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Mourning the brutal murder of Yameen Rasheed

Azim Zahir examines the rise of Salafi-Wahhabism, the more recent Salafi-Jihadism, and the new type of violence represented by the cases of Dr Afrasheem Ali, Ahmed Rilwan and Yameen Rasheed.



We’re shocked to hear Yameen Rasheed, a 29-year-old youth, has been stabbed to death. It is impossible to explain how we feel about this brutal killing. I write this as I mourn the death of Yameen, who I have known personally.

Like Yameen’s best friend, Ahmed Rilwan – who is still missing after his abduction in August 2014 – Yameen is known as one of the most prominent Maldivian bloggers.

Yameen is a brilliant critic of the corrupt Maldivian political system as his weekly satirical blog roundups testify.

He is a fierce critic of the Salafi-Wahhabi re-Islamisation that is remaking the face of Islam in the Maldives. He has consistently criticised violent Salafi-Jihadism that has recently emerged in the Maldives.

Yameen is a democrat. He is a humanist. He is a young critical rationalist. Like his best friend Rilwan, he is a master of irony and satire. He is a great writer and blogger.

He is no doubt a very bright mind, an enormously kind heart.

For me, it is best to characterise Yameen as a critical youth exploring the many complexities of their modern life, but, above all, trying to stand against all forms of bullshit and injustices.

Since Rilwan’s abduction, Yameen has been tirelessly campaigning to seek justice and accountability for Rilwan. That is, until the early morning hours of Sunday, when he was found stabbed under the stairway of the building where he lives in Male.

Recall that in 2013 religious scholar and Member of Parliament, Afrasheem Ali, was stabbed to death in a similar manner.

To date, the authorities have failed to solve any of these cases.

I have little doubt the authorities are complicit in these cases to the extent of their failure to account for these cases.

A new type of violence

Although rare in the past, murders are not unprecedented in the Maldives. But as anthropologist Elizabeth Colton, who did research in the early 1980s, says, physical violence in general was not a prominent feature of the Maldivian culture.

It is only in recent years there has been a steady increase in murders, to the point they may now be “normalised” in the society. Even then, a number of these murders were related to gang violence.

However, these recent cases of violence – Afrasheem Ali, Ahmed Rilwan, and Yameen Rasheed – may mark a qualitatively different type of violence: they also represent a metaphysic of violence. These cases of violence share an ideological subtext that takes from religion-based discourses.

Afrasheem Ali is a religious scholar, but he was a prominent critic of the more militant Salafi-Jihadist views and certain Salafi-Islamist interpretations of Islam. For instance, he supported women’s political right to be a president. Contrast this with even otherwise moderate Salafi-Islamists such as the chancellor of Maldives’ Islamic University, Muhammed Shaheem, who does not believe women have such a right under his version of sharia. Ali’s murder followed after several instances of harassment and death threats.

Similarly, both Rilwan and Yameen define a certain variety of new ideological developments among many from the young generation. They both come from secular humanist, sometimes fiercely rationalist, but other times, Sufi-oriented eclectic Islamic backgrounds.

They are conscious of the erosion of the traditional Sufi-oriented Shafi’i Sunni Islam represented by great Maldivian religious masters such as Taj al-Din, Naib Tuttu and Hussain Salahuddin, which existed for over four hundred years. We sometimes see this in their mourning of the Maldivian culture, its traditions, its rituals, and its cultural artefacts and heritage.

These orientations of these young people have troubled Salafi-Wahhabis and Salafi-Jihadists alike. Their deaths followed after constant death threats and harassment from these groups.

Salafi-Wahhabi re-Islamisation and violence

I’m of course not suggesting Salafi Wahhabi scholars or their affiliates are behind the murders of Afrashim Ali and Yameen and the abduction of Rilwan. On the contrary, I want to clarify what I believe where Salafi-Wahhabism does stand in these qualitatively different cases of violence.

Salafi-Wahhabism has contributed to a discourse that sympathises with, if not outright promotes, intolerance, sometimes bordering on violence.

Such intolerance exists especially towards the variety of secular humanist rationalism and Sufi-oriented eclectic Islam represented by people like Ahmed Rilwan and Yameen Rasheed. These intolerant views take secular humanist rationalism and eclectic Islam more dangerous than violent extremism.

What I am suggesting therefore is Salfi-Wahhabism has contributed towards discursive radicalisation. The more militant versions like Salafi-Jihadism has benefited from these intolerant discourses of Salafi-Wahhabism.

Salafi-Jihadism sees the Maldives as a land of infidels. It sees most of its inhabitants as infidels, and the government and its politicians as idolatrous. It glorifies violence and sees it as necessary and justified. It normalises violence as divine Will.

It also sees Salafi Wahhabist scholars as hypocrites. So Salafi-Jihadism is not exactly the same as Salafi-Wahhabism. Salafi-Wahhabism does not hold these specific views of Salafi-Jihadism. Salafi-Wahhabism may openly condemn religion-based violence in specific contexts. But what it does not do is to condemn intolerant attitudes and decontextualized violence.

Thus, many Salafi-Wahhabist figures have targeted individuals like Yameen Rasheed portraying them as enemies of Islam and their secularity as anti-religion.

Rise of Salafi-Wahhabism

It is no small feat that all prominent religious masters of the Maldives such as Salahuddin and successive governments had resisted Salafi-Wahhabism. The modernising president Ibrahim Nasir (r. 1957-1978) suppressed Salafi-Wahhabism, a policy more brutally carried forward by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom between 1978-2004.

Thus, the spectacular rise of Salafi-Wahhabism since especially mid 2000s, is one of the biggest transformation of the religious landscape of the Maldives since its conversion to Islam around 12th century.

Led by new religious figures educated in the madrasa centres in Pakistan and India, and more significantly, from Saudi Arabia, Salafi-Wahhabism has been attempting to make inroads since the 1970s. In the 1970s, for instance, there were a few articles promoting Salafi-Wahhabism in the magazine Amaz. It is only with political liberalisation since mid 2000s, these new Salafi-Wahhabist and Islamist religious scholars have found both civil society platforms and political society avenues to vigorously change the faces of Maldivian Islam.

Given its short history Salafi-Wahhabism’s outreach is indeed mind-boggling, to say the least.

As a result, the long-standing state-society relations where the state had controlled society and Islam have come to an end in the Maldives. Increasingly, it is the Salafi-Wahhabist variety based in public sphere, its civil society organisations, mainstream media, and new media avenues (YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Viber, WhatsApp, etc.) that has dominated the version of Islam that is available to the public.

This variety of Islam is presented as the normal and true Islam. Many ordinary Maldivians may take Salaf-Wahhabism exactly in the terms it presents itself – as the “true Islam” of the Prophet Muhammad and his pious processors.

Salafi-Wahhabism’s critics

But many others like Rilwan and Yameen Rasheed do not think Salafi-Wahhabism is necessarily right. They believe there could be a culturally moulded, ethics-based Islam. They see the true heart of Islam in the hearts of people, not in their garments and life styles. But they do not come in ideological straightjackets.

They are certainly fiercely critical of Salafi-Wahhabism: of its misogynist views; its decrying of Maldivian rich culture such as music, dancing, and singing; its intolerance towards religious freedom; its intolerance towards alternative sexual orientations; its insular worldview of creating hate or dislike towards entire groups of people like Jews; its pseudoscience of explaining everything through religion; its uncritical take on issues in the Middle East; and, its utter hypocrisy when it comes to corrupt states like Saudi Arabia.

They believe there could be an Islam that assumes the integrity of religiosity exists when it is separated from the contingencies of political power and coercive arms of the state. Call it secularism if you may.

Therefore these young people are also aware that Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s Egypt-influenced modernist Islam, which rose to political prominence since 1980s, was overall a negative development. They think so because of his “functionalization” religion for undemocratic endeavours, his “re-Islamising” of Maldivian identity, and his suppression of Salafi-Wahhabists.

In this, they show positions in line with certain views of the great religious masters of the Maldives. We could recall the eighteenth century Maldivian judge, Hasan Taj al-Din, who advised one should have a certain distance to political power or the Sufism-oriented Islam of the great sixteenth century Maldivian scholar Muhammad Jamaluddin who wanted to stay away from Male-based elite politics. Some of the new youth prefer Sufis such as Jalaluddin Rumi. They love singing and dancing and poetry. They in fact love people like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, a favourite of Rilwan.

Some of them prefer Muslim Mu’tazilites and their contributions to rational approaches to religion. Of course these young people love science.

In this, they may sometimes border on scientism, and may be influenced by New Atheism. Some of them may show Enlightenment secularism that sees religion as the anti-thesis of Reason and Peace, and thus must be privatised.

But, above all, they also do value humanism. They detest bullshit of all forms, including political bullshit.

Corrupt politics and violence

Although all these cases of violence do represent a religion-based metaphysical element, it is quite likely they may have non-religious dimensions too.

Individuals like Rilwan and Yameen have been fierce critics of politics of oppression and corruption that prevail in the Maldives. They are threats to elite political culture in the Maldives. Politicians may therefore easily ignore them.

But there is another related possibility too, which involves corrupt politics. We do know, through research, that certain non-religious politicians have developed interdependent relationships with gang members in order to achieve political ends.

Of course political violence has always been an intrinsic feature of Maldivian elite political culture. Coups, counter-coups, violent plots, suppression, torture, banishments, are basic features of politics of the elite political culture. But elite politics has hitherto been using such means as political banishment, its own security personnel, prisons, or mobs of ordinary people, to achieve political ends.

The linking up with gang members has been largely recent developments that take violence to a different level.

Now, what we also do know is that Salafi-Jihadists have been “re-Islamising” these socially radical members of gangs. A number of individuals who have joined the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, for example, come through this “Islamisation of radicals” route.

It is quite possible the interdependencies between criminal gang elements of the society and politics on one hand, and their recent absorption into a metaphysics of religion-based violence on the other hand, has allowed the murder of Dr Afrasheem Ali and the abduction of Rilwan go unpunished.

It is quite possible this was what happened to our friend Yameen too. But this also means we may never know who really are behind these cases of violence as long as the corrupt politics hides them, as it has apparently done so far.

Azim Zahir is a Maldivian PhD Candidate of the University of Western Australia, affiliated with its Centre for Muslim States and Societies and Sydney Democracy Network of the University of Sydney, Australia. E: [email protected]

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