Raajje TV looks to public for protection against new threats

Local television station Raajje TV is enlisting the public to boost its security after learning of further threats from political opponents.

“We have a book open to register their names,” CEO Yamin Rasheed. “We are finding citizens to protect us physically.”

The station’s headquarters were destroyed in an arson attack committed in spite of advance warnings communicated to police.

A group of masked men armed with machetes, iron rods and petrol set fire to the station’s main premises shortly before 4:45am on October 7, destroying its offices and control room as well as cameras, computer systems, broadcasting and transmission equipment.

After receiving donated equipment, the station was able to resume a reduced service within hours of the attack.

Yamin said the station had received further reports this week – from “reliable sources” – of threats made against the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) aligned station.

“The same political alliance is behind the fresh threat, which says Raajje TV should be gone from the scene to meet their political needs,” he said.

The option to use private security was suggested by police after being made aware of the new threats.

“The Police also responded to RaajjeTV’s request of Police security stating that there are difficulties in placing Officers for security but the building and the area will be specially patrolled,” read a police statement today.

Yamin expressed doubt as whether this was the case, noting that other broadcasters had received the type of protection Raajje TV was now seeking, though he did confirm that police had been maintaining a 24hr presence in the area.

Eyewitnesses on October 7 suggested that police had been in the area on that occasion but had been slow to respond to phone calls, or to the pleas of the on-duty guard – who was stabbed during the attack.

The day after the attack, Chief Superintendent of Police Abdulla Nawaz suggested that MDP protests had diverted police resources on the night of the attack, before arguing that Raajje TV staff had been negligent in not protecting the premises.

The police’s failure to prevent the attack has been condemned by Reporters Without Borders who described it as  “a direct blow to freedom of information”.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay also called on full protection for Raajje TV and other threatened institutions.

Police Inspector Azeem Waheed has written to Raajje TV CEO Akram Kamaaludheen this week requesting any information relating to past or threatened attacks on the station.

Since the controversial transfer of power on February 7, 2012, Raajje TV has faced increasing threats. In July 2012, the police and the President’s Office had said it would not cooperate with the TV station, blocking the station from President’s Office’s press conferences and police protection at protests.

The Civil Court has since ruled that the police and president’s office’s decisions  to ostracize the station were both unconstitutional.

In August 2012, critical cables in the station’s control room were cut, terminating the station’s broadcast. Several Raajje TV journalists have also reported arbitrary arrests and assaults.

In February 2013, men wielding iron rods on motorbikes assaulted Asward leaving him with near near-fatal head injuries.

According to Raajje TV the station had an audience of at least 95,000 people, one of the largest shares of Maldivian media. It reaches India and Sri Lanka, and is also streamed online.

The station is currently under investigation for allegedly defaming the Supreme Court in an October 19 broadcast. Yamin has refused to co-operate with the court ordered police investigation, arguing that such cases fall within the purview of the Maldives Broadcasting Commission.

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Religion extensively used for political control in the Maldives: Himal magazine

Islamic radicalism, which played a key role in the ouster of the government of Mohammed Nasheed, continues to grow in the Maldives several months after his ‘resignation’, writes Yameen Rasheed for Himal Southasian magazine.

“While Nasheed has repeatedly warned of the danger of growing religious intolerance, political polarisation around the issue has also meant that for the first time space has opened up that allows protests and criticism of religious extremists.

Religion has historically been extensively used for political control in the Maldives. While the active targeting of political opponents as apostates might be relatively modern, the Maldives has had a xenophobic view of ‘foreign religions’ for much longer. This state of fear has been carefully preserved and cultivated instead of being eradicated by modern dictators like former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who found it a useful political tool.

As anti-Gayoom sentiments spread, religious radicalism gained acceptance as a legitimate avenue of dissent. Towards the end of the democratic uprising in the late 2000’s, as the restrictions on media and freedom of speech were gradually lifted, Salafi radio stations mushroomed and bookstores began to sell fiery, jihadi titles publicly. A casual stroll down the capital today reveals an overwhelming majority of women wearing burqas – a dramatic transformation that took less than a decade.

Unlike in the Gayoom era when Islamic fundamentalism was harshly suppressed to project an air of stability and peace, perhaps with the tourism industry in mind, Nasheed’s administration publicly acknowledged the problem of widespread religious fundamentalism. Consequently, his government made the calculated move to align itself closely with India and the West, while controversially renewing ties with Israel – a move that sparked an outcry from the religious right.

Nasheed often defended the traditionally liberal, moderate and Sufism-influenced Maldivian belief system, and appealed to the public to reject imported practices such as female genital mutilation and keeping concubines. He also publicly threw his weight behind cultural activities such as music and dance which had long been under attack from the ultra-conservative religious right.

Perhaps as a result, the events leading up to the dramatic toppling of the first democratically elected government in February 2012 had a distinctly religious nature. The first major protests against the MDP government launched in early 2010 were against the government’s alleged plans to permit the sale of alcohol to foreigners in an upmarket hotel in the capital. Following the success of that protest, all the subsequent protests against the MDP government took on a religious tone, labelling the MDP as a promoter of ‘irreligiousness’.

In October 2011, during the 18th SAARC summit in Addu city, opposition parties organised strong protests with radical religious overtones. When monuments such as the statue of a lion gifted by Sri Lanka were declared ‘idols of worship’ and vandalised, the vandals were hailed as ‘national heroes’ by the parties which are now represented in Waheed’s cabinet. These parties also condemned Navanetham Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, when she spoke against medieval practices such as public flogging, which are still prevalent in the Maldives. Protesters on the street raised placards demanding that Pillay be flogged.

The series of religious protests culminated in a massive rally on 23 December 2011, when a coalition of opposition parties came under one umbrella to label the government ‘un-Islamic’.

The December rally exposed a dangerous strategy employed by the then-opposition coalition – a disturbing willingness to steer the rhetoric to the far, militant right. The official website for the protest even put up a demand for people who ‘went against Islam’ to be killed. The article was soon taken down, citing ‘technical errors’, but not before it was reported in the local media.

Although the 7 February police and military mutiny that eventually led to the fall of the Nasheed-led government was sparked off by clashes between pro- and anti-government groups, it ended up emitting strong religious tones by the next day. Videos from that fateful day show uniformed military and police personnel marching down the streets to loud chants of ‘Allahu Akbar!’, as they proceeded to attack the MDP party campus.

Ironically, by giving voice to an Islamic party, Nasheed allowed the Adhaalath Party to run programs preaching the conservative form of Islam to targeted sections of the society, including prison inmates, police and military personnel. When Nasheed announced his ‘resignation’, top police officials, along with the alleged coup leaders, chanted religious slogans loudly in celebration.

Meanwhile, vandals had broken into the national museum and smashed ancient coral statues of the Buddha and other priceless artefacts from the Buddhist period of Maldivian history.

Stanford-educated President Waheed personally holds modern, secular, liberal views much like Nasheed. However, unlike Nasheed, he simply does not have enough political clout to stand up to the religious right. Indeed, in late-February in an effort to cement his support base among the Islamists, Waheed gave a fiery speech, invoking jihadi phrases and calling upon the ‘mujahideen’ to protect the national identity. Recently the Ministry of Islamic Affairs requested Waheed to allow the military and police to grow beards. Given that his fledgling National Unity Party has no elected members in either the Parliament or the local council, it remains to be seen how Waheed will respond to pressure from ultra-orthodox sections in his government.”

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Comment: A mutiny against democracy

When retired Colonel Mohamed Nazim addressed the press for the first time following his appointment as the country’s new Defence Minister, he strongly asserted that there was no pressure from the armed forces on President Nasheed to resign.

He further claimed in front of journalists that the armed personnel gave no indication either way even when the President had asked them for advice.

However, in a video broadcast afterwards on RaajjeTV, the retired colonel is seen addressing the mutinous security forces at the Republican square on the morning of seventh February. In the video, he is seen coming out of the MNDF barracks, and telling the assembled forces over a loud speaker that he has conveyed their demands, which included the President’s ‘unconditional resignation’.

Clearly, the new Defense Minister needs to rethink this statement, and be more forthcoming about the day’s events.

Furthermore, why the new Commissioner Abdulla Riyaz – who had been sacked earlier – was seen carrying the President’s resignation letter is another question worth asking.

How Nazim and the Abdulla Riyaz, both civilians at the time, were allowed to freely walk into the MNDF barracks and closely accompany the President remains a mystery.

What is clear is that when the President is forced by the armed forces to resign under the threat of violence, held in military detention, brutally beaten up on the streets along with his supporters by the police, has an arrest warrant against him within a day of his resignation, and all the appointments made by his successor are known allies and associates of the former dictatorship that have been hostile to his presidency, then it is time to acknowledge the incident for what it is – a coup d’etat.

A puppet government

To be absolutely clear, Dr Waheed is a admirable man. He is an articulate and accomplished person, with a ton of experience and is eminently worthy of handling the responsibilities of the Presidency – arguably much more so than any candidate the main opposition parties has to offer.

However, the circumstances leading to his acquisition of power are vague, and the little that is known is corrosive to the country’s democratic ambitions.

Noteworthy among them is that the main opposition parties had publicly called upon the armed forces and the police to plead allegiance to the Vice President a week before the police mutiny even happened.

In a democracy, the transfer of power has to absolutely remain the sole prerogative of the people, exercised through the ballot box. This is a sacred writ of democracy that cannot – and should not – ever change.

A few hundred policemen should not be able to forcibly execute a regime change.

There is an ongoing effort by the opposition parties to portray the coup d’etat as a ‘popular’ uprising. But thankfully, it is trivial to discredit this assertion.

While there were 20 days of sustained protests by several opposition parties in the days leading up to the coup d’etat, the sparse attendance at these rallies – considering the sheer number of political parties behind it – proves that it wasn’t representative of the general public will.

Furthermore, Dr Waheed’s appointment brings with it greater portents.

Dr Waheed has little political influence or grassroots support to implement any independent decision. His fledgling political party hasn’t a single elected member in either the Parliament or a local council.

He is, thus, in a poor position to enforce or carry out the mandate of the people. Without the backing of the MDP, it is likely that the only policies he can realistically achieve are opposition demands that, again, have no electoral mandate.

“Rule of law”

Dr Waheed has also failed to strongly condemn the excessive police brutality against civilians on February 8, the day President Nasheed was released.

Despite having repeatedly vowed to uphold the ‘rule of law’, people were beaten unconscious, the ousted President was roughed up, and at least one senior member of Parliament was beaten mercilessly by the police under his watch.

His failure to reassure the people might have very well contributed to the arson and violence in the southern atolls, as supporters of President Nasheed torched police buildings and courts in response to the heavy-handed police crackdown.

The silence of the new President was only matched by the apalling insensitivity of the newly appointed Commissioner of Police who, when asked to respond to the excessive use of force by the police, insisted that the police always used ‘minimum force’ – and that he would leave it to the Police Integrity Commission (PIC) and the Human Rights Commission HRCM) to judge if they had stepped out of line.

On the other hand, the armed forces forcibly took control the Maldives National Broadcasting Corporation State media, renamed the station to ‘TVM’, as it was known during the Gayoom dictatorship.

The station is now a police propaganda outlet, and refuses to cover massive MDP rallies around the country, or the police brutality that has attracted condemnation from Amnesty International and other bodies:

A photo circulating on Facebook apparently showing defected police and MNDF celebrating in the courtyard of the state broadcaster, after taking it over on Tuesday.

Unity government

Dr Waheed has also said that he’s looking forward to forming a “unity government” and find common ground.

However, his appointment of Dr Mohamed Jameel as his new Home Minister puts a dark cloud over the sincerity of this effort.

By all measures, Jameel is a hawk. He led a strong, high rhetoric Islamist charge against the government when he was in opposition. His responses during his initial press conference were politically charged and combative, instead of the conciliatory tone Dr Waheed promised his government would have.

Jameel has vowed to raise terrorism charges against “those involved” – including President Nasheed. To his credit, Dr Waheed has called the comments “unwelcome”. However, if he is sincere about building peace, perhaps he needs to rethink his cabinet appointments.

The string of appointments of Gayoom regime loyalists and apologists to the cabinet and as heads of armed forces does nothing to quell the charges of political conspiracy.

When the legitimacy of the government is in doubt, and its willingness and capacity to deliver on the people’s electoral verdict is in doubt, and when these factors have created an atmosphere of extreme volatility, then the solution seems to be rather obvious.

An immediate election would restore the mandate of the people, and grant legitimacy and authority to an elected party, which would bring back some much needed order.

However, key foreign governments like India and the United States have failed to advocate this position, choosing instead to recognise the legitimacy of the newly installed government, backed by Gayoom regime forces, tainted business interests, and Islamists.

This decision has the potential to permanently reverse the democratic gains made by the country since the democratic uprising.

Dr Waheed himself argues that the political climate of the country is not conducive to elections – whatever that means.

Perhaps more likely is the contrary view that the conditions in the country are not suitable for the present government to continue, nor is it advisable for another – much larger – reason.

Setting a precedent

Other countries in the region, such as Pakistan, have experimented with letting the armed forces dictate the rulers of the country. And in the bargain, Pakistan has become a failed democracy mired in chaos and conflict.

It is therefore tragic that the Maldives is all set to follow in Pakistan’s footsteps, without even having experienced two election cycles.

Could future political parties in the Maldives come to power simply by winning influence in the police and armed forces? Will the demands of a few hundred uniformed personnel strip 300,000 people of their democratic verdict?

If the currently installed government is granted legitimacy, what would stop the country’s defense forces from pointing a gun at future elected governments?

The Maldivian constitution says that the ultimate power rests with the people, and the people alone. This is the central tenet of the constitution – the one line that decides that we the people are in charge of our democracy.

However, if this coup – this travesty – is allowed to take place unopposed, then we would have set the unwelcome precedent that a few men with guns can override the mandate of the people.

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]

Inside the MNDF base during Nasheed’s last moments in power:

Translation (provided by the MDP, Minivan News is currently verifying accuracy).

0:00-00:07 Moosa Jaleel: avahah, avahah, avahah {fast, fast,fast}

President Nasheed: Nikumey, nikumey, nikumey {Go out, Go out, Go out}

00:10 – 00:13 Nasheed: Anekahves…..alhe mee {Not again……..then this}

00:14-00:17 Nasheed: Nikan Kameh kobbala, Nikah kameh kohbala ,kaleymen {Please do something, please do something, you guys}

00:29-00:42 Nasheed: Nilaam, Nilaam ………gossa nikumey…. mulhi rajje halaaku kuranee kaleymen thibegen….Nukunashey. {Nilaam,Nilaam…..get out there…the whole of Maldives is being destroyed, by your inaction}

Unkown: Nukumeveytha? {Is it possible to get out?}

01:00-1:03 Unknown: Mariyamen rulhi aiss gen Male thalhaalanee. {Mariya and them has gotten angry and destroying Male.’}

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Comment: “No animal shall sleep in beds…with sheets”

One can’t help but recollect the lines from George Orwell’s brilliant 1946 satire, Animal Farm, after listening to the agitators on stage during the ‘big protest’ held in Male’ on 23rd December 2011 in order to “protect Islam”.

In the classic novel, the farm animals rise in revolt against their drunken owner and take over the running of the farm. They write down their Seven Commandments on the wall of the barn but, over time, as a totalitarian dictatorship takes root at the farm, they find mysterious qualifiers added to those commandments.

Curiously enough, one of the central demands made by the ‘protect-Islam’ brigade was to “Ban the sale of alcohol… on inhabited islands”.

The ‘…on inhabited islands’ qualifier has a lot of significance, for it reveals the unresolved contradictions that are central to the controversy currently raging in the shallow, but always turbulent waters of Maldivian politics.

No animal shall drink alcohol… in inhabited islands.

The term ‘inhabited’ is officially used in the Maldives to refer to commonly populated islands. The country’s famed beach resorts fall under the ‘uninhabited’ category, despite housing thousands of Maldivian staff for the larger part of the year, and a lot of the usual restrictions do not apply there.

While there is a general consensus among  Islamic jurists that both consumption and trade of alcohol is forbidden in Islam, the economic realities of heavy dependence on tourism has meant that certain un-Islamic vices like consumption of alcohol is permitted in the Maldivian resorts.

The issue of alcohol sales remains a controversial topic among Maldivians, and is wantonly exploited by every tin-pot politician seeking an audience.

Alcohol was one of the major “issues” highlighted at the recent protest on December 23 organized by seven opposition parties and a network of NGOs  who joined hands  against what they alleged were ‘anti-Islamic policies of the government’.

The turnout of over 5000 religious protesters was considerably less than the ambitious 100,000 originally anticipated by the organizers. The flags they carried were surprisingly not the bastardized offspring of the Maldivian and Saudi Arabian flags, as displayed on the protest’s official website.

Meanwhile, the ruling MDP had also called for another protest the same day, at a venue just a couple of hundred meters away, calling for ‘moderate Islam’.

Speaking at the MDP protest, President Nasheed claimed that the government was being accused of being ‘anti-Islamic’ simply for sticking up for traditional Dhivehi values, and rejecting the recently imported dogmatic versions of Islam that had room for concubines, marrying nine-year olds,  female genital mutilation and harsh punishments such as amputations and stoning humans to death.

The ill-advised protest concluded early, but gave enough ammunition for the opposition protesters to last through till midnight.

The opposition-allied mullahs tore into President Nasheed’s remarks against concubines and marrying children, claiming it amounted to a mockery of the Prophet. They steadfastly defended amputations and other punishments as being a central part of the Sharia penal code and – by extension – of Islam.

They demanded that the government to apologize for the UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s comments to Parliament condemning medieval punishments like flogging.

Swinging between Halal and Haram

One protestor on stage, criticizing the President, declared that one could not accept one part of the Qur’an, and reject the other.

“…unless it is the parts advocating religious tolerance”, one might presumably add, because the protesters demanded the removal of allegedly idolatrous monuments placed by neighbouring countries during the recently concluded SAARC summit in Addu City, amid repeated accusations that the government was trying to introduce ‘religious freedom’.

Leading the protesters in this righteous cause was DQP leader and former Attorney General Dr Hassan Saeed, who co-authored a book called ‘Freedom of Religion, Apostasy and Islam’, the opening paragraph of which curiously claims there is “a vast amount of Qur’anic texts in the favour of freedom of religion”.

The protesters further demanded that the Israeli airline El Al should be forbidden from landing in the Maldives with their Zionist crew.

The Cabinet Minister of Islamic Affairs, Dr Abdul Majeed Abdul Baree also threw his weight behind the idea, saying he was of the ‘personal opinion’ that Israel was ‘not a legitimate state’.  He nevertheless requested that his personal opinion be translated into a parliamentary resolution.

Also on stage was the cleric Dr Afrasheem Ali, who once had stones thrown at him at a mosque for his “liberal” remarks such as claiming that singing was permitted in Islam. Sharing the stage with him were pious clerics who all agree that music is ‘haraam’.

What was not haraam, however, was the official song of the protest, apparently sung by former pop-star and current Salafi posterchild Ali Rameez, extolling the sacrifices of the battles of Badr and Uhud, and calling upon good Muslims to take up Jihad to ‘protect Islam’.

… Some massage parlours are more equal

Another major demand made by the opposition speakers during the 8 hour long protest was that ‘spas and massage parlours’ should be banned, as they were clearly fronts for the flesh trade. One protest leader provided a surprisingly specific number of brothels in the capital, contrasting them with the number of mosques in Male’.

Leading the agitators on stage, without the slightest trace of irony, was MP Qasim Ibrahim, the business tycoon whose fortune was made on a business of selling liquor to tourists, and whose resorts proudly boast of luxury spas and exotic massage parlours.

He could have perhaps invoked the amended commandment from George Orwell’s book, and declared that ‘No animal shall drink alcohol…  to excess”.

Instead, he responded to the President’s call for moderate Islam by publicly retorting, “We don’t know there is a moderate, higher or lower Islam. We only know Islam, which is above all the religion. The only road we must follow is based on Allah’s callings”.

Scorched Earth politics

Despite the initial reactions from the MDP vowing to not give in to “the extremists”, the government somehow decided to one-up the opposition instead by ceding to their demands, and engaging in the dangerous game of political brinkmanship.

Following the protests, the government has issued a circular ordering the closure of hundreds of spas and massage parlours in the country, including the ones in resorts.

In doing so, the government has acted in a callous manner, with the maturity and foresight of a jilted adolescent.

The President’s Office has also said it is considering a nationwide ban on alcohol and pork – including in “uninhabited” islands. The unstated intention appears to be to call the Opposition’s bluff or, even worse, teach a lesson to political opponents such as Jumhooree party leader Qasim Ibrahim, DRP leader Thasmeen and PA leader Yameen Abdul Qayoom, who all have massive business interests in the tourism sector.

It is quite clear that the opposition leaders weren’t counting on the government to actually do anything about their demands; both Qasim and his political allies have condemned the government’s acceptance of their own unreasonable demands.

Confirming that the lunatics have indeed taken over the asylum, the principal opposition PPM has made a grand stand itself, saying it would “support” this move if ‘the government dares’ to actually go ahead and do it.

It appears both sides have decided to engage in a high-stakes game of Russian roulette, showing a disturbing willingness to put the even country’s economic lifeline at stake while they both dig deeper into their respective political trenches waiting to see who blinks first.

A Hotel in Medina, and other fairy tales

While the politicians engage in their scorched-earth politics, there are some realities that the Maldivian public has to learn to accept. The foremost among them is that, as detestable as the tourism industry maybe, we have grown to be dependent on it.

The income from tourism keeps the Maldivian economy afloat, pays the country’s bills and also props up other industries and employment sectors like telecom, health, education, catering and construction. It builds our roads, drainages, schools and hospitals, and pays for our fuel, electricity and drinking water.

It is not by accident that the average Maldivian’s life expectancy has jumped from under 45 years to over 76 years today since tourism was introduced.

When opportunistic politicians and clerics decide at their convenience that the bedrock of the country’s economy is no longer halal, then perhaps they owe the Maldivian public an alternate economic plan that does not involve alcohol or non-Muslims.

The last time any politician even attempted to offer such an alternative was when Adhalaath party leader Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed, then State Minister of Islamic Affairs, pointed out in March 2010 that the Intercontinental Hotel in Medina drew thousands of visitors every year, despite serving no alcohol.

Fortunately, it doesn’t take the Nobel Committee to figure out that the holy city of Medina would continue to see hundreds of thousands of visitors irrespective of whether there’s any alcohol – or even a hotel for that matter.

If only Sheikh Shaheem would clarify how he intends to replicate the ‘Medina hotel’ model of economic development in the Maldives, the issue of alcohol laced tourism would be forever settled.

Rewinding the clock

There are, of course, orthodox clerics who outright condemn the idea of progress itself, and advocate just living off the fish from the sea.

But would Maldivians who today complain of the rising prices of coffee willingly go back to living in huts, defecating by the sea, and starving in stormy weather?

In the 21st century, the nations of the world are interconnected and interdependent in ways that simply weren’t true a hundred years ago.

Could these orthodox ideologues point out to the public just ONE example of a developing country that is able to live in such romantic seclusion? There is a reason why isolated nations like the North Koreans aren’t able to just live off rabbits and groundnuts.  There is a reason why Pol Pot’s Cambodia became a blood-soaked failure.

Economies don’t run on hollow slogans, nor do romantic ideals feed the hungry.

Dr Hassan Saeed was right when – speaking at the protest – he paraphrased the Qur’an, stating that people’s conditions can only improve when they themselves take up the challenge of improving their own plight.

To do that, Maldivians need to settle on what kind of Islam we’re going to follow, and demand solutions from the elected officials, instead of mere slogans. We cannot afford to put up with politicians who wilfully destroy our country’s peaceful image, and complain about a suffering economy in the same breath.

As the Police Commissioner Ahmed Faseeh said recently, we’re living under the threat of becoming another Afghanistan – except, unlike Afghanistan, the Maldives produces no food to feed its own people. We’re dependent on international goodwill, and simply cannot afford to have leaders who engage in harmful rhetoric aimed at destroying our country’s standing in the international community.

The last few weeks of 2011 have set the precedent of hard line, no holds-barred brand of politics that could easily prove fatal to the country’s democracy, economy and social stability.

President Nasheed has recently made grand promises that 2012 will be a ‘year of happiness’. But it will take much greater political maturity and statesmanship from the country’s elected leaders to achieve this goal.

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]

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Comment: Sun, sand and intolerance

Saturday’s attack on a group of people silently protesting against religious intolerance is just the latest in a series of orchestrated, well-choreographed acts of violence, hatred and intolerance sweeping across the nation in recent months.

Independent journalist and blogger, Ismail ‘Hilath’ Rasheed, whose personal blog was censored by the Maldivian government last month, was among those attacked, sustaining serious injuries to the head. Others who attempted to intervene also suffered minor injuries.

Ahmed Hassan, one of the protesters, said, “We planned a silent sit down protest in order to make a statement over the lack of religious freedom for minorities, especially those who aren’t Sunni Muslims.”

“We are entering the fourth year of democracy but unfortunately, many basic freedoms and rights have yet to be achieved for all Maldivians. It is unacceptable in this day and age that non-Muslim Maldivians are discriminated against in their own country,” he said. “This is their country as much as ours.”

He further added “I would like to say to those that attacked us today that violence is not a part of Islam. Islam is a religion of love, peace and shura (consultation). The unprovoked attack is clearly an act of intimidation. We realize that as our movement grows, we could face many more such attacks, but we will not be backing out. We will not be intimidated into silence.”

Local writer and blogger, Aminath Sulthona, who was also among the protesters said, “These are not people worthy of being termed ‘religious’, but they are misguided thugs spreading terror and violence in the name of religion.”

Sulthona complained that the police at the scene failed to carry out their duties. “I was being openly threatened and verbally abused in the presence of a police officer who paid no heed to the man… I managed to take pictures of the attackers, but as soon as I got home I started receiving calls saying I would be attacked on the streets if the pictures were leaked.”

The injured protester, Hilath, has also previously faced death-threats over his vocal criticism of Islamic radicalism on his personal blog.

Million-Man March of bigotry

As the rest of the world celebrates the International Human Rights day to commemorate the adoption of the UDHR, a network of NGOs in the Maldives and seven political parties are preparing to conduct a large protest on December 23 – with organisers vowing to assemble a rather ambitious 100,000 protesters, including mothers and their newborns, in order to ‘protect Islam’.

The protests were announced in the aftermath of a speech delivered in parliament by Navi Pillay, the visiting UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, after she sought the removal of discriminatory clauses in the Constitution towards non-Muslims, as well as an open debate on the subject of degrading punishments like public flogging that are still practised in the Maldives.

Pillay argued that flogging as a form of punishment was “cruel and demeaning to women”, while pointing out that apart from just one other Islamic country, the practise wasn’t condoned even among Muslim nations.

Available statistics appear to support the claim that women are disproportionately affected by punishments such as flogging. Mariyam Omidi, then Editor of Minivan News, reported in a 2009 article that according to government statistics, out of 184 people sentenced to flogging for ‘fornication’, 146 were women.

However, the report was met with outrage from conservative sections of the public who gathered with placards at the same venue where the protesters were attacked yesterday, and demanded that the journalist be deported.

There was simply no room for intelligent discussion on the subject and the offending statistic mysteriously disappeared from government websites not long afterwards.

Similarly, the response to the UN Human Rights Commissioner’s recommendations has been a brutish all-out war on the very idea of having a debate on the subject.

One gimmick to rule them all

One might wonder how in a country where Islam is safeguarded by the Constitution, and where there is overwhelming support among both leaders and the general public for mandating Islam’s role in state affairs, and where educating the public on other religions is not only taboo, but also illegal by law – could there still exist such insecurity among citizens that they need to rally in order to ‘protect Islam’.

The explanation is simple.

For 30 years, former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom carefully consolidated the state’s authority over personal beliefs by successfully selling the idea of a ‘100 percent Sunni Muslim’ nation, and making the Dhivehi Identity virtually synonymous with Sunni Islam, which needed to be fiercely protected at all times from ever-present, invisible threats.

One of Gayoom’s most damaging legacies is that a paranoid Maldives found itself among the top ten countries in the world noted for religious intolerance, according to a study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life published in 2009.

Employing religion to keep his citizens in check was a master stroke that ensured him a long reign, but Gayoom’s chickens came home to roost in the dying days of his regime when the democratic uprising threw up a medley of ultra-conservative mullahs who would take over the religious mantle from Gayoom.

Following the first democratic Presidential elections, the ultra-conservative Adhaalath Party assumed control of the newly created Ministry of Islamic Affairs, and took upon themselves the onerous responsibility of deciding who were the ‘true Muslims’ and what constituted ‘true Islam’.

It didn’t help matters that despite the freedom of speech granted by the constitution, the mainstream Maldivian media continues to exercise strict self-censorship when it comes to issues of religion and human rights.

The subject remains taboo among other public institutions and agencies as well, as evidenced by the statement released by the Maldivian Human Rights Commission yesterday on the occasion of Human Rights day, which glaringly omits any mention of minority rights or non-Muslim Dhivehin.

Speaking at a National Awards ceremony last month, President Nasheed gently rebuked his citizens for reacting ‘in a jihadi manner’ over the Navi Pillay controversy.

Instead, he exhorted the citizens to “have the courage to be able to listen to and digest what people tell us, what we hear and what we see”

President Nasheed would have done well to foster this spirit in his own government which, in the first few months after coming to power, shut down several websites that were allegedly critical of his then coalition partner, the Adhaalath Party.

Less than two weeks before he implored his citizens to have the courage to digest others’ opinions, President Nasheed’s government banned the blog of independent journalist Hilath who had been critical of Islamists in the government.

Even more startling was the reaction of his foreign Minister, Ahmed Naseem, to the controversy over Navi Pillay’s recommendations for doing away with degrading punishments.

“You cannot argue with God”, he said, in what was a clear surrender to the politics of bigotry.

The President would also do well to convey his ideas to his erudite Islamic Minister, Dr Abdul Majeed Abdul Baree whose response to the call for open discussion on the subject was merely, “No Muslim has the right to advocate against flogging for fornication.”

The Islamic Minister had also previously condemned the presence of commemorative monuments presented by participating nations in the recently concluded 17th SAARC summit in Addu.

Burning Bridges

The destructive outcome of emotive politics of hatred, strife and fear was clearly demonstrated by the hyper-paranoid religious vandals who burnt, damaged and stole multiple SAARC monuments because they allegedly depicted ‘idols of worship’.

One police officer on duty guarding the monument recollected being approached by hostile members of the general public asking why they were guarding “temples”.

The opposition parties, seeing political expediency even in the most unfortunate acts of xenophobic vandalism, quickly hailed the vandals as “national heroes”.

In a related incident, some MPs of the Progressive Party, including MP Ahmed Mahloof apparently hijacked a ferry in a valiant effort to save Islam from a banner hung at the International Airport, before they were intercepted by the Police and diverted to another island.

The offending banner at the airport depicted an image of Jesus Christ, a Buddhist chakra, and other religious motifs symbolising the religious diversity of South Asia, which the design consultants who came up with the concept said was in keeping with this year’s SAARC summit’s theme of ‘Building bridges’.

Notably, none of these MPs had anything to say on the young non-Muslim Maldivian man who hung himself from a tower at that very airport in July 2010, following immense pressure from family and state religious authorities after he, in his own words, “foolishly admitted (his) non-religious stance” to friends and colleagues.

If the 17th SAARC Summit proved anything, it is that building bridges is impossible when there are greedy political trolls ready to pounce on anyone willing to cross it.

Uphill struggle

It also appears that the Mullah and the MPs seem to be firm in their understanding that Islam has no room for thinking, no room for debate, no room for tolerance and no room for intelligence.

The seemingly endless series of ugly incidents and violence carried out in the Maldives in the name of Islam only reinforces the reputation of Islam as an intolerant, backward religion fit for narrow minded thugs who are incapable of dealing with 21st century realities or co-existing peacefully with the international community.

According to a March 2011 Universal Periodic Review Report for the Maldives, the Maldivian government had pledged to raise awareness and public debate around the issue of freedom of religion and religious tolerance.

The report states that “The Maldives commits to begin domestic awareness-raising and an open public debate on religious issues. Moreover… the Maldives requests international support to host, in 2012, a major international conference on modern Sharia jurisprudence and human rights.”

However, this may be a difficult task given the sense of over-entitlement prevalent among sections of the Maldivian public that, though it demands – nay depends – on foreign aid, income and expertise to keep their families clothed and fed, nevertheless scoffs at the very thought of having to fulfil any obligations to the international community at large.

When confronted by the UN Committee on the the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in August 2011 on the constitutional clause depriving non-Muslims of citizenship, the Maldivian delegation reportedly had this to say:

“It was not true that under the new Constitution existing citizens could be arbitrarily deprived of their nationality if they were to stop practicing Islam… The Muslim-only clause under the citizenship article of the Constitution only applied to non-Maldivians wishing to become naturalised.”

However, just one month later, the government published new Regulations under the Religious Unity Act of 1994, making it illegal to propagate any other religion than Islam, or to be in possession of any material or literature that contradicts Islam. Any violations of the regulations would carry a 2 to 5 year prison sentence.

In other words, as the silent protesters attacked in broad daylight yesterday learned, the struggle to achieve universal human rights in the Maldives is a seemingly impossible and uphill task that only keeps getting harder, thanks to the cesspool of paranoia, hatred and violence generated by a band of short-sighted politicians who are happy to abuse religion and opportunistic religious clerics who dabble in politics.

As with last year, where a motorcade of fundamentalists rode around the capital yelling loud anti-Semitic slogans about visiting Israelis, this year too the Human Rights Day has been marred by gloomy incidents of intolerance that only remind us of how the idea of mutual respect and civility still eludes us as a nation.

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]

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Comment: The right to remain silent

When a non-Muslim man publicly declared his disbelief in religion at a well-attended public lecture by Dr Zakir Naik in May 2010, the preacher on stage reacted with wide-eyed surprise and told his audience he was told the Maldives was a ‘100% Muslim’ society.

Now that he knew better, he corrected the statistic to “100% minus 1”.

The new statistic did not sit well with certain local Islamist NGOs and by day break there was already a press release demanding the man’s death, failing immediate repentance.

After a couple of days of national pandemonium, with multiple online groups demanding the apostate’s murder, order was finally restored when the man publicly declared his faith in Islam and apologised for the “agony” he had caused.

However, this delicate balance would be upset again less than two months later when another non-Muslim Maldivian, 25 year old Ismail Mohamed Didi, was discovered hanging from the ATC tower of Male’ International airport.

There was a swell of outrage – not because a young man was driven to suicide – but because news websites had published emails he’d sent to aid agencies shortly before his death.

Other reactions were even more confounding, with some even suggesting that the whole thing was a devious plot by “enemies of Islam” to undermine National Security – what other motive could possibly have led him to choose to so publicly hang himself from an airport tower?

Maybe it was because he had worked there for seven years? Maybe he was unable to handle the combined stigma of an internal workplace investigation, and ostracism by friends and family after he – in his own words – ‘foolishly admitted’ his non-religious views to his friends? Perhaps he thought his life in the Maldives was worthless and devoid of any value if he did not keep paying lip service to a belief he did not feel?

Perhaps he should have just exercised his right to remain silent. But he didn’t, and the sacred statistic tragically changed to ‘100% Muslim minus one dead man’.

Then in August 2011, reports emerged of a Maldivian girl in a southern atoll who professed to be non-Muslim, once again changing the statistic to ‘100% Muslim minus one dead man, and one deviant girl’.

“Unique country” – “Special case”

Research conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life estimates the number of Maldivian Muslims at 98.4% of the population.

The report was met with derision by then State Minister of Islamic Affairs, Adhalaath party leader Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed, who claimed the researchers did not have ‘appropriate information’ and reiterated the familiar assertion that the Maldives continued to be 100% Muslim.

The Maldives holds an unenviable 6th position on a global index of severe government restrictions on religious beliefs. In comparison, the State of Israel – often accused of by many Maldivians of curbing minority rights – comes in at the 41st position.

Even in the aftermath of the democracy movement, the Maldives has continued to lodge a reservation on Article 18 of the UDHR and ICCPR, which proclaims the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion as an inherent right of all humans.

The Maldives, which sits on the UN Human Rights Council, pleads that we should be treated as a ‘special case’ – a unique country where an entire population, barring one dead man and one aberrant girl, has always held exactly the same beliefs for centuries.

A US State Department report made public last week observed that religious freedom continued to be ‘severely restricted’ in the Maldives. The report added that there were “limited reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice.”

While there has been no papal style inquisition to systematically weed out minorities, this hasn’t been for the lack of trying. In November 2009, MP Muttalib proposed that non-Muslim foreigners should be barred from practicing their religion even in the privacy of their own bedrooms.

The first draft of the Religious Unity Regulations produced by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs criminalised the act of depicting or describing any other religion in a positive manner, while also arming itself with the power to deport foreigners at will.

A brotherhood of intolerance

The comments in the media following news reports about the US State Department’s observations were marked with familiar hostility – with many responders questioning the United States’ right to even comment on Maldivian law.

In heaping scorn on the audacity of America to comment on our constitution, however, the commentators seek to avoid facing the hard question – does the repeated assertion that the Maldives is ‘unique’ and ‘special’ also allow it to claim exemption from explicit declarations of the Qur’an as well?

Decades of carefully exercised political control over religious narrative in the Maldives has left in its wake a culture of intolerance among the general public that is not only unsympathetic to wider views on non-Islamic religions, but is also hostile to Islamic academics and Muslim religious scholars who espouse a more humane form of Islam.

In other words, our society is not only hostile to other religions, but also to the myriad other available interpretations of Islam as well.

When Dr Abdulla Saeed of Melbourne University and his brother, former Attorney General Dr Hassan Saeed, published a book titled ‘Freedom of Religion and Apostasy in Islam’ arguing that the law of apostasy and capital punishment was out of sync with modern times, there was a massive uproar leading ultimately to a ban on the book.

In early 2008, Dr Afrasheem Ali, generally regarded as a “liberal” religious scholar, came under fire after he argued that singing was not un-Islamic – thus contradicting the position of the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs. The man reportedly had stones thrown at him outside a mosque.

Secular Muslim Maldivians as well as anonymous, non-Muslim Dhivehi bloggers who dare to demand a more pluralistic society often find themselves facing undisguised contempt, harassment and violent threats.

Islam says what?

Muslims scholars around the world repeatedly affirm that Islam does not permit compulsion in religion.

Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, uses explicit Qur’anic verses such as “To you is your religion and to me is mine” to arrive at the ruling that “the Qur’an permits freedom of belief for all of mankind.”

Quoting further from the Qur’an, he says “God does not prevent you from being kind to those who have not fought you on account of your religion or expelled you from your homes, nor from dealing justly with them, indeed God loves the just.”

And yet, self appointed guardians of Islam in the audience rushed to physically attack Mohamed Nazim immediately after he proclaimed his disbelief, and one also remembers the swift press release demanding his murder the next morning.

Regarding such intolerance, the Grand Mufti Ali asserted in an article that “none of these extremists have been educated in genuine centres of Islamic learning. They are, rather, products of troubled environments and their aim is purely political and has no religious foundation.”

Syrian Imam Mohamed Bashar Arafat, who recently visited the Maldives, said in an interview to Minivan News that “We cannot deny the basic human right to life in the name of culture.”

The Imam also said “The Quran… gives people the freedom to worship, the freedom to choose their own religion, right or wrong”.

Political suicide

Many Maldivian MPs and senior government officials privately admit their hands are tied when it comes to the issue of freedom of religion. Simply put, to advocate universal human rights is the easiest way of committing political suicide in the Maldives.

The problem of religious discrimination had already been identified by the visiting UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Asma Jahangir, in a 2006 report that expressed concerns about lack of religious freedom in the Maldives. It noted that while the old constitution did not technically demand all citizens to be Muslim, it presumed this was the case.

While any thoughtful person would readily see the absurdity of a state unilaterally declaring a citizen’s beliefs, the average Maldivian voter continues to justify this position by clinging to the “we’re special” argument.

The new Maldivian constitution, drawn up during the highly polarised and unstable political climate of the Maldivian democracy movement, where everyone and their grandma was being accused of attempting to import “other religions” to the Maldives, went one step further and made it explicitly unlawful for a Maldivian to profess any faith other than Islam.

Many interpret this to mean that a Maldivian Muslim who chooses to abandon the faith would automatically be stripped of citizenship and become a stateless refugee (In direct contravention of Article 15 of the UDHR, which states that no citizen can be arbitrarily deprived of nationhood but – why not? – the Maldives could presumably plead a “special” exemption in this case too).

However, a Maldivian government delegation, answering questions from the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, denied this saying the constitution was clear that no citizen could be deprived of citizenship under any circumstance, and that the Muslim-only clause applied only to foreigners seeking Maldivian citizenship.

In the absence of a legal precedent or court ruling, the provision remains ambiguous.

Yet, the refusal of mainstream media and politicians to touch this human interest issue and a severely outrage-prone public sentiment has made one thing astoundingly clear: non-Muslims in the Maldives may exist as physical flesh-and-bones entities, but if they value their lives, liberty and security, then they must adhere to the strict code of conformity and total silence.

Surely, then, the statistic must in this case be updated to read ‘100% Muslim minus one dead man, one impious girl, and thousands forever condemned to silence.’

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]

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Comment: Muslims deserve better

While watching NATO-backed rebels rummaging through fallen dictator Gaddafi’s abandoned belongings, a middle-aged Dhivehi lady exclaimed at the television ‘How the West conspires against Muslim leaders!’

The seemingly misguided remark, upon second thought, deserves further analysis.

Gaddafi himself, after all, has claimed to be a leader of Muslims – defending the Islamic nation against the rebels, whom he has referred to as ‘rats’, ‘cockroaches’ and ‘unbelievers’.

He would also call upon ‘Sheikhs’ and ‘Scholars’ in and around Tripoli to rise up and defend the faith from the godless rebels.

Gaddafi is by no means the first politician to imagine himself as a “leader of the Muslims”. Over the decades, several people have laid claim to this mantle.

Hosni Mubarak, the Iranian political clergy, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Islamist parties of Pakistan and Bangladesh and – closer to home – former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the Adhaalath party, and various individual “Sheikhs” have all modeled themselves as ‘Islamic leaders’, portraying an image of Islamic piety, and shouldering the unwieldy burden of the speaking for the entire Islamic faith.

And yet, despite these innumerable ‘leaders’, all whom assert they have the ultimate solution to Islam’s woes, the 1.5 billion strong Muslim community has consistently had a poor report card in all areas of human development in recent decades.

Golden Age

A cursory look at history shows a dramatically different picture.

It was during Ramadan just over 1400 years ago that an illiterate Prophet was first commanded to ‘Read!’.

Within a few short centuries, Islam would end up as the dominant force in the world, commanding a wealthy Empire that would be celebrated as the fountainhead of all learning, discovery and innovation.

A religion revealed to a barbaric, medieval tribe would transform them overnight into champions of knowledge and achievement, resulting in “the Golden Age of Islam” that produced intellectuals and polymaths of the caliber of Ibn Sina, Al Farabi and Ibn Rushd.

So why is that, a thousand years later, despite the advancements in technology and communications, Muslims no longer revel in that spirit of achievement?

A reasonable argument could be made that that following the decline of the Muslims, a large majority of the Muslim lands had been colonized, followed by extended periods of dictatorial regimes threatened only recently by the Arab spring.

Yet, former colonized states like China, India and South Africa are making all making giant strides using the best of modern Science and Technology, but Muslims in general appear to not yet have found that fire.

Muslims are largely missing from advanced fields like scientific research and the global business world, or are very severely under represented – whereas tyrants and gun-toting militants throughout the Islamic heartland have somehow gotten labeled ‘Muslim leaders’.

Perhaps it is time now to acknowledge that the Islamic community is facing a severe leadership crisis?

The Curse of the Leaders

To evaluate the cause, let us first glance at a list of the individuals all of whom have in recent decades appointed themselves captains of the ship.

Osama bin Laden. Mullah Omar. Ayatollah Khameni. Al Qardawi. Ibn Baz. At home, we have such luminaries as “Sheikh” Ibrahim Fareed, “Sheikh” Iliyaas and a disproportionately large number of other such eminent scholars to guide our tiny population.

The grand roadmap these “leaders” have for Muslims can be measured by the broad canvas of issues they usually occupy themselves with.

While one group’s idea of salvation for humanity lies in forbidding women from buying cucumbers and other phallic vegetables of potential sin, another invests endless time, money and resources into efforts to threaten, intimidate or harass women into wearing black middle-eastern style veils.

Some declare life-saving vaccines as haraam, while others are entirely outraged over the 3 year old kindergarteners studying together in co-ed schools.

When they’re not burning books, they can be found condemning yoga. When they’re not busy uncovering Zionist organ-harvesting rackets, they’re dissecting the heavy legal issues surrounding the permitted length and colour of a woman’s hair.

Even celebrated Sufi poet Ghalib once pondered over the Ulema’s disturbing preoccupation with the problems of menstruation and menstrual bleeding.

In the year 2011, there is still some disagreement over whether girls should indeed be sent to school.

More than a couple of these wise mullahs have issued fatwas against Tom & Jerry on National TV, while another has outright called for Mickey Mouse to be put to death.

And almost all of them are united in their common jihad against established, peer-reviewed Science.

And herein lies the diagnosis for our woes; Muslims today are plagued with “leaders” that, instead of boldly taking them to the future, have pledged to stay frozen in time – or even worse, insist on running the civilization race in the opposite direction as the rest of humanity.

Entire generations have been lost thanks to myopic mullahs, and tyrants whose foresight does not extend beyond the tip of their nose.

A culture once credited with keeping alive the flame of knowledge through the centuries is now known more for dogmatism and hostility to Science.

Political tool

Perhaps the biggest tragedy of Islam is that it has ended up as a tool of political convenience.

Self-declared “leaders”, who have no achievements to speak of, cloak themselves in religious garb and invoke the name of God as their only claim to legitimacy.

In their hands, religion ceases to be a moral code for the community’s common welfare – and instead becomes a stick to keep the masses under control.

In the wake of the recent Arab democratic uprisings, the Saudi Arabian government promptly issued ‘Islamic rulings’ against protesting against authority. (The jarring irony of it, coming from the Wahhabi-Saudi nexus that once rose in revolt against no less than the Islamic Caliph!)

When it suits these tyrants, the rules are carved in stone, and when necessary, the Qur’an might as well have been written on water.

Dr. Amir Hussain, prominent Professor of Theological studies said in an interview with Science and Spirit magazine, that tyrants “find it useful to espouse the rhetoric of faith, because people respect that language, are reluctant to oppose it”

Two days before abolishing the Islamic Caliphate in early March 1924, Mustafa Kemal Pasha, founder of modern Turkey, told his assembly:

“The religion of Islam will be elevated if it will cease to be a political instrument, as had been the case in the past…”

The Pied Pipers

Some of the greatest achievements of the Islamic Golden age were the grand libraries and Universities of Baghdad and Cordoba.

The great polymaths of that era kept alive the knowledge of the Ancient Greeks and the Indians – reviving ancient philosophy, number systems, algebra, chemistry and astronomy.

In President Obama’s words, it was Islam that taught the world navigation of the Seas, and the mastery of pens.

Today, Muslims around the world fare poorly in Education. The 2006 Sachar Committee Report commissioned by the Indian Prime Minister revealed that 25 percent of Muslim children in India under the age of 15 didn’t attend schools, or dropped out early.

There are no great Islamic Universities today – and troublingly enough, it is the so-called ‘leaders of Muslims’ themselves who are actively engaged in a campaign against ‘evil, Western education’.

The establishment in 2009 of $10 billion King Abdullah University of Science and Technology would ideally have been hailed as a tremendous opportunity to revive learning and research in the Muslim heartland.

Instead, the ‘religious leaders’ in Saudi Arabia reacted with fury over the larger, more pressing issue of the University being a co-ed institute.

Orthodox Islam has always opposed what the rest of humanity considered progress

Professor Dr. Amir Hussain once said, “Knowledge is highly prized in Islam, but fundamentalist Muslim rulers have hounded Islamic scholars for centuries.”  Great intellectuals like Ibn-Rushd thrived despite the pressures these anti-intellectual forces.

However, in recent years, modernism has all but disappeared from mainstream Islamic discourse, giving the anti-intellectuals a free run to propagate their views as ‘true Islam’.

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan was one of the modern Muslim pioneers who believed Islam would be greatly damaged if not shielded from the orthodox clergy.

Believing that a proper, Western-style scientific education was crucial for Muslims’ advancement, he founded the Muhammedan Ango-Oriental College in 1875 (It would later become the Aligarh Muslim University)

Former Pakistan Supreme Court Justice Javid Iqbal, son of celebrated Urdu poet-Philosopher Allama Iqbal, believes Islam’s revival is dependent on interpreting the religion in light of modern scientific thought which would ‘strengthen the faith of believers’.

Condemning the medievalisation of Pakistan, he recounted how his father had blamed conservative Mullahs for driving Muslims into the dark ages.

“My father’s advice was unequivocal: Muslims should not let themselves be exploited by the semi-literate Mullah…  Mohammed Iqbal went out of his way to expose the intellectual bankruptcy of the Mullahs — the same Mullahs who have once again taken the lead in Islam”

Shirin Ebadi, the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Prize, also calls for an interpretation of Islam that is in harmony with equality and democracy, claiming that it is not that religion that binds women, but “the selective dictates of those who wish them cloistered.”

To bell the cat

The prevailing school of thought in the Maldives and many countries around the world is that Islam does not permit dissent or free opinion.

The original draft of the Religious Unity Regulations drawn up by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs in the Maldives, for instance, forbade ordinary citizens from expressing a personal opinion on religion in any form. Furthermore, it also criminalized the most basic democratic right of criticizing authority, instantly putting self-declared ‘religious scholars’ above all public scrutiny.

This clampdown on free thought throughout the Islamic world is perhaps the reason why Muslims have become afraid to think, afraid to speak, and afraid to pull themselves out of the age of Ignorance, as their cultural forefathers boldly did so many centuries ago.

Perhaps one of the greatest wasted opportunities in modern times is the pulpits around the world in front of which hundreds of millions of Muslims congregate in prayer.

There are forums that could conceivably be used to inspire Muslims to work harder, to educate themselves, to educate their children, to promote Science and to promote culture.

Instead, most of us walk away every Friday having heard for the umpteenth time, tired reiterations on the importance of praying five times a day or fasting in the month of Ramadan, and armed with even more evidence of the continued treachery of Jews and Christians.

Change of guard

The Muslim needs leaders who can go beyond petty sloganeering and asserting a hollow supremacy.

For instance, leaders like former President of India, Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, the nuclear scientist known for his humility and passion for youth, transcended the boundaries of race and religion, and inspired a larger community of nation builders.

Leaders like Gandhi, Tagore and Mohamed Ali Jinnah – inspired by 19th-century British liberalism – come across as intellectuals hostile to the idea of discrimination itself.

Today, more than ever, Muslims need leaders of such fierce intellect and industry, if they’re to rub shoulders with the rest of the world as responsible equals, instead of wallowing in eternal self pity.

We need leaders who understand that for a religion to retain its greatness, its principles need to be as dynamic as the human cultures and societies themselves.

Our mullahs have shown us how exceedingly easy it is to wallow in the darkness and blame everything on the West and the Jews.

What we need is a change of guard, and a new class of leaders who are not afraid to take the much harder route – one of accomplishment and progress; to create a world where a tyrant like Gaddafi or terrorist like Osama never again gets mistaken for a ‘Muslim leader’.

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]

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Comment: The price of right-wing politics

Major news networks came under fire recently for jumping to conclusions about the involvement of Islamist groups in the July 22 terror attacks in Norway.

Mainstream media resorted to premature “analyses”, conjecture, and even ‘citations’ from unverified Internet forum lurkers – all of which are highly irresponsible and were rightfully condemned.

A lot of Muslims and anti-racists heaved a sigh of relief on hearing that this latest outrage was, for a change, not inflicted by a Muslim group. For seemingly the first time in recent history, a reasonable argument could now be made that not all terrorists are necessarily Muslim or brown-skinned; an opportunity has risen to delve deeper into the ideologies that underpin these horrifying outbursts of mindless violence.

However, over a week after the quiet Friday afternoon peace was shattered by the worst massacre on Norwegian soil since the second world war, the media appears to have chosen to focus instead on the sensationalist ‘Christian crusader’ angle and the killer’s 1500 page “manifesto”; a lot of commentary has dwelt on whether this is the work of a single crazed man – or whether he represents the vanguard of a new movement.

What is beyond doubt, however, is that the man was clearly led by his politics – and within this lies one of the most important stories of this decade that the media should not fail to address.

The rising hatred

Norwegian security agencies have long reported that right-wing radicalism was on the rise in the country – with Scandinavia, incidentally, producing the largest amount of xenophobic, White Power music and literature.

As it happens, right-wing politics is being revived in several parts of the world – from the United States and Europe, to Pakistan and the Maldives.

Factors such as economic decline in the West, rising unemployment, and the increased globalisation that threatens the very concept of nation states, have seen a corresponding increase in anti-immigration, race-baiting, far-right ultra-nationalist groups.

Ideas that would have been dismissed as the lunatic fringe just a few years ago have captured the curiosity of the mainstream public in many societies.

This brand of politics – characterised by amplified slogans, demonisation of minorities, and central charismatic figures with a penchant for whipping up emotions, have reaped rich political dividends for many in recent years.

With deceptive names alluding to noble concepts of ‘Justice’ and ‘Freedom’, these groups thrive entirely on charged emotional rhetoric steeped in conspiracy theories and artificial feelings of victimisation and insecurity.

The anti-Islamic, race-baiting ‘Party of Freedom’ run by Geert Wilders recently emerged as the third largest party in the Netherlands. The BNP, that remains a pariah in mainstream UK politics, has also been making steady electoral gains over the past decade – with two of its members already in the European Parliament, including Nick Griffin, the much-reviled leader of the organization.

Cheap provocations, such as attempts of a much-criticized pastor to organize mass burnings of the Koran in the US, have increasingly found the easy media attention that they so desperately crave.

Mainstream media attention was also lavished upon the ‘Ground-Zero Mosque’ controversy in New York city – that was successfully used by conservative, right-wing politicians in the US to whip up anti-Islamic sentiments, despite revolving around a building that was neither at Ground-Zero and wasn’t even a mosque.

Denial

Far-right politicians, willing to let society burn in order to enjoy their moment in the spotlight, employ words and rhetoric that threaten the peace and harmony of society – with the full knowledge that they can always refuse to accept responsibility later.

Indeed, Geert Wilders was quick to distance himself from the Oslo killer – who had named him as one of his inspirations – but it is hard to accept that the man who spent years fanning flames of anti-Islamic hatred can suddenly absolve himself of all responsibility for the ideology that directly led to the massacre in Utoya.

While the West grapples with trying to deal with hate figures like Geert Wilders, controversial characters like Zakir Naik and Bilal Philips have inexplicably been invited by the Maldivian government to preach to the public – despite several other countries denying them entry citing serious allegations ranging from terror links to hate speech.

Local political parties and NGOs that have conferred upon themselves the onerous burden of representing Islam in the Maldives adamantly deny that they have any role to play in the increasingly radicalised Dhivehi society – and the rising numbers of Maldivian jihadists being discovered in militant madrassas or war zones of tribal Pakistan.

This denial comes despite their openly stoking flames of anti-semitism and anti-feminism, despite their emotionally charged diatribes on public podiums and radio talk shows, and despite the rapidly mushrooming “Islamic” book shops in Male’ that openly sell Jihadist literature with fiery titles and apocalyptic chapters glorifying war.

At least one English Defence League activist, currently hiding abroad, has admitted that his opinions could have directly influenced the destructive Islamophobia in Breivik.

And yet, the EDL– a toxic, occasionally violent British group accused of racism, have also denied the ties with the mass-murderer in Norway, despite the killer himself claiming close association with them.

Just as their right wing brethren in the Maldives, they too “reject all forms of extremism”, and vow to fight against it.

Hyperbole at home

The Maldivian society’s decided swing to the right in the aftermath of democracy is startling – the political dialogue is marked with hyperbole, and dishonest, wild rhetoric.

Reasonable concerns about establishing diplomatic ties with the state of Israel ended up getting blown up into a full-fledged conspiracy involving evil Zionist doctors plotting to steal body organs from unsuspecting Maldivians.

A proposed change in curriculum was vocally derided as a sinister Israeli plot to undermine national sovereignty.

Disagreements over a regulation that would have permitted the tightly restricted sale of alcohol to foreigners at a business hotel, ended up being painted as a death blow to the very religious foundations of the Maldives – thanks to a shrill campaign started by the Adhaalath (Justice) party and aligned opposition groups that was marked with emotive language, and rhetoric carefully calculated to whip up fear, paranoia and hatred.

Adhaalath party leader Shaheem Ali Saeed would later boast at a recent party congress that it was their tiny party that “organised the largest mass-protests in the country”.

Yes, but at what price?

Birds of Feather

Emotive politics of the far-right contribute to, and depend on, a climate of fear and insecurity.

It is within this shelter of blind hateful ignorance that killers like Anders Breivik emerge, casting themselves in self-aggrandizing roles of ‘warriors’, ‘crusaders’ and ‘mujahideen’ to protect their religion and country from the evil, scheming subversive forces that only exist in their heads.

“If Muhammad was alive today,” he wrote, “Usama Bin Laden would have been his second in command.” The Norwegian killer spent over nine years working on his “manifesto” – but in reality, he could have just taken any random Islamist propaganda leaflet and substituted “Christendom” for “Caliphate” , the “Crusades” for “Jihad” and “Knights Templar” for “Mujahideen”.

Not surprisingly, despite being an avowed Islamophobe, he found ideological similarities with the al-Qaeda – and repeatedly makes references to al-Qaeda’s training manual.

Breivik also found that his ideology seamlessly fit with the Hindu fundamentalist groups in India as well. His “manifesto” quotes from several Hindutva propaganda websites, and applauds Hindutva advocates who ‘do not tolerate the injustice and often riot and attack Muslims when things get out of control”.

Decades of sowing animosity towards Indian Muslims brought Hindu fundamentalists led by AB Vajpayee from fringe obscurity to national power.

But within their one term, the emotionally charged politics of the day resulted ultimately in the deaths of thousands of Muslims and Hindus in the Gujarat communal riots. The same forces would later unleash violence against Christians in the southern Indian state of Karnataka.

The battle of Badr used by Jihadist leaders to stoke fire in their soldier’s hearts, finds its equivalent in the Crusades for Breivik – whose online “manifesto” honours such medieval figures such as Vlad the Impaler and Charles the Hammer.

One can thus easily see that there really isn’t any difference at all between these seemingly competing intolerant forces that are both the victims and perpetrators of the same far-right wing ideologies obsessed with their apocalyptic visions of global domination.

A suitable response

A quarter of a million people took to the streets of Oslo on Monday, to remember the dead.

Unlike nations like Pakistan that have swung so far to the right over decades of ideological poisoning, that thousands actually came out to garland the man who assassinated Salman Taseer, a liberal politician who spoke up for minority rights, Norway’s response to the horrors of July 22 reflects its vastly more mature, and strongly liberal social ideals.

“We will punish him, not by killing him or torturing him, but by defying his every wish”, said a teenager, whose friend was among those killed in the Utoya massacre.

Hundreds of supporters gathered outside a tiny Church where a Christian pastor and a Muslim Imam performed a joint memorial service for Bano Rashid, an 18 year old Muslim girl whose promising life was prematurely snuffed out by the fanatic violence.

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg greeted the audience at another memorial service in Oslo with the Arabic greeting “Salaam Alaikum”, drawing a cheerful applause – and pushing a stake through the heart of the dark forces that had sought to strike a wedge between the Norwegian people.

The King and Queen of Norway, who openly wept in a Church service for victims, had a similar response of defiance; in his address, the King said that freedom is more important than fear.

Across the board, Norwegian politicians have vowed to respond to terrorism with “more democracy”, “more diversity”, “more peace” and “more tolerance”.

The time has come for media and citizens around the world – including in the Maldives – to stop viewing the theatre of violence through the narrow lens of religion and nationality. The only solution to division, hatred and violence is to confront the language, thoughts and tactics of short-sighted, opportunistic politicians whose only political gimmick is to create a climate of fear and hatred towards foreigners, Jews, Muslims, Christians.

While the scourge of ultra-right wing extremism is the enemy of all societies and peoples, there is a strong message sent out when resistance emerges from the very people that these bigots claim to represent – when whites fight against Aryan supremacists, and Jews protest against Israeli military aggression, and Muslims fight against Islamist violence and hate-mongering.

The Norwegians have shown the way with a dignified, determined response of hope, and peaceful idealism that characterise their society.

It is now up to the rest of the world to follow in their footsteps and extinguish the climate of fear and hatred that allow these abhorrent acts to take place.

In Jens Stoltenbergs’ words: “No one will bomb us to silence. No one will shoot us to silence. We must never stop standing up for values… our answer to violence is even more democracy, more humanity”

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]

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Comment: Ghettoes of the mind

They say the wealth of volumes it contains

Outnumbers the stars or the grains

Of sand in the desert. The man

Who tried to read them all would lose

His mind and the use of his reckless eyes.

… said Caliph Omar, describing the Great Library of Alexandria before commanding his soldiers to destroy it, in Jorge Luis Borges poem ‘Alexandria, AD 641’

Over a thousand years later, modern man finds himself, much like the legend of the book-burning Caliph, face to face with all the world’s knowledge – the manuscripts and parchment now replaced by signal bits flowing through the electronic veins of the World Wide Web into which the globe has become intricately interwoven.

The volume of information generated every 48 hours now exceeds the sum of all the words uttered by mankind since the beginning of time until the 21st century, according to Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google – an Internet behemoth consumed by the idea of indexing “all the world’s knowledge”, having taken up the challenge of painstakingly scanning every book ever printed, capturing every image, collecting every video, and recording every musical note.

If informed debate is the catalyst that strengthens democracy, and communication the antidote to war, then the Internet has provided an inexhaustible source of illumination, and an unprecedented platform for billions of people to engage with each other.

And yet, a curious thing has happened. The avalanche of papers, viewpoints, analyses and thoughts has left in its wake a society that appears to be increasingly unreceptive to fresh ideas.

Reality distortion field

The discerning Caliph’s observation that “The man who tried to read them all would lose his mind” is especially true of the Internet.

Recently, Google rolled out a feature by which a person’s search results would return content recommended by friends and family who are likely to share his opinions. Unknown to the user, his search results are already being tailored based on a number of other factors, including his reading habits, location and previous search terms.

Perceptive users of social networks like Facebook would notice algorithms carefully designed to weed out content posted by non-like-minded ‘friends’ from appearing on their activity feeds – resulting in their ‘Wall’ being plastered with views they largely agree with.

In other words, the web is increasingly becoming a deceptive mirror, telling one exactly what he wants to hear.

This collateral censorship due to skewed results tends to create a bubble around users, steeping them in a confirmation bias that results in highly polarized views, which is evident from volatile, emotionally charged comments on the Internet, often over trivial matters.

As with real life, polarised extremities can rarely engage in healthy, democratic debate.

It is easy to observe the balkanisation of the web simply by identifying the cartels of blogs and personal websites. Liberal bloggers link to one another. Islamist websites feed off each other’s content. Christian blogs share gossip in their own closed loops. Creationist networks cite each other as sources. Atheist campaigners pat each other on the back. Environmentalists. Conservatives. Anarchists. Nationalists.

Not only are people becoming increasingly isolated in self imposed online ghettoes, but the gated communities are becoming mutually hostile and blindly dogmatic than ever before.

The scepticism of climate change deniers towards easily verifiable statistics demonstrates this phenomenon, as does the fanatic’s contempt towards established science.

The Internet has made it incredibly easy to find out and learn about other peoples and cultures, other religions and perspectives, other views and opinions. And yet, the Internet is also where racists, bigots and supremacists have found refuge.

Despite thousands of scholarly articles, research papers, scientific publications and public archives available freely online, the Internet is also a place where conspiracy theorists continue to thrive, carefully avoiding the zones of enlightenment.

In other words, users intimidated by the bewildering expansiveness of available information can become ensconced in a comfortable, personally tailored reality that the Internet is happy to provide.

Thought Control Protocol

Cult leaders, dictators and fanatics are known to confiscate and burn books by dissidents and ‘heretics’, in order to ensure their followers’ unwavering adherence to ideology.

The combined knowledge of antiquity went up in flames in Alexandria, and plunged civilization into darkness and wasted centuries. While the modern-day Caliphs cannot quite burn down the intangible web – they have figured out that it can be regulated or, even better, replaced.

The People’s Republic of China effectively hides one-fifths of humanity behind their Great Firewall, blacking out entire concepts, ideas, and incidents from history.

The famous satellite photograph of the Korean Peninsula taken at night, that shows an isolated North Korea plunged in darkness, in stark contrast to the brightly lit South illuminated from coast to coast, also accurately illustrates the North Korean regime’s absolute black out of information from its citizens, cloaking them in a terrible darkness.

In the aftermath of the ‘Twitter revolutions” across the Middle East, Iran is reportedly pressing ahead with plans to move its entire online population to a “private, regulated Internet” within two years, cutting them off from the rest of the world.

As with political mullahs elsewhere, the Iranian clergy deny they have any political motives (perish the thought!) Instead, they have put forward the honourable, time-tested justifications of “protecting Islamic values” and “preventing corruption of the youth from evil, Western influence”.

Myanmar and Cuba also have private nation-wide networks, designed similarly with noble intentions of preventing their innocent citizens from eating from the forbidden tree of knowledge.

The unrestricted, untamed power that the Internet bestows into the hands of ordinary people has made it the bane of theocracies and other dictatorships seeking rigid control.

The collapse of a brutal, 30 year old dictatorship in two weeks bears testament to its immense capabilities – and the reason why politicians are increasingly clamping down the Internet, including in the West.

Even young democracies like the Maldives have shown symptoms of this malady, with the present government banning several websites deemed to be critical of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and the political party that controls it.

The desire to control and censor information in the Internet age is the surest sign of authoritarianism, and should rightfully alarm proponents of democracy.

Even when the censorship is self-imposed and cultivated by a desire to live in a tailored reality, then also, democracy is equally threatened.

Democracy thrives on free flow of information. To achieve this, it is not sufficient to just bring down authoritarian regimes, but one also must break down mental barriers that form the walls of the Internet ghettoes and reach out to the other side.

For democracy to survive, one must boldly confront views that are often unpleasant, patiently hear out ideas that are uncomfortable, and acknowledge voices that disagree with oneself – because, as it turns out, it is exceedingly easy to be wilfully ignorant, despite having the world’s knowledge at your fingertips.

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]

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