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Monday, December 8, 2008

Maldives: reform in politics but not in religious liberty


By Elizabeth Kendal
World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission (WEA RLC)
Special to ASSIST News Service

AUSTRALIA (ANS) -- On Saturday 29 November, Maldives' Ministry of Islamic Affairs announced that it would block a Dhivehi and English language website which it claimed was promoting Christianity amongst Maldivians.

When Minivan News, an independent news source in Maldives, sought to question Islamic Affairs Minister Dr Abdul Majeed Abdul Bari over the censorship and the contents of the website, he refused to be drawn. So Minivan News did its own investigations. "On Tuesday, as Minivan News searched for the site, it came across one (www.sidahitun.com) which contained material about Jesus Christ and Christian songs published in Dhivehi. The following morning, access to the site was denied."

Minivan reports: "Sheikh Ibrahim Fareed Ahmed, known for his inflammatory sermons, agreed that all anti-Islamic websites should be banned. 'Although this is an Islamic society, some Maldivians' faith in Islam is not very strong,' he said. 'If they have access to these websites, because their belief in Islam is weak, there might be a negative impact.' . . .

"A similar view was upheld by scholar Sheikh Usman Abdullah who said that as the Maldives is recognised as a wholly Muslim society, all anti-Islamic activities, including websites promoting Christianity, should be banned. . . .

"Human rights undergraduate Hamza Latheef, 23, said while the ministry has not officially acknowledged the existence of non-Muslim communities in the Maldives, the fact they wanted to block websites with Christian evangelical content may indicate the reality of the situation. . . .

"The constitution of the Maldives states that everyone has the right to freedom of thought and the freedom to communicate opinions and expression as long as it is not in a manner contrary to any tenet of Islam.

"The Protection of Religious Unity Act (Law No. 6/94) guards against all anti-Islamic activities in the Maldives." (Link 1)

WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO REFORM?

On 29 October history was made in Islamic Maldives when a peaceful transition of power was achieved through free and fair democratic elections. Maumoon Abdul Gayoom -- an Islamic scholar who had ruled Maldives as a dictator for some 30 years -- was defeated in a presidential run-off by former political prisoner, torture victim and long-time reform-advocate Mohammad Nasheed (popularly known as "Anni") of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).

On 3 September, Maldives' six presidential candidates appeared on a panel to answer questions on their political aspirations. Nasheed told state television that if he were elected president he would run a compassionate government committed to reducing the cost of living, improving housing, improving inter-island trade and transport, improving healthcare, eliminating monopolies and corruption in fish markets, and developing more equity in service provision across island communities. Concerning human rights he said: "It is very important for the citizens' human rights to be protected."

"Our country is moving towards a change," he said. "No one should doubt this. We are escaping from censorship of freedom of expression, and from barriers to human rights today. We are going to another Maldives, to Aneh Dhivehi Raajje [other Maldives]." (Link 2)

However, as Minivan writer Ibrahim Mohamed noted on 3 December, "There may have been a change in government, but so far, this has not extended into the sphere of religion." (Link 3)

HAMSTRUNG BY A BAD MARRIAGE

- there is none more powerful than he who holds the balance of power!

The Maldivian Democratic Party is a broad party whose members have dissented from Gayoom's dictatorship for a variety of reasons. While all MDP members were moving away from Gayoom's dictatorship in pursuit of liberty and rights, some were moving towards the West while others were moving towards an even more intolerant fundamentalist Islam.

The party's religious fundamentalist right-wing faction wields considerable power. When they railed against Nasheed's nomination of Dr. Aminath Jameel as his running mate -- deeming it un-Islamic on the grounds that she was a woman -- the gender-equity-advocate Nasheed withdrew his nomination.

Further to this, in order to win the presidential election, Nasheed formed a coalition which included the very small, hard-line, right-wing, Islamic fundamentalist Adaalath (or Adhaalath) Party.

Religion has become a powerful tool in Maldivian politics and it featured highly throughout the presidential campaign. President Gayoom accused the opposition of being "Christian" (an offensive name for those deemed to be not sufficiently Islamic), while Adaalath challenged President Gayoom's re-election bid in the Supreme Court claiming that he was "without doubt an infidel" on the grounds that he opposed things such as Sharia-mandated amputations and mandatory veiling, and had publicly declared music to be "halal" (permissible) (see Link 4).

Meanwhile, in June 2008, President Gayoom's Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs, under pressure from the Islamic Democratic Party (IDP) and the Adaalath Party, banned the book "Freedom of Religion, Apostasy in Islam" -- co-authored by former Attorney-General and presidential candidate Dr Hassan Saeed -- on the grounds that it "violates Islamic principles". (Link 5)

The book was published in 2004 and is not available for sale in Maldives. Yet, after four years without controversy, Maldivian Islamic forces decided the presidential campaign was a perfect time to deal with the blasphemies and heresies of their competitor. (This might explain Dr Saeed's change of tone in August 2008 when he supported the Islamic nature of the new Constitution on the grounds that "we do not have a non-Muslim population". His presidential canditure had just suffered a major blow.)

It all makes one wonder -- what sort of deals has the reformist Nasheed brokered to bring Adaalath on side?

A SAUDI-STYLE ARRANGEMENT?

When Nasheed announced his cabinet in early November, Adaalath Scholar's council president, Dr Abdul Majeed Abdul Bari -- who believes music is "haram" (forbidden: see link 6) and apostates should be executed (see link 7) -- was named Minister of Islamic Affairs. Further to this, the new Ministry of Islamic Affairs (which has replaced Gayoom's Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs) is dominated by Adaalath Party members.

Ibrahim Mohamed reports: "Every single Friday prayer, since the inauguration of the new government, has been led by a religious figure from Adaalath. Only scholars associated with the Adaalath party are allowed to give previously unseen sermons; all other Imams are asked to read sermons pre-approved by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs." (Link 3)

This has the appearance of a Saudi-style deal, where Islamic hardliners are given full control over religion in exchange for "peace", political security, and the Islamic legitimisation of the ruling party. This is pragmatism at its worst, for such an arrangement guarantees Islamic fundamentalism a free ride.

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On 24 November, Minivan News Briefs reported that a Maldivian man is being investigated for importing an English language Bible into the country. According to the Maldives Customs Service, the item is illegal and the police are now investigating the matter. (Link 8)

As reported, on 29 November the Adaalath Party-dominated Ministry for Islamic Affairs closed down a website that gave Maldivians access to Christian information and resources in their own language.

So whatever happened to reform and human rights, and to "escaping from censorship of freedom of expression"? Reform has come to Maldives -- but only to politics, not to religious liberty.

By Elizabeth Kendal

Links

1) Ministry To Block Access To Christian Website
By Ibrahim Mohamed, for Minivan News, 4 Dec 2008
http://www.minivannews.com/news_detail.php?id=5617 

2) Presidential Q&A: What The Candidates Said (complete transcript)
By Zaheena Rasheed and Shauna Aminath in Male, 7 Sep 2008
http://doreview.blogspot.com/2008/09/presidential-q-what-candidates-said.html 

3) The Islamic Challenge: Religion And Politics
By Ibrahim Mohamed, for Minivan News, 3 Dec 2008
http://www.minivannews.com/news_detail.php?id=5612 

4) Dark side of Maldives' new democracy
Praveen Swami for The Hindu, 15 Oct 2008
http://www.hindu.com/2008/10/15/stories/2008101552281100.htm 

5) Supreme Council Bans Hassan Saeed's Book
By Judith Evans in Male, 18 Jun 2008
http://www.minivannews.com/news_detail.php?id=4605 

6) Maldivian Artists and the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. 13 Nov 2008
http://arabiguitar.blogspot.com/2008/11/maldivian-artists-and-ministry-of.html 

 7) Apostasy Punishable By Death: Top Adhaalath Scholar
By Judith Evans in Male, 13 May 2008
http://www.minivannews.com/news_detail.php?id=4462 
ALSO
The Adhaalath stake. 23 Oct 2008
http://maldivesdissent.blogspot.com/2008/10/adhaalath-stake.html 

8) Man Investigated For Bible Import.
Minivan News Brief, 24 Nov 2008
http://www.minivannews.com/news_brief.php?id=5546 


Elizabeth Kendal is the Principal Researcher and Writer for the World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission (WEA RLC) http://www.worldevangelicals.org/. This article was initially written for the World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty News & Analysis mailing list.

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