Maldives wants the pink dollar but hates gays

Azra Naseem

The multi-billion-dollar Maldivian tourism industry courts the global pink dollar and arranges symbolic same sex wedding ceremonies on its turquoise blue waters and beautiful sandy beaches. But, Maldivian society hates gays, and doesn’t want them to exist. There is no room in the Maldives for its homosexuals, and anyone on any arch of the LGBTQIA+ rainbow. They are to be exposed, thrown to a well-mobilised religious mob, walked through the streets of Male’ naked, lynched, then hung in the Republic Square for everyone to see, while they all chant ‘Allah Akbar’ before decapitating them. This is the ideal scenario. One Friday after prayers would be a good time. Or must they be thrown from one of the newly built high-rises, so they experience what the ISIS claimed as the most Islamic punishment for homosexuals?

Gay Maldivians exist. They always have. And they always will. As long as Maldivians exist. As ‘100 percent Muslim’ as every citizen must be, and as uniquely Dhivehi as they may be, they are also human. Officially being gay has been forbidden ever since recorded history began but unofficially homosexuality has, of course, existed on these isolated island communities as it does in the rest of the world. Muslim Maldives never openly tolerated “deviant” sex, but nor was it openly discussed or made the centrepiece in political and social affairs. Gay relationships happened between those who wanted it to happen, often between men who were married to women and bore children with them. Nobody spoke about it not only because it is illegal but also because learning of such a double life would hurt people around them, not just their wives and children but also the extended family. 

Only a few Maldivians through history have dared to be openly gay. Until quite recently society opted to treat the most camp among gay Maldivians as “weird”, mentally imbalanced, or the village eccentric. They were laughed at for being too effeminate or too manly, and ridiculed for the difference in their mannerisms to the ‘normal’ man or woman. Hanee, for example, was an excellent, popular and celebrated tailor, and was openly trans in the Maldives of the 1990s. As society grew more intolerant, Hanee’s troubles multiplied until their previously well-ordered self-sufficient life became unliveable, and they were jailed for crimes not directly related to gender and sexuality. I cannot imagine life would have been easy for any gay Maldivian in any time in history, as children laughed and adults sniggered or worse. But compared to how today’s society treats Maldivian homosexuals and any other sexual minority, the cruelty that gays of previous generations suffered seems less visceral, less driven by unadulterated hatred. 

The first violent attack on a gay man in recent history occurred in 2011, when Hilath Rasheed was almost decapitated outside his home. Hilath was a former journalist who was ‘too open’ about being gay. The attacker was never punished. Hilath was successfully hounded out of the Maldives, just escaping with his life. Religious conservatives have promoted homophobia openly and unabatedly ever since. Recently Eman was run out of society for dressing as a man. Having sought refuge in Australia they are now undergoing gender transition. Before that Medula Oblongata became a drag queen in New Zealand after he was run out of the Maldives for being queer. Despite the thousands of miles between these Maldivians and their home country, they still get harassed online, the calls to have them brought home and be punished grow louder with each wave of homophobia.

Gay Maldivians who have to remain in the country, meanwhile, are forced to lead a double life. Most remain silent, but many are also on social media, being homophobic themselves, or being bashed for promoting gay rights. Dhiyares newspaper recently hounded a young man out of the country for his Tweets which it found to be too gay friendly and offensive to Islam. The 23-year-old was using a fake name. Not only did the newspaper find out his true identity under what it calls investigative journalism, it also ‘exposed’ him as gay. The paper is now trying to point out who is to blame for letting the man get away safely. How dare a homosexual escape with their lives intact after such transgression? That cannot be. 

Maldivians want the spectacle of death to the sinner, a la Shari’a. They are baying for punishment. Arrest the dirty gays. Arrest the apostates. Arrest the yogis and the dancers and the lovers. Arrest those who are laughing too loud; arrest those who wish their mothers well on a particular day; arrest those who think. Maldivian society is no longer satisfied extending even the lowest possible level of compassion, that of mere tolerance, to its homosexuals and other sexual minorities. Instead, it lays traps for them, deliberately entices them into what is considered sinful behaviour and waits for them to fall. When they do, it is the religious duty of every ‘justifiably and suitably angry’ Maldivian Muslim to see these ‘dirty’ mududhaaru sinners punished. Society must see and enjoy their pain, in their death is the satisfaction of the righteous living.

Mind you, this is the same society which believes firmly in afterlife and Judgement Day. Aren’t they usurping the very powers they have vested in God alone?

Downward facing dogs, and yogis

Angry mob of religious conservatives who deem Yoga to be anti-Islam storm event to mark International Yoga Day 2022 in Male’, Maldives

Azra Naseem

Back to the topic of Maldives and religion. It’s hard to get away from the subject. That’s the point. Religion, and the most conservative interpretation of it, must take centre-stage in Maldivian society. Everything must be about religion, and nothing else. Whenever Maldivian religious leaders get the opportunity—or more precisely, creates the opportunity—to interpret and decide a religious issue, they opt for the most conservative understanding possible. Yesterday’s attack on yogis celebrating the 2022 International Day of Yoga, and the thought-leaders who incited hate and violence against them, is only the most recent example of this consistent pattern of behaviour. 

The debate over whether Yoga is a religion or not is not new, and not restricted to within Maldives or within Islam. Conservative Christians and Islamists have both jumped on the bandwagon to prevent their followers from practising yoga which they believe is another religion. At the same time, less conservative interpretations of both religions have ruled that yoga is not a religion if practised only as a form of exercise for the body and mind. This is what logic and reason tells us. If someone does yoga only for its well-established health benefits, that yogi is not worshipping a god. But this understanding calls for reason, and contemporary Maldivian clerics see reason itself as an enemy. Their goal is to turn people away from reason, let the clerics judge on everyone’s behalf what is right and what is wrong, what is moral and what is immoral, what is haram and what is allowed.

That choosing the most conservative interpretation available on any issue is the choice of Maldivian religious leaders is evident from the rulings the Fatwa Council has made on various issues. On the subject of having female judges, for example, the Council says there are interpretations available in Islam that see no problem with women sitting in judgement of others. Nevertheless, it says, the Maldivian Fatwa Council decided on the interpretation which forbids women from being judges. It was the same with the issue of whether Islam requires women to veil themselves or not. Interpretations are, of course, available where women are not required to do so. Nevertheless, said the Fatwa Council, we prefer the interpretation which says women are only allowed to show their faces in extreme conditions. So either most Maldivian women are living in what is seen as extreme conditions [that being the non-Sharia environment, perhaps] or they are living in sin. Things weren’t much different on the question of whether or not to allow DNA testing to prove paternity. While it can be allowed in Islam, the Dhivehi Fatwa Council chose to forbid it. 

In all controversial issues where the government and the religious establishment have locked horns, the government has always backed down. Not only retreated but fully surrendered. The religious establishment does not want it to be known who killed Afrasheem Ali, the relatively less conservative religious scholar who disagreed with them. Religious leaders and their financiers do not want it known who killed Ahmed Rilwan or who killed Yameen Rasheed, two writers critical of ultra-conservative Islam. They do not want it to be known who was behind the bomb attack on 6 May 2021 which almost killed former President Mohamed Nasheed. And so it is that none of us have been allowed to know who planned and funded those violent actions to kill others.

The current political environment allows ultra-conservatives the upper-hand over people’s hearts and minds and their consciences. Although some important rulings by the Fatwa Council has been largely ignored—most women, while having adopted the headscarf as normal in the past decade, remain unveiled; two women are on the Supreme Court bench—this type of ‘liberal’ behaviour is unlikely to be allowed for long, given the consistent and largely successful efforts to get the public behind conservative thinking, and the continuous pressure on the government to adopt more Islamist approaches to all its policymaking. 

The approaching presidential elections has only raised the stakes. Conservative religious rulers are aiming to create an environment in which their support is essential for any presidential candidate to win the election. So far, we know that Ibrahim Mohamed Solih wants to contest, as leader of the current coalition. We also know that Mohamed Nasheed is contesting. Both represent MDP, meaning that an MDP primary will pitch Nasheed and Solih against each other. A third candidate from within MDP is more than a mere possibility. While MDP tears itself apart over different candidates, former president Abdulla Yameen is fresh out of jail on a technicality and hell-bent on returning to power. He is no religious conservative but, just like the current government and MDP at large, he is happy enough to use religion to divide and conquer if it means winning the election. As will be anyone else who decides to run for the top job. 

Maldivian society should prepare for an ever-increasing list of what is haram. Whatever people decide to do to calm themselves before the next storm, don’t take any deep breaths. That’s too yogi-like to be truly Muslim.

Extremely normal/normally extreme

Azra Naseem

The Maldivian government is so against Islam in the Maldives that it has defined performing namaadhu as “extremism”, according to some news headlines. The news reports caution against a nationwide programme under the national counter-terrorism strategy which, it is said, is aimed at brainwashing young minds across the country. The ultimate goal of this government and its education sector, it is said, is the replacement of Islam with secularism. 

These particular accusations seem to be based on presentations made to teachers by a state-run counter-terrorism programme briefing them on how to be vigilant of students who have been radicalised. The material from the workshop is the latest in a series of standoffs, between the Maldivian religious clerics and the supposedly democratic government, that have centred around education and the broader subject of extremism. In this battle, the pious (in the media and in general) are arguing that what the state-run workshop warns as ‘extreme’ behaviour in students is actually what should be the norm in schools in a Muslim country: students quitting class if a prayer call happens during one; students refusing participation in the school assembly on the grounds that it includes music, claimed by the clerics to be ‘haram in Islam’; and students refusing participation in events to mark international days such as Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day and even the Georgian New Year. These are activities designed to move the Maldivian student away from an Islamic education and thus towards other religions, and tolerance of people belonging to religions other than Islam. 

Over the last decades Salafi and other conservative religious clerics have dominated Maldivian public spaces such as the media and other social platforms both on and off-line. Slowly but surely, they have steered the country towards what they call the ‘right Islam’ or the ‘pure Islam’—i.e. literally practicing it as it was practiced in the first three centuries of existence. They have also established themselves as the guardians of faith inside prisons, in drug rehabilitation programmes and, hard to believe, in the rehabilitation programmes to help Jihadists returning from war in Iraq and Syria to integrate back into Maldivian society. The very society which most Maldivian Salafis condemn as impure and un-Islamic for (at least on paper) following man-made rule of law instead of Shari’a as the only system of governance, judgement and punishment in the country. Taking over the school curricula—from pre-school to university—has been a favourite battleground of conservative clerics and influencers. A large amount of textbooks for teaching Islam in the country’s schools are supplied by Saudi Arabia, not exactly the bastion of democratic Islam. Those who point to the dangers of such conservative religious education, which discourages reason and intellectual inquiry, are condemned as apostate and run out of the country. Or they are killed, so the conservatives can get to work without scrutiny or criticism. Part of the goal of this work is to depict the current education system, which largely follows the British primary and secondary curricula, as un-Islamic and mocking of Islam.

The results of this strategy are clear from recent events. On May 24, a man wielding a knife entered one of the biggest schools in Male’ and attacked the principal. It was early morning, on a school day. Fortunately, no one was killed or wounded. The lack of an official response to such an act of extreme violence speaks volumes. When it comes to religion, despite the clerics’ claim to the contrary, this coalition government’s policy is entirely in the hands of the conservative establishment, mainly Saudi-educated politicians and intellectuals or followers of various streams within the Salafi philosophy. 

Today the government is being criticised for ‘applying the MDN report’ in its counter-terrorism policy. But the government, if anyone cares to recall, bent over backwards to distance itself from the report and its authors, going as far as de-registering the NGO and allowing the Islamic Ministry to [without any authority] ‘investigate’ the report and find its authors guilty of blasphemy and apostasy. Now the national counter-terrorism strategy is attempting to address the issue of radicalisation, and the clerical establishment is accusing it of being un-Islamic. It wants counter-terrorism efforts—and any efforts to reduce the dominance of ultra-conservative Islam in the Maldives—to be seen as ‘extreme secularisation.’ It doesn’t seem to matter that MDN and NCTC are addressing two different aspects of radicalisation and extremism. One is showing teachers how to spot students who have been radicalised while MDN focused on how schools contribute to the making of such extremists. What they certainly do have in common is how both issues have been used to create and enforce more extreme norms on society at large.   

One strategy successfully applied towards achieving this goal is for religious leaders to criticise the government for supposedly un-Islamic practices and use public outrage engendered by the accusations to pressure the government into adopting increasingly conservative policies. For example, the issue of Female Genital Mutilation was a distant tradition which was on the point of eradication when contemporary conservative clerics revived it by promoting it as a religious duty. Having brought the issue to the forefront by encouraging it, the clerics changed the focus of the debate. Until then the question had been how to eliminate such an inhuman practice from the culture entirely. Now it became a question of when the religious duty to cut a girl, to called ‘female circumcision’ [a religious duty], can be termed genital mutilation [a crime]. The focus is no longer on whether any human being should be treated in this way in a modern democratic society but how much of a woman’s clitoris can their male guardians have justifiably cut in the name of religion before it can be called criminal. This reframing of contemporary human rights questions according to beliefs and standards of 3rd century Arabia has been one of the most constantly applied tactics in the ongoing Salafi-led religious revival in the Maldives. 

The current drama will again end with moving the goalpost to a more conservative location. Important questions–what would be the affects of asking teachers to view their students as potential terrorists, to spy on them, or to regard their refusal to attend the assembly as a sign of radicalisation; whether the impact of such a ‘spy’ system in schools on social relations would be positive or negative–will become irrelevant and cast aside. Instead, the focus will be shifted to how necessary it is for students to cut classes for prayer; how important it is that music should be banned in school assemblies; and how vital it is to stop students from participating in international celebrations in order for the schools to be ‘properly Islamic’. In this way, step by step, like the frog slowly getting used to being boiled in hot water, the ultra-religious score win after win in its battles to influence policy and society. With each victory, the conservatism takes root deeper and wider, killing fast and hard any branches of democracy before they ever fully bloom.