Religious political rhetoric in the campaign for the April 6 parliamentary elections could incite violence, the chair of a presidential commission investigating unresolved murders and disappearances has warned.
Husnu Suood expressed concern after the opposition Progressive Party of Maldives and Jumhooree Party stepped up attacks against the Maldivian Democratic Party with rehashed accusations of a hidden anti-Islamic agenda.
The inquiry commission’s findings show a direct link between such rhetoric and acts of violence, Husnu Suood told the Maldives Independent.
“The information we have suggests the use of religion as a political tool has emboldened people to commit acts of violence, not necessarily religious scholars or people who have a formal Islamic education, but maybe people who have learned about religion on the internet,” he said.
Last week, Suood revealed that the the attempted murder of blogger Ismail Khilath Rasheed in June 2012, the assassination of lawmaker Dr Afrasheem Ali in October 2012, the abduction of Maldives Independent journalist Ahmed Rilwan in August 2014, and the murder of blogger Yameen Rasheed in April 2017 were all connected and carried out by an extremist group.
All four were accused of being laadheenee (secular or anti-Islamic). Yameen was killed by a radicalised group of young men who believed he was guilty of blasphemy and insulting Islam, according to police.
Religion has been a hot-button issue in local politics.
Former president Mohamed Nasheed was accused of pursuing a secularisation agenda during the former MDP government. Religion was also a prominent part of the 2018 campaign with former president Abdulla Yameen accusing the opposition coalition of planning to introduce anti-Islamic practices to the 100 percent Muslim Maldives.
On Monday, Jumhooree Party leader Gasim Ibrahim – one of the four leaders of the divided ruling coalition – stirred controversy by telling supporters that the MDP would build temples and churches in the Maldives, an allegation that was also used during previous election cycles.
“What will happen today if MDP gets a majority in the parliament? [They will] build churches here, build temples. People of other religions will have the opportunity to live in the Maldives. Then we will be forced to wage war,” the business tycoon told supporters on Himandhoo island in Alif Alif atoll, the site of a violent standoff between an extremist group and security forces in 2007.
MDP spokeswoman Afshan Latheef dismissed Gasim’s claims as “ridiculous.”
Suood added that the effects of divisive rhetoric outlast the heat of political campaigns.
“From the earliest days, we can remember accusations of attempting to build churches or temples and labeling people as laadheenee. Some people really believe these accusations and such accusations have led to violence,” he said.
“During 2010-2011, also we saw this happen, some people were harassed and threatened because of this rhetoric. Even though politicians see this as a campaign tactic or a tool to win the election, the effects of these words lasts much longer. It leads to violence and acts of terrorism. I am saying, don’t do that.”
Gasim’s speech was part of a nationalistic campaign with the slogan ‘Maldivian lands for Maldivians’ launched on Sunday night.
“Even today we are seeing the same rhetoric being used. Earlier it was PPM, now it is Gasim. It is a claim that he cannot verify or prove but it sows discord in the society. I think the Elections Commission should intervene in cases like this, especially when it is the speaker of parliament who is making such accusations,” Suood said.
Earlier that month, police launched an investigation into hate speech and death threats after a public chat channel started branding individuals as apostates.At least three people, including a local cleric and radio journalist branded as an apostate, were questioned for the probe.