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Maldives: 'Islam' becoming an election issue?

28 December 2011 12:57 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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Two events in as many weeks, and the Maldives has been making news, both on the home front and in the global arena, for reasons that had been better left untouched. Coming as they did after the successful SAARC Summit in the southern Addu City, these developments have the potential to become a major political and poll issue ahead of the presidential elections of 2013, if the current trends remain un-reversed. The first incident flowed from the SAARC Summit itself. Forgetting that Pakistan too was an 'Islamic State', religious fundamentalists in Addu ransacked the SAARC memorial erected by Islamabad for depicting what they claimed were idolatrous, 'un-Islamic' symbols. Customary as Pakistani memorials have mostly been, this one carried a bust of Mohammed Ali Jinnah and the nation's flag. At the foot of the pedestal were reliefs of archaeological finds from the Indus Valley Civilisation sites in the country.
Fundamentalists, first in Addu and later in the political capital of Male, claimed that a relief motif represented the Buddha. They burnt the whole monument one night and took away the rest. It is as yet unclear if their protests were only over the presence of a perceived representation of Lord Buddha, who is worshipped in many of the SAARC member-nations, or it also related to Jinnah's bust, as worshipping fellow-humans was also banned in Islam.
It was possibly not without reason that subsequent to the destruction and disappearance of the Jinnah statue, fundamentalists also targeted the Sri Lankan monument, a replica of the nation's 'Lion' emblem. Investigators have to find out if this attack had anything to do with the Buddhist character of Sri Lanka, or was aimed at defusing the embarrassment flowing from the earlier attack on another 'Islamic Republic', where again fundamentalism and religious extremism were thriving -- targeting not just the immediate neighbourhood but the rest of the world at large.
In contemporary context, Pakistan, along with neighbouring Afghanistan, are considered the global capitals of fundamentalism, from where Maldivian groups are perceived as deriving their strength. In Pakistan, unlike the other two nations, certain State agencies are believed to be aiding, abetting and funding fundamentalist efforts -- and for carrying the message to the rest of South Asia and outside, too. Thus the contradiction in the fundamentalist attack on the Pakistan monument was palpable.
A full month after the SAARC Summit, local media reported that the Nepalese monument for SAARC too has been 'stolen'. They quoted officials to say that the 'theft' had taken place when the police on guard duty were in between shifts. With three such desecrations, the authorities, if is said, were considering the wisdom of shifting all SAARC monuments to a central place in Addu and providing 24-hour police security.
Uni-faith character and flogging
The fundamentalists got another shot in the arm not long after when the visiting UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) chief Navaneethan Pillay questioned Maldives uni-faith character that did not accept non-Muslims as citizens. Addressing the People's Majlis, or Parliament, only a week after Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh became the first overseas dignitary to do so, Pillay also questioned the Maldivian law on flogging of women, describing it as inhumane and violating of international commitments by the nation. She called for a national debate.
Since Pillay's visit, local media has come up with a belated news report, citing a lower court ruling, that growing beard was close to being a religious obligation for males in the country. According to the daily, Haveeru, Magistrate Ibrahim Hussein in Maafushi, Kaaf atoll, had overturned a Department of Penitentiary and Rehabilitation Services (DPRS) regulation that instructs its male employees to shave their beards. The DPRS has since challenged the ruling, as the magisterial verdict of March 2 has held that the regulation contradicts with Islamic principles, and cannot be made in a 100 per cent Muslim country such as Maldives.
Though wholly unexpected, and possibly taken aback after the monument-burning, the Government of President Mohammed Nasheed did not lose much time in expressing regret to the Governments of Pakistan and Sri Lanka. It also arrested two persons for the desecration of the Pakistani monument. The public postures of rival political parties however surprised many. President Nasheed's Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) was not as unequivocal as the rest. It was only to be expected under the circumstances, and also given his pro-liberal attitude and public image but individual MPs did declare that there was no question of permitting the practice of other religions in the country.
The Opposition parties at one stage seemed to be competing with one another in expressing their solidarity with the Islamic forces. Fundamentalist Adhaalath Party (AP), which had left the Government only recently over religious issues, wanted Customs officials who had cleared the 'banned monument' into the country sued. A section of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), founded recently by those owing allegiance to former President Maumoon Gayoom, was shriller. Undiluted as yet, a party leader described the two arrested persons as 'national heroes' and wanted PPM to defend their case/cause.
Other parties, including the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) with Thasmeen Ali, a former running-mate of Gayoom in the 2008 presidential race, could not be seen as being left far behind. Some of them, including a section in Gayoom's PPM, sought to draw a distinction between fundamentalism and modern-day issues of sovereignty, in this regard, arguing that installation ofidolatorous monuments and statues challenged the sovereign right of the Maldivian State, including Parliament, to frame a Constitution and laws that reflected the people's sentiments -- and enforce them, too.
Pillay's utterances, which she repeated at a news conference in Male, revived the argument even more, as political parties felt uncomfortable about commenting unfavourably an issue involving fellow nations like Pakistan and Sri Lanka. To them, the former was an Islamic nation as Maldives, and the latter, the closest neighbour and economic partner, too. Unacknowledged, they were also concerned about possible retaliation in Sri Lanka, where a large number of Maldivians reside, for work, studies or medical care, or use as a transit-point to travel to the rest of the world.
 (www.orfonline.org , The
writer is a Senior Fellow at
 Observer Research Foundation)
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