Hate and Hadith in the Maldives

by Azra Naseem

Shouldn’t the right to be come before the right to criticise for being? 

If Adhaalath Party wants the freedom to criticise people who are LaaDheenee, shouldn’t people first have the freedom to be LaaDheenee?

When Adhaalath Party insists that the right to criticise those they regard as LaaDheenee must exist without there first existing a right to be LaaDheenee, isn’t it essentially asking for the authority to be a vigilante religious authority or a religious police force? 

If the right to call someone irreligious must be protected in order to protect freedom of speech, mustn’t we also protect the right to be irreligious? If the right to criticise non-religion must exist, must not also the right to criticise religion?  

Can the right to freedom of speech exist without the right to freedom of thought? If we cannot say what we think, then what purpose does the right to speak serve?

If, as Adhaalath says, the Anti-Hate Speech Bill fails to fit UN principles and standards, what international standards and principles does criminalising of the irreligious fit into?

Many questions come to mind as I think about the Anti-Hate Speech Bill. It proposes an amendment to the Penal Code, making it a crime to call a Muslim not a Muslim. This proposition has essentially been boiled down by Adhaalath Party to mean the right to call a person or organisation LaaDheenee should the party and its affiliated clerics deem them to be so. 

The word LaaDheenee is the singular most powerful word to have emerged in recent Maldivian socio-political lexicon. Dhivehi blog Mandhoob has provided a genealogy of LaaDheenee which reflects the word’s journey into the centre of modern Maldivian power politics. Having entered common Dhivehi parlance more or less at the same time as the term democracy [via Gayoom and his fellow Al-Azhar alumni] LaaDheenee has—from its original emergence as meaning irreligious—gone on to mean secularist, Enemy of Islam, apostate, and a target for Dhivehi violent extremists. The term gained most traction, and was used most frequently, when Mohamed Nasheed became president and when the opposition to his presidency was at its height. At the time, Nasheed was the premier recipient of the label, and it was used in contexts that conveyed the whole gamut of its definitions—anti-Islam; anti-religion; Bishop; Pope; Christian Missionary; Enemy of Islam. 

Once Nasheed was ousted—for a large part for not being a Muslim enough leader for Maldives—the label began to be more liberally applied to any or everyone who spoke against Adhaalath and its clique of conservative clerics and friends. Adhaalath and its affiliates have denied that applying the label LaaDheenee marks people out as targets for extremists. But the facts speak for themselves. Outspoken critics of intolerant conservative Islamic practices who have been labelled LaaDheenee are all either dead, almost died, or have been evicted from society.

Now that lawmakers have finally proposed a long overdue law that will make it a crime to accuse a Muslim [which all Maldivian citizens are legally required to be from birth] of being a non-Muslim, Adhaalath has formed a new group of ‘religious intellectuals’ called 101 I’lm Verin (101 Masters of Knowledge or Masters of Kowledge 101) who have come together to re-define LaaDheenee as a label to be applied to ‘deviant’ Muslims who do not fit their criteria of a “Good Muslim”. This is a much watered-down version of what LaaDheenee has meant till now. But, for the sake of argument (and given that definitions by such ‘I’lmverin’ tend to stick), let’s go with their new definition of this very fluid term: the right to call someone LaaDheenee is merely to censure them for not being a good Muslim. 

This new definition has allowed Adhaalath and affiliates to not only distance itself from the role they played in motivating and religiously justifying the killings of people they previously labelled LaaDheenee, it also provides them with the opportunity to provide backing from the Quru’an and the Sunnah for their agenda which, I believe, is to not just retain the right to be our moral police, but also to codify that right as law. The proposed Hate Speech Bill, by removing the right to call out Maldivians for not being Muslim enough, is in a sense removing Adhaalath and company their very reason for being: calling out ‘bad Muslims’ and ensuring they are punished (i.e: killed by the law of the state or killed by a pious Jihadist to purify society). These 101 Masters will, therefore, stop at very little to ensure the Bill does not become law. As usual, these men who come out in one big bearded pack to release statements and pose for group photos, are running a sophisticated and (to those who care to see), a familiar campaign based on Hate and Hadith to try and sink the Bill even before it gets to the Majlis table. 

“Hisaan Bill”: making it personal 

There have been many individuals in modern Maldivian society who have been picked for targeted hate campaigns which are deeply personal. Women are especially vulnerable in such situations because personal attacks against the female gender come with the additional right to criticise not just the behaviour deemed wrong but also against the women as private individuals. Challenging women, or women who challenge the status quo, are deemed fair game if their conduct is outside the invisible, yet increasingly powerful, measurements of acceptability imposed on our society by the 101 Masters. When Aishath Velezinee challenged society for disregarding Article 285 of the Constitution, she became such a target. Much of society has done the same to former Attorney General and lawyer Azima Shakoor whenever she was not on their side of the law, and it does the same to Aisha Shujune for being a Supreme Court Justice. Aishath Aniya, whose campaign for a democratic Maldives has been relentless, is often a target and, of course, Hindha Ismail of MDN (Maldivian Democracy Network) receives the same treatment. Now the time has come to add MP Hisaan Hussain to the group, and ensure all the pent-up outrage of the Masters 101 is directed at her. Avas newspaper has been particularly eager to make the bill about Hisaan, and not what it says.

Seemingly, this tactic is meant to discredit the Bill by a) making it seem like an idea proposed by someone woman and therefore inherently stupid; and b) making it seem like an idea proposed by not just a woman but also a LaaDheenee woman, and therefore not just stupid but also anti-Islamic. I would not be surprised to find out that Hisaan’s Timelines are now filled with messages of hate. There will be women falling over each other and over men to call her a slut, and to tell her go take a shower because she looks dirty, and tell her to cover herself up because she looks naked. They would be asking her how she dares live, and they would be telling her there is no room in society for her. MP Sun Siam said to Hisaan’s face what a lot of people thought: that bitch should be hanged, and I won’t even go to hell for it. But, of course, why would he? She is LaaDheenee after all. 

Incredulous as it may seem, this tactic works. I am willing to bet that at least one third of the people who disagree with the Bill do so because it is proposed by some loose LaaDheenee woman who really shouldn’t be in parliament at all. 

Secular Bill: Making it LaaDheenee

‘Artwork’ at what appears to be the beginning stages of the right to hate campaign against the Anti-Hate Speech Bill with required hashtag #BanSecularBill

The anti-hate speech proposal is also being called the Secular Bill, even as it is being criticised by the same people for not being secular enough. On the one hand, says Adhaalath, this bill wants to introduce the secular notion of anti-hate directly against the teachings of Islam; on the other hand, also says Adhaalath, it is not secular enough in its definition of hate speech because it doesn’t allow people to call each other whatever they want. This tactic of getting people to hate the anti-hate bill on the basis that it is being introduced by closet secularists is a powerful one that resonates with a lot of Maldivians. 

As the murders of Ahmed Rilwan and Yameen Rasheed showed us, secularism and any talk of reducing the predominance of religion in public spaces or of increasing tolerance of Others, are not welcome in the Maldives. This tactic also allows the 101 Masters to link the Bill with MDN, which has already been found guilty without trial of attempting to introduce secularism to the Maldives in cahoots with Western states. The fact that the government has not punished the authors of the MDN report which included sentences deemed offensive to Muslims is, according to Masters 101, the biggest challenge to Islam in the Maldives today. What they want is for the authors to be punished severely and made an example of. Secularism and people who want to relegate religion to a more private place and those who put human equality above a sense of superiority derived solely from being a Muslim, are not allowed to belong to the Maldivian society of the present. 

Calling the anti-hate speech bill The Secular Bill is another tactic meant to undermine it, and get a significant section of the population behind the hate campaign that is now taking off. If, in addition to Hisaan, the hate campaign can also have the face of Hindha—and other LaaDheenee women along the way—it is assured to go ‘viral’, which is the very modern goal of these purists who want to revive the past. When the #BanMDN campaign took off, in one month there were over 200,000 Tweets of hate with the hashtag. That was just one out of about four or five months of concerted, concentrated nationwide hate from the relatively small number of Twitter users in a total population of less than half a million people. If the 101 Masters can channel that hate towards the ‘Hisaan Bill’, there is little doubt Ibrahim Mohamed Solih—whose government regards Twitter as the official barometer of public opinion—would withdraw the bill. And he may not even shed a tear.

Forbidding Evil: Making it God-given 

How can there be a counter argument if what Adhaalath is fighting for is a God-given right? 

The flurry of press releases, statements and social media posts Adhaalath and the 101 Masters have issued since the Bill, in addition to defining LaaDheenee people as deviant Muslims rather than as Kuffars, have all sought to do one thing: get people to see the anti-Hate Speech Bill as against Islamic teachings. The main argument put forth by these ‘intellectuals’ is that the Bill, by criminalising the right to accuse a Muslim of not being one, is obstructing the Islamic right and duty to forbid what is evil and encourage what is good. For Adhaalath, the Penal Code and the laws and regulations that already exist—supposedly based on the rule of law—are not sufficient to govern society and ensure the good conduct of citizens. For that to happen, society needs (if not instead then in addition to existing laws) Adhaalath and its 101 Masters of Knowledge to police our conduct and ensure our morality. In other words, by objecting to the anti-hate speech bill, the 101 Masters of Knowledge want to retain and increase the authority they have gained in the last decade to act as our moral police. If the right to call someone LaaDheenee is taken away from Adhaalath and supporters, there remains little reason for their being. If they cannot nahee the munkaraaiy—even if they remain free to encourage that which is good—their purpose remains insufficient.

I am not a Master of Knowledge—I lack the prerequisite beard, the Arabic and the coverings necessary to make such a claim—but I know enough about knowledge itself to be certain there is a whole world of Islamic literature, learning and jurisprudence within which are contained many arguments that challenges Adhaalath’s claim that without their surveillance and monitoring of people’s conduct, and without their enforcement of what is right and what is wrong, Maldivian Muslims cannot make a moral judgement on their own. 

Why is there no room for arguments within Islam that counter what Adhaalath is saying? This is where the importance of calling the anti-hate speech bill The Secular Bill comes into play from another perspective. By making opposition to the Bill secular—which in the vocabulary of Adhaalath means anti-Islam—it shuts out any counter arguments that can be made based on less conservative interpretations of Islam and its teachings than what Adhaalath and its Salafi clerics furnish as the only understanding of Islam. That any plurality of debate or discourse from within Islam on this matter is non-existent provides definitive proof of what has been staring us in the face for a long time: Salafi and other ultra-conservative sects of Islam are not just predominant in modern Maldives, they are the only forms of religious belief allowed. 

Outsourcing morality: making it about fatwas

What a pity.

For by following Adhaalath Party into believing that their interpretation of Islam and its teachings is the only way to understand and practice Islam in the Maldives, we are shutting ourselves to a whole world of Islamic thinking that is more in line with the democratic reforms this very society once fought for so passionately. Adhaalath is pushing their thinking—based on the Hadith and the Qur’an—that we cannot be allowed free will while shutting out all arguments—also based on the Hadith and the Qur’an—that say we should be allowed to exercise free will and resort to reason in our understanding of Islam itself and the world around us. Adhaalath is peddling the belief that Maldivians as Muslims must accept that they cannot by themselves, judge what is right and what is wrong—things are good because God said they are good, and things are bad because God said they are bad, regardless of the implications for the society in which they live in.

For example, Ali Rameez knows that marrying a little girl is the right thing to do because he can find justifications for it in religion—his own ethics (if there are any) matters little because what he is doing cannot be wrong. This way he feels no shame sitting smugly on television in 21stCentury Maldives telling us what is right and wrong while presenting a case for marrying a little girl or for keeping her from getting an education. Similarly, not speaking out against corruption among political and business leaders even when they are all obviously mired in it, can be explained away by saying it was not forbidden in as many words. Maybe it is easy to turn a blind eye to the MMPRC Corruption because the scandal is not explicitly mentioned in the body of knowledge to which they refer. This sort of morality, as I recently read, is very common in conservative Islamic nations where people, like the 101 Maldivian Masters of Knowledge, have shut the doors of Muslim minds to critical thinking, reason and free will. 

We can leave aside for now the universal questions I asked at the beginning of this article, and leave the question of religious freedom aside for the moment. What about freedom within religion? Is even that available to Maldivians of today?

Hate critics like me that you brand secular and therefore anti-Islam if that makes you feel on higher moral ground. But instead of spending your time and energy on insulting the irreligious, if you are so interested in defending your faith, find answers from within Islam that would stop Adhaalath and these 101 Masters of Knowledge from enslaving you and us from within. Do you really want to outsource your morality to Dr Iyaz? To Zaid? Do you want Ali Rameez to decide what is right and wrong, good and evil, in the society you live in?

    The Silk Road to Addu

    by Azra Naseem

    On a rainy afternoon at the end of October 2020, the Secretary of State of the United States, Michael Pompeo, visited the Maldives to announce plans to open an American Embassy in Male’, the capital of the Maldives. Less than a month before, on 10 September the Maldives and the U.S. signed a defence agreement to “deepen engagement and cooperation in support of maintaining peace and security in the Indian Ocean. The terms of the agreement have not been publicly disclosed but both sides committed to “a free and open Indo-Pacific that promotes the security and prosperity of all nations in the region”. Days after, Pompeo was in Male’ pledging U.S. aid to help Maldivians meet the challenges of climate change, promising scholarships for Maldivian students in the U.S., hinting at future U.S. business investments in the Maldives, and excited at cooperating with the Maldives in the “good work that democracies do together.”

    Pompeo’s rushed visit to the Maldives came just six days before the U.S. Presidential Elections in which a continuation of the Trump Administration was far from assured. The Maldives is a developing nation, making itself a likely name on Trump’s list of ‘shithole countries’. The Maldives also identifies itself as a ‘100 per cent Muslim’ country. In early 2017 Trump signed an Executive Order so clearly aimed at restricting Muslims travelling to the U.S. that it became known as the Muslim Ban. Trump also described terrorism as an ‘Islamic threat’, and has pointed to mosques as breeding grounds for hatred. Conservative Islamic beliefs are widespread in modern Maldives and, at the height of the conflict in Syria and the ISIS in Iraq, the highest number of foreign fighters per capita in the region came from the Maldives.  Pompeo also made another pledge: to assist the Maldives in meeting the challenges of climate change. Trump has been vocal on his doubts about climate science, and has described climate change as ‘mythical’, ‘non-existent’ and a ‘hoax’. Pompeo views it as a business opportunity. In an interview with a Maldivian TV station he described the Paris Agreement, from which he withdrew the United States, as ‘a joke’. If the sea-levels rise as most scientists predict, the Maldives would be one of the first countries in the world to sink, making environmental refugees of its entire population. Yet here were the foreign ministers of the two countries, avowing cooperation across vast ideological divides. 

    Why?

    The question was not put to Secretary Pompeo who was welcomed with open arms by the Maldives government and a somewhat fawning press. No one asked why the US would want an embassy in the Maldives. It has never really been interested in Maldivian affairs—the U.S. rarely has friends, it has interests. And this tiny little island archipelago in the Indian Ocean with little to offer in terms of material wealth or geostrategic advantages held little interest for the U.S. It has happily managed to conduct all its relations with the Maldives through the US Embassy in Sri Lanka with a tiny budget—often a few hundred thousand dollars a year in total—and one Maldivian Policy Officer. Most of the budget allocated to the Maldives goes back to the US anyway, paid in grants to American democracy think-tanks and NGOs that occupy Maldivian civil society space often at the expense of local ones.

    Pompeo’s rushed visit didn’t allow questions to be asked, even if a journalist were so inclined. As usual, the Maldivian government was happy to hide the answers. Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid joked with Pompeo about how the rushed visit left him deprived of a visit to the Maldives’ luxury tourist islands. The real Maldives, he must have surely been told. Now that is a good joke.

    Six months later, everyone is ‘shocked’ by a decision made by Modi’s cabinet in India to open a consulate in Addu, the second largest city in the Maldives.

    Why does the consulate shock when there is the Police Training Academy in Addu, also funded by the Indian government? What need was there for this enormous facility in the Maldives built at the expense of the absolutely breathtaking, and extremely fragile, environment?

    Photo: Twitter

    The building can accommodate 320 officers at a time for training, and is capable of hosting 800 people at a time. It also has a football field, a tennis court, a basket ball court, and a football field. All this fenced and gated, and given to the very lovely Maldives Police Service who would , says the Commissioner of Police, allow some government and school people to use the facilities from time to time. Thank you so very kindly, Sir. The people of Addu, meanwhile, wait for social housing or go on a waiting list for a flat in one of the many high-rise apartments being built for locals on the beautifully artificial island of Hulhumale’.

    That marvellous facility in Addu, however, is not enough for ‘capacity building’ for the MPS, always in service of the people. According to Foreign Minister Shahid, there is yet another police academy being constructed on the island of Vaanee in Dhaalu Atoll. Commissioner Hameed showed off the facilities, and himself, recently over in Dhaalu Atoll. The people of Dhaalu must be delighted development has finally arrived at their doors, even if via a police academy.

    In September last year, Foreign Minister Shahid was launching second phase of construction at the Vaanee academy, and talked about how training police here would ‘help the community’. India had generously given MVR 8 million for the centre. Compared to the budget of MVR42 million it had given for the Addu Police Academy–‘the largest in the world’–Vaanee cost India very little. But, said Mr Shahid, the MVR42 million is only a minuscule amount of the total MVR106 million the Maldives had so generously received from India recently. It is not clear which particular grant Mr Shahid was referring to when he was speaking here for there have been many grants and agreements and MOUs and IOUs between India and Maldives in the last few years.

    In June 2019, for example, when Maldives welcomed Narendra Modi (of Gujarat fame) with open arms, just as it had welcomed Pompeo, the two countries signed six agreements, vowing mutual cooperation on a range of issues from military information sharing to terrorism and even civil service training. “Today I want to emphasise that every Indian is with you for the strengthening of democracy in the Maldives,” he said. Just as he has strengthened Indian democracy, no doubt. The visit also included lots of pledges of money, the most valued political commodity in the Maldives of today. A Line of Credit agreement worth US$800 million was part of the deal.

    Almost two years later, a few months after Pompeo’s visit and the new defence agreement between Maldives and the US, there was another flurry of agreements between the Maldives and India, and the extension of yet another Line of Credit, this time in Defence, worth US$50 million. This new agreement, signed by Defence Minister Mariya Didi and India’s Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar allows India to build and maintain a coast guard harbour and dockyard on Uthuru Thila Falhu. The Uthuru Thila Falhu story goes back to the Yameen government and Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim, and their active courting of Indian interest in the project looking for–as always–investment money. Indian journalist at The Wire, Devirupa Mitra explains the saga here in excellent detail.

    Problem was, by the time India got interested, Yameen had moved on to courting China, which had more open and deeper pockets and cared less about the smokescreen of democracy.

    In Yameen’s time, he actively courted Chinese involvement in The Maldives. China’s infrastructure projects boomed in The Maldives, especially the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, Chinese-stye high-rise housing structures on artificial islands; Chinese resort islands. By the time Yameen lost the election in 2018, he had put Maldives in debt to China to the tune of a few billion dollars. Yameen’s various decisions that favoured China over India in terms of finding a domestic foothold in the Maldives angered India so much that Modi left Maldives out of his tour of Indian Ocean island nations in 2015. The Maldivian government’s decision to cancel the agreement with Indian company GMR soured India-Maldives relations to such a level that a top government official was refused entry to India while angry Maldivians marched on the streets shouting “India Out, India Out!”. With his foot firmly on the Chinese side, the Yameen government hummed and hawed and stalled over allowing India to develop the port facility. It suited Yameen’s political goals better to remain with China.

    India and Maldivian domestic politics

    Things have changed again in the Ibrahim Solih government. Apart from the loudness with which the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge screams Maldives’ indebtedness to China, bilateral relations between the two countries have grown quiet. The uncharacteristically outspoken Chinese Ambassador who regularly engaged with the Maldivian public through his Twitter account, packed his bags and left in April this year, and there has been no replacement since.

    Chinese Ambassador Mr Zhang Lizhong leaving at the end of his tenure this April. Photo: Chinese Embassy, Male’

    The proposition to open a consulate in Addu, meanwhile, has returned India-Maldives relations to the forefront of public debate. Some are gearing up for another #IndiaOut campaign, angry at what seems to be a slow encroachment on Maldivian sovereignty by India. Others are gearing up to defend the decision as one that would eventually lead to a modern Addu, probably with a green Embassy belt with well-to-do diplomats riding around in tinted Mercedes. What prestige. Yet others accuse the Ibrahim Mohamed Solih government of incompetence, or of selling out. 

    The steady friendship between India and the Maldives, where each kept out of the other’s internal political affairs, changed with multiparty elections in the Maldives when individual parties began to lobby for India’s help to bolster their place as the leading power in the newly democratic Maldives. India and the Indian High Commission played an unusually involved role in the early breakdown of Nasheed’s government, and it was the first to accept the transfer of power on 7 February 2012 as legitimate, setting the stage for the CoNI inquiry, and lending the coup d’état an air of respectability and acceptability which it would not otherwise have received.

    Maldives-India bilateral relations have been an integral part of Maldivian domestic politics ever since. Nasheed’s decision to award the contract for developing the Male’ International Airport to Indian company GMR became a key factor in the opposition’s drive to mobilise public support against Nasheed. Accused of “selling Maldivian sovereignty to India”, the opposition organised protests against Nasheed throughout his short presidency, and during his subsequent bids to return to power. Nasheed held-off the keenest of Chinese interests in the Maldives through his close ties with India but once Abdulla Yameen came to power, India realised it was dealing with a different sort of statesman altogether. Yameen’s hand on Maldivian foreign policy was tight, and it was dictated not by friendship or cultural ties but greed. He steered Maldives clearly towards where there were most dollars to be made: China, Saudi Arabia and other sources willing to become close friends and buddies of the corrupt Bro Economy. India-Maldives relations also took a hit when Dhivehi Sitee leaked the draft of a planned Status of Force (SOFA) agreement between the United States and the Maldives in April 2013. Relations between India and the US has always been tense, given the role the U.S. has played throughout history in the militarisation of Pakistan.

    At the time when the Waheed government was getting ready to sign the SOFA, India was unhappy with the idea of the United States playing a more powerful role in the Indian Ocean, especially The Maldives, which it regards as being in ‘our backyard’. Indian media has speculated that Delhi was behind the scuppering of the agreement, causing it to be leaked to much public outrage.

    Today, in India’s Modi, the story is different, and so is the role India sees the United States playing in the Indian Ocean. Having come to share Trump’s–and now Biden’s–view of the Chinese Communist Party as the largest threat to global and U.S. security, Modi’s India is more than comfortable allowing The Maldives to sign defence agreements with the United States to allow a more powerful role for the United States in the security of the Indian Ocean.

    Meanwhile, Yameen drew Maldives deep into the gambit of China’s ambitions to revive its power and influence across the world along the ancient Silk Route. Under the Yameen-Xi friendship plan, The Maldives became a fully-fledged signatory of China’s Belt and Road Initiative–the very thing which the US and China are gearing up to challenge. It is China’s ambition to extend its influence–via major infrastructure projects—along the countries and states that now situated along the ancient Silk Route. The Maldives is one such location, sitting as it does along a route that could choke all trade traffic on its way to and from China. China’s inroads into various geostrategic Maldivian locations were made deep into the country during Yameen’s regime.

    But, just as the islands that have been ‘lost’ in the MMPRC corruption can no longer be got back, those agreements that we signed with China to join their various expansion projects in the Indian Ocean remain as valid and real as the enormous bridge that now dominates the Male’ skyline, a constant reminder of the soaring debts we now owe to China.

    In the grand scheme of things

    The road to an Indian Consulate in Addu is thus paved with the ambitions of global superpowers who seek to dominate not us but each other. We are but collateral. The answers were there, when Pompeo visited. It is in the agreements we have signed with China, with India, and with the US. It is in our willingness to be okay with not having a foreign policy that is geared towards protecting our interests. It is in the letting of our foreign policy be decided by political parties and politicians, and by diplomats with global ambitions instead of letting it be motivated by our collective good.

    The United States has, throughout its history, needed an enemy against which to define itself, and its Exceptionalism. “Islamic Terrorism”, which has driven U.S. foreign policy decisions since 2001, has lost its central location, and the new enemy is “The Chinese Communist Party”. The next global confrontation, the U.S. reckons, will take place between the U.S. and its allies and China. And the great theatre of this new war would be? The Indian Ocean.

    All this enhanced cooperation, this “standing shoulder to shoulder” against terrorism, the vaccine diplomacy, the rush to open embassies and consulates and coast guard stations and observatories and cricket stadiums, and installing Maldivians in top diplomatic positions, it is all about this: the geographically strategic location that we occupy in what is to be the new global order where ‘good’ versus ‘evil’ will be recast as China versus the rest.

    The road to an Indian consulate in Addu is also paved with the discord among us Maldivians. We spend hours, days and weeks discussing the seeming pros and cons for Maldivians in having an Indian Consulate in Addu. And, as we take sides and double down on our opinions, the rafts of agreements that we have bilaterally signed with each of the three large powers in an upcoming global conflict continue to be implemented. Top diplomat Shahid, with one eye on the presidential seat at the UN General Assembly and another on the presidential seat in 2023, continues to fly here there and everywhere, speaking of another ‘eagerly anticipated’ police academy, another bag of money in aid from India, a truckload of vaccines from the U.S., more military expenditure from both to ‘combat terrorism’ (to great success, as we have seen). As we take the China side, the US side or the Indian side, we forget to take our side. We forget that that these arguments serve no purpose other than to shore up support or ensure defeat for local politicians.

    In a way the Maldives has come full-circle in its foreign relations. It is along the ancient Silk Route that Maldives began its first foreign encounters in written history, and it is China’s attempts to reconstruct the ancient Route—which it once dominated—that is once again making Maldivian foreign relations relevant to the world. Unlike yester years, though, the present Maldives on the modern Silk Route has let itself be nothing but a pawn in the power play between and among global and regional super powers vying for world domination.

    Unless we look at the whole picture, all these protests to get India Out–which focus only on the politically useful part of a much larger whole—remain nothing but political naatak.


      Luxury for tourists, lockdown for locals

      by Mushfiq Mohamed

      The number of COVID-19 related deaths in the Maldives have surpassed the number of Maldivian fatalities from the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami.

      Yet the Maldivian government efforts to generate tourism revenue equivalent to pre-COVID19 levels are lending to the spread of the new variant of the lethal coronavirus in the island country. On Thursday it recorded a coronavirus related case of black fungus or Mucormycosis. This petrifying case, and the surge in COVID19 fatalities, coincide with increasing coronavirus cases in India and the rest of South Asia. The country is bracing itself for yet another national lockdown. 

      Leaked images show that the Maldives has been offering stranded tourists “quarantine packages” to kill time in the islands before moving to their destination. Bollywood actors and athletes have also chosen the country as their site of reprieve from the pandemic, as if Maldives were immune to the unfolding global health crisis. 

      Although the country’s famous tourist resorts are on private islands, most of its staff are local. In a sense, held captive in substandard accommodation without the ability to freely travel to their families on local islands, a fact further exacerbated by the COVID-19 restrictions. Social media posts showed photos of squalid staff quarters in world-renowned five-star hotels. Nevertheless, the mainstream media continually centres on the ‘plight’ of stranded Western tourists, never highlighting the unacceptable situation of the unobtrusive local workers who manpower the luxe-tourism industry. 

      The Maldives’ tourism market represents the ether of high-end indulgence. The tourist resorts look like elysian spaceships that have beamed down on desert islands scattered in the Arabian Sea, divinely assembled for its visitors. Underwater wine cellars and restaurants that boast Michelin-star chefs. Overwater villas with rooftop waterslides that vortex you into the turquoise sea underneath. 

      The ownership and enjoyment of the Maldives’ natural beauty are swiftly slipping away from the hands of ordinary Maldivians. 

      It took us Maldivians a long time to realise that there existed an apartheid system between the flourishing elite in Male’, and the people from the outer atolls that were historically deprived from having a stake in the country’s economy. Only the industrious middle-class (from the islands and Male’) and some of the descendants of landed nobility (concentrated in the capital) bag influential chunks of the industry that brings in 60% of foreign income. It is also true that most of this money is never really injected into the local economy, it vanishes into bank accounts in offshore tax havens owned by the global hospitality industry oligarchs. 

      In 2019, Maldives had 1.7 million tourists. The Tourism Ministry’s figures show that the pandemic gutted the 5-billion-dollar local economy in March 2020, and it has not recovered since. Despite this, in late 2019 and in the last few months this year, the government found creative ways to revive it at the expense of the Maldivian people. 

      Pandemic profiteering 

      Maldives was one of the first countries to open for tourism after lockdowns globally, at a time when the pandemic was raging in Europe, which includes the top-10 countries whose nationals frequent the island nation. Tourists were exempt from the lockdown measures, restricting inter-island travel only for locals. Male’ especially was closed down possibly due to its proximity to the country’s busy international airport in Hulhule’. 

      Negative PCR tests are required since October 2020 but when the pandemic was at its worst in Europe and North America last year in July, guests were flowing in and weren’t required a negative test. The borders were open without any test or tracing procedures. 

      A tone-deaf Forbes article mentioned that the Maldives was “desperate” enough to fork out its vaccines for visitors. It was also an article that centres multinational corporations, eliciting criticism over how these companies are twisting the arms of a poor country. A premature announcement by the Tourism Ministry that had no word of the public health officials or the Maldivian people.

      Within the industry, lockdown restrictions discriminated against guesthouse tourism. In April, when India was recording unprecedented COVID-19 related fatalities, the government only shut its doors on Indian guests seeking to holiday on inhabited islands. Meaning affluent Bollywood stars could still have their Maldives’ escapades if they can afford to go to a private resort island (considered ‘uninhabited’ islands). Small businesses are routinely bearing the brunt of discriminatory lockdown measures.

      The government announced lockdown measures early this month for locals. But the borders remained open. After the HPA demanded the borders be closed for South Asian tourists, the government finally stopped issuing tourist visas on 13 May, in the same breath reassuring that these measures will be reviewed later this month. 

      None of this prevented Australian cricketers stranded in India from quarantining in the Maldives before heading back down under. In the same way that the government allowed Asian Football Federation (AFC) to send football teams to the Maldives for an AFC Cup playoff match between Bengaluru FC and Eagles FC. It was only when Maldivian social media users began criticising the move, amid circulating photos of players strolling around Male’, in breach of restrictions, that the youth minister cancelled the planned AFC matches. 

      Bollywood in the Maldives

      This year, as corpses piled up abandoned in Indian cities, the country’s elite decided it was time for a change of scenery. While the virus was completely devastating South Asian cities, Maldives was hosting Bollywood actors in a bid to resuscitate the tourism-dependent-economy. The move backfired in both countries, with many shaming the celebrities for their lack of conscience during a once-in-a-century pandemic. 

      ‘The Sunny Side of Life’ felt like an awkward choice for Bollywood, an industry plagued with colorism. It was purely status-signalling. Indian social media conversations on the Maldives are fascinating. Some suggest the Maldives belongs to the Indian Ocean, and is therefore part of India. There was little reflection over Maldivians’ cultural and linguistic affinity to India – the focus was on marking territory. On their Instagram accounts, the location indicates the Indian Ocean. In the captions, they marvelled over the glimmering seas that form their ‘backyard’, which some could not even bring to name or locate.  

      Ventilator corruption

      Last year the government was embroiled in a corruption scandal worth over MVR30 million (USD 1.9 million) involving ventilators that were unlawfully procured from a Dubai-based company. 

      This initially slipped the radar of the anti-graft body, which later found that the former health minister and 11 employees benefited from the scam violating local public finance laws. 

      A year later, the embattled government is nowhere close to reclaiming state funds lost to yet another massive corruption scandal. 

      The less luxurious side 

      According to the Reuters vaccine tracker, around 42.9% of the country’s population have received the first dose of the vaccine, including some 90% of frontline workers, consisting of tourism staff. Tourist workers, and others who depend on the industry have suffered the most during the pandemic. Tourism Employees Association reported approximately 25,000 tourism employees have been laid-off within the past two years. 

      When the pandemic hit the Maldives last year, South Asian migrants working in the frontlines were the first to be adversely affected. Many were trapped in congested accommodation without pay and the means to return home. Those who protested forced unpaid labour were quickly arbitrarily deported without awarding damages. Many news outlets ran xenophobic headlines blaming impoverished Bangladeshi, Nepali and Indian workers for ‘spreading the virus’. 

      In this way the pandemic has exposed the existing structural inequalities in Maldivian society. If you are a politician or a businessman, there are no COVID-19 rules that get in the way of what you want. None of these Big Men suffered the consequences of breaking the rules; fines for violating restrictions were ironically deployed against those who cannot afford to pay it. 

      Whether it is campaigning and holding local council elections or opening the country up for luxury tourism as the numbers skyrocketed, the consequences have trapped the locals in with the new variants of a dangerous disease in a country whose capital city’s congestion levels rival Hong Kong and Manhattan. 

      Conclusion

      As the Tourism Minister promises endless vaccines, the reality is a lot more finite. It seemed like yesterday when India was the exemplar of COVID-kindness, generously donating vaccines. Today, the Indian government’s feckless response to the catastrophe has been rightly described as a ‘crime against humanity.’  

      Indeed, the Maldives’ tourism industry does not want its wealthy tourists to be troubled by the inconvenient existence of a local population. The seemingly innocuous imagery invoked by the 3-billion-dollar industry cannot be divorced from the structural violence it regularly detonates against ordinary Maldivians. 

      Perhaps we are to be blamed too, for popularising the image of the Maldives as blank-slate beaches awaiting consumption by the West, and more recently the United Arab Emirates, Brazil, India, and China. 

      “No news, no shoes” reads a tagline of a resort where tourists spend millions per night. The world, and all the chaos within it, happen elsewhere. A proliferated untruth that costs ordinary Maldivians the chance to live a life in dignity. It is an industry that relegates locals to second class citizenship through a structure that is displacing and killing Maldivians, concurrently making the Maldives’ vulnerable eco-system uninhabitable.