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Ex-Islamic minister defends scholars after Afrasheem murder report

Differences of opinion with the moderate scholar were purely academic, Shaheem said.



Former Islamic minister Dr Mohamed Shaheem has defended local clerics after a presidential commission concluded that Dr Afrasheem Ali was killed in October 2012 by an extremist group affiliated with al-Qaeda.

The group believed Afrasheem was guilty of blasphemy as well as mocking Islam and declaring forbidden activities as permissible, the commission found, prompting criticism of clerics and religious conservative groups that had been at odds with the moderate scholar.

“Maldivian Islamic scholars will not encourage killing anyone. The conflicting views among scholars are purely scholarly disputes similar to other academic disciplines,” Dr Shaheem tweeted after the investigation report was released on Sunday. “During my time as minister, I tried to minimise conflicts among scholars, bring them to the same page and create an environment of dialogue. I did a lot of work to reform the ideologies of extremist people,” he added.

On Monday, Shaheem said he was the one who delivered the first fatwa urging Maldivian youth not to fight in foreign wars.

The commission’s report named NGO Salaf and a YouTube channel among groups that incited hatred against Dr Afrasheem, who was dubbed “Dr Ibilees” (Dr Satan) and vilified by local clerics for taking liberal positions on issues such as women’s attire, music and apostasy. In 2008, he was kicked and chased outside a mosque after Friday prayers and in May 2012 the Adhaalath Party condemned him for “mocking the Sunnah.”

The report cleared the former Islamic minister, his Adhaalath Party and other politicians of involvement but Shaheem has been under fire over discrepancies between his statement to the inquiry and text messages gathered as evidence.

Shaheem was accused of lying to the commission about how Dr Afrasheem came to appear on state TV on the night he was murdered. 

Hours before he was brutally stabbed to death in the stairwell of his apartment building, the ruling party lawmaker – who had been barred from appearing on religious talk shows for almost three years – appeared on the Islaamee Dhiriulhun programme coordinated by the Islamic ministry and apologised for “misunderstandings” over some of his views.

According to the commission’s report, text messages between Shaheem and Dr Afrasheem undermined Shaheem’s written statement. Shaheem received a text message before the murder that suggested the unknown senders would “love Afrasheem if he repents and announces on the media.” He forwarded the text to Afrasheem three weeks before he was murdered.

But he claimed not to recall the identity of the person who sent the message.

According to his statement, Shaheem said it was Afrasheem who contacted him about appearing on the programme on October 1. Afrasheem came to the ministry uninvited earlier in the day, insisted on a meeting and asked to go on TV that night, Shaheem told the commission.

“I do not know how he knew there would be a guarantee that he could appear on the show that night. There is no one who could guarantee him that. I do not know why he wanted to go on the show specifically that night. He repeatedly insisted on going on the show that night,” Shaheem said.

But the commission said text messages exchanged between Shaheem and Afrasheem before October 1 suggested discussions had taken place about appearing on a TV show.

On September 25, 2012, a week before the murder, Afrasheem sent Shaheem a text message referring to a conversation between the pair about appearing on TV on October 1 and asked for an update. Two days later, the pair exchanged five text messages and appeared to have had a meeting.

On September 30, Shaheem told Afrasheem that he had spoken to Sheikh Izzudeen about the TV appearance and assured that it would be arranged. If it could not be confirmed, Shaheem offered to arrange a press conference at the ministry.

On October 1, Shaheem confirmed the appearance and asked Afrasheem to come to the ministry at 1pm. Deputy Minister Sheikh Mohamed Gubaadh Aboobakuru also took part and appeared on the TV program alongside Afrasheem.

Afrasheem apologised to the public on air and “tried very hard to explain his faith,” the commission noted.

On Tuesday, Shaheem told Mihaaru that he did not lie to the commission and claimed that the report was incomplete.

Afrasheem had expressed feeling alienated from the community of scholars and wanted to clarify misunderstandings, Shaheem told the newspaper, adding that he was fulfilling a promise to let Afrasheem explain this to the public.

Shaheem said he believed Afrasheem must have the chance since he was a knowledgeable scholar, and tried to minimise the division between Afrasheem and other scholars by organising a dialogue conference.

“When he came to meet me on October 1st, the programme was planned to be different but he said he wanted to go on it. Since I had always promised to do it, I called the program department and suggested to let Afrasheem take part since he has repeatedly requested for it,” Shaheem said, expressing surprise over Afrasheem’s apology.

“He didn’t tell me. It was a surprise to me too. He told me he wanted to clear up misunderstandings about things he had said…I would have stood in Afrasheem’s defense if I had known his life was in danger.”

Shaheem, former president Abdulla Yameen’s running mate in last year’s election, works in Saudi Arabia as an advisor to the secretary-general of the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation.