MDN banned for ‘blasphemy’, forced into exile

Shahindha Ismail and Mushfiq Mohamed

The Government of Maldives banned the Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN) from the Maldives two years ago in a state of paralysis, to appease religious hardliners within and outside of the government structures. MDN published their assessment on violent extremism in the Maldives in 2016. Three years later, a year into the new President Ibrahim Solih’s tenure, the coalition government made the decision to shut down the organisation on 19 December 2019. It did so despite calls from international groups and governments and despite the stark absence of any due process. 

Then in January 2020, the Maldivian government seized all of the donor funds in MDN’s bank accounts. The authors of the ‘MDN report’ are still alive solely because of the support and assistance of the human rights community outside of the Maldives and the foreign governments that chose to protect their rights.

The “Ban MDN” Smear Campaign

Smear campaigns in the Maldives have an identifiable pattern and modus operandi. A known, and often a well respected, religious group publishes material online accusing another group or an individual of being anti-Islamic. It then gets picked up by violent groups and political opponents. 

The smear campaign against MDN began days after the NGO published its review of the government-proposed amendments to the Anti Terrorism Act in September 2019. It rapidly escalated into a violent protest that moved from online to offline spaces and spread throughout the country. Dozens of people demonstrated on multiple islands calling to burn and kill the authors of the report and ban MDN. The law enforcement, however, was absent from these scenes. 

An anonymous Twitter handle called @SecularErazer began doxxing MDN and its staff as early as August 2019. Twitter posts alone carrying the hashtag #BanMDN exceeded 39,000 by February 2020 and continues to be used today despite MDN’s local deregistration. The smear campaign has now evolved into using MDN as a dog-whistle term to refer to secularism and those who identify as liberal Maldivians. 

“We have to shut you down or we may lose the government” 

“We had to sacrifice MDN, you have to understand what was at stake” 

These are but some of the justifications used at the time by those who took the decision to ban MDN. Official responses from the government to the UN Special Procedures have asked the UN to “view this as an isolated incident”. The government stated that the incident had the potential to cause a threat to national security.

What remains clear is that it was a critical inflexion point for the country. Not a single politician or civil society actor or human rights activist in the Maldives unequivocally and publicly said MDN’s ban is unacceptable, or at least that it was arbitrary in every sense of the word. Fear is a word that was casually thrown around at the time. It is also used very selectively when the perpetrators of violence are interconnected to those behind religious extremists. In a small community like the Maldives, there is barely a degree of separation between corrupt politicians, zealous clerics, and violent groups.

It is the bare minimum to say that human rights workers should be able to work freely and without threats. It should not be controversial to say that people have the right to live and work in their home country. To give back and serve your community. And in a country where violent groups kill, violently attack, or force into exile journalists and activists—it is even more important for state officials to reiterate these simple truths. If this is the reality of the strangled media freedom and civic space, what does it mean for those vulnerable individuals and groups whose rights they defend?

The truth is, banning MDN was due to more than just a lack of principles and values or a lack of respect for the rule of law. Local politicians and NGOs directly benefited from MDN’s forced deregistration. 

The Roots of Sectarian Violence

It goes without saying that those who would most benefit by silencing MDN are those religious hardliners profiled in the 2015 MDN report on the drivers of violent extremism in the Maldives. The profiles are supported with evidence of violent extremist content those individuals and organisations have been promoting in the country for years without interruption. These include messaging in government-approved sermons and other informal mediums. 

Regardless of whether MDN is silenced or not, the evidence in the report has been with the authorities for over six years. To say the least, the only people the government and violent non-state actors have come after are the authors of the report and the organisation that commissioned it. The violent extremists profiled in the report remain free and continue to spread the radical ideologies in the Maldives. This has resulted in dozens being forced to flee the Maldives since Solih took office, afraid for their lives after being targeted by violent groups. 

Three groups that greatly benefited from the persecution of MDN were Salafi groups, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, and violent extremists. On 11 October 2019, Sheikh Ilyas Jamal, an official at the Islamic Ministry publicly said: “We were very concerned when this report surfaced. When we look at the report we see very dangerous matters. The introduction itself says this research was foreign-funded. We know the writers were well-paid. How can such research be conducted in a 100% Muslim country?” The Islamic Ministry official then went on to use a hadith to urge vigilance over “the enemies of Islam.” It did not matter that this was not a religious publication, but a study conducted by an NGO based on human rights standards. It was seen as heresy. 

A video sermon from Salafi cleric, Abdul Salam, leading an organisation named Jamiyya Salaf, speaking at a mosque threatened the Maldivian government with consequences if it did not ban MDN: “I say to the security services, counter-terrorism agencies, People’s Majlis, and the President; we, the scholars and advisors, cannot prevent ‘(violent) youngsters’ (from harming people) living in this country, who believe we a have a right to criticise Islam and the Prophet. (For that reason) we call on the authorities to prevent people who promote these rights.” In the Maldives, the word “youth” is sometimes used synonymously with young offenders in criminal gangs.

In November 2019, we came across a video sermon on the MDN report, accusing it of offending the Prophet and criticising Islam, published by a Maldivian radical cleric Al Akh Abu Amru Al Maldifi. The so-called sermon raises concerns about the “threats from within” against Islam and the Prophet. The speaker in the sermon believes that the government functions under “the infidel democratic system” and that it is backing the authors of the MDN report. It further goes on to use a hadith to support acts of terror against the authors of the report, calling on “the lions of the Ummah” to defend Islam against such enemies. “This is a golden opportunity to show the strength of your faith without heeding those who manipulate the religion to support these apostates”, the speaker said at the end of the sermon. 

A Dhivehi-language video sermon on YouTube channel ‘Naseyhai’ depicts MDN as deceptive “enemies within”, in a similar vein. The speaker mentions ongoing battles against Islam. He warns the audience of apostates who have “Muslim (or Arabic) names”, campaigning against Islam using modern tools and the language of human rights. “They make NGOs under different names, shield them with the rule of law, and effectively implement planned activities against religion”, the speaker says in the video that is still online. The video ends with a call to violence by “the warriors of faith who will defend the faith against those who sow religious discord through secularism.”

The Unusual Government Response

Firstly, the government got votes to fool the public into thinking some religious battle had been won, and that the Maldivian faith was promised protection from criticism. The local council elections were a few months away. Senior government officials and political figures congratulated and expressed relief that the government had banned the human rights organisation. They portrayed it as a win for pious Muslim Maldivians. 

Maldives’ long-serving former dictator, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom tweeted: “I give thanks to the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Community Empowerment for banning MDN, it is a relief for Maldivians who love Islam and the Holy Prophet.”

Even those belonging to supposedly democratic camps applauded the government. There was no mention of the vigilante violence suffered by those merely suspected of blasphemy. Criticism of religion, the establishment decried, is a red line one cannot cross in the Maldives. And with sentiments such as these being recreated by this government donning an honorary democratic badge, how are we to say that this ‘democratic’ Solih government is any different from the previous ‘authoritarian’ governments? 

Former president Abdulla Yameen said the same about journalist Ahmed Rilwan’s forced disappearance and writer Yameen Rasheed’s brutal killing: They were asking for it. Never mind what was actually said, the perception that someone wronged religion was good enough to make them fair game for violent mobs. 

For example, many are unaware that MDN had, in April of 2019, begun advocacy on transitional justice in partnership with a US-based legal advocacy INGO. One of the primary points of advocacy was to include the atrocities from the second republic. Of course, that would put former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in a difficult situation. He was the only former leader alive and active in politics. MDN had testimonials from thousands of torture survivors from his regime. Despite being at odds with the principles of democracy and human rights, Gayoom is also an influential member of the current government coalition. 

In an unprecedented act of political violence, local journalist Ahmed Rilwan was forcibly disappeared in August 2014. He was last seen leaving for Hulhumale from the Malé ferry terminal. It reshaped the reality of risks for journalists and activists. In September 2014, MDN published a report containing the findings of a private investigation into the disappearance. From then onwards MDN and its staff began receiving violent threats. None of it was thoroughly investigated.  Police regurgitated several findings in the report eighteen months later, representing them as “new evidence.” This was the first time the authorities publicly admitted Rilwan was, in fact, disappeared by force, a truth that was covered up for almost two years. The findings in the MDN report connected the abductors of Rilwan to the then President Abdulla Yameen and his Vice President Ahmed Adheeb.  

The Rule of the Lynch Mob

Secondly, it gave a clear signal of the consequences awaiting those defending the rights of minorities and condemning corruption. Civil society must not cross that line and if they do, their very existence, let alone their activism, will not be tolerated. And the Maldivian state is unable or unwilling to afford them any protection. It is the law of the jungle, not the rule of law, that applies to such individuals. Lynching by angry mobs become a very real possibility. None of it will be investigated, and no one will be prosecuted for inciting the violence.  Human rights protection and due process take a backseat to the appeasement of religious hardliners and to the State’s need to weaponise anti-blasphemy laws against critics. This reinforced the fear President Yameen engendered by enabling the killers of Yameen Rasheed, Ahmed Rilwan, and MP Dr Afrasheem Ali—killings inspired by extreme religio-political ideologies. Indeed, Yameen’s government and that of Solih use the same rhetoric to justify the continuation of such injustices. 

The Maldivian government has ensured that critical voices are muted using the age-old technique in the islands: buying their silence through jobs and kickbacks. Most vocal critics of the previous government, including star activists of MDP and yesterday’s champions of justice for Ahmed Rilwan and Yameen Rasheed, are now on the state’s payroll. MDN’s critical report was conveniently useful when in opposition, and for them to position themselves as allies in the US-led war on terror. But once in government, it only served as a barometer of what is acceptable criticism of extremism. With the slow and slimming chances of justice for Afrasheem, Rilwan and Yameen, the powers that be sent another clear message to dissidents: We will not hesitate to use your pain and losses to fool the young and the impressionable, and discard you when it is politically inconvenient.

The pressure of the sheer terror incited by the collaborative efforts of non-state parties and the government successfully created the space that isolated MDN and its people. It is perhaps understandable that colleagues, friends and associates disassociated themselves from MDN. After all, their lives – and livelihoods – were at risk. What was also revealed in the process was how willing former leaders of the organisation were to distance themselves from the organisation when it needed their support most. What mattered were not the principles at stake but the positions of power they now held in the government. The power they were willing to use only to protect themselves, the new government and, especially, their new positions within that government. 

The very first official of the state to publicly declare that the complaint against MDN was “serious” and a “priority” was the Commissioner of Police Hameed, who had only resigned from his position as the Vice-Chairperson of MDN earlier in the year shortly after his appointment at the Maldives Police Service.

He despicably failed in his attempt to appear unbiased when he completely ignored the violent mob operating against the individuals at MDN in broad daylight. It was one of the most unilateral investigations conducted by the authorities yet. No investigating officers ever put a single question to the accused. Current Prosecutor General Hussein Shameem was the Chairperson who led MDN’s Executive Committee when the report was published in 2015. But, true to form, he wasted no time in distancing himself from the organisation. As a licensed religious scholar, he was asked to review the report at the time of publication, which he claimed he duly did. Once it was condemned by other ‘religious scholars’, however, he maintained complete silence on his associations with MDN and the report itself.

The Dysfunctional Society

What of the civil society actors? Why did the Maldivian human rights community remain silent when their fellow human rights defenders were terrorised? The civil society landscape in the Maldives is one where solidarity only exists as a word. Blinded by prejudice, civil society actors seem unaware of the dangerous precedent they have set for themselves. Their deafening silence speaks of self-preservation. Their continued actions—to depict MDN’s ban as an isolated incident that justified the government-led excesses, the violent smear campaign from the opposition, and the mob rule of violent groups—crystalise their blatant complicity in the whole saga. In keeping with the public mood at the time, a Maldivian academic based in Australia, researching violent extremism, was quick to discredit the report as “methodologically poor,” and presumably, therefore, worthy of being treated the way it ultimately was. Had any of the authors of the report failed to make it safely out of the country, it could well have been the first time that an author had been killed for methodological weakness.

The Maldivian civil society is faced with the most common challenge that civil societies everywhere do—finding reliable financing to sustain their legitimate human rights activism. What may be somewhat different in the Maldives is that no local donors exist for groups that work on civil and political rights. While the dysfunctional civil society landscape is worthy of a closer look, the result is a division caused by the extremely unhealthy competition for foreign funds that mainly come through diplomatic missions assigned to the Maldives and Sri Lanka. An important point to note here is that those funds also mean the livelihoods of many NGO workers in the Maldives. Few NGOs compete for the minuscule funding from these sources. It means that the activities, campaigns and advocacy of NGOs are decided by external donors; not Maldivian island communities, or grassroots movements. Human rights groups have truly made a Faustian pact with the Maldivian government to shield it from criticism over unlawfully banning MDN.

The Arc Towards Justice  

One can argue several possible different ways that MDN could have reacted in the face of the terror that erupted around them two years ago. It was, however, a situation where a small organisation was left to fight an entire political system for its existence without any support on the ground. 

If there was any possible reaction that would have yielded a better result, none was offered in the scram for safety against a mob operating with full impunity. The persecution of MDN and individuals advocating for equal rights would not have been possible without the collective amnesia and hysteria on the ground. 

The deregistration of MDN’s legitimate human rights advocacy will continue to taint the Maldives’ human rights record. It is however not a wrong that is irreversible. The government can still, and must, reverse that flawed decision in order to create an enabling environment for human rights defenders and to prevent further incitement of hate and violence in the guise of religion. 

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