“Anti-semitism, racism, xenophobia and religious intolerance” deeply entrenched in Maldivian political discourse: Dr Shaheed

Anti-semitism, racism, xenophobia and religious intolerance “are deeply entrenched” in political parties currently opposed to the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), former Foreign Minister in both Nasheed and Gayoom’s government, Dr Ahmed Shaheed, has said.

Dr Shaheed’s comments follow reports in local media summarising US Embassy cables first published by Wikileaks in 2009, and discussed during the then-opposition parliament’s efforts to impeach the foreign minister.

In particular, the Maldivian government’s engagement with Israel was the subject of a parliamentary debate November 9, 2009, in which Shaheed narrowly avoided impeachment following a no-confidence motion.

Opposition to the Maldives’ recognition of Israel was seized by then opposition groups in December 2011 as a sign of the Nasheed government’s “anti-Islamic” policies. The previously disparate parties formed the ‘December 23 coalition’, following a large rally in Male’.

Dr Shaheed said “Growing extremism hurts the Maldives rather than anybody else, because whenever a state is unable to deliver what is in the public interest due to intimidation from others, it is the state that suffers.”

“The growth of extremism itself has numerous causes, but none of it is linked to government policy towards Israel or Palestine,” he added.

Many Maldivians firmly believe that policies pursued by Israel affect their solidarity with Arabs and other Muslims, Dr Shaheed explained.

“We care about how Israel treats the Palestinian people, because we care about the safety of the Muslim holy places under Israeli jurisdiction, and because we need to have a dialogue with Israel communicating our interests and concerns on these matters regularly,” he said.

More space for civic reasoning in Maldivian politics is needed for the Maldives to “behave like the rational nation-state, with friendship towards all, that we claim we are,” he said. “Silence may be golden but dialogue is the miracle tool of diplomacy.”

In the original cable referred to by Sun Online, Dr Shaheed told then US Ambassador Robert Blake that he believed “radical clerics ignited a reaction” among the Maldivian population and this was “a lot, but not a genuine undercurrent.”

Dr Shaheed “highlighted that former President Nasheed pledged to “renew ties” with Israel in his September 24 (2009) UN General Assembly speech,” that the Maldives Defense Minister and Minister for Natural Disasters would visit Israel later that year, and both nations “have already signed agreements on health, education, and tourism”.

Speaking to Minivan News, Dr Shaheed said he believed MDP’s rivals considered the cables “the perfect fog-machine to distract any discussion of bread and butter issues in the campaign.”

“Many in the Maldives see the Palestinian-Israeli dispute in religious terms, and religious sensitivities are played up during election time,” he added.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs meanwhile told Minivan News the Maldives is “not against Israel”.

“The Maldives’ government always supports Palestinian citizens to have their freedom and urges this in the United Nations,” said Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Muaz Ali.

“This does not mean Maldives is against Israel,” he said.

“Anti-semitism, racism, xenophobia and religious intolerance”

“Neither former President Maumoon Gayoom nor former President Mohamed Nasheed divided the world into a Dar al- Harb and a Dar al- Islam as in classical Islamic international relations theory, which is what the Salafists in the Maldives want to do,” stated Shaheed.

Shaheed explained that “anti-semitism runs deep in certain sections of Maldivian society”, highlighting as an example an article published in Dhivehi on local news website Dhi-Islam in January 2011, reporting on the agreements made between the Maldivian and Israeli government.

“Under this heinous agreement, these people have thrown the little children and the youth of the Maldives, as well as the country’s education sector and the health sector and many other matters, into the lap of the evil Zionist Israelis, who, as we have been informed through the seven heavens, will never wish anything but evil for Muslims,” the article reads.

“Jews have even historically been an evil people who have been cursed because they had killed prophets and spread corruption on earth, and that they are the biggest enemies of Muslims is proven by the teachings of the Holy Quran and forms of the core beliefs of Muslims. This agreement will impose pressures to prevent the dissemination of these teachings,” it adds.

The report claims that Jews have falsely exaggerated “incidents” of torture and killings during the Holocaust “to inculcate sympathy towards Israel in the minds of Maldivian youths; to convince the Maldivian youths that the jews are the victims of oppression and to make them blind and insensitive to the occupation of Palestine, the seizure of Muslim holy lands, and the endless oppression the jews inflict on the inhabitants of the land.”

“This agreement is high treason or the highest form treachery against the noble Islam and Maldivian identity, upon which this country is founded. It is a matter far more dangerous and grave than can be treated lightly,” said the report.

Historical Maldivian – Israeli relations

There is no document to support the claim that Maldives ever severed diplomatic relations with Israel, in Maldivian or Israeli records, explained Dr Shaheed.

Instead, what appears to have happened is a downgrading of the relationship where no Maldivian president since the early 1970s has been willing to receive an Israeli ambassador formally in his office.

The Maldives voted at the UN to accept the legitimacy of Israel, on December 17, 1991, at the request of then President George Bush, by repealing the 1975 UN resolution equating zionism with racism.

“The Maldives was not alone in changing its policies towards Israel – there were a number of Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) states doing the same thing, or had even restored full diplomatic relations,” said Dr Shaheed.

“Under Gayoom, the Maldives categorically accepted the two-state solution. All of these actions were firmly grounded in international law and state practice,” he added.

The Maldivian government discussed the question of restoring ties with Israel following the Oslo Accord agreement in 1993, which established a peace process framework to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Israel agreed to recognize Yasser Arafat as its partner in peace talks and essentially exchanged land for peace. The Palestinians in turn recognized Israel’s right to exist while also renouncing the use of terrorism and its long-held call for Israel’s destruction.

The Gayoom cabinet agreed on a three-stage restoration of ties with Israel, beginning in June 1994. The Maldivian government “agreed to recognize Israeli passports and ended the travel ban” during stage one, explained Shaheed. Shortly thereafter stage two saw trade and commercial relations were fully restored. Restoring political ties occurred during stage three, with regular meetings at senior diplomatic levels, between 1995 to 2008.

“So what President Nasheed said at the UN – and that was my formulation – was that Maldives wanted friendly relations with all states in the General Assembly,” said Dr Shaheed.

“This does not and has not prevented Maldives from criticizing actions of UN member states when they violate peremptory norms of international law, but Nasheed was not going to divide the world into the good the bad and the ugly,” he declared.

In recent years, attitudes toward Israel have greatly fluctuated with collaborative engagement by the Maldivian government being countered by some anti-semitic ‘blowback’ from elements within Maldivian society.

In February 2010, a team of experts from the Israeli Foreign Ministry are training 35 Maldivian officials in emergency preparedness, with a focus on the management of mass casualties.

Later that year, in November, the Islamic Foundation of the Maldives (IFM) called on the government to break off all diplomatic ties with Israel, a day after Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital (IGMH) announced that a team of seven Israeli doctors is due to arrive in the country to treat patients at the government hospital for a week.

The IFM reiterated calls to the Maldives government to “shun all medical aid from the Zionist regime” with a team of seven Israeli eye surgeons due to arrive in December 2012, claiming that Isreali doctors and surgeons “have become notorious for illegally harvesting organs from non-Jews around the world.”

The following month, Founders of the IFM NGO claimed that although they do not believe in “hysterical outbursts” and theories of an imminent “Jewish invasion” in the country, a week of anti-Israel protests and flag burning across Male’ has reflected “strong dissatisfaction with the government’s open attitude” to the Jewish state.

In May 2011, Ahmed Naseem became the first Maldivian Foreign Minister to visit Israel.

However, in September 2011, Deputy Leader of the Adhaalath Party Dr Mauroof Hussein has called for alarm after alleging that a delegation from an Israeli company, Teshuva Agricultural Products, was due to arrive in the Maldives to assess the country’s agricultural potential. The Israeli agricultural delegation that was supposed to arrive on Filadhoo cancelled the visit after the islanders warned that they would not let the delegation go further than the jetty.

In December 2011, Minister of Islamic Affairs Dr Abdul Majeed Abdul Bari requested parliament endorse a resolution forbidding the government to establish ties with Israel.

While in April 2012, MPs passed a resolution preventing Israeli national airline El Al from operating scheduled flights to the Maldives until Majlis’ National Security Committee completes further investigation into the matter. El Al applied to the Ministry of Civil Aviation in May 2011 requesting permission to fly to the Maldives starting in December 2011.

There was no direct flight from Israel to Maldives between 2009-2011, so the Maldives was “not able to maximize the benefits from the growing Israeli market,” Dr Shaheed remarked.

“Maldives could have significantly increased the direct income and benefits from Israeli tourism by accepting direct flights from Israel, resulting in a longer holidays and greater expenditure in Maldives while still making the holiday comparatively cheaper for the visitor,” he added.

Likes(0)Dislikes(0)

Rising extremism could threaten Maldives’ tourism industry: report

Religious conservatism and extremist violence have been increasing in the Maldives over the past decade, while incidents of Maldivians joining overseas jihadist groups are becoming more common, according to a report published in the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) Sentinel, a publication based out of the West Point military academy in the US.

The article entitled The Threat from Rising Extremism in the Maldives, observes that growing religious extremism and political uncertainty could result in more violence and negatively affect the nation’s tourism industry, which would be “devastating” to the Maldives.

“This has coincided with a number of violent attacks on liberal activists and other citizens who have expressed outspoken support for moderate religious practices,” the report notes.

If current trends continue “extremist incidents may rise, with violence targeted against the country’s more liberal citizens,” it states.

According to the report, five key factors have contributed to the growing extremism and violence:

  • the encouragement of  “more hard line Islamist elements in the country” during the 30 year autocratic rule of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom;
  • political uncertainty;
  • an increasing number of people seeking education in foreign madrasas;
  • grassroots radicalisation through civil society and political parties;
  • escalating extremist incidents of violence and involvement with jihadist groups.

“The country has already suffered one terrorist attack targeting foreign tourists, and a number of Maldivians have traveled to Pakistan’s tribal areas to receive jihadist training. Moreover, evidence exists that jihadists tried to form a terrorist group in the country in 2007-2008,” the report states.

The study recommends that Maldivian political and religious developments be followed closely.

Encouraging of hard line Islamic elements

Islam was introduced to the Maldives in the 12th century and subsequent religious practices have been the “moderate, more liberal form of the religion”.

“Yet, during Gayoom’s three decade autocratic rule, the Egyptian-trained religious scholar enacted a number of measures that, at least inadvertently, encouraged more hard line Islamist elements in the country,” the report concluded.

“From imposing a ban on Christian missionary radio to apprehending migrant service providers for allegedly preaching and practicing their own religion, Gayoom’s regime initiated an era of state-backed religious intolerance and radicalisation in the Maldives.”

The Protection of Religious Unity Act, passed in 1994, mandated that no other religion but Islam could be practiced.

In 1996, Gayoom constituted the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, renamed the Ministry of Islamic Affairs in 2008, to preside over religious affairs in the Maldives.

“This body of clerics pressured the government to carry out moral and cultural policing of alleged “anti-Islamic activities”,” the report states.

For example, in 2008 the Ministry requested police “ban nightclubs and discotheques for New Year’s Eve celebrations because they were contrary to Islam”.

“By the end of Gayoom’s time in office in 2008, the dress code for women had grown increasingly conservative, and more and more men grew out their beards,” the report states.

Women now dress more conservatively with fewer brightly colored clothes. Instead they “increasingly wear black robes and headscarves and on more conservative islands such as Himandhoo, women wear black abayas and face veils,” it added.

Political uncertainty

The democratic transition “gave a greater voice to religious conservatives and those calling for the rigid implementation of Shari`a (Islamic law) in the Maldives,” states the report. “This became especially evident following the implementation of political reforms and the transition to multi-party democracy in 2008.”

The first democratic presidential elections in the Maldives were held in 2008, with Mohamed Nasheed defeating Gayoom in the second round with 54 percent of the votes.

However, the Nasheed administration was accused of defiling Islam by “promoting Western ideals and culture and restricted the spread of more austere Islamic practices,” the article notes.

This resulted in the December 2011 “Defend Islam” protests led by opposition political parties, religious groups, civil society organisations and thousands of supporters in the country’s capital, Male’.

These protests “unleashed a chain of events that culminated in a bloodless coup on February 7, 2012 that toppled the Maldives’ first democratically-elected government,” declared the study.

Appeal of education in foreign madrasas

Education in foreign madrasas has also contributed to growing extremism within the Maldives, with students “unwittingly attending more radical madrasas” and preaching these views upon their return.

“The offer of free education in madrasas in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia is widely acknowledged as a core means of radicalising Maldivians locally, with well-meaning parents sending their children off on scholarships to ‘study Islam’,” the report states.

Following the 2007 terrorist attack in Male’s Sultan Park, “Gayoom himself warned of this problem”.

“Maldivians are influenced by what is happening in the world. They go to Pakistan, study in madrasas and come back with extreme religious ideas,” the report quoted Gayoom as saying.

Grassroots radicalisation

“The contemporary Maldivian political environment favors radical and political Islam taking root in Maldivian society, especially when political parties and civil society increasingly take refuge in religion,” the report states, citing Maldivian academic Dr Azra Naseem.

In 2010, new regulations prohibited “talking about religions other than Islam in Maldives, and propagating such religions through the use of any kind of medium.” The Ministry of Islamic Affairs published this legislation under the Protection of Religious Unity Act of 1994.

However, the report found that the “major force behind more austere religious practices in the Maldives is the Adhaalath (Justice) Party (AP), which has controlled the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, with Sheikh Shaheem Ali Saeed as its current minister”.

Given that the AP supports strict implementation of Shari’a Law, the party has “outspokenly argued that music and singing are haram (forbidden) and called for an end to the sale of alcohol at the country’s hundreds of luxury resorts,” said the report.

In February 2013, Saeed warned that “various Christian organisations and missionaries are strongly involved and active in our society because they want to ‘wipe out’ Islam from the Maldives”. He subsequently started a campaign against Christians and “Freemasons”, the report stated.

Two non-government organisations (NGOs), Jamiyyathu Salaf (JS) and the Islamic Foundation of Maldives (IFM), are considered religiously conservative Salafists who “work with the country’s political parties to further the cause of Islamism in the Maldives,” the report stated.

Extremist incidents

Extremists have directly targeted Maldivian liberal intellectuals, writers and activists, the study notes.

“On January 3, 2011, assailants attempted to kill Aishath Velezinee, an activist fighting for the independence of the country’s justice system, by stabbing her in the back in broad daylight,” said the report.

Velezinee is a whistleblower that in 2010 identified members of the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) who were “conspiring with key political figures to hijack the judiciary and bring down the country’s first democratically-elected government,” the report added.

The study found that the Ministry of Islamic Affairs was “at least indirectly encouraged extremism” by initiating “crackdowns” on media outlets for anti-Islamic content.

The blog of prominent free speech and religious freedom campaigner, Khilath ‘Hilath’ Rasheed, was blocked in 2011. A month afterward, Rasheed’s skull was fractured when 10 men attacked him with stones during a peaceful rally he organised in Male’.

Rasheed was arrested a few days after the incident and jailed for 24 days for participating in the rally.

In June 2012, Rasheed was nearly killed “after extremists cut his throat open with a box cutter”.

“After the attempt on his life, Rasheed named three political leaders—Islamic Affairs Minister Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed, Adhaalath Party President Imran Abdulla and Jumhooree Party lawmaker Ibrahim Muttalib Shaheem – as being indirectly responsible for the attempt on his life,” the report states.

Later in 2012, the moderate religious scholar and lawmaker, Afrasheem Ali, was stabbed to death at his home in Male’. He was considered an Islamic moderate who was “outspoken in his controversial positions,” reads the report.

In February 2013, “a reporter for the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP)-aligned Raajje TV station, Ibrahim ‘Aswad’ Waheed, was beaten unconscious with an iron bar while riding on a motorcycle near the artificial beach area of Male’,” the study added.

Previously, during the 2011 South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), protesters “intolerant toward other religious and cultural symbols” damaged monuments gifted to the Maldives by Pakistan, Bhutan, Sri Lanka.

Islamic radicals on February 7 2012 also vandalised archaeological artifacts in the National Museum that were mostly ancient Hindu and Buddhist relics, destroying 99 percent of the evidence of Maldivian pre-Islamic history.

Jihadists

“In April 2006, a Maldivian national, Ali Jaleel, and a small group of jihadists from the Maldives attempted to travel to Pakistan to train for violent jihad in Afghanistan or Iraq,” the report reads.

While his first attempt was unsuccessful, Jaleel did eventually travel to Pakistan and “launched a suicide attack at the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) headquarters in Lahore in May 2009.”

In September 2007, Islamic extremists committed a terrorist attack in the Maldives aimed at the tourism industry.

A bomb exploded in Male’s Sultan Park and wounded 12 foreigners. The three men arrested and later jailed for the bombing confessed that their goal was to “target, attack and injure non-Muslims to fulfill jihad,” states the report.

A month following the bombing, the investigation led to Darul-Khair mosque on Himandhoo Island. However, “some 90 masked and helmeted members of the mosque confronted police, wielding wooden planks and refusing to let the police enter,” said the report.

Although the Maldivian army eventually established control, “The stand-off resulted in a number of injuries, and one police officer had his fingers cut off.” In November, a video of the mosque confrontation was posted on the al-Qa’ida-linked alEkhlaas web forum by a group called Ansar al-Mujahidin with the message “your brothers in the Maldives are calling you,” the report states.

Evidence suggests that three Maldivian jihadists planned to establish a terrorist group in the country around 2007-2008 and send members for military training in Pakistan.

“At least one of these individuals did in fact travel to Pakistan, as Yoosuf Izadhy was arrested in Pakistan’s South Waziristan Agency in March 2009, along with eight other Maldivians,” states the report.

In 2009, then-President Nasheed warned that “Maldivian people are being recruited by Taliban and they are fighting in Pakistan,” quotes the report.

“Despite its reputation as an idyllic paradise popular among Western tourists, political and religious developments in the Maldives should be monitored closely,” the report concludes.

Likes(0)Dislikes(0)