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Maldives: Uniting In The Name Of Islam And Palestine – Analysis

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In what’s reportedly among the largest rallies in capital Male, people cutting across party lines protested recently against the current Israeli attacks on Palestine. Local media reports, quoting the organizers, put the number at 13,000, many of them youth.

The last time such a massive rally took place in Male, it was on 23 December 2011. Religious NGOs with the backing of political parties opposed to then ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) of President Mohammed Nasheed protested against his government in the name of Islam. Acquiring the sobriquet ‘December 23 movement’, they wanted President Nasheed out.

Events and politico-administrative bungling that followed led up to the protests of 7 February 2012, when Nasheed quit under controversial circumstances. As per the constitutional provisions, Vice-President Mohammed Waheed took over. The rest, including the democratic election of current President Abdulla Yameen, is all part of contemporary Maldivian history.

Modern, Moderate, Yet…

Islam is the State religion of Maldives, and the Constitution bars non-Muslims from acquiring citizenship. The pro-democracy reform protests of the last decade and the consequent re-writing of the Constitution left this aspect untouched. So did the pro-democracy sections of the polity and also social NGOs. They did not even want to consider/reconsider the issue, respecting the larger sentiments of the nation’s 350,000-strong population.

For an exclusive Sunni-Islamic nation, Maldives has always remained moderately religious. Islamic tenets have mostly been confined to homes. Where religion bans habits like drinking and smoking, both the society and the law have abided by it. Where personal and penal laws are concerned, following the Shariat having become a custom and habit over the centuries, people follow much of it willingly.

There are grey areas like rights of women, where flogging for adulterous women attracted condemnation from then visiting UNHRC chair, Navi Pillay. It led to protests in Maldives, against Navi Pillay, who has been controversial herself. Known to be hard-selling ever-changing western concepts of human rights reforms, tuned to their social geo-political needs of the time, Pillay, for instance, has been known to be insensitive to local customs and traditions.

Those traditions are steeped in antiquity, often predating the history of the West and western civilization. Hence, they require time and non-interfering local efforts, to change. And for this reason, to name any nation or people as ‘fundamentalist’ or ‘radical’ could be wrong ab initio. Maldives’ is no exception.

In the case of Maldives, geography also has a say in penal provisions. ‘House detention’ and ‘island detention’ that had meaning in the past, when access to individual islands in the Indian Ocean archipelago were few and far between, if at all, continue to be on the penal statute to date. This may have more to do with the political masters’ inherent hesitation to making sweeping overnight changes to all laws without preparing the society for the same.

Maldives used to be as modern as it was moderate. It continues to be so. Women have had near-equal rights and access to education and it continues to date. However, in terms of dress, there is an increasing tendency among young girls and women to stick to the long-flowing Islamic dress. There are more men now than in the past, growing a flowing beard – again identified with religion.

There has been nothing to suggest that Maldives as a country, or Maldivians as a community have taken to ‘fundamentalist Islam’ in any big way. A coinage of the West the term remains unclear and undefined, as much in Maldives as elsewhere. If anything, democracy-linked political protests of the past years and election rallies have all attracted a substantial number of women, most of them in their head scarves and other forms of head/face cover.

Men with flowing beards were/are also a common sight in such protests, even of political parties that are dubbed ‘less Islamic’ than the rest, by their political rivals. If anything, the MDP as the single largest party in the country is also believed to be having the highest number of youth of both genders. If one were to go by international media perceptions, many, if not most, youth in the country are radicals. They are not – at least in as many numbers.

Political Islam, Politicising Islam

It’s not the first time that religion has lent support – or, has been used – to support political causes. In Maldives, the political protests against erstwhile President Maumoon Gayoom’s 30-year-rule had commenced with religion-driven protests of the kind. As far back as the Thirties, protest-leaders called in the name of Islam, for changing the Sultanate into a Republic.

The use of religion for political purposes should not thus be confused with a return or advent of ‘fundamentalist Islam’ or whatever. Suffice to point out that for neutralising the use of religion against his leadership, President Gayoom had also resorted to a counter-tactic. His religious education in Al Azhar University in Cairo was used against him. It also suited him not to contest.

During the past years of pro-democracy protests, the world got to know only about the latter, painting President Gayoom as a ‘religious fundamentalist’ of sorts, who was also against the West and the rest because of the same reason. Religion-centric Adhalaath Party (AP) was a product of that process, but has stayed on to lent badly-required religious legitimacy and credibility to political parties across-the-board that were otherwise modern in comparative and relative terms of ideology and concepts. They could all do with the AP’s small but committed vote-share, and have courted the party by turns through the years of pro-democracy protests and beyond.

Health, Education for All

President Gayoom was/is the harbinger of modern Maldives, where health and education for all became the goal. The money came from global tourism, which was however confined to isolated island-resorts, in due regard of religious sentiments that prohibited consumption of liquor. He took off from where his equally-controversial predecessor Ibrahim Nasir had left.

Modernisation of education meant that there would be fewer opportunities for madrasa-style religious learning. If anything, school education was modeled on the Cambridge scheme, aimed at the employability of new-generation Maldivian youth, men and women.

Today if there is still a shortfall in reaching health and/or education to the people still, it owes to fiscal, political and administrative reasons. There is nothing or religion religious about it. If anything, popular governmental schemes like the innovative Aasandha health insurance scheme launched by the Nasheed presidency and large-scale economic reforms all derive from western concepts of political administration and ‘market capitalism’.

The inherent contradictions between the capitalist economic model and the subsidy-driven social schemes like Aasandha show nonetheless. It is inevitable too in a society under transition. It is also true that by labeling such schemes under different names and heads, and packaging and marketing them differently, ‘capitalist’ western governments too have sustained and substantiated subsidies, for instance.

Better still, there is across-the-board consensus among political parties in Maldives on economic reforms. There are differences and distinctions only in the details. Modern as its inception goes; the MDP does make its preference for market capitalism known, while in power or out of it. The ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) of President Yameen, headed by half-brother President Gayoom, too is through a transitional process – from the latter’s days of ‘command economy’ to the former’s acceptance of ‘economic reforms’, privatization and globalisation – but not as rapidly as the Nasheed regime.

The nation’s third largest Jumhooree Party (JP), headed by Gasim Ibrahim, one of the richest men in Maldives, has made no bones about its backing for a modern economic administration. It’s only on details, preferences and priorities within a broadly and widely-accepted scheme that they differ. That is also what successful models of multi-party democracies are all about, elsewhere, too.

Symbolic, But…

Now in the Opposition, MDP’s President Nasheed fired the first salvo this time, calling for Maldivians to send the armed forces to fight alongside the Palestinians. At a public rally, he also recalled Maldives sending its troops to Sri Lanka in the Forties, as if to justify his current call.

‘Symbolic’ as the call may have been, given the small size of the Maldivian forces and of the potency or otherwise of the war-weaponry at their command, President Nasheed’s call could cut both ways. On the one hand, his party has not stopped blaming political opponents for alleged use, misuse and abuse of the nation’s uniformed forces for political purposes – at times, in the name of religion.

Though President Nasheed’s call did not go too far, its potent for ferreting out trouble for Maldives in the international community is strewn with possibilities. The call came not long after local media reports reported that at least two Maldivians, both middle-aged dn one of them a suicide-bomber, had died fighting on the side of anti-government protestors in Syria.

Reports have also claimed that another 20-odd Maldivians were fighting in Syria. Maldivians have also been caught fighting along the Af-Pak border against the US-led NATO forces. There have also been reports of a Maldivian hand in the 26/11 ‘Mumbai serial blasts’ in neighbouring India, and in the more recent discovery of a plot to bomb the US and Israeli consulates in southern Bengaluru city.

Upping the Ante on Palestine

Maldives is now busy acquiring all characteristics of a ‘modern democracy’ (?), where political parties are out to electorally capitalise on the fractures that are inherent and natural to any society with a long history. Be it the Indian neighbor, the world’s largest democracy, or the US, the world’s most powerful, if not the ‘greatest’ of democracies, religion has not escaped the politician’s attention, elsewhere, too.

In the US for instance, the Republican GoP is identified as a religiously-conservative party, more conservative than most conservative parties in the ‘under-developed’ Third World. Judges of the Supreme Court in the US, again, are branded for their ‘religion-inspired’ conservatism in matters that are before the court.

Included in the long list is the American woman’s right to ‘abortion’. The debate derives from, and is centred on religion. The fundamental rights and the UN-enshrined human rights of the woman invariably take a back seat, both in the US and elsewhere in the modern, western world.

The West, starting with the media, needs to be equally sensible and sensitive in ‘stereo-typing’ or ‘branding’ nations and communities as fundamentalist and/or radicals in a religious sense of the term – and consider them all either as terrorists or prospective terrorists. Such ‘branding’ has made individuals and communities look increasingly inward, which fundamentalists seek to exploit, nonetheless.

Individuals do not make a religion, and there are as many jihadists who have travelled to war-torn areas in the Islamic world from the West as from fellow-Muslim and other non-Muslim nations. More than personal conviction, the ‘stereo-typing’ of the kind may have been behind members of the Muslim community, collectively or otherwise, going on the defensive and looking at religious orthodoxy as an option. This too is different from fundamentalism and/or radicalism, and is much different from jihad or terrorism, or both.

Maldives is no different. Even while entering into competitive, religion-driven political game on the Palestine issue, initiated by the political rival near-exclusively with the domestic constituency in mind, President Yameen and his government lost no time in condemning and cautioning fellow-Maldivians in seeking to fight other people’s wars in other nations.

In early reactions to Maldivians dying in the Syrian war, President Yameen clarified that the Government cannot back claims on behalf of the dead. The Government however offered to do its best to get other Maldivians in the battle-area back home, if they so desired.

Both the Government and the private media also published a series of interviews with religious scholars, clarifying for Maldivians on what constituted jihad in the religious sense of the term. They also underscored the point that fighting other people’s civil wars in other countries did not most definitely constitute jihad.

Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon has since announced a ‘symbolic’ boycott of Israeli products and annulment of three bilateral agreements – in the field of health, culture and education, and tourism. Though there does not seem to be much politics behind it, all three agreements were signed in 2009, when MDP’s President Nasheed was in office. Minister Dunya also announced that Maldives would co-sponsor a UN resolution against Israeli attacks on Gaza and Palestinians.

The ‘politics of Palestine’ in Maldives took a minor domestic diversion when MDP cadres protested outside the house of a local minister in Male. Home Minister Umar Nasir was quoted as ordering the Maldivian Police Service (MPS) to identify the protestors and arrest them. The official reason, which was otherwise justified, too, was that the Public Assembly Act, passed after President Nasheed’s replacement triggered a nation-wide violent protest, banned protests outside private residences, leave alone protests without prior police sanction.

In the background of the pro-democracy protests that the predecessor Gayoom regime had reportedly put down firmly, the 2008 Constitution provided for no-holds-barred right to protest and hold public rallies. The new law provided for what could otherwise be termed ‘reasonable restrictions’ to those rights. Neither the original freedom, nor the later-day law had anything religious about them. They flowed from domestic political conditions and politico-administrative reasons and constraints.

N Sathiya Moorthy is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter

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