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A call for a new politics

Justice for Yameen and Rilwan will remain elusive without a radically different politics built on an honest assessment of all parties, including the Maldivian Democratic Party, argues Fathima Musthaq and Azim Zahir.



By Fathima Musthaq and Azim Zahir

The state’s shabby response to blogger Yameen Rasheed’s murder ought to have been the final nail in the coffin of president Abdulla Yameen’s government. And yet, his party marches on, undeterred and unfettered, towards a possible sweep in the local council elections.

The absurdity of the situation we find ourselves in is apparent when we reflect on the following fact: we could have written the above lines three years ago, when Rilwan was abducted at knife-point and disappeared, and four years ago when MP Afrasheem Ali was murdered in his stairwell. Then as now, the government refuses to conduct a proper investigation. Then as now, international bodies are unable to overcome the stronghold of local political forces on these events. And then as now, we as a people remain at a loss as to what happened.

We wait (and some of us actively work) for justice, but justice is not forthcoming.

And, justice will remain elusive if we do not begin to articulate and practice a radically different politics. A politics built on an honest assessment of all parties, including the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party. A politics based on a true grassroots movement with a vision for a radically different economy and a new state that is neither secularist nor Islamist.

Our crossroads

In all fairness to the MDP, it has advocated calls and actions for justice for Afrasheem, Rilwan and now Yameen. But, even at this crucial hour, the MDP’s grand strategy remains the party leader former President Mohamed Nasheed’s release. Underlying this insistence is a belief that Nasheed will right all wrongs, that only his presidency can lift us out of the confounding misery we find ourselves in. 

We contest this.

It seems that the first thing we must do in this instance is to assess the crossroads at which we stand. We need this assessment to understand why campaigns for justice for Afrasheem, Rilwan, and now Yameen, are failing. More importantly, we need it to understand why we keep using the same strategies when alternatives exist. 

We do not yet know all the facts surrounding Afrasheem’s, Rilwan’s and Yameen’s cases. But we get a strong sense that radical religion-based forces have normalised, if not justified, these atrocities. For all three men, the common denominator is their moderate to liberal takes on Islam and criticism of violent extremism.

However, we need to take this analysis one step further.

Extremist ideologies as a political project

We need to recognise that the extremist ideologies in our society are at their core, part of a political project. Those who espouse these ideologies may not be immediately after political office and the material riches that come with it. But they do seek power and control over the terms of the basic structure of society and the basic form of the state. It is a political project because they want to win over our hearts and minds. So we must recognise these political dimensions of extremist views.

But the problem is not that it is a political project.

The problem is, it wants to inculcate our society and state with a worldview that is antithetical to humility, mutual respect, tolerance, constructive reason, and non-violence. Thus, the prospects can be dire for our very way of life. These are not forces to be taken lightly and brushed aside as manic, fleeting, or minor. They are organised, materially sufficient, and possibly connected to powerful political figures. 

This brings us to the next important fact: these views have thrived on failed politics.

Responsibility of political parties

All mainstream political parties share blame for the rise of these extremist ideologies.

It is not very difficult for the liberal-minded among us to criticise President Yameen’s government. In fact, many of us do it on a daily basis. It is no secret that his government has stolen millions from public coffers. It is also well known that his government has increased repression and has scaled back several freedoms.

But what we haven’t been able to do so far is to question how his government benefits from religious extremism. Could these killings be a diversionary tactic to distract us from the government’s breathtaking corruption and undemocratic hold on power? Are Yameen and his party benefiting from the extremist ideologies that increase the conservatism of our voters?

In other words, is Yameen’s faction of the PPM re-inventing itself as the religious right in the Maldives?

If Yameen’s government has made a deal with the devil, then this dealmaking was in part made possible because of Mohamed Nasheed and his MDP. Two of their policy agendas in particular further enabled extremism: an incoherent religious policy and a failed economic agenda. No matter how one cuts it, the MDP not only showed itself to be on the side of the economic right, but also paved way for the rise of the religious right.

Unprincipled religious policy

All political parties have serviced Islam in the quest for power, instead of servicing power in a principled manner for religion.   

It is not hard to see that president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom functionalized Islam for power. But those of us, who may be liberal-minded, may not see this straightforward link with regard to the MDP.

The MDP’s biggest failure in this respect was its lack of a coherent policy towards religion.

On the one hand, from its inception, the MDP serviced religion for power. The so-called religious uniformity policy is a clear example. No party constitution had such a clearly stated policy of enforcing uniformity of religion. As a logical outcome of this, in order to out-Islamize Gayoom’s functionalized Islam, the MDP attempted a policy of co-option. Worse still, to implement this unprincipled policy, the MDP mainly chose one particular set of actors – those that contributed to the religious right – to dominate over religion.

On the other hand, when the unprincipled policy of co-option failed (both before it came to power and after it came to power), the MDP pursued a secularist policy of demonization of mainstream Islamist groups who might have been open for democratic learning. From Turkey to Egypt to Tunisia, we have seen the evolution of Islamist groups towards embracing a civil form of politics and Islam that protect not only the sanctity of religion but also embrace ideological pluralism. 

The MDP’s incoherent religious policy encouraged extreme views on both ends of the ideological spectrum. When some amongst us openly insulted religious sensibilities, the MDP failed to uphold a principled position. This further strengthened the religious right. And, when those on opposite side of the spectrum took matters into their own hands by promoting violence, they carried on such actions with apparent impunity. The MDP government had failed to take action against individuals who committed religion-based attacks and harassment. The release, for political ends, of those arrested from Himandhoo island after a so-called “de-radicalisation program” showed the true nature of this incoherent policy.

In truth, this incoherent religious policy is essentially premised on MDP’s unstated liberal secularist biases and elitist quest for power: the secularist biases that wrongly assume that mainstream secularism is essential for democracy and the quest for power for power’s sake.

In short, the MDP failed to articulate a vision for a ‘civil state’: a state that is neither secularist nor Islamist, and nor functionalizes Islam for power.

Shattered neoliberal economic landscape

Less direct, but perhaps more instrumental in breeding extremist thought was the MDP’s failed economic policy. The conservatism of the MDP government on economic matters was astounding given the liberal and spirited grassroots movement that carried the party to power.

By succumbing to the dictates from international financial institutions such as the IMF, the MDP government, like centrist liberal parties everywhere, promoted a neoliberal economic agenda that worsened inequality.

The retreat of the state from the direct provision of public services dealt a blow to the ordinary person. The privatisation of education under the MDP government worsened the segregation in the school system. Wealthy families sent their children to elite international schools and the poor had no choice but to settle for a rapidly deteriorating public school system. Segregation based on income only served to perpetuate unequal opportunities for young Maldivians.

The MDP asked the average person to make sacrifices in order to balance the national budget, but the party handed out political appointments, government contracts and islands to party elites and donors with unprecedented generosity. The government’s scheme to lease islands in return for infrastructure development only served to open the door to corruption, and reinvigorate the country’s already crippling elite political culture. In most cases, the infrastructure investments promised to people in local islands failed to materialise or were poorly implemented. The appointment of MDP activists to political positions, some of which were redundant from the beginning, was a betrayal to the almost 7000 civil servants who were laid off between 2008 and 2011. Worse, political appointees on average earned nine times more than the civil servant.

Needless to say, as neoliberal programs everywhere, the MDP’s economic agenda entailed austerity for the poor, and abundance for the rich.

To soften the blow from austerity, the MDP government implemented a social safety net.

While a social safety net was much needed, it could not be a substitute for the dignity that comes with holding a job, earning a regular paycheck, and giving one’s children a proper education. When it came to economic policies that could empower the people and allow them to fight for their material well-being, such as a living wage, rent control, and unionisation, the MDP fell short.

The crucial point here is that the party failed on economic issues because it chose to prioritise the material interests of its elites and donors. As a result, austerity presented itself as inevitable. The party had no imagination and no political will to restructure the economy to benefit the majority. A democratic socialist alternative to the neoliberal agenda was never on the table.

It is in the shattered landscape of the failure of neoliberal economic policies that radical ideologies and individuals thrive with their philosophies of liberation, salvation and redemption. In other words, these policies created fertile ground for extremist radical ideas and individuals.

The failures of these policies – together with the rise of the religious right – reproduced and emboldened the (non-religious) predatory elite political culture. It reproduced itself in more unholy, criminal, and corrupt ways. This was the final blow to our nascent democracy.

Predatory elite political culture and its anti-democratic alliances

MDP officials had initially diagnosed Gayoom’s authoritarianism using liberal democracy’s minimalist institutional yardsticks: elections, lack of separation of powers, political parties, and institutions of horizontal accountability.

Again in all fairness to the MDP, democratic institutions were weak when the party assumed power. However, this fact alone cannot explain why their government failed so spectacularly. The MDP and liberal commentators have spilt much ink to blame de-democratization on religious extremism, the security forces, liberal democracy’s shallow institutions, and the then opposition.

But our diagnosis for the rollback of democracy is quite different. We argue that a fundamental obstacle to democracy in Maldives is the predatory elite political culture that provides little to no opportunity for ordinary people to partake in political decision-making. 

The principles of the elite culture are twofold: political power and money. As London School of Economics researcher Elizabeth Colton argued in the 1980s, elites are “endlessly involved in devising schemes, either to come into power or hold on to…power”. But, in the execution of these schemes and plots for power, corrupt money from the wealthy is crucial.

There are at least two ways power and money are interdependent in this culture. First, the state and political society depend on money. In one respect it is legitimate in that it comes in the form of tax. But, in other respects, politicians are beholden to corrupt money: for their own enrichment or their own political power or both.   

Second, those who provide the money depend on political power and favour to control wealth and public resources. Some of them do not just provide corrupt money. They are indeed part-time politicians. The gist of Elizabeth Colton’s statement about the dependency of these actors on political power holds true to this day:

“[T]he chief entrepreneurs of the tourist industry, who worked all afternoon and night managing their resorts and made more money (in foreign currency) than most other Maldivians, still felt obliged to hold government jobs, at which they worked every morning”.

Because power and money are the key principles of this culture, attitudinally, powerful elite actors do not hold the belief that ordinary people can govern collective life. Behaviorally, therefore, they are ready to sacrifice democratic values whenever those values are in the way of their quest for power or money.

Although this predatory political culture predates the MDP, the party’s misdiagnosis or intentional ignoring of the true nature of authoritarianism, its failed religious policies, its failed neoliberal economic policies, and its own political scheming and plotting, only reproduced the predatory elite political culture in the country.

In this reproduction of the predatory elite political culture, the elites formed increasingly undemocratic alliances: an unholy alliance with the religious right, a criminal alliance with the gangs, and a more corrupt alliance between political elites and business elites. (The latter now include transnational corrupt money too.)

That became the biggest enemy of our nascent democracy. That remains true to this day.

And, the MDP continues to facilitate its further reproduction.

Towards a new politics

When we make this assessment of our current predicament, we cannot throw our lot behind the MDP and at the same time believe that Afrasheem, Rilwan and Yameen will get justice. We cannot continue to repeat the same mistakes and hope for something different.

What all this comes down to is one central idea: we do not have saviours. The American government, the British Tories, the Saudis, the Indian government, neither the MDP nor the PPM can deliver us from our current woes.

To truly begin building an emancipatory political movement, we must first come to terms with the failure of the MDP and every other party in this country. We must begin to think about our current situation not only as a failure of elites, but as a failure of politics.

That is to say, we – of course, including the two of us as citizens – are complicit. We need to be more critical, and less willing to applaud. We need new analyses, new ways of reading our current predicament; we need to reset the terms of the debate. We need to meet the challenge of tackling the forces that enable the killing of people like Yameen and the abduction of Rilwan.

We need to understand that democracy does not require secularist ideology, but only a principled policy towards religion – a Civil State.

We need to fundamentally restructure our economy so that everyone benefits from our natural resources, and not just the few. We need to think of ways to pull people out of poverty and addiction, not with handouts, but with good education and decent jobs – a democratic socialist alternative.

We need to understand the true nature of the predatory elite culture that seeks power for power’s sake and pumps corrupt money to ever reproduce it. We need a political force that can subvert this crippling culture – a true grassroots movement.

Only a radically different politics can help us get justice for Yameen Rilwan, and Afrasheem.

Fathima Musthaq is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. Azim Zahir is a PhD candidate in Political Science at The University of Western Australia.

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