious scholars.
“While the Minister of Islamic Affairs [Dr Bari, president of the religious scholars council] was requested to not agree to publishing the regulations in the gazette without consultation with the party’s
scholars, we want to reveal that the regulations were brought out in the form it is in the gazette without any discussion at all with Adhaalath party’s council of religious scholars.”
Among the clauses that were removed were provisions outlining criteria for issuing preaching licenses, and prohibitions on broadcasting “un-Islamic” material.
These included provisions that preachers must be Sunni, and according to the Adhaalath Party, a provision requiring that religious fatwas (edicts or rulings) must be issued in accordance with the Sunni sect
was also removed, and so-called ‘blasphemy’ laws appeared to be toned down.
Laws forbidding independent prayer congregations were also scrapped.
The amendment regulations published in the government gazette yesterday was made up of 12 provisions, whereas previous drafts contained 40 provisions and a number of sub-clauses.
A more ‘academic’ approach
Former member of the Special Majlis and the new Constitution’s drafting committee, Ibrahim ‘Ibra’ Ismail, who was involved in redrafting the regulations, told Minivan News that they set out a more “academic” approach to preaching Islam in the Maldives, and were targeted at curbing the spread of extremism.
“[The regulations] do not impinge on freedom of expression, compared to the first draft, and I believe we have taken out those elements,” Ibra said.
“We have observed in this country and elsewhere that there are people who misquote the Quran and twist it around to propagate their agenda. These provisions curb that,” he explained.
“What in effect we are ensuring is that preachers should not say whatever comes to their mind. We say that if those preaching religion must refer to sources – the Quran and the Prophet’s sayings – so someone can independently verify if they wish.
“Where scholars deliver sources on areas and issues that are in dispute, these regulations require that they should state that,” he said.
“We put in a provision that prohibits hate speech, such as no one should propagate xenophobia or negative sentiments towards other religious.”
The criminalisation of those who violated the Act was not stipulated by the regulations, but in law, he explained.
“Currently the parliament is reviewing the relevant legislation (the Religous Unity Act), what we are doing is simply setting out how this can be enforced,” Ibra said, confirming that 2-5 years sentences was “more or less” what was in the Act.
Enforcement would ultimately be a court decision, he explained, with the Islamic Ministry only having the right to temporarily suspend preaching license pending the outcome of the court decision.
Ibra suggested that religious groups active in the Maldives – such as the Islamic Foundation of the Maldives and Jamiyyath-al-Salaf – should welcome the regulations, “as until now there has been a move by some people to silence them. These regulations do not silence them, but ask them to engage and follow procedures in their work. There are no ramifications for any particular group – again this different to what was originally proposed.”
He disputed that outlawing extremist preaching would drive the practice underground, and lead to a repeat of the 2007 Himandhoo incident, in which islanders donned red motorcycle helmets and armed themselves with batons and knives to defend the Dhar al Khuir mosque from a police crackdown.
In the ensuing skirmish, a policeman was taken captive and another’s hand was severed. Shortly afterwards a video discovered on an Al Qaeda forum was found to contain footage taken inside the Dhar-al-khuir mosque moments before it was raided by police.
“Himandhoo was not based on religion – those where highly politicised times,” Ibra said. “What I believe is that this will allow liberal-minded thinkers to convince people of the middle ground. Initially there may be some reactions, but I’m optimistic.”
Download an unofficial translation of the new regulations (English)