“next is u. We’re in the neighborhood. :)”
“your frnd was screaming like a girl.”
This was a comment left by a Maldivian Facebook user on a post mourning the murder of blogger Yameen Rasheed. It was just one of many cyber threats made against the 29-year-old’s friends and others in the wake of his killing on April 23.
In the days since Yameen’s mutilated body was found in the stairway to his apartment, his family members and friends said their grief has been compounded by threats of more killings, and an array of comments by clerics and other religious figures, justifying his murder claiming he was an apostate.
Human rights advocates said the threats, as well as the violent discourse around apostasy, was chilling evidence of deepening radicalisation in the Maldives. Without government action, they said they feared there would be more killings.
Yameen’s murder was met with an outpouring of grief and tributes to his courage and advocacy for free speech despite the numerous death threats he received. As some tributes flowed, a new website cropped up, http:thedu.xyz, with an article entitled, “There is no praying for mercy for Yameen Rasheed, who mocked religion.” The article was shared widely across Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms before the website was taken down.
The article on Thedhu, meaning truth in Dhivehi, said apostasy and mocking Islam were punishable by death and was accompanied by selective verses from the Qura’n and the Prophets Sunnah, his words and deeds.
Two days after Yameen’s murder, a Facebook page called Qafila (meaning caravan in Arabic) threatened more killings against those it accused of campaigning for secularism. It spoke of a hit list and announced that there would be no rest until all apostates are beheaded.
Qafila’s first post was a blood-spattered image of Yameen, his best friend Ahmed Rilwan, the Maldives Independent journalist who was disappeared in 2014, and a third blank space with the words “loading next”.
“The apostates. We have identified you. You will all be killed,” it said in Dhivehi.
Another post of an image of Yameen’s head and a knife said: “We will not rest until the heads of all apostates and heretics have been severed from their bodies.”
A third said in English: “Is your neighbour an atheist? Kill just one!”
The page also identified others it considered to be apostates, including Professor Hassan Ugail, a Maldivian scientist at the UK’s University of Bradford.
Qafila was taken down by Facebook in response to a number of complaints.
Another Maldivian who was threatened was Muzaffar ‘Muju’ Naeem, a blogger who describes himself as a “secular humanist”.
“Your mate… is now rotting in Jahannam (hell) so live your life by counting minutes,” a Facebook user called Abu Mishka Al-Dot, who also identified as Munaz Bin Muhammad, warned Naeem on April 30.
At the same time, clerics and religious groups, who have huge online followings, took to social media expressing concern over apostasy and mockery of religion, while downplaying the murder of alleged apostates.
While they did not name names, critics said their comments effectively justified Yameen’s murder and swayed the tide of public sympathy.
Sheikh Shafeeu Abdulla, a licensed preacher who has more than 15,000 followers, said on April 24: “To hold people who mock religion as champions of free speech is a grave wrong. They are not heroes…”
In a second post that same day, he said that between murder and mocking Islam, the latter was the lesser of the sins.
Sheikh Adam Nishan, another licensed cleric who has nearly 12,000 followers, in a Facebook post on April 25, said apostasy was punishable by death and went on to identify the characteristics of an apostate. However, he cautioned, it was scholars, and not members of the public, who must make that judgment.
In an earlier post on April 23, seen widely as an apparent response to the outpouring of grief over Yameen’s murder, he said there had been many “Muslims by name” who had also mourned the deaths of villains from Islamic history, including Abu Jahl, a tribal leader known for his opposition to Prophet Muhammad.
Meanwhile, Al Asr, a prominent religious network headed by Sheikh Adam Shameem, a member of the Fatwa council, the Maldives’ top religious body, and an anti-democracy cleric who campaigns for strict Islamic law, posted an image on April 28 saying: “To mock and make jokes is a characteristic of apostates and hypocrites.”
The quote was attributed to Sheikh Abdullah Saudhan.
None of these clerics condemned the murder. In fact, only a handful spoke against it, such as Dr Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed, former Islamic minister and chancellor of the Islamic University of Maldives.
Posts accusing Yameen of mocking Islam also appeared on the Facebook Page, Siru Arts, run by Mohamed Siruhan, a campaigner for strict Islamic law, including the death penalty and the niqab, who has a following of more than 40,000. Siruhan had previously clashed online with Yameen and others he accused of being secularists.
He posted screen grabs from Yameen’s blog and his Twitter posts in the wake of his murder, blasting Yameen for alleged mocking of Islam. These posts were later taken down. On April 24, Siruhan said: “I did not put up posts about Yameen to justify his murder.. But only because he was made out to be national hero… In order to expose the truth about him”.
Most of these posts were widely shared and hundreds of Maldivians left the message, Ameen or Amen, in support – a trend that has worried human rights advocates in the country.
Shahindha Ismail, the executive director of Maldivian Democracy Network, told the Maldives Independent that such narratives promote vigilante justice and encourage hardliners to take the law into their own hands.
“Even though threats and incitement to violence are made openly, often through authentic accounts, the government has failed to take action,” she said.
“They’re operating with complete impunity… and anyone who challenges them is under risk,” she added.
Azim Zahir, a researcher at the University of Western Australia who studies hardline groups in the Maldives, said for some “violent extremists”, secularists and atheists pose the biggest obstacle to their dream of a 100 percent Islamic state in the Maldives.
“They are convinced that people like Yameen Rasheed should be killed – that it is a religious duty to do so,” he said in an email.
He added that such narratives put the lives of human rights activists and those who call for moderate Islam in danger.
“When Facebook pages by known figureheads put up photos of people and call them disbelievers and also promote religion-based discourses that such people may be killed, such actions can put people’s lives under harm,” he said.
“Authorities must take appropriate action against such activities by known figureheads.”