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.

      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?