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Maldives NGO under investigation for ‘mocking Islam’ in radicalisation report

A campaign has been launched to ban NGO Maldivian Democracy Network.



The Islamic ministry on Thursday asked police to investigate and take action against human rights NGO Maldivian Democracy Network over a 2015 report about radical narratives in school textbooks.

The report mocked Islam and the Prophet Mohamed and included content that was contrary to Islamic tenets and could disrupt the religious unity of Maldivians, the Islamic ministry tweeted.

The complaint was lodged amid growing calls by clerics and opposition supporters to ban MDN after sections were highlighted and screenshots were widely shared on social media. Several ruling party lawmakers, ministers and ruling coalition leaders have since joined the chorus of condemnation. Insulting Islam or the prophet is unacceptable, the consensus holds.

In the face of the public outcry, MDN removed the report from its website and apologised for offending public sensitivities with the language used in the report. The NGO said it has decided to revise the report with the help of religious scholars. “This association respects Islam as well as Maldivian laws and traditions and assures all Maldivian citizens that this association will not repeat such an act hereafter,” MDN said in a statement on Thursday.

The rights group expressed concern with warnings and death threats made against its members and staff. Social media posts with photos of MDN staff that incited violence and hatred with allegations of a plot to erase Islam from the country are also under investigation, police said.

A presidential inquiry commission revealed last month that a local extremist group linked to al-Qaeda were behind the murders of a moderate scholars, a liberal blogger and abducted journalist. All three were accused of apostasy and blasphemy.

One of the passages that was highlighted as the most offensive concerned the Prophet’s night journey or ascension to heaven, “which according to Islamic tradition is when Prophet Muhammad took the significant journey on a steed from Mecca to Jerusalem, ascending to heaven, speaking to Allah and returning to Earth, all in one nigh,” the report stated.

It added: “In an attempt to claim that this story is not merely a fable, the book claims that the tale would stand true ‘even if subject to a contemporary scientific analysis,’ which is a highly questionable statement and does not entail such proof.”

The Maldives constitution limits free speech to expression that are “not contrary to any tenet of Islam.” The 2015 penal code criminalises “criticism of Islam in a public medium with the intention of causing disregard for Islam,” which is categorised as a class one misdemeanour that carries a maximum prison sentence of one year. The 1994 religious unity law also prohibits “attempting to disrupt the religious unity of Maldivians or talking in a manner that creates religious conflict among people.”

A petition launched on Friday night calling on President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih to de-register the NGO has more than 11,000 signatures as of the time of publication. The associations law also prohibits anti-Islamic actions, it noted, suggesting that failure to dissolve MDN “would be an opportunity given to other unlawful associations.”

The petition was launched after a Twitter campaign with the hashtags #BanMDN and #DefendIslam, which started trending with thousands of tweets.

On Friday night, the Adhaalath Party – one of four parties in the ruling coalition – called for the criminal prosecution of MDN staff responsible for the report. The religious conservative party appealed against both insulting Islam and inciting violence against individuals or groups.

On Saturday morning, Islamic Minister Dr Ahmed Zahir Ali met local clerics to discuss extremism and the mocking of Islam.

Last month, a Maldivian man was arrested on charges of insulting Islam on social media and a 15-day remand period was granted by a magistrate court. The 38-year-old has since been provided counselling by the Islamic ministry, police told local media last week. He was brought to Malé for a psychological assessment and religious counselling sessions, a police media official said.

In late September, a Facebook page operated by a Maldivian that mocked Islam and the prophet was removed upon request by the government. Asked about public anger over such pages at a press conference last week, Police Commissioner Mohamed Hameed said police were trying to identify the anonymous locals who promote such content, which he contended poses a threat to public order and societal harmony. The government is also revising the 1994 religious unity law in order to authorise more effective action, the police chief said.