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.

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