The opposition warned of a “popular uprising and inevitable consequences” as protests continued across the country calling on the government to ban NGO Maldivian Democracy Network over the alleged slander of Islam in a 2016 report on radicalisation.
Recalling the campaign to “defend Islam” that preceded former president Mohamed Nasheed’s resignation in February 2012, the Progressive Congress Coalition warned in a statement issued on Saturday night that the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party’s “obsession with recalibrating the 800-year-old norms and practices to related to the Sunni Muslim faith of Maldivians” could lead to the overthrow of the second MDP government, stressing the “people’s deep-seated devotion to the Islamic faith and their willingness to jealously guard their national identity.”
Religious scholars launched the campaign to ban MDN earlier this month after screenshots of offensive sections in the report were widely shared on social media. The government reacted by suspending the NGO after the Islamic ministry asked police to investigate. But the campaign continued unabated on social media and protest marches took place on several islands over the past three weekends.
On Thursday night, former president Abdulla Yameen joined a demonstration staged by opposition supporters outside the Progressive Party of Maldives office in Malé. The Maldivian people will not tolerate freethinkers or liberal ideologies in the name of democracy when it comes to matters of religion, the opposition leader declared.
An impartial investigation could not be carried out as MDN’s officials were in top posts of President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s administration, he alleged, accusing the government of planning to revise school curriculums to teach secular ideologies.
“If we have to boycott schools we should be ready to boycott schools as well,” Yameen said, repeating allegations that the MDP was funded by foreign parties with an agenda to “erase Islam from the Maldives.”
Opposition supporters also demonstrated at Malé’s western artificial beach on Friday afternoon, calling for the arrest of MDN executive director Shahindha Ismail and the resignation of police chief Mohamed Hameed over his past association with the NGO as its deputy chairman.
Protesters stayed behind barricades near the social centre as riot police prevented a march on the capital’s main thoroughfare. Estimates of turnout at both protests ranged from 50 to 200 people.
On Saturday night, police warned of action against demonstrations staged in violation of the 2013 freedom of assembly law, which was revised during the previous administration to require permission to gather in areas other than the carnival area in Malé’s eastern waterfront designated by the home ministry.
Marches have taken place without any notice, protesters have gathered in prohibited zones and loudspeakers have been used on vehicles, police said, noting its responsibility to provide security and direct traffic.
At least 110 local councils – out of 200 island, atoll and city councils – have meanwhile put out statements condemning the report and backing calls to ban MDN, including several with MDP majorities.
On Friday, the MDP urged its lawmakers, councillors and national council members not to use slogans that support the activities of rival political parties. Releasing statements that encourage opposition activities and joining demonstrations was contrary to the party’s charter and ethical standards, MDP said.
“MDP faced the 2018 [presidential] election with three other parties to form a unity government. MDP believed that the government’s religious affairs will be carried out as proposed by the [Adhaalath Party]. It doesn’t say we have to act upon PPM’s political slogan or a report released in 2015,” tweeted former president Mohamed Nasheed, the MDP’s president and speaker of parliament, who was maintained that the MDN report controversy is being used as a political tool.
Earlier this month, the MDP declared that it will not support shutting down NGOs and called for action against both hate speech and the misuse of freedom of expression to insult Islam.
“Challenging and demeaning Islam, ridiculing the prophet, these aren’t things we will allow. Along with that, we will not give space to do anything to create strife and discord in the name of Islam,” President Solih said during a visit to Hulhudheli island.
Last week, Nasheed reiterated criticism over the failure to arrest “people who authorise bloodshed, make death threats, send people to war, and organise and run branches in the Maldives of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups,” referring to revelations by a presidential inquiry commission last month that a local extremist group linked to al-Qaeda were behind the murders of a moderate scholar, a liberal blogger and abducted journalist, all three of whom were accused of apostasy and blasphemy.
Two young men have since been arrested over death threats made on social media against MDN executive director Shahindha Ismail. According to media reports, a 19-year-old man was arrested from Fuvahmulah island on Saturday after declaring on Twitter that he would “not hesitate to kill”.
Last week, police said some people were trying to take advantage of inflamed public sentiment to sow discord and create divisions, which could lead to unrest, and expressed concern with public calls to violence and social media posts that encourage violence.
The ‘Preliminary Assessment of Radicalisation in the Maldives’ insulted Islam and Prophet Mohamed and included content that was contrary to Islamic tenets and could create religious disputes among the public, police said, assuring that legal action would be taken against those responsible.
Three religious scholars are assisting police in conducting an “academic study” of the report for the purposes of the criminal investigation, police said. The Islamic ministry will also share findings of its separate research into the report, it added. Once the reports are compiled, the relevant authorities will be asked to take “immediate administrative action” against the NGO, police assured.
On Thursday, Assistant Commissioner Mohamed Riyaz told the press that MDN chief Shahindha and Dr Azra Naseem, a contributor to the report, have been summoned for questioning within two weeks. None of the report’s four authors are presently in the Maldives.
Full English statement by the Progressive Party of Maldives-People’s National Congress coalition:
In their effort to woo Western admirers and financiers, the MDP continues to shortchange the country. The overwhelming majority of Maldivians believe, practice and advocate moderate Islam, and the country has been widely acclaimed as a model of peace, harmony and tolerance.
Our social norms are evident in our dedication to welcoming almost one and a half million visitors annually, from all corners of the globe and of all faiths and backgrounds.
Ruling party attempts to tarnish the country’s reputation by branding the Maldives as a “hub of terrorism”, “hotbed of extremism” and “recruitment centre for foreign jihadi fighters” are shameful. If there are any “fundamentalists” in the country, they are the few within the ruling party and their immediate families who are obsessed with the imposition of an alien culture and forcing the population to adhere to their adopted ideals and opinionated interpretation of “free religious expression” hitherto unfamiliar to the country and outside international legal interpretation.
As for threats to national security, the biggest and most evident is Nasheed himself, with his doublespeak and congenital lies having, time and again, put the country in precarious diplomatic situations, attracted ill-informed travel warnings, eroded the country’s sovereignty and made a mockery of the country in the eyes of key development partners and stakeholders.
It is of added concern that they attempt to impose these belief and norms through fear, intimidation and coercion, layered by harsh laws steamrolled through parliament with the aid of their supermajority in the house, and without broad consultation or the slightest inkling of relevance to the social and cultural norms of the country.
For over a month, the country has bene rocked by peaceful yet vivid public displays of anger and frustration over the government’s insistence on condoning a report published by the Maldives Democracy Network (MDN), in which they insult the Holy Prophet of Islam, Muhammed (Peace Be Upon Him) and ridicule the Muslim faith and practices of the Maldivian people.
MDN has, since its inception as the Maldives Detainee Network and rebranding as Maldives Democracy Network, been a fund-raising vehicle and advocacy wing of the ruling MDP. Used successfully over the years to raise illegal campaign funds and to provide political and public relations “cover” and “face lifts” following atrocities by the party’s top brass, MDN’s key membership includes top government officials, as well as the president’s brother-in-law – the incumbent Police Commissioner, senior policymakers at the President’s Office and recently installed judges.
Efforts to condone MDN and gag peaceful protests against the organisation have included threats of arrest under recent terrorism laws.
MDN’s reasoning maybe conventional wisdom in some other countries or societies, but the proud Islamic heritage and prevalent moderate Sunni identity is all that is comprehensible, orthodox and embraced as religious guidance since the time of our forefathers. Not only was the report deeply hurtful to the people, and subsequent bashful remarks by MDN officials, insulated by President Solih himself, have added insult to injury.
President Solih, albeit junior to Nasheed in the ruling party ranks, would also be ill-advised to turn a blind eye to MDN’s mischief and resultant angry public reaction. While many closest and most dear family members planted in key governmental and institutional portfolios feature among MDN’s who’s who, the fortunes of his remaining four year tenure of office are inextricably linked to his action and or inaction on the ensuing controversy.
Seven passages from the MDN report highlighted by scholars as reasons to ban the NGO
(Page 14) Chapter Five [of the school Islam textbook] is about Islamic etiquette. This gives a sense that Islam pervades every single aspect of life. Concepts such as personal finance, how to greet a person, are not necessarily Islamic or Western. It is better taught in another subject, ideally through Civic Education. This trend is recognisable among the Islamic Studies textbooks. If the idea that Islam is the answer for everything is so fiercely posited, then the resulting effect would be that most, if not all, students would believe anything that does not come from Islam is false.
(Page 10) The chapter on Islamic etiquette includes normative values on a number of areas. The lessons comprise of: lessons one, two and seven to nine on respecting elders, people of old age, parents, family members, teachers, friends and neighbours. Lesson three to six contain advice on maintaining etiquette or against anti-social behaviour at home, in public, as a member of society and inside the mosque respectively. There is a brief heading titled “loving yourself and others,” as lesson 10 (Page 120). Under this topic it states, “The best Muslims love themselves and other Muslims.” It does not mention love for humanity as a whole, excluding from the love those who may not share the same religious views.
(Page 11) The fourth Lesson on Islamic etiquette discusses “protecting the tongue.” This lesson could be construed as contrary to the democratic value of freedom of expression. It endorses being silent on “matters that are of no concern” to the speaker. It depicts “protecting the tongue” as a submissive act, where one must not be critical or overtly vocal.
(Page 12) Lesson Four depicts a narrative where Prophet Muhammad’s uncle Abu Talib is on his deathbed, when a Quresh tribesman asks if the animosity between Prophet Muhammad’s followers and his tribe can be resolved. In his response, the Prophet claimed that if they repeated the Islamic creed they would be able to dominate all Arab countries and the rest of the world. This depicts Islam as an empire building religion, set on world domination, and not necessarily of peace and justice. These narratives create the room in which children could internalise the sense of social exclusion and injustice felt by Prophet Muhammad in his evangelism.
(Page 13) – Treaty of Hudhaibiyyah –“opened the door for Muslim take-over of Mecca”, again Empire building depicted as a key characteristic of Islam. However,the chapter on Prophet Muhammad’s generosity, stresses on the importance of the human trait. It places emphasis on how his generosity played a pivotal role in proselytisation, thus deeming it a mandatory quality for his followers.
(Page 13) Lesson Nine is on the important topic of being a moderate Muslim. It says, “Islam is a moderate religion,” and that “it is obligatory to opt for moderation in all activities and where capable accomplish a Sunnah (practices maintained through descendants of Abraham that were reinstituted by Muhammad as Islamic) ritual.
(Page 12) These narratives may perpetuate sense of victimhood felt by Muslims. All the lessons tend to accentuate the differences between the West and ‘the Muslim world’. It discounts the mutually constitutive aspects of both. Perhaps such narratives explain why many disenfranchised youth tend to find ‘Jihad’ appealing, given the indoctrination received at such a young age. There are no critical views on how certain methods of public torture, such as flogging, stoning and execution is legitimised through Sharia and views, even from within Islam, that shun such punishments are not included in the lessons.