Let us look at the reality, as it exists. There is today a quadruple crisis of closed and repressive political systems, religious authorities upholding contradictory juristic positions and unknowledgeable populations swept up in remaining faithful to the teachings of Islam through religious fervor than through true reflection. The crisis cannot legitimize our silence. We are accomplices and guilty when women and men are punished, stoned or executed in the name of a formal application of the scriptural sources. It leaves the responsibility to the Muslims of the entire world…It thus becomes the responsibility of each ‘âlim (scholar), of each conscience, every woman and man, wherever they may be to speak up. –— Tariq Ramadan
The Maldives government has decided to bring back capital punishment and kill whomever it deems as no longer deserving of life. Necessary laws authorising the state to kill have been drafted, passed and ratified. Never mind that the country has one of the most corrupt, unqualified and inapt judiciaries of any supposedly democratic country today; never mind that it has no public prosecutor and never mind there is no one with an understanding, let alone experience, of the complex drugs involved and the complexity of administering them. The State is ready, and eager, to kill.
After over 50 years of holding on to a moratorium on capital punishment, how did we come to this? It is not just that the country now has a sadistic ex-policeman known for breaking prisoner back-bones as a Home Minister, nor is it just the instrumentalism or pragmatism of the current government. This regression in Maldives’ respect for the right to life is happening because a large percentage of the public believes capital punishment is ‘Islamic’ and, therefore, the ‘right thing to do’ as Muslims. This is a ‘truth’ perpetuated by the radical Islamist ‘theologians’ who appointed themselves our religious, moral and spiritual guardians in the last decade.
Not all Maldivians agree with the death penalty. Those who do not, however, find themselves voiceless victims of what is a religious version of something similar to Godwin’s law—any debate against capital punishment comes up against the claim that ‘this is what Islam says’ and is effectively shutdown from then on. Closing down discussion in this manner misleads the public into thinking that a literal and immediate application of Hudud punishments is the best way to determine how ‘Islamic’ Maldivian society is. Under the circumstances, the only way to open up debate on this issue is to demonstrate to the people that there is more to Shari’a than the demand for revenge, an eye for an eye, a life for a life.
The problem is, there are only a very few religious scholars in the Maldives who have presented ‘the other side’ to people. The government would not encourage or open up such sources of knowledge, of course. It does not suit their purposes. And when ordinary people [like me] who are against the death penalty point out that Shari’a does not have to be interpreted this way, we are threatened, abused and shut-down—‘Who are you to talk of Islam?’ It is a widespread belief in today’s Maldivian society that only those who have attended a Madhrasa or an Arabic institution of learning can understand or speak of Islam. Maldivians against the death penalty need to confront this attitude head-on.
The best way to restore the Maldives’ moratorium on death penalty is to show the public that they do not have to condone this barbarity in the name of Islam. If the public is against it, the very populist current government cannot move ahead with the killings. No matter how many posters we put up on Facebook and other social media citing statistics that show the utter failure of capital punishment as a deterrent in countries that practice it, or how many online petitions we sign with international NGOs, this government will pay no heed. While such activities make us feel better inside and bring international attention to the matter, none of it will persuade the Maldivian death penalty supporters to think otherwise.
A more effective way forward would be to familiarise ourselves with the debate within Islam on the death penalty, to get to know how leading scholars have interpreted Islamic teachings on the subject. This way, when every discussion on capital punishment comes to the inevitable point: ‘This is what Islam says. Therefore, there is no other way’, you will have the knowledge and the ability to meet them on their own ground. If each one of us who disagrees with the death penalty can—using Islamic teachings—show one person who agrees with it that they are not necessarily following ‘true Islam’ by supporting the death penalty, it is in itself a victory in the efforts to restore the moratorium.
A good place to begin your ‘campaign’ against the death penalty is to read this article, An International Call for Moratorium on Corporal Punishment, Stoning and the Death Penalty in the Islamic World, by eminent Islamic Studies scholar Professor Tariq Ramadan. A large number of Maldivians who support the death penalty do not understand English at the level used in the article. Below, therefore, is a Dhivehi translation [published with Professor Ramadan’s permission] contributed to Dhivehi Sitee by an individual with an Islamic studies/legal background. Download and print a copy, and give it to someone who you know that supports the death penalty in the name of Islam, and have him or her read it. Pass it on to journalists and media organisations, ask them to ask the necessary questions of Maldivian religious scholars. Put those questions to the Sheikhs, the Imams and the Islamic foundations that rule over social and political lives on your island. Read more on the subject, make yourself more knowledgeable, spread the word. Take charge of the level and content of the debate instead of letting it be dictated by the Imrans and the Ilyases. At the very least your efforts will help start an informed debate; at best, it will save lives.