Whose Islam?: Religion and Identity Politics in the Maldives

May 30, 2010


What price democracy without religious freedom? Religious extremism raises fundamental political questions for newly democratized Maldives.


The prospect of Jihadi groups gaining ground in the Maldives has been flagged for a long time as a potential source of insecurity in the Indian Ocean region. Its archipelagic nature makes monitoring activities in the outer islands challenging, and there has been a history of using them as a staging ground for illegal activities. (See for instance the section on the Maldives in my chapter, “South Asia’s Small States in World Politics,” in South Asia in World Politics, edited by Devin Hagerty, Rowman and Littlefield, 2005.)

In this blog, we have pointed on at least two occasions to this concern. The first was in the context of an interview by the Maldivian president during which he spoke of Maldivians being involved in the 26/11 conspiracy.    The second was a link to a report on jihadi recruitment in the Maldives.

For Maldivians though, this is a secondary concern. Jihadi activity is only one by-product of rising religious extremism.

Islam came to the Maldives in the twelfth century and its advent forms part of the founding myth of Maldivian society. Islam in the Maldives has traditionally been very liberal and open, and this was especially evident in the freedoms that women enjoyed.

In the later years of the Gayoom regime, the government used support to Islamic preachers and madrasas as one way of repressing the nascent movement for democratization. It also made an issue of Christian missionary activity in the islands, accusing some pro-democracy aid organizations of the same as a way to stop them.

Democracy has, as it will, let the genie completely out of the bottle. The Adaalath Party is part of the ruling coalition and holds the Islamic Affairs portfolio. Adaalath favours Islamicization and holds conservative views on gender issues, opposing for instance, the eligibility of women to contest Presidential elections. But compared to the Jamiyyathul Salaf, their politics are mainstream. The Jamiyyathul Salaf propagates an ultra-conservative Islam and in tandem, these forces inside and outside government are attempting to change the nature of Maldivian society. You might say that the processes, practices and exigencies of democratic politics are undermining the bases of liberal society.

Sudha Ramachandran, Maldives faces up to extremism, Asia Times, November 11, 2009.

The Ministry of Islamic Affairs has regularly invited foreign scholars, preachers and tele-evangelists to the Maldives to address large and small groups on religious matters. This week, Mumbai-based Dr. Zakir Naik visited the Maldives, close on the heels of Dr. Bilal Philips from Qatar.

JJ Robinson, “Feminist group launches letter writing campaign against sponsors of Dr Bilal Philips event,” Minivan News, May 27, 2010.
Aishath Aniya, Comment: An evening with Mrs. Naik, Minivan News, May 29, 2010.

The ideas and interpretations they espouse, with great publicity, are a source of profound anxiety to the very young, liberal, educated Maldivians who now occupy important positions in state and civil society. At a recent conference on the Maldives, for instance, participants spoke about cabdrivers playing propaganda tapes about veiling when ferrying unveiled women around Malé. The question they ask, within and outside their country, in conferences and social media: What price democracy without religious freedom? This is not a question to which their high-profile, activist President Nasheed has provided the unequivocal answer that they want to hear.

In the Maldives, religious freedom is closely tied in with citizenship. The constitution explicitly states that “a non-Muslim may not become a citizen of the Maldives.” The idea that the Maldives is 100% Muslim is also interpreted to suggest that those who are not Muslim cannot be Maldivian. The propagation of increasingly conservative interpretations of Islam are seen not just as changing Maldivian society and especially the rights of Maldivian women, but also as potentially limiting the civil liberties, even human rights of Maldivians generally.

Hilath Rasheed, “Zakir Naik will turn Maldivian against Maldivian – VIDEO,” Hilath Online,  May 26, 2010.
Dr. Zakir Naik and Nazim,” Dhivehimedia, May 29, 2010.

Climate change and rising sea-levels many not be the only threat of extinction that Maldivians are battling. Moreover, just as the Internet provided the easy rallying grounds for the pro-democracy activists, so will it do for this first-order debate about the nature of Maldivian society.

Still speaking about Shopian…

December 17, 2009


An update on the death of two sisters from Shopian, Kashmir. Also, why this is of interest to us.


The story so far: Two sisters were found dead in an apple orchard in Shopian. In the context of insurgency, this gave rise to allegations of rape and murder by members of the Indian armed forces posted in that area. Investigations were inconclusive, protests rocked the valley and the case was handed over to India’s Central Bureau of Investigation. On December 14, 2009, the CBI reported that it had not found any evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the armed forces, saying the girls had not been raped and killed. Moreover, the agency filed chargesheets against a dozen individuals who were said to have tampered with evidence along the way.

CBI files chargesheet in the Shopian case, December 14, 2009.

Predictably, this finding has met with outrage in Kashmir and in civil rights circles around India. Commentary on this issue in the Indian press ranges from support to scepticism.

Bashaarat Masood, Shopian dirt on this dozen, Indian Express, December 16, 2009.
Shopian changes little, Economic Times, December 16, 2009.
Shopian riddle, Daily News and Analysis, December 16, 2009.

Simultaneously, the Independent Women’s Initiative for Justice in Shopian (IWIJ), a fact-finding committee made up of eminent activist-professionals to investigate the incident (Uma Chakravarti, Usha Ramanathan, Vrinda Grover, Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal, Seema Misra and Dr. Ajita) released their report: Shopian: Manufacturing a Suitable Story: A Case Watch. (The report is available in pdf format at this link.)

Will we ever know how Nilofer and Asiya died? Probably not. But we can predict that this will be an important political issue for a long time.

Why should writers and readers of the ASI blog care about this obscure pair of sisters in a village most of us had never heard of? There are two reasons this case is important. First, it illustrates the link that scholars make between gender and identity politics. Women’s bodies stand for the community itself, and violence perpetrated against them carries the symbolic value of violence perpetrated against the body politic of the community. This confliction of woman and community reduces the importance of the individual woman and her life and her rights, even as it makes violence against women disproportionately provocative. Disproportionate, I write, not because it is not important but because it is considered important for the wrong reasons: community pride, honour and sanctity. The result is that it is virtually impossible for the individuals affected to get justice.

The second reason is that it underscores that a trust deficit is the biggest challenge in any conflict setting. Nobody trusts anybody to care enough either about the victims of violence nor about justice for its own sake. Every round of investigations is suspect. Every set of circumstances dubious. Addressing specific grievances is far easier than rebuilding trust.

Both of these are reminders that are relevant far beyond this case and the valley. That is why this blogger returns to the Shopian case at regular intervals.

The Politics of Making Sexual Violence an Issue

October 5, 2009


The UN Security Council mandated peacekeeping missions to secure women and girls from sexual violence. Hillary Clinton, who was in the chair, stirred a hornet’s nest when she included Sri Lanka in a list of cases where rape had been used as a weapon of war.


Hillary Clinton’s stewardship of the State Department will likely come to be associated with a vigorous advocacy of a human security agenda in international relations. The elimination of sexual violence is an important part of that agenda.

On September 30th, 2009, the UN Security Council unanimously passed a resolution mandating UN peacekeeping missions to protect women and girls from sexual violence which assumes epidemic proportions in conflict zones. Hillary Clinton introduced the resolution saying, “We’ve seen rape used as a tactic of war before in Bosnia, Burma and Sri Lanka and elsewhere.” Predictably, this aroused a great deal of indignation in Sri Lanka: a sampling here in the comments section of a newspaper.

From one of Sri Lanka’s best-known peace activists, Jehan Perera, this measured reading: Openness to engagement as defence to accusation, October 5, 2009.

The US has responded to Sri Lanka’s protests by saying that instances of rape being used during the conflict had been recorded in the past.

Interesting, that accusations about the use of sexual violence are really found offensive, but no one wants to take sexual violence or gender violence, more broadly, seriously as a policy issue. Hillary Clinton has made it a point to talk about this and other human security issues on all her official visits; this could be her unique legacy depending on what form and what tone it takes in months to come.

This incident is a great example of what feminists mean when they say the personal is political and when they talk about the politics of identity and nationalism being played out on women’s bodies.

Postscript to a Tragedy: The Shopian Story

September 10, 2009


What’s happened to the investigation of the rape and murder of the sisters from Shopian?


Almost three months after my first blog post on the rape and murder of two sisters from Shopian, we still do not know who was responsible. (See also this statement by visiting women activists from New Delhi.) The case has now been handed over to India’s Central Bureau of Investigation. This followed revelations that the evidence in the case had been mishandled by the state police.

In the meanwhile, it’s politics as usual as leaders from organizations of every hue try to show that they care most.
Vijay Kumar, Futile to pin hopes on investigation in Shopian case: Mehbooba, Ground Report, June 23, 2009 .
India Doing Israel In Kashmir: Geelani, Kashmir Observer, September 10, 2009.

The Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Movement (JKPM) has charged Indian troops with using rape as a weapon of war. A spokesman of the Islamic Political Party (JK) has written in a Korean paper about the “unabated persecution of its natives by 7.5 lakh Indian Armed forces of different hues.”

In this acrimonious, even opportunistic, climate, few attempt a dispassionate look at the situation and counsel integrity in political decision-making.

On a slightly different note, media coverage of Shopian is seen as a reflection of the intelligentsia’s perspective on Kashmir in this analysis. However, media commentator Sevanti Ninan points out that Kashmir fares far better than Manipur where there is more violence but which remains invisible in the Indian press.

A lack of transparency and accountability really cloud our understanding of what is actually happening on the ground. Lack of interest and attention merely reinforce our ignorance and consequently, the alienation of sections of society, who read this for what it is: lack of humane concern.