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. 

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