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Minivan Brief: Weaponised Islam and #MvTreeGrab

A roundup of top stories.



Welcome to the Minivan Brief, a daily roundup of the top stories from Maldives media.

Controversy sparked by a report from NGO Maldivian Democracy Network dominated the news cycle. After the Islamic ministry on Thursday sought a criminal probe of the human rights group for “mocking” Islam and threatening religious unity, police promised a thorough investigation and legal action. The case will be investigated as a “serious matter” and “high priority,” police assured in a statement on Saturday night.

In a statement earlier on Saturday, the ministry of community empowerment urged registered civil society organisations to respect religious unity, domestic laws and the constitution, which limits free speech to expression that are “not contrary to any tenet of Islam.” The ministry also noted the previous government’s failure to take action after the ‘Preliminary Assessment of Radicalisation in the Maldives’ was published in 2016, which also included a 2015 report about radical narratives in school textbooks (sections that were highlighted as the most offensive and shared on social media came from the latter report).

As calls to ban MDN and prosecute the report’s authors raged on social media, former president Mohamed Nasheed waded into the debate. “Islam is the most perfect, sacred and civilised religion. In my view, using Islam as a weapon for political opportunity is the biggest insult to Islam,” the speaker of parliament tweeted on Saturday night.

On Sunday morning, Nasheed said he has read the MDN report and noted the “inappropriate” language used about God and Prophet Mohamed, which was “not something Muslims should do.” He also suggested that the public should leave the debate to religious scholars.

Echoing criticism from opposition supporters, former housing minister Dr Mohamed Muizz hit back at Nasheed. Voicing opposition to anti-Islamic words and deeds does not amount to using religion as a weapon, the Progressive Party of Maldives deputy leader tweeted.

Dr Mohamed Iyaz, one of the loudest voices in the #BanMDN campaign, objected to Nasheed’s suggestion that the report dealt with “points debated by religious scholars.” No mortal could challenge the Quran and the Prophet’s sunnah (teachings or way of life), the Adhaalath Party cleric declared.

Islamic ministry meeting with scholars on Saturday

Officials from the environment ministry and Environment Protection Agency met the press on Sunday to address reports about the mass removal of trees from three islands in the northernmost atolls.

The authorities have stopped the removal of trees from Haa Alif Kelaa, State Minister Dr Ali Naseer said at the press briefing. But on Baarah in the same atoll, the removal of more than 600 trees was authorised after an environmental impact assessment to clear land for a sewerage project, he said. On Foakaidhoo island in Shaviyani atoll, the removal of trees was authorised to build a powerhouse and community centre.

EPA Director General Dr Ibrahim Mohamed said the agency will ensure that new trees are planted in accordance with regulations. The agency has been informed that two coconut palms have been planted for every uprooted tree, he added.

A permit must be obtained from the EPA before removing more than 10 trees and an assessment is required for more than 200 trees.

The EPA came under fire last year for authorising the mass removal of trees for the landscaping of new resorts, a practice environmental activists dubbed #MvTreeGrab. Thousands of mature coconut palms and other trees have been removed from natural islands all over the country to landscape reclaimed islands being developed as luxury tourist resorts.

Speaker Nasheed made headlines during a visit to New Delhi over the weekend to attend the World Economic Forum India Summit. The former president backed the Maldives’ stance on the Kashmir dispute as an internal matter for India after the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation criticised the decision to revoke the special status of the Muslim-majority state.

“The Maldives cannot be with the OIC on this issue. None or very few OIC countries are democracies and we don’t think they should be commenting on human rights in India, which is a democracy,” he told The Hindu. “There is nothing for us to comment on, as it has happened through Indian government processes, it is an internal matter for India.”

Nasheed also repeated his allegations about China grabbing land and dragging the Maldives into a debt trap. Chinese-funded infrastructure projects were carried out in the Maldives at inflated costs and business plans designed to fail, he contended, after which China would then demand an ownership stake. “And with equity you relinquish land and sovereignty,” he said.

The remarks came Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid’s recent visit to Beijing was hailed by Chinese Ambassador Zhang Lizhong as a restoration of political trust between the countries.

But the speaker insisted that his criticism was at odds with the Maldivian Democratic Party government’s foreign policy.

“I do hope the MDP government is not looking for arrangements with China. China must reduce the debt to an actual and factual level, not the inflated prices they have given,” he told The Hindu. He added that parliament would not pass legislation needed to implement a free trade deal signed with China by the previous administration.

Speaking at the forum in Delhi, Nasheed blamed China for enabling the  “authoritarian reversal” under former president Abdulla Yameen, whose administration jailed political opponents, restricted constitutional rights and suspended parliament. Citing sources, Nasheed said Yameen’s arrest of the former chief justice triggered a behind-the-scenes confrontation between India and China and expressed concern with the rival powers backing different candidates.

“We are trying to live a peaceful life. We don’t want to be sandwiched in a cold war between rising superpowers,” he said.

The Maldives does not favour the one-party autocratic form of government in China, Nasheed declared. “And if that is going to be exported to the Maldives or anywhere else, we don’t like that and that’s what we’re trying to contain. Not the fact that they want our raw materials, not the fact that they want to push their goods on us or sell their products to us. But please don’t sell your ideology to us.”

As Nasheed predicted, his remarks drew a sharp rebuke from his “good friend” Chinese Ambassador Zhang.