The parliament has amended the 1994 Religious Unity Act to set up a new Supreme Council for Islamic affairs with the authority to issue fatwas or legal opinions on religious disputes.
The amendment bill proposed by ruling Progressive Party of Maldives MP Ahmed Rasheed Ibrahim was passed with 53 votes in favour and three against at Tuesday’s sitting of the People’s Majlis.
The five-member council is to comprise of two members chosen by the president, a judge selected by the chief justice, a board member of the Islamic University and a member chosen by the ministry of Islamic affairs.
The members of the council, its president and vice president would be appointed by the president for a five-year term, and will function under the Islamic ministry, according to the amendment passed yesterday.
The Supreme Council’s mandate involves ensuring religious unity, raising public awareness on religious issues, conducting forums for religious scholars, and publishing a magazine with scholarly writings on contentious issues.
The new council must formulate rules and regulations governing the issuance of fatwas as well as the council’s administrative functions within six months after the amendments are ratified by the president.
Speaking to The Maldives Independent today, MP Imthiyaz Fahmy, spokesperson of the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party, said the aim of the new council is “to use religious authority to issue fatwas as a political tool to demonise opponents and suppress the public further.”
The council will replace the Figh Academy, established during the administration of former President Mohamed Nasheed in 2010. Since its formation, the academy has issued ten fatwas, including one prohibiting participation in foreign civil wars. It has also issued fatwas on abortion, kosher meals, marriage of inmates, Muslims visiting temples, taxation, and life insurance.
The new fatwa council comes amidst growing criticism of President Abdulla Yameen’s administration by Islamic scholars.
In January, some 31 prominent scholars published an open letter urging Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed and the judicial watchdog to stem the tide of eroding public trust and confidence in the Maldivian judiciary.
The religious conservative Adhaalath Party, a former ally of the ruling PPM whose leader was jailed for 12 years in February on a terrorism charge, has also called on Maldivian scholars to stand up against the government.
Expressing concern over the formation of the new fatwa council, AP Vice President Sheikh Ali Zahir said: “We fear the government will appoint their loyalists to the council, such as all other independent institutions, in order to issue fatwas for political purposes”.
He also said that the government’s use of religion for political ends will only embolden the activities of religious fundamentalists, “an issue that the government has refused to adequately address, or even acknowledge in some instances.”
In late February, the PPM condemned the AP’s accusation that it was more anti-Islamic than the MDP administration.