Maldives: How in the name of Islam, hate crime bill is being made into a hate object

Maldives parliament

N Sathiya Moorthy   25 June 2021

At a time when the nation should be united in the face of terrorism that had targeted Parliament Speaker Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed, the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and coalition government are divided as never before. MDP chairman Hassan Latheef has since admitted to such a division, which has already damaged the party’s public image and standing. With coalition partners now seeking to scuttle the government’s religion-centric ‘hate crimes’ bill, identified with the Nasheed camp and flowing directly from the 6 May bomb attack on him, it has greater potential to wreck the MDP’s future poll prospects than ever already.

Moved by one of MDP’s front-line woman MPs, Hissan Hussain, the bill, amongst other things, seeks to punish those that target anyone as ‘infidel’ or ‘kafir’. Critics lost no time in taking up cudgels, with the MDP’s religion-centric coalition partner, Adhaalath Party, firing the first salvo. Incidentally, such differences have also exposed the lack of pre-bill consultations amongst the coalition partners, which includes two more parties.

Led by the Home Minister, Sheikh Imran Abdulla, the Adhaalath Party stated that offences mentioned in the bill do not adhere to the international conditions required for deciding offences that would lead to hatred. It expressed concern that the bill may further increase hatred amongst people and called upon the government to follow international committees in treating the bill with caution.

Led by the Home Minister, Sheikh Imran Abdulla, the Adhaalath Party stated that offences mentioned in the bill do not adhere to the international conditions required for deciding offences that would lead to hatred. It expressed concern that the bill may further increase hatred amongst people and called upon the government to follow international committees in treating the bill with caution.

Independent of the Adhaalath Party, 101 religious scholars, in a petition, urged President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih to throw out the bill. They claimed that the proposed amendments will not benefit the Islamic society, but the consequences that follow might be irreparable.

In a separate development, the Malé city council, the prestigious local body administering the national capital and controlled by jailed former President Abdulla Yameen’s PPM-PNC combine, also expressed disagreement with the amendment. The council stated that it had opened opportunities for people to mock Islamic religion and the Prophet under the power of the law, and the government was allowing it to happen.

With the tone and tempo of criticism against the bill raising, Parliament’s Judiciary Committee has taken it up for consideration, seeking views, including from the Islamic Ministry. As is to be expected, the ministry, headed by Adhaalath scholar, Dr Ahmed Zahir Ali, wants ‘actions against Islam’ included as an offence under the bill. In effect, it cancels out the very purpose of the amendment.

The ministry’s statement, issued after discussions with religious scholars and lawyers, focused on three main aspects. One, the inclusion of actions against Islam as a hate crime; two, forbidding actions that may harm a person’s reputation, property, and soul; and three, amending the amendment bill itself in such a way that it does not decree actions that the ministry sees as impeding one of the rightful duties of Muslims as being a criminal offence. Rightful duties include, “the duty of Muslims to spread Islam, call on people to act righteously, and act to prevent them from veering towards an un-Islamic path.”

Without naming any person, party, or nation in particular, the ministry noted that at a time when there is hate being spewed and hateful actions against the religion occuring, “it is vital to specify the criminalisation of hate against Islam in such a law”. Yet, the ministry agreed that inciting hatred amongst the populace and labelling every Muslim with opposing views as being irreligious or an infidel is categorically wrong, just as blind accusations made towards Islamic scholars or Muslims of spreading hate is wrong.

Unlawful to critique

Traditionally, Maldives has been an Islamic State. Only a Sunni Muslim can become a citizen. The 2008 democratic Constitution, while promising political liberalism and freedom, reaffirms it too. As such, the ministry pointed out how Islam stands against those with non-conformist views by labelling them as ‘irreligious’ or ‘infidel’.

At the same time, the ministry also cited Article 27 of the Constitution, asserting, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought and expression, (and) freedom to communicate opinions and expression, in a manner that is not contrary to any tenet of Islam”. It was, thus, already unlawful to critique Islam or speak against Islamic values, the ministry underlined.

At the same time and independent of the ‘hate crimes’ discourse, the Human Rights Commission of Maldives (HRCM) has acknowledged what otherwise may be un-Islamic actions in the performance of ‘Ruqya’, a religious practice. It involves the recitation of the Holy Quran and the Hadith as a spiritual remedy for certain ailments, but the rights panel cited instances where children and women were abused and graves desecrated.

The Commission said that by creating and enforcing standard regulations, the State could potentially decrease the trickery and harm caused by false practitioners. It may be unconnected with the hate-crimes discourse, but the HRCM findings, as also not-so-infrequent media reports on the practice of ‘black magic’ against rivals, including political rivals, have clearly established the ground reality.

As an aside, an MP has since presented a bill in Parliament, seeking to ‘ensure the safety of mosques’ across the country. He spoke of the the desecration of mosques during the pandemic lockdown, where loafers, squatters, and drug-peddlers were abusing the premises of Islam’s places of worship. Neither the religious scholars, nor the ministry, has seemingly taken note of the same.

As an aside, an MP has since presented a bill in Parliament, seeking to ‘ensure the safety of mosques’ across the country. He spoke of the the desecration of mosques during the pandemic lockdown, where loafers, squatters, and drug-peddlers were abusing the premises of Islam’s places of worship. Neither the religious scholars, nor the ministry, has seemingly taken note of the same.

Signature campaign

On the reverse, the MDP too has launched a signature campaign in support of the bill. Islam is a religion of peace, the petition reads. “We want to be a moderate, modern, and liberal Islamic country,” it adds. In a small country like Maldives, the number of signatures on the petition will also indicate the popularity or otherwise of the bill—and also the MDP in turn.

The petition recalls how such labelling has legitimised bloodshed on the streets of Malé in the last 10 years, and that the bomb attack on Nasheed is (only) an example, showing how extremism and intolerance are getting out of control in the country. Labelling people ‘Laadheenee’ is the main weapon extremists use to galvanise support for their agenda, the petition declared.

President Solih reflected these sentiments at a news conference. He promised that the bill does not target any group, and said that an opinion expressed by someone should not incite hatred or intolerance of others. Solih noted that hate crimes could lead to violence and physical harm, and that the main purpose of the amendment bill is to take all steps to ensure that it does not reach that point. He also clarified that the amendment does not obstruct freedom of speech or expression.

Nasheed, who is still in Germany for a follow-up medical treatment in the aftermath of the 6 May bomb attack, called upon all citizens to sign a petition that seeks to end calling each other infidel, ‘kafir’ or ‘Laadheenee’.

Islamic nationalism

As much as the religious and legislative discourse on the bill, the political fall-out of the same is equally important, especially from an electoral standpoint. Critics have targeted the MDP in general and the Nasheed leadership of the party in particular, for their ‘anti-Islam’ politics. This includes Nasheed’s on-again-off-again acknowledged sympathy or support for the US and Israel. The two nations are a major no-no for the Islamic ‘umma’ across the world, first over the Palestine issue and more recently after wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

With the presidential polls due in 2023 and the party already divided over issues of corruption, maladministration, factionalism, and ego clashes, allowing Islam once again to capture public imagination is not good for the party. For Islam and ‘Islamic nationalism’ were at the focus of the Opposition-led, religion-centric ‘December 23 Movement’ protests in 2011-12, which culminated in Nasheed quitting as the nation’s first democratically-elected President without completing his full five-year term.

With the presidential polls due in 2023 and the party already divided over issues of corruption, maladministration, factionalism, and ego clashes, allowing Islam once again to capture public imagination is not good for the party. For Islam and ‘Islamic nationalism’ were at the focus of the Opposition-led, religion-centric ‘December 23 Movement’ protests in 2011-12, which culminated in Nasheed quitting as the nation’s first democratically-elected President without completing his full five-year term.

Against this background, in a significant development which independent observers see as impacting the police investigations and the parliamentary panel probe into the bomb-attack on Nasheed, the MDP has set up a ‘May 6 Committee, to oversee both’. MDP members of the constitutionally mandated security committee, also called the ‘241 Committee’, were present at the party conclave, where speakers repeatedly targeted the government, and sought to link the blast to the multi-million-dollar ‘MPPRC scam’ under the previous Yameen regime, and an alleged attempt to cover up the same under the Solih presidency.

At the conclave, party chairperson Hassan Latheef conveyed a message from Nasheed, openly accusing President Solih of influencing MNDF in the case and attempting to interfere with the parliamentary panel probe. He conceded that the party has torn into two because the government wanted to run the country without Speaker Nasheed.

Translated, this means that some party leaders want the Executive President to share ‘State secrets’ with someone not authorised by the Constitution or other laws to receive or possess them. It also indirectly calls upon President Solih to consult and defer to the views of Nasheed at every turn, that too not necessarily as the face of the legislature—whose role and powers too have been codified—but as the leader of the ruling party.

Tactical silence

Though not implied, the MDP’s position is increasingly tilting towards a one-party State that Maldives was before 2008. The Yameen camp, which continues to be criticised for its autocratic regime (2013-18), can be expected to exploit it politically. If it is not making much more out of the hate crime bill, it is because the people take its ideological opposition for granted.

What’s more, by maintaining tactical silence, the Yameen camp also seems to let the MDP’s internal differences widen even more. For should there be credible political criticism of the government on an ‘Islam-related issue’, which the bill is all about, there is every chance that the MDP factions may see wisdom and close ranks and rightly so, during the long run-up to the 2023 presidential polls.

https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/maldives-how-in-the-name-of-islam-hate-crime-bill-is-being-made-into-a-hate-object/

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation-Chennai Initiative)

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