President Abdulla Yameen has been granted the power to appoint members to the Fatwa Majlis, an advisory body that has the final say on religious disputes.
MPs voted 43-23 with three abstentions to amend the 1994 Protection of Religious Unity Act to authorise the president to appoint members to the five-member council without parliamentary approval.
According to the government-sponsored amendment, the president will directly appoint three members as well as a fourth member of his choosing from the faculty of the Islamic University of Maldives. The fifth member will be recommended by the Islamic minister.
The five-member council is presently comprised 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 are appointed to serve five-year terms.
The Fatwa Majlis, or the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, was formed after the parliament revised the religious unity law in April. It was set up to replace the Fiqh Academy, established during the administration of former President Mohamed Nasheed in 2010 with a mandate to resolve differences of opinion and disputes on religious issues.
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.
Opposition lawmakers criticised the changes approved on Monday, characterising it as part of the executive’s efforts to maintain influence or control over independent bodies.
Speaking to the Maldives Independent, former Islamic Minister Dr Abdul Majeed Abdul Bari condemned the president’s “desire to control Islamic teachings,” which he warned could lead to conflict.
“We see this in many countries today. The public will not have trust in the Majlis as it solely consists of political appointees. And this is a serious matter if the public loses trust in scholars and Islamic teachings,” he said.
The “politicisation” of the Fatwa Majlis could also drive the public towards scholars who harbour more extreme views, he contended.
“The public will seek knowledge on their own even if they do not trust the Majlis. This may result in misinterpretation of the religion which could result in adaptation of extreme views,” he said.
Ali Zahir, the spokesman of the religious Adhaalath Party, also condemned the amendment as “politically motivated”.
He added: “Surely the intention of this move is to intentionally misinterpret Islam. I call on the religious scholars of the Maldives to wake up from their sleep and see what’s happening around them. Surely, soon enough, they will see that all their rights have been snatched away from them.”