The Nasheed Government and its Islamist Opposition
Mention the Maldives, and you think of vacation brochures, beaches and coral reefs. But as a country whose citizen body is completely Muslim, how does it compare politically to the rest of the Islamic world?
The Maldives did not have its first democratic elections until 2008, and then only thanks to gradual reforms introduced under the rule of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in the midst of civil unrest in 2003 and 2005.
Those elections were won by the pro-democracy activist and former political prisoner Mohammed Nasheed, in partnership with Mohammed Waheed Hassan. As part of a left-of-center coalition, they defeated the incumbent president Gayoom and his Maldivian People's Party (DRP).
Nasheed, as the leader of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), aimed to implement a reformist agenda to secure the democratic framework. As Freedom House noted, Nasheed "introduced draft bills guaranteeing freedom of expression and press freedom that remained under consideration by the parliament at the end of 2010."
Also underlying the plans for liberalization was an economic motive: Gayoom had bequeathed a legacy of financial ruin to Nasheed that included Gayoom's failed Air Maldives venture which, after suffering losses of $50 million, declared bankruptcy in March 2000.
In June 2010, several cabinet ministers resigned in protest over what they said were the opposition's hindrance of plans for reform. This opposition, which consisted chiefly of the DRP, had won a plurality of seats in the 2009 in parliamentary elections generally deemed free and fair; together with the judiciary, they then put a stop to Nasheed's initiatives to expand the tourism sector. According to the current tourism minister, Ahmed Adheeb, Nasheed's government tried to bypass the tourism ministry in the allocation of some islands that were to be developed for tourists.
While Nasheed was able to survive that, political opposition to him, most having a Islamist flavor, was escalating. As he began to lose allies in the coalition government, protests by both the opposition and the NGO-organized "street" started to strengthen.
Feeling pressure from the demonstrations, the government announced at the end of December 2011 plans to impose on the Maldives a complete ban on alcohol and pork, a ban on Israeli airlines from operating flights to and from the islands, and a ban on massage parlors, widely equated with brothels.
The tourism industry, however, ignored these restrictions; Nasheed was apparently against imposing them as well.
A few weeks later, in early 2012, the government reversed its stance. The Supreme Court, although rejecting requests for an opinion on whether the Maldives could import pork or alcohol without violating its constitution, rooted in Islamic law, nonetheless declared that there was regulation in the legal framework of the Contraband Act to import both products -- so the practice was not illegal.
Nasheed made his sentiments clear in the wake of this about-face; he affirmed that "the silent majority woke up and they wanted to reverse the ruling…Such extreme calls do not really quite find the resonance with the majority of the people in the country."
Further, Nasheed expressed concerns in January of this year over the revival of the custom of female genital mutilation [FGM, or "female circumcision"], for which countless religious groups had campaigned, along with barring girls from attending school.
The Sydney Morning Herald, which interviewed Nasheed, quoted Shadiya Ibrahim, of the Maldivian women's rights organization the "Gender Advocacy Working Group," as saying, "Being a woman is harder now. The religious Wahhabist scholars preach more forcefully than anyone else can."
Although there is perhaps some blame to be placed on an influx of Wahhabism, the revival of FGM is said to be particularly strong on the outlying islands, where, as the SMH notes, "local imams hold significant influence."
The Maldives, like parts of East Africa and Lower Egypt, mainly follow by tradition the Shafi'i school of Islamic jurisprudence, which rules that female circumcision is obligatory. It is therefore to this tradition, and not Wahhabi ideology, that local Maldivian imams appeal.
As protests gained momentum throughout January, the foreign ministry affirmed that it was "extremely concerned" by the growth of Islamist rhetoric. A leading member of the opposition Dhivehi Qaumee Party, Mohamed Jameel Ahmed, was arrested on charges of hate-speech.
Jameel was said to have accused Nasheed of acting under the influence of Jews and "Christian priests" to undermine Islam in the Maldives; the first charge a reference to Nasheed's policy of trying to normalize relations with Israel. The reports on Jameel's words against Nasheed seem probable: note, for comparison, this anti-Nasheed pamphlet released by Jameel's Dhivehi Qaumee Party.
Accusations arose of authoritarianism on Nasheed's part; these only intensified the protests. On January 16, Nasheed ordered the military to arrest the Chief Justice of the Criminal Court, Abdulla Mohamed, on charges of corruption and obstruction of justice against the friends and family of the former president Gayoom.
Whatever one thinks of Nasheed's claims that "Gayoom is running the judiciary," Nasheed's subsequent defiance of the Supreme Court's calling for Abdulla to be released certainly did not help.
Although it would not be fair to describe Nasheed as an autocrat by nature, he seems to have misstepped in lashing out in his frustration at the judiciary at a time of political crisis. His actions only led many of his allies to turn against him, as opposition activists tied Abdulla's arrest to the fact that Abdulla had deemed Jameel's detention illegal.
Nasheed was finally ousted on February 7, forced to resign, as he claimed, ''under duress'' in a de facto coup d'état; and replaced by Mohammed Waheed Hassan, who had been Nasheed's partner in the 2008 elections. There is much evidence that vindicates Nasheed's account of events on February 7.
First, Abbas Adil Raza, an official of the Jumhoory party that was in opposition to Nasheed at the time, claimed that Nasheed and his supporters were aiming to implement a "devious plan" to "massacre" their opponents on the night of February 6, but only the police and army prevented it. This is, in effect, an admission that there was a coup against Nasheed, albeit justified as a preventive measure. There is nothing to suggest that Nasheed or his supporters were planning any sort of 'massacre.'
Second, the former Environment Minister, Mohamed Aslam, and the former National Security Advisor, Ameen Faisal, both members of Nasheed's MDP party, recently co-wrote a report claiming that the help of police and army officers had been sought to bring about the overthrow of Nasheed.
Rather than trying to answer the allegations of the report put out by Faisal and Aslam, the current government under Mohammed Waheed Hassan has simply called the release of the report, with its list of names of army and police officers as alleged conspirators, an "act of terrorism."
Despite initial denials, the police arrested Chief Superintendent Mohamed Hameed and other officers who cooperated with the report issued by Faisal and Aslam.
For now, Hameed has been released on the orders of the Criminal Court, but on June 19, the police affirmed the existence of an ongoing investigation against Hameed that includes accusations of leaking information to stir up discord among the ranks of the police.
In short, the ousting of Nasheed came about because members of the army and police sided with the growing and increasingly violent protests at the beginning of the year.
Although Mohammed Waheed Hassan may be telling the truth in his insistence that he had no role in the planning and execution of the coup, what is clear is that he was chosen as Nasheed's replacement because he is less willing to confront Islamism in the country, as revealed in an Islamist mob attack in the wake of the coup on the country's national museum. Although this rampage destroyed 99% of the Hindu and Buddhist artifacts associated with the islands' history, dating from the pre-Islamic period prior to the twelfth century, so far, no arrests have been made.
Mohammed Waheed Hassan's response has been to deny any problem with Islamism. As he told reporters, "I can assure you there is no extremist violent action in this country."
Even though there had been incidents of Islamist violence, and Islamist sentiment became more and more overt under the government of Nasheed, at least he recognized the problem and tried to push a program of reform.
In contrast, the current president prefers to be acquiescent and pander to Islamists, incorporating them into his cabinet.
According to Nasheed, Mohammed Waheed Hassan has called his supporters "mujahideen" [holy warriors], and has urged them to defend the Maldives against "the enemies of this country."
What then of the country's future? Nasheed recently announced his intention to stand for the presidency next year, but it is doubtful if he can reclaim the position. Although Nasheed has his supporters, the coup against him was not simply a conspiracy by a few sinister individuals.
Rather, the military and police, facing increasing civil unrest, sided with the opposition against him. Nasheed's liberal views did not sit well with a considerable section of the population; in the 2009 parliamentary elections, the MDP did not even win a plurality of seats.
Even now, apparently many of Nasheed's opponents in government are aiming to have him jailed before the next elections: the parties that opposed Nasheed's government had a recent motion passed in the parliament to set up a committee to investigate allegations of illegal conduct on Nasheed's part: in particular, the possession of containers of alcohol at his residence and the arrest of Abdulla Mohamed. The deputy leader of the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) has already expressed his confidence that Nasheed would be imprisoned by the time of the next elections.
As in Indonesia, the trends on the ground point to the growing influence of the Islamists, who clearly have sympathizers and supporters in the army and police. They also indicate the acceptance of the current president based on how unwilling he is to tackle Islamism head-on, or perhaps even in any fashion. The possibility of an Islamist president after next year's elections seems to be on course.
Update from July 3, 2012: One journalist - Judith Evans - has written to me claiming that Nasheed "worked closely with Islamists." It is of course true that during Nasheed's tenure there was the Islamist Adhaalath party in the MDP-led coalition. However, that does not amount to a close working relationship. While the Adhaalath party may have believed it could get its way following the appointment of Dr. Abdul Majeed Abdul Bari as Minister of Islamic Affairs (who pushed for the proposal to ban Israeli flights to and from the Maldives in December 2011), it is notable that the party was frequently at odds with Nasheed and the MDP throughout his presidency. For instance, in October 2009, the party strongly criticised Nasheed for saying that the death penalty and punishment of amputation should not be incorporated into the penal code: As the leader of the Adhaalath party put it at the time, "Islamic Shari'a is Islamic Shari'a. Things cannot be omitted from it."
The tensions between the MDP and Adhaalath party grew such that in September 2011, the latter decided to break off its coalition agreement with the MDP, citing the policy of normalising relations with Israel, a proposal to make Islamic studies and Dhivehi optional subjects in higher secondary education, concerns expressed by officials in the Nasheed government about Maldivian students who were travelling abroad for Islamic education, regulations permitting sale of alcohol to non-Muslims on inhabited islands, and a lack of cooperation with the Ministry of Islamic Affairs (which was created in 2008) to shut down alleged brothels, alongside complaints such as corruption in government. The rhetoric at this point was notable, with accusations by the Adhaalath party that Nasheed's government was allowing Israel to "influence the country's education curriculum."
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University, and an adjunct fellow at the Middle East Forum.
Related Topics: South Asia | Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
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