Islamic radicalism and the dangers it poses to the Maldives and the South Asian region was a major issue in the long drawn out international movement to bring down the government of President Abdulla Yameen in 2018.
A year later, Islam has come to the political centre-stage again. But the issue is not Islamic radicalism now. It is the danger of Maldivian society and polity becoming less and less Islamic due to the inflow of liberal ideologies through West-funded NGOs.
It is the encroachment of liberalism which many in the Abdulla Yameen-led opposition and Ibrahim Solih-led- government fear. It could weaken the hold of Islam on the people of the Maldivian, who had come under its total sway 800 years ago. Islam has been the core of Maldivian culture since then.
In an interesting contrast to the past, the opposition and the government are on the same page now. Both are equally committed to defending Islam. But the intense contest is over which side is truly committed which is not.
Seeing the political mileage that the “Islam in danger” slogan can give it in the run up to the local government elections early next year, the opposition Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) and the Peoples’ National Congress (PNC) are whipping up religious passions and portraying top leaders of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) as having a sinister plan to weaken Islam in the country at the behest of Western institutions, MDP sources allege.
Not to be outdone in the contest, many leaders of the ruling MDP, including Ministers and MPs, have come out strongly against liberalism. Government itself has taken action against the offending liberals.
Govt, opposition equally committed to defending Islam
Last week, the opposition PPM and the PNC (called the Progressive Congress Coalition) issued a statement saying that the ruling MDP is “obsessed with belittling Islam which will ignite visceral reaction and unrest, leading to a popular uprising with inevitable consequences.” The coalition cautioned the ruling party against misrepresenting the “country’s and her people’s true identity in the Western media as a society of intolerance, hate and terror.”
It said that “in their effort to woo Western admirers and financiers, the MDP continues to shortchange the country. The overwhelming majority of Maldivians believe, practice and advocate moderate Islam, and the country has been widely acclaimed as a model of peace, harmony and tolerance. Our social norms are evident in our dedication to welcoming almost one and a half million visitors annually, from all corners of the globe and of all faiths and backgrounds.”
“The ruling party attempts to tarnish the country’s reputation by branding the Maldives as a hub of terrorism, hotbed of extremism and a recruitment centre for foreign Jihadist fighters are shameful. If there are any fundamentalists in the country, they are the few within the ruling party elite and their immediate families who are obsessed with the imposition of an alien culture and forcing the population to adhere to their adopted ideals and opinionated interpretation of free religious expression hitherto unfamiliar to the country,” the statement said.
The opposition pointed out that “for over a month, the country has been rocked by peaceful yet vivid public displays of anger and frustration over the government’s insistence on condoning a report published by the Maldives Democracy Network (MDN), in which they insult the Holy Prophet of Islam, Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) and ridicule the Muslim faith and practices of the Maldivian people.”
Passages in the MDN report that caused offence included an implication that the Prophet’s night journey or ascension to heaven was “a fable” that could not be proven scientifically.
Linking the MDN with the ruling MDP, the opposition said that since its inception as the Maldives Detainees Network and the later rebranding as Maldives Democracy Network, the MDN has been a fund-raising vehicle and advocacy wing of the ruling MDP.
“MDN’s key members include top government officials, as well as the President’s brother-in-law - the incumbent Police Commissioner, senior policymakers at the President’s Office and recently installed judges,” the opposition charged.
“MDN’s reasoning may be conventional wisdom in some other countries or societies, but the proud Islamic heritage and prevalent moderate Sunni identity is all that is comprehensible and embraced as religious guidance since the time of our forefathers. Not only was the report deeply hurtful to the people, the subsequent brash remarks by MDN’s officials, have added insult to injury.”
“It would be foolhardy of the MDP regime to assume that their recent electoral victories, however comprehensive, give them a license to manipulate the country’s State religion, disregard the fundamental articles of the Constitution, challenge the faith norms of the people and bully the opposition into silence through draconian terrorism laws and foreign-funded smear campaigns.”
Turning the guns at MDP Supremo cum Parliament Speaker Mohamed Nasheed, the statement said that he should have learnt that disrespecting traditional institutions and norms come with “bitter and abrupt consequences” and that the people will not tolerate attacks against Islam.
“President Solih is ill-advised to turn a blind eye to MDN’s mischief and resultant angry public reaction,” the opposition said and charged that “many closest and most dear family members planted in key governmental and institutional portfolios feature among MDN’s who’s who.”
A petition submitted to President Solih with 11,000 signatures, said that if the liberal tendency is not nipped in the bud, it would open the floodgates to “unlawful associations” like MDN. As MDN staffers received death threats from unidentified callers, the Islamic Affairs Ministry accused MDN of using foreign funds to motivate Maldivians against Islam.
The MDN took down the offending report from its website and apologized saying: “This association respects Islam as well as Maldivian laws and traditions and assures all Maldivian citizens that this association will not repeat such an act hereafter.” But this had no effect.
Radicalization of Maldivian Islam is not new
Radicalization of Maldivian Islam is not new. It had been taking place since the Presidency of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom as he was an Islamic scholar trained in Al Azhar University in Cairo. His cousin and President Abdulla Yameen carried it forward. The 2015 penal code criminalizes “criticism of Islam in a public medium with the intention of causing disregard for Islam”.
This September, a Presidential Inquiry Commission revealed that a local extremist group linked to al-Qaeda was behind the murders of moderate scholars, a liberal blogger and an abducted journalist. All three were accused of apostasy and blasphemy.
More recently, Al Jazeera reported that the Turkish government had blacklisted 134 Maldivian insurgents over the civil war in Syria.Turkish officials deported over 25 Maldivians suspected of attempting to enter war zones, in addition to the 134 individuals on the blacklist.
On October 10, the Solih government “temporarily” shut down MDN. Protesting against this, Human Rights watch said: “ President Solih fulfilled his campaign promise to abolish laws curtailing free expression, only to resort to the same tricks against the Maldives Democracy Network. By shutting down the MDN, President Solih is feeding a frenzy of threats and incitement by Islamist groups.”
According to HRW, the campaign against the MDN began after the government introduced a law on terrorism. Religious extremists and criminal gangs affiliated with powerful opposition politicians feared that the law could be used against them.
President Solih had declared all areas of Syria as war zones under the amended Anti Terrorism Act. Therefore, travelling to Syria without authorization from the government is now banned for all Maldivian citizens. Traveling to a war zone without authorization results in a prison sentence of five to seven years even if the individual does not take part in the conflict.