The vandalised Sri Lankan monument in the Maldives.
Photo: Ahmed Adhshan, Haveeru
As the Arab Spring continues to bloom, with Syria and Yemen on the verge of democracy – after Libya, Egypt and Tunisia – there are some who propose that the Arab world can take its inspiration from the tiny island nation of the Maldives. On the surface, the idea is perfect: The Maldives is a predominantly Sunni Muslim nation which successfully toppled a 30-year-old dictatorial regime through a democratic uprising, and peacefully voted in a new government in the country’s first multi-party elections in 2008.
The Maldives is also hailed as an example of a Muslim nation which enjoys close relations with the West, including strengthened ties with Israel since 2009. And thanks to its young, charismatic and media-savvy president raising awareness about climate change, the country has been basking in the international spotlight.
A series of events in the past months, however, have left deep gashes in that picture-postcard perfection. Behind the façade of democracy, a culture of censorship and intimidation appears to be taking root in the young democracy.
On 19 November 2011, the Maldivian government ordered a ban on the personal blog of independent journalist and freelance writer, Ismail ‘Hilath’ Rasheed (www.hilath.com) for allegedly publishing material in contradiction to Islam. One of the Maldives’s most well-known bloggers, Hilath has been critical of Islamic radicalism that has gripped the country in the past decade. By writing frequently about freedom of religion, gay rights and religious intolerance, he had been pushing the envelope in a society where the mainstream media exercises strict self-censorship, and where open discussions on religion are still taboo.
According to a statement issued by the Communications Authority of the Maldives, Hilath’s website was blocked at the behest of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. The Ministry cited Article 10 of the recently introduced regulations under the Religious Unity Act of 1994 which forbids the circulation of any content that is deemed insulting to Allah, the prophet, the Quran, the Sunnah, or Islam, as the legal backing for its move to ban the blog.
Hilath believes that the conservative fringe put the ban in place because it could not digest criticism. In 2009, his blog broke a story about male religious extremists keeping underage concubines, which was later confirmed and gained national prominence. ‘I have also been targeted for my liberal Sufi Muslim views,’ says Hilath, ‘because these beliefs go against the mainstream conservative Sunni ideology promoted by the government.’
In response to the ban, Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF) issued a statement demanding that the ban be overturned, and adding that ‘the government should not give in to the fanatical minority but must do all it can to ensure that the media are free to tackle any subjects they choose. The Religious Unity Act should be changed to allow this.’
A broken pledge
For 30 years, former autocratic ruler President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom successfully sold the idea of a ‘100% Sunni Muslim nation’ to ensure conformity. Educated in the Al-Azhar University in Egypt, Gayoom also introduced an Arabised version of Islam, putting an end to several-centuries-old traditions and customs practised as part of the Sufi-style ‘folk Islam’ prevalent in the atolls until then. However, despite often employing religion in his politics, Gayoom was widely considered a religious moderate. For decades, he cracked down on hard-line interpretations of Islam; some preachers would later claim to have been tortured in his prisons, with at least one of them getting his beard shaved off with chilli sauce used as a substitute for shaving cream.
Ironically, when the media found itself a little freer towards the end of the Gayoom regime, the once-silenced extremists suddenly found a podium and a sympathetic audience. Riding the wave of anti-Gayoom sentiment, formerly incarcerated firebrand preachers, such as Sheikh Ibrahim Fareed, began addressing massive congregation of thousands. The country’s new constitution, prepared at a volatile atmosphere charged with religious rhetoric, explicitly decreed that only Sunni Muslims could become citizens of the new republic. The current government then introduced the Ministry of Islamic Affairs to supersede the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs, and handed control over to the religiously conservative Adhaalath Party – which is now no longer a part of the coalition government, but still exerts control over the Ministry. And in a taste of things to come, the government ushered in its first New Year with a ban on local DJs and several local websites, which it deemed ‘anti-Islamic’.
If Gayoom planted the seeds of religious intolerance, the harvest is now in full bloom under President Mohamed Nasheed's government. Controversial preachers like Bilal Philips and Zair Naik, who have been turned away from other shores, were brought in to preach at heavily publicised and nationally televised public lectures. Where there was once a vague fear of Christian missionaries, there is now a full-blown paranoia and open hostility towards non-Muslims, visible in the form of a strong backlash to the mildest of provocations. In October 2010, an expatriate school teacher was forced to move off an island after parents complained of a 'cross-shape' the teacher had drawn on the blackboard. (The drawing turned out to be of a compass.) Earlier this year, an Indian teacher was deported after a rosary was discovered among his personal possessions. And as late as a week ago, monuments erected in Addu City to commemorate the recently concluded 17th SAARC Summit were petrol-bombed, torched and destroyed amidst allegations that the ancient Indus Valley seals gifted by Pakistan and the lion, the Sri Lankan national symbol, were ‘idols of worship’.
Soon after winning the first democratic elections, President Nasheed, once a writer who had been reviled for his writings, had proudly proclaimed that the Maldives would become a ‘safe haven for dissident writers’ and invited silenced Burmese writers to the Maldivian shores. Indeed, in his first year as the President, the Maldives would jump a massive 53 places up in the Press Freedom rankings. However, in the same year, the government would ban a Dhivehi-language Christian website, www.sidahitun.com, as well as some other local websites which were allegedly critical of either Islam or religious clerics in the Islamic Ministry – a distinction that is often hard to make.
And now with the ban on Hilath’s blog, the sincerity of President Nasheed’s pledge is once again highly in doubt.
Such acts of intimidation only deter free speech and serve to silence independent bloggers at a time when the Maldivian mainstream media is generally viewed as biased and unwilling to touch controversial issues revolving around religion and clerics. An atmosphere of virulent religious intolerance, with a rapidly shrinking room for debate, does not bode well for the future of this nascent democracy. And if the government fails to uphold its pledge of safeguarding the right to freedom of expression, the aspiring citizens of the Maldives might be forced, instead of the other way round, to look at the Arab Spring for inspiration.
~ Yameen Rasheed is a freelance writer and blogger from the Maldives currently writing for Minivan News.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
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