MDN banned for ‘blasphemy’, forced into exile

Shahindha Ismail and Mushfiq Mohamed

The Government of Maldives banned the Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN) from the Maldives two years ago in a state of paralysis, to appease religious hardliners within and outside of the government structures. MDN published their assessment on violent extremism in the Maldives in 2016. Three years later, a year into the new President Ibrahim Solih’s tenure, the coalition government made the decision to shut down the organisation on 19 December 2019. It did so despite calls from international groups and governments and despite the stark absence of any due process. 

Then in January 2020, the Maldivian government seized all of the donor funds in MDN’s bank accounts. The authors of the ‘MDN report’ are still alive solely because of the support and assistance of the human rights community outside of the Maldives and the foreign governments that chose to protect their rights.

The “Ban MDN” Smear Campaign

Smear campaigns in the Maldives have an identifiable pattern and modus operandi. A known, and often a well respected, religious group publishes material online accusing another group or an individual of being anti-Islamic. It then gets picked up by violent groups and political opponents. 

The smear campaign against MDN began days after the NGO published its review of the government-proposed amendments to the Anti Terrorism Act in September 2019. It rapidly escalated into a violent protest that moved from online to offline spaces and spread throughout the country. Dozens of people demonstrated on multiple islands calling to burn and kill the authors of the report and ban MDN. The law enforcement, however, was absent from these scenes. 

An anonymous Twitter handle called @SecularErazer began doxxing MDN and its staff as early as August 2019. Twitter posts alone carrying the hashtag #BanMDN exceeded 39,000 by February 2020 and continues to be used today despite MDN’s local deregistration. The smear campaign has now evolved into using MDN as a dog-whistle term to refer to secularism and those who identify as liberal Maldivians. 

“We have to shut you down or we may lose the government” 

“We had to sacrifice MDN, you have to understand what was at stake” 

These are but some of the justifications used at the time by those who took the decision to ban MDN. Official responses from the government to the UN Special Procedures have asked the UN to “view this as an isolated incident”. The government stated that the incident had the potential to cause a threat to national security.

What remains clear is that it was a critical inflexion point for the country. Not a single politician or civil society actor or human rights activist in the Maldives unequivocally and publicly said MDN’s ban is unacceptable, or at least that it was arbitrary in every sense of the word. Fear is a word that was casually thrown around at the time. It is also used very selectively when the perpetrators of violence are interconnected to those behind religious extremists. In a small community like the Maldives, there is barely a degree of separation between corrupt politicians, zealous clerics, and violent groups.

It is the bare minimum to say that human rights workers should be able to work freely and without threats. It should not be controversial to say that people have the right to live and work in their home country. To give back and serve your community. And in a country where violent groups kill, violently attack, or force into exile journalists and activists—it is even more important for state officials to reiterate these simple truths. If this is the reality of the strangled media freedom and civic space, what does it mean for those vulnerable individuals and groups whose rights they defend?

The truth is, banning MDN was due to more than just a lack of principles and values or a lack of respect for the rule of law. Local politicians and NGOs directly benefited from MDN’s forced deregistration. 

The Roots of Sectarian Violence

It goes without saying that those who would most benefit by silencing MDN are those religious hardliners profiled in the 2015 MDN report on the drivers of violent extremism in the Maldives. The profiles are supported with evidence of violent extremist content those individuals and organisations have been promoting in the country for years without interruption. These include messaging in government-approved sermons and other informal mediums. 

Regardless of whether MDN is silenced or not, the evidence in the report has been with the authorities for over six years. To say the least, the only people the government and violent non-state actors have come after are the authors of the report and the organisation that commissioned it. The violent extremists profiled in the report remain free and continue to spread the radical ideologies in the Maldives. This has resulted in dozens being forced to flee the Maldives since Solih took office, afraid for their lives after being targeted by violent groups. 

Three groups that greatly benefited from the persecution of MDN were Salafi groups, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, and violent extremists. On 11 October 2019, Sheikh Ilyas Jamal, an official at the Islamic Ministry publicly said: “We were very concerned when this report surfaced. When we look at the report we see very dangerous matters. The introduction itself says this research was foreign-funded. We know the writers were well-paid. How can such research be conducted in a 100% Muslim country?” The Islamic Ministry official then went on to use a hadith to urge vigilance over “the enemies of Islam.” It did not matter that this was not a religious publication, but a study conducted by an NGO based on human rights standards. It was seen as heresy. 

A video sermon from Salafi cleric, Abdul Salam, leading an organisation named Jamiyya Salaf, speaking at a mosque threatened the Maldivian government with consequences if it did not ban MDN: “I say to the security services, counter-terrorism agencies, People’s Majlis, and the President; we, the scholars and advisors, cannot prevent ‘(violent) youngsters’ (from harming people) living in this country, who believe we a have a right to criticise Islam and the Prophet. (For that reason) we call on the authorities to prevent people who promote these rights.” In the Maldives, the word “youth” is sometimes used synonymously with young offenders in criminal gangs.

In November 2019, we came across a video sermon on the MDN report, accusing it of offending the Prophet and criticising Islam, published by a Maldivian radical cleric Al Akh Abu Amru Al Maldifi. The so-called sermon raises concerns about the “threats from within” against Islam and the Prophet. The speaker in the sermon believes that the government functions under “the infidel democratic system” and that it is backing the authors of the MDN report. It further goes on to use a hadith to support acts of terror against the authors of the report, calling on “the lions of the Ummah” to defend Islam against such enemies. “This is a golden opportunity to show the strength of your faith without heeding those who manipulate the religion to support these apostates”, the speaker said at the end of the sermon. 

A Dhivehi-language video sermon on YouTube channel ‘Naseyhai’ depicts MDN as deceptive “enemies within”, in a similar vein. The speaker mentions ongoing battles against Islam. He warns the audience of apostates who have “Muslim (or Arabic) names”, campaigning against Islam using modern tools and the language of human rights. “They make NGOs under different names, shield them with the rule of law, and effectively implement planned activities against religion”, the speaker says in the video that is still online. The video ends with a call to violence by “the warriors of faith who will defend the faith against those who sow religious discord through secularism.”

The Unusual Government Response

Firstly, the government got votes to fool the public into thinking some religious battle had been won, and that the Maldivian faith was promised protection from criticism. The local council elections were a few months away. Senior government officials and political figures congratulated and expressed relief that the government had banned the human rights organisation. They portrayed it as a win for pious Muslim Maldivians. 

Maldives’ long-serving former dictator, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom tweeted: “I give thanks to the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Community Empowerment for banning MDN, it is a relief for Maldivians who love Islam and the Holy Prophet.”

Even those belonging to supposedly democratic camps applauded the government. There was no mention of the vigilante violence suffered by those merely suspected of blasphemy. Criticism of religion, the establishment decried, is a red line one cannot cross in the Maldives. And with sentiments such as these being recreated by this government donning an honorary democratic badge, how are we to say that this ‘democratic’ Solih government is any different from the previous ‘authoritarian’ governments? 

Former president Abdulla Yameen said the same about journalist Ahmed Rilwan’s forced disappearance and writer Yameen Rasheed’s brutal killing: They were asking for it. Never mind what was actually said, the perception that someone wronged religion was good enough to make them fair game for violent mobs. 

For example, many are unaware that MDN had, in April of 2019, begun advocacy on transitional justice in partnership with a US-based legal advocacy INGO. One of the primary points of advocacy was to include the atrocities from the second republic. Of course, that would put former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in a difficult situation. He was the only former leader alive and active in politics. MDN had testimonials from thousands of torture survivors from his regime. Despite being at odds with the principles of democracy and human rights, Gayoom is also an influential member of the current government coalition. 

In an unprecedented act of political violence, local journalist Ahmed Rilwan was forcibly disappeared in August 2014. He was last seen leaving for Hulhumale from the Malé ferry terminal. It reshaped the reality of risks for journalists and activists. In September 2014, MDN published a report containing the findings of a private investigation into the disappearance. From then onwards MDN and its staff began receiving violent threats. None of it was thoroughly investigated.  Police regurgitated several findings in the report eighteen months later, representing them as “new evidence.” This was the first time the authorities publicly admitted Rilwan was, in fact, disappeared by force, a truth that was covered up for almost two years. The findings in the MDN report connected the abductors of Rilwan to the then President Abdulla Yameen and his Vice President Ahmed Adheeb.  

The Rule of the Lynch Mob

Secondly, it gave a clear signal of the consequences awaiting those defending the rights of minorities and condemning corruption. Civil society must not cross that line and if they do, their very existence, let alone their activism, will not be tolerated. And the Maldivian state is unable or unwilling to afford them any protection. It is the law of the jungle, not the rule of law, that applies to such individuals. Lynching by angry mobs become a very real possibility. None of it will be investigated, and no one will be prosecuted for inciting the violence.  Human rights protection and due process take a backseat to the appeasement of religious hardliners and to the State’s need to weaponise anti-blasphemy laws against critics. This reinforced the fear President Yameen engendered by enabling the killers of Yameen Rasheed, Ahmed Rilwan, and MP Dr Afrasheem Ali—killings inspired by extreme religio-political ideologies. Indeed, Yameen’s government and that of Solih use the same rhetoric to justify the continuation of such injustices. 

The Maldivian government has ensured that critical voices are muted using the age-old technique in the islands: buying their silence through jobs and kickbacks. Most vocal critics of the previous government, including star activists of MDP and yesterday’s champions of justice for Ahmed Rilwan and Yameen Rasheed, are now on the state’s payroll. MDN’s critical report was conveniently useful when in opposition, and for them to position themselves as allies in the US-led war on terror. But once in government, it only served as a barometer of what is acceptable criticism of extremism. With the slow and slimming chances of justice for Afrasheem, Rilwan and Yameen, the powers that be sent another clear message to dissidents: We will not hesitate to use your pain and losses to fool the young and the impressionable, and discard you when it is politically inconvenient.

The pressure of the sheer terror incited by the collaborative efforts of non-state parties and the government successfully created the space that isolated MDN and its people. It is perhaps understandable that colleagues, friends and associates disassociated themselves from MDN. After all, their lives – and livelihoods – were at risk. What was also revealed in the process was how willing former leaders of the organisation were to distance themselves from the organisation when it needed their support most. What mattered were not the principles at stake but the positions of power they now held in the government. The power they were willing to use only to protect themselves, the new government and, especially, their new positions within that government. 

The very first official of the state to publicly declare that the complaint against MDN was “serious” and a “priority” was the Commissioner of Police Hameed, who had only resigned from his position as the Vice-Chairperson of MDN earlier in the year shortly after his appointment at the Maldives Police Service.

He despicably failed in his attempt to appear unbiased when he completely ignored the violent mob operating against the individuals at MDN in broad daylight. It was one of the most unilateral investigations conducted by the authorities yet. No investigating officers ever put a single question to the accused. Current Prosecutor General Hussein Shameem was the Chairperson who led MDN’s Executive Committee when the report was published in 2015. But, true to form, he wasted no time in distancing himself from the organisation. As a licensed religious scholar, he was asked to review the report at the time of publication, which he claimed he duly did. Once it was condemned by other ‘religious scholars’, however, he maintained complete silence on his associations with MDN and the report itself.

The Dysfunctional Society

What of the civil society actors? Why did the Maldivian human rights community remain silent when their fellow human rights defenders were terrorised? The civil society landscape in the Maldives is one where solidarity only exists as a word. Blinded by prejudice, civil society actors seem unaware of the dangerous precedent they have set for themselves. Their deafening silence speaks of self-preservation. Their continued actions—to depict MDN’s ban as an isolated incident that justified the government-led excesses, the violent smear campaign from the opposition, and the mob rule of violent groups—crystalise their blatant complicity in the whole saga. In keeping with the public mood at the time, a Maldivian academic based in Australia, researching violent extremism, was quick to discredit the report as “methodologically poor,” and presumably, therefore, worthy of being treated the way it ultimately was. Had any of the authors of the report failed to make it safely out of the country, it could well have been the first time that an author had been killed for methodological weakness.

The Maldivian civil society is faced with the most common challenge that civil societies everywhere do—finding reliable financing to sustain their legitimate human rights activism. What may be somewhat different in the Maldives is that no local donors exist for groups that work on civil and political rights. While the dysfunctional civil society landscape is worthy of a closer look, the result is a division caused by the extremely unhealthy competition for foreign funds that mainly come through diplomatic missions assigned to the Maldives and Sri Lanka. An important point to note here is that those funds also mean the livelihoods of many NGO workers in the Maldives. Few NGOs compete for the minuscule funding from these sources. It means that the activities, campaigns and advocacy of NGOs are decided by external donors; not Maldivian island communities, or grassroots movements. Human rights groups have truly made a Faustian pact with the Maldivian government to shield it from criticism over unlawfully banning MDN.

The Arc Towards Justice  

One can argue several possible different ways that MDN could have reacted in the face of the terror that erupted around them two years ago. It was, however, a situation where a small organisation was left to fight an entire political system for its existence without any support on the ground. 

If there was any possible reaction that would have yielded a better result, none was offered in the scram for safety against a mob operating with full impunity. The persecution of MDN and individuals advocating for equal rights would not have been possible without the collective amnesia and hysteria on the ground. 

The deregistration of MDN’s legitimate human rights advocacy will continue to taint the Maldives’ human rights record. It is however not a wrong that is irreversible. The government can still, and must, reverse that flawed decision in order to create an enabling environment for human rights defenders and to prevent further incitement of hate and violence in the guise of religion. 

    The abyss stares back

    The Abyss Stares Back

    Azra Naseem

    The Taliban conquered all of Afghanistan on Sunday. Twenty years of US presence to democratise Afghanistan failed to achieve anything. The millions of lives lost as a consequence of the war have amounted to nothing. The 20 billion spent on training the Afghan military and police ultimately only enriched the defence contractors. Most are baffled by the failure of the US to see this coming. But then again, maybe the US did see it coming, they just didn’t care. 

    US ‘failure to see’ they were achieving nothing in Afghanistan is not a surprise for an observer of the situation in Maldives where conservative Islam has annihilated traditional Islamic practices, replacing them all with various strands of Wahhabi and Salafi ideologies. The revolution in Maldivian religious beliefs has taken place in full view of the world, including the United States. It has done nothing—has it failed to see what was happening in front of their eyes? Or did they just not care?

    When George W Bush invaded Afghanistan to destroy “Islamic terrorism” and “smoke them [“Islamic terrorists”] out” of their holes in Afghanistan, the ultra-conservative Islam of the Taliban was alien to Maldivians. In the twenty years since the world has become a place where the toxic fumes of the Islamist ideology that Bush’s “armies of the willing” stoked in their mission to smoke out the terrorists is now stifling the entire world. From Muslim communities in western Europe to central Asia and small villages in Indonesia to cities and tribes in remote parts of Africa, conservative Islamic ideologies—and their more militant interpretations—have wreaked havoc on societies. Everyone working in the name of making the world a better place.

    The Maldives is an important example of how damaging the invasion of Afghanistan has been to countries near and far. In the late 1990s, when a handful of Wahabbis and Salafi clerics began to appear and proselytise in Male’, the capital of Maldives, society saw them as abnormal. They were seen as an extremist sect of Islam, that interpreted Islamic teachings differently to the understandings Maldivians learned and maintained over eight hundred years of being an Islamic state. But the Maldivian mindset changed over the next twenty years. The change became more dramatic as the increasing number of Maldivians who began travelling to Pakistan and Afghaistan for religious education returned home, and when they began to receive more funding from conservative and militant Islamic sources that were pitching themselves against the US in the War of “Us” and “Them”. The narrative of a War Against Muslims led by America—which, as any good narrative contains within it kernels of truth—made it possible for once abnormal practices to become normalised within a very short space of time. It allowed Salafi activists to operate uninterrupted in the Maldives, it provided the motive for many young disaffected listless people to be recruited to the cause, to become “Soldiers of Allah”. The newly “democratic” forces in the name of freedom of speech failed to even monitor the spread of such conservative religious ideology in the Maldives. Politics and religion, instead distancing themselves from each other as can be expected in a democracy instead fell into each other’s arms as corrupt politicians and businessmen made pacts with conservative Islamists for their own gain, letting the people’s minds be saturated with such teachings from morning till night, from every media outlet, on every public platform in the country. 

    What was once abnormal in the Maldives twenty years ago is now normal, what was once extreme is now customary. That is why several MPs and every democratically elected president bar one continues to maintain there is no Islamist extremism in the Maldives. Extreme is normal. This revolution in Maldives is almost forgotten by the international community now although it is still in the making. For the last 20 years the United States has dealt with the Maldives as if it has always been a society that adhered to such religious conservatism. Context has never been a strength of US foreign policy. Until the War on Terror, US interest in the Maldives was negligible. Funding was on average just around the US$100,000 mark annually. Once the “endless” war began, for the US the only value Maldives had was whatever minuscule strategic value it could offer as the tiniest of cogs in its war against “Islamic terrorism”.

    The US focus on how the Maldives could contribute to winning the war against terrorism meant the US focus on Maldives was entirely as an “Islamic country”, ruling out any other way of seeing it. This narrow focus failed to see the Maldives also as a country trying to rid itself of authoritarianism and become a more tolerant and liberal democracy. This struggle, which once brought together the Maldivian people to rise up as one against inhumanity, was lost to the greater movement to make Maldives a part of a conservative network of Islamic emirates in Asia. Liberal voices who wanted the human rights enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights to be part of the Maldivian transition in the early 2000s were side lined in the rush to appease the clerics. As the Bush and the rest of the international community put conservative Islam on the top of their security agendas, the importance of such ideologies and their leaders grew in the politics of small countries like the Maldives. (And, as we see now, in large countries like Afghanistan, directly under the nose of their army and strategists.) The fight for a tolerant liberal democracy that could gleam as a beacon on the ocean for modern Islam across the world wasn’t even allowed to begin before it was killed by the conservative ideologies that want to take Maldives in the opposite direction. Conservative Islam was allowed so much space in the new Maldives, it stifled any other thought, any other idea and muzzled any other expression. Like the frog that will quickly jump out of the water if it is hot at first touch but sits in slowly boiling water unconcerned while it kills him, Maldivians slowly embraced as normal what they once abhorred as abnormal. Today it is normal not to be outraged if a person is killed for not being Muslim enough. Today it is normal to fight for the right to hate in the name of religion. Today it is normal to promote the “circumcision” of young girls. Today it is normal to call for the beheading of anyone who is not a cis-gendered heterosexual. Today it is normal to believe it is perfectly alright—if not a religious duty—to kill any Maldivian who is not a Muslim or is not Muslim enough. Today it is normal to try and blow up a former president because his leadership was not religious enough. Today it is normal to hunt down and smoke out any Maldivian for having thoughts the clerics find offensive or kufr. Today it is normal to think that first thing you should do when you buy a parrot is to teach it the Qur’an. Today it is normal to kill in the name of God and to punish by death those who do not believe what is right, as decided by the clerics.

    It seems as if the US has not seen any of this, or maybe it does, but simply does not care. Once it was the US’ focus on the War on Terror, funnily enough, that kept the US from seeing the Maldives as anything but an ultra-conservative Muslim society like Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan from the very beginning. It failed to support or care about strengthening democracy in the Maldives, instead focusing on strengthening the military and law enforcement capability in identifying terrorists. The US is/was aware that the Maldivian civil society fighting for democratic rights is under threat from both the government and the religious community. Yet, it has chosen to work with the conservative religious authorities to sideline the few remaining liberal voices in Maldivian civil society, turning its back on the opportunity to stand up for human rights. How to call for a more tolerant society while in cahoots with those whose very reason for existence is to stifle–or forever silence–such voices? The US doesn’t pause to ask such questions. It continues to proudly train Maldivian police and military, failing to acknowledge the fact that neither have been effective in either preventing terrorism or stopping recruitment to Jihad. It fails to see that, just as in Afghanistan, the efforts to ‘infiltrate, ‘turn’, ‘invite to true Islam’, whatever you want to call it, have been successfully continuing at all levels of Maldivian government and state for the last ten years and more.

    More recently there has been a new shift in policy. The Maldives is now of interest to the US as not just another Islamic country in its fight against terrorism, but as a strategic partner in its upcoming confrontation with China. This is obvious in the sudden rush to the Maldives by then-Secretary of State George Pompeo just before the end of Trump’s presidency, and the surprise declaration that Male’ will have an American Embassy. It was about the new classified defence agreement between the Maldives and the US, no doubt allowing a strong India-US defence presence in the Maldives to counter China’s influence. The “Islamic Terrorist” that George W Bush described as an Evildoer he was hunting in Afghanistan is now passé in the eyes of the US. Its new enemy—defined by its interests (as its friends are)—is now the Communist Party of China. 

    Before this shift in its security thinking, the US didn’t care about the human rights of Maldivians because its foreign policy assumed the Maldives was the homogenous “100 percent Muslim country” its conservative politicians parroted. Now it doesn’t care about the human rights of the Maldivians because Islamic Terrorism is no longer the biggest enemy of the United States. Dealing with conservative Islamic ideologies is now a “Muslim problem”. Just as it did not see the truth of what was happening in Afghanistan – the infiltration of the Taliban into all levels of government and state – it does not see (and neither is it interested) that the same wheels are in motion in the Maldives.

    Ultra-conservative Muslims, especially of the Salafi and Wahhabi persuasions, are part and parcel of the current government and state. Such ideology is rife at the intellectual level where liberal Islamic thought has been completely obliterated. It is rife in universities where lecturers and heads of school are free to describe FGM as an Islamic duty, or that marital rape is non-existent. It is rife in the death of a culture which once tolerated different forms of gender and sexual orientations, which once allowed freedom of thought, if not expression. It is rife in schools where children are taught to hate the non-Muslim Other. It is rife in government which is occupied by Salafi-backed politicians. It is rife in parliament where members cannot pass a bill against spreading hate in the name of religion. It is rife in families where women are increasingly kept home, increasingly covered up, and increasingly accepting of themselves as “Slaves of Allah” and no more. It is rife in the future as increasingly girls are being taught to be humble and modest before the man, and before the government. It is rife in the increasing acceptance of child brides, of stigmatisation and hatred of any woman who does not conform. It is rife in the absence of people power that can revolt against injustices because to do so is increasingly accepted as rising up against the Divine.

    It is rife in the possibility that the Islamic Emirate of the Maldives is just as likely to be real as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is today. Both projects have been in the making for years, right in front of our eyes. But the Islamic Emirate of the Maldives will still “surprise” most, including the US.

      Criminalising Takfiri speech in the Maldives

      by Mushfiq Mohamed

      Less than a month after the bomb blast in one of the busiest areas in Male’, targeting the country’s speaker of parliament and former president, Mohamed Nasheed, the Maldives was yet again thrust into a conversation of explosive nature, this time through the discourse on freedom of expression. A government-endorsed bill was submitted to parliament, proposing amendments to the penal code, criminalising hate speech, with renewed plans to tackle the country’s growing scourge of Takfirism induced political violence.

      Takfirism is a technique used by extremists to accuse people of Muslim heritage of, working against Islam, being irreligious, or being a non-believer. Local clerics have stated the polysemous nature of the word, suggesting it doesn’t declare another of being a non-Muslim or sanction vigilante violence. Although the word may mean different things to different people; it has functioned as the catalyst of many instances of intra-Muslim violence in many parts of the world. By extension, it is a way of gatekeeping what is considered the true version of Islam. It is often people of Muslim heritage, whether practising or not, that get labelled as such and become vulnerable to targets of criminals disguising their thirst for violence with born-again religiosity.

      Does free speech include the freedom to offend people and criticise all ideas? In a country like the Maldives––where universal and positivist ideas could be punishable, and others that are less so are freely expressed, highly circulated, and legally recognised as above criticism––the limitations on speech ravage its freedoms. In this newfangled political arrangement in power, protected by the international community, many Maldivians are opting to censor themselves as the State machinery is policing individuals for expressing their thoughts, despite facing threats from violent groups.

      The Maldives tends to create fancy new laws that remain mainly as ink on paper. Although attempts to criminalise hate speech in the toxic and politically violent landscape are commendable. Hate speech in this context, is the root cause, the ideological scaffolding (if you will), that creates and promotes Takfiri speech and violence in Muslim communities.

       Corrosive politics

      Maldivian authorities have a way of taking a hundred steps backwards with every step forward. Their anticipation for pushback means that the day after the government, through parliament, introduced plans to criminalise hate speech; the Attorney General announced that the government plans to explicitly define ‘blasphemy’ as a criminal offence in the penal code. It seems the government believes cajoling extremists and their supporters can have a ‘de-radicalising’ effect on them; but we all know this about winning votes in a deeply polarised Islamic country that is becoming violently intolerant.

      The government-endorsed bill to amend the penal code to include hate speech as a criminal offence criminalises any act of publicly labelling or characterising a person of Muslim heritage as anti-Islamic or a non-believer, sowing hatred in the guise of religion. The proposed bill also makes it a criminal offence to encourage hate speech or join campaigns smearing people based on religion.

      The bill states that if hate speech results in vigilante violence, the active participants of the attack are committing a crime. The proposed legislation also criminalises physical attacks against a person based on their political views. Maldivians who do not identify as religious also cannot be called irreligious, unless they explicitly admit to it. What does this mean in the magical world of semantics where words are defined by the intentions of the speaker rather than the effect it has on whom it is attributed to.

      If the bill is passed, additionally, it will also criminalise discrimination and hate speech against individuals on the basis of national, ethnic, and racial origin.

      The freedom to be shackled

      In a perfidious move, following the media circus around the hate speech bill, the Attorney General’s Office doubled down to diffuse the situation, stating that the government plans to clearly define ‘blasphemy’ as a crime. To any objective observer, this government looks unstable as it is ungainly, traversing issues in a vertiginous state.

      Instead of repealing anti-democratic laws, the government seems to be rapaciously caught up in sectarian rhetoric, the kind it is supposedly trying to criminalise.

      The Attorney General’s announcement comes as a surprise because there are currently two provisions in the 2014 penal code, articles 617 on ‘criticising Islam’ and 1205 on ‘hudud offences’ that criminalise alleged anti-Islamic activity. Further to that the Religious Unity Act 1994 also criminalises any act that ‘disrupts Maldives’ religious unity’.

      The government may be able to fool many Maldivians through its contradictory steps, but these are all blatant efforts to promote religious homogeneity in the name of creating unity. It surely implies that everyone must think and act the same for the country to have stability – what is the point of a government that cannot ensure safety, diversity and representation of all who live under its rule.

      The Dhivehi Inquisition

      Why do we need a hate speech law? The sense of injustice and equality is breeding a new brand of political violence since the inception of multi-party democracy in the Maldives in 2008. The country’s constitution states that every citizen must be a Muslim, it goes further than that to explicitly state that all prospective candidates contesting for public office must be adherents of Sunni Islam. As far as Maldivian law is concerned, religious and sexual minorities do not exist, and the government hides behind the illusory halcyon of a homogenous society. The root cause of many of the problems the country faces lie with the hypocrisy that is rife in the political classes, widening the gap between the affluent and the downtrodden.

      In one sense, freedom of religion in the Maldives has classist overtones. A Maldivian with social mobility can easily enjoy the freedoms of the first world without having to leave the country. It is a ferry ride away. Indeed, the luxury tourism industry operates under a different set of rules than that is subject to the local Muslim population.

      Academic freedom, and any talk of human rights, let alone activism, is severely curtailed through this legal framework. It has, through the abuse of democratic freedoms, given a platform to those with the most obscene views on religion.

      According to the Freedom in the World Report published by Freedom House in 2020, “School and university curriculums have come under increased influence from hard-line religious leaders, resulting in some content that denigrates democracy and promotes jihadist narratives.” The locally banned NGO, Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN), was arbitrarily expelled from the country for criticising this increasing grip religious hardliners have over the country’s religious affairs.

      The swift banning of MDN after a smear campaign, in late 2019, over an allegedly “blasphemous” study, compared with the freedom for clerics to spread hate and violence, perfectly illustrates the stalemate the government finds itself in. After religious hardliners campaigned for MDN’s ban, it was the Islamic Ministry that legitimised these claims initially made by extremists, by alerting the police and stating that the authors of MDN’s 2016 report on violent extremism deserved execution, even when MDN had apologised for hurting public sensitivities.

      Inertia in the air

      Over the past month, the changes to the bill may end up weaponizing those it wishes to curtail. Islamists in the Maldives, including those in political parties in the governing coalition claim the bill is an attempt at secularising Maldivian society, while the Maldivian Democratic Party states it aims to combat Takfiri speech and sectarian violence.  

      “In relation to a specific religious matter where clerics’ views don’t have an established consensus, individuals cannot be labelled as anti-Islamic for taking one side over the other”, number 1 of the proposed penal code amendments’ Article 124(a) states.

      Others weighed in, stating that criminal intent behind the hate speech must be established for it to amount to criminality. “In a country where being accused of being anti-religious poses a real threat to one’s life, it would be necessary to prohibit speech that make such allegations. However, any criminal sanction must only target if the intention of the allegation was to get that person killed”, Ahmed Shaheed, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion, tweeted in Dhivehi.

      The criminal offence of hate speech is defined as follows under numbers 3 and 5 of Article 124 (a) (1): “If one does not explicitly leave Islam; and does not act or openly express views contrary to Islamic principles; others cannot actively label that person as an ‘apostate’ or ‘infidel’—or partake in characterising one as thereof.”

      Earlier this month, local media reported that the bill went through committee stages, after consultations with the Islamic Ministry, the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM), the Prosecutor General’s Office and the wider public.

      The HRCM’s press statement published on 24 June rightly pointed out that any changes to the penal code, criminalising hate speech, should adhere to international best practice. “We propose that ‘the six-part threshold test’ outlined under the UN’s Rabat Plan of Action be used in defining the perimeters of the criminal act which constitutes hate speech,” the HRCM statement said in Dhivehi. The statutory human rights body also urged the parliament to abide by Principle 12 of ARTICLE19’s Camden Principles on Freedom of Expression and Equality, outlining guidance on outlawing ‘incitement to hatred’, in addition to following the UN’s Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech unveiled in June 2019.

      The lexicon of hate

      The Chair of the Judiciary Committee at the People’s Majlis, MP Imthiyaz Fahmy responded stating that the parliament sought advice from established religious clerics, who recommended that it should be a criminal offence to label a person as anti-Islamic or non-Muslim without a court process establishing disbelief. “The bill has been widely amended to an extent we hadn’t anticipated,” Fahmy told Adhadhu, a Dhivehi language news outlet. Disgruntledly, Fahmy said he is unsure if it can even be called a hate speech bill anymore.

      Fahmy’s frustration is understandable. The People’s Majlis saw MPs harangue over these proposed changes to the penal code, remaining intentionally ignorant of the innocent lives that hate speech and vigilante violence has claimed in the politically turbulent island country in its burgeoning experiment with open democracy.

      The dehumanising smear campaign against MP Hisaan Hussein who submitted the bill is sufficient proof of the urgency for criminalising Takfiri speech and incitement to violence. Instead, political and religious actors used hyperboles to describe the consequences, claiming that these proposed provisions relinquish the status Islam has in Maldivian society. Others hid behind academic cartwheels that were far removed from the situation on the ground, opting to flash cerebral flexes rather than speaking constructively on the much-needed objectives of the bill. It is true that the Maldives are made up of islands, but it cannot be an island on an issue that is suffocating even the oldest and most robust democracies in the world.