Maldives: Understanding politico-religious ‘conservatism’

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Image credit : Maldives Independent

N Sathiya Moorthy  7 March 2019

Even as the Government of President Ibrahim ‘Ibu’ Solih is seeking to re-build relations with the northern Indian neighbour, brick by brick, after predecessor Abdulla Yameen had single-handedly demolished them, peripheral efforts are still on to revive India-baiting an occasional past-time to be re-visited and refuelled. Heading it just now from the periphery is Yameen’s estranged former Home Minister Umar Naseer, with his own presidential ambitions, yes, but there is no knowing if the former would hijack it all over again at the politically appropriate time, as he had done at the height of the ‘GMR controversy’ in the first two years of this decade.

At the centre of one such controversy was a recent social media rumour that GMR was back in the country and that the Solih Government had opened negotiations with them. Learning from the past under then President Mohammed Nasheed’s shortened term (2008-12), his MDP successor’s Government issued an immediate statement, declaring that they were not in touch with the GMR. Maybe once bitten twice shy but then Economic Affairs Minister Fayyaz Ismail also recalled the troubles that the predecessor Waheed and Yameen administrations had put the nation through, in this regard.

On the positive side, President Solih led a Governmental team in an inaugural Friendship Cricket Series with a visiting Air India team, which included ex-national Yuvraj Singh. In the past, friendly matches of the kind with overseas teams and even within the nation’s bickering political class used to be confined to football. Almost every Maldivian would give his left hand for watching an international player play football, and to him, cricket was a new experience, so to say.

No-trust motion

If the GMR issue did not raise temperatures nearer home this time, a persistent effort is being made to put Defence Minister Mariya Didi in the dock. Once the Chairperson of the ruling MDP, Mariya Didi, who did her under-graduate studies in Bengaluru, India, is the first woman Defence Minister of Maldives, taking off from Duniya Maumoon, who was the first woman Foreign Minister when Yameen was in power.

The Opposition has pounced on Mariya Didi for a comment made by her in a media to an Indian TV news network. Responding to the interviewer, the minister referred to India’s military prowess and said India had no intention of getting militarily involved in Maldives. She acknowledged (the truth) that India had the military prowess to do so.

However, the political Opposition, starting with Yameen’s PPM-PNC combine, along with sections of Parliament Speaker Gasim Ibrahim’s JP, had since demanded Minister Mariya’s resignation. They have since moved a no-confidence motion against Minister Mariya in Parliament. This is the first time any ministerial colleague of Solih has been hauled up before Parliament, to answer queries.

The Opposition’s aim may be to embarrass and also try and weaken the Solih leadership, but their choice of the issue and of the person targeted have caused eyebrows to rise. The MDP’s inability/unwillingness to carry the presidential poll allies from September to the parliamentary elections of April has re-polarised the parliamentary majority in a way.

Unlike the impeachment of the President and Vice-President, which requires two-thirds vote, a no-confidence motions against a minister requires only a simple majority. In recent days/weeks, the ruling MDP has failed to get the House pass their high-priority President’s Commission Bill, to probe the Yameen era wrong-doings, thrice in as many weeks or less.

For another day

The idea seems to be feeding the conservative constituency and keeping it alive, for another day. As may be recalled, the fall of the Nasheed Government was presaged by the GMR-centric anti-India campaign. It was clothed in ‘Islam’, ‘nationalism’ and ‘Islamic nationalism’, carrying the very limited India-baiter groups (often individuals) alongside a substantial religious conservative constituency.

The anti-Nasheed ‘December 23 Movement’ combined both. However, once Nasheed quit office on 7 February 2012, the political Opposition, under Yameen openly declared that they were taking over from there. If anything, Yameen asserted that there was no role now for the religious NGOs, who had been allowed to spearhead the anti-Nasheed protests until then.

Today, when Yameen is in prison, facing corruption probe and other court cases, the temptation for his party and leadership is to seek and divert the public attention, if they could help it. Their immediate target would be the 6 April parliamentary elections, but they may not stop there. Again, if domestic politics would suffice to sub-serve their purpose, fine. If not, they may not mind flagging the anti-India card, if required, to attempt a repeat of their 2012 success.

The failure of the GMR-centred controversy to capture the nation’s imagination could not have come at a better time for Solih supporters. But then, in attempting to have Minister Mariya Didi voted out by Parliament, the emerging ‘joint opposition’ involving the Yameen and Gasim camps, are seeking to demoralise the Solih-Nasheed leadership of the MDP and of the nation. If India had to take a hit or two, they might not mind – unless good sense prevails especially in the Gasim camp.

Conservative constituency

If Yameen and Gasim are playing hide and seek between them, and also against the Solih-Nasheed combo for their own political reasons and electoral ends, the likes of Umar Naseer are waiting on the wings already with future elections in mind – or, so it seems. Ex-Minister Naseer was believed to have played his political ambitions all along only with the 2023 presidential polls in mind. For him, even the 2008 presidential polls, where he got a lowly 1.5 percent vote-share, was a trial-balloon, an advance announcement.

Umar Naseer has always targeted the conservative constituency in the kind, which also includes the religious conservatives. They were with former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom earlier, and are supposedly now with his half-brother Yameen. Naseer, it would seem, is hoping for Yameen to fail as a political leader after losing the presidency, and wants to garner that constituency, for starters.

It is with this possibly in mind that Umar Naseer has also been targeting India. Lately, he has been tweeting and/or putting out Face Book messages about wanting the ‘Indian military’ in Maldives out, and also about India allegedly wanting to have the archipelago-nation merged in itself. Some imagination this, but a conservative constituency that could turn anti-Establishment for other incumbency-centric issues, if at all, could well be projected as being supportive of Naseer’s anti-India campaign, as well.

The more recent of Naseer’s campaign also includes his volunteering to lead a force to have the ‘Indian military’ out of Maldives. To him, the presence of two India-donated helicopters and also the satellite-linked sea-surveillance are all part of an Indian strategy to keep Maldives under its thumb, politically and otherwise.

As an ex-colonel in the Maldives Police Service (MPS) with specialised training in Scotland Yard, Naseer should have known better. If nothing else, the Yameen administration, even while wanting the Indian helicopters and technical crew withdrawn, did not push the matter beyond a point. If anything, his Government even had the India-donated Coast Guard vessels refurbished in Vishakapatnam, at the height of bilateral strains last year.

Prime mover

Maldives is a ‘moderate Islamic’ nation, which has not escaped the post-9/11 global trend of greater religious conservatism, attributed mostly to external factors. The greater western interest and initiative in ‘imposing’ modern democracy in Maldives since the turn of the century too has not helped matters in a country that was a sultanate for thousand centuries. The MDP as the prime-mover and defender of ‘modern, western democracy’ in the country has not looked at the need for adjusting it to address unique Maldivian needs and characteristics.

Confusing ‘Maldivian conservatism’ entirely with Islamic nationalism too can produce only wrong conclusions. The Saudi influence has been in the pre-democracy era, too, but it got more pronounced in Yameen’s time. The perceived failure of western democracy in the eyes of a section of the Maldivian youth of the past decade and more has also been a contributing factor for some taking to religious extremism and fighting for the Taliban, against the US-NATO in the Af-Pak border first and with the ISIS in Syria more recently.

Larger migration to urban centres, especially capital Male, from once-remote islands and atolls, for education and healthcare has changed the social composition in those places. Yet, in South Asia, Maldives also has the highest number of divorces, unheard of in traditional Islamic communities and countries.

Divorce and drugs

This has meant that there are more “orphaned children” of sorts fighting for living space in cramped capital Male, for instance. They are forced to live, join and form ‘gangs’ on the streets, and are given to drugs in a big way. Religion helps to mainstream them, but in the process a few of them too take to fundamentalism, extremism and militancy of the ‘international political jihad’ kind. In such cases at least, the solution to the problem of tackling religious extremism may lie elsewhere.

Reports that at least six ‘IS widows’ from Maldives want to return home with their infant children in recent weeks is a positive development. The message that they may carry to their people on return would be stronger than any western propaganda. Hyped up anti-IS campaign from outside just now has the potential to be misunderstood as continuing international interference in Maldivian political affairs, societal life and social lifestyle.

Even otherwise, there is need for moderation in the understanding of Maldivian orthodoxy and religious fundamentalism. Under Gayoom, the first voice of ‘democratic’ (?) dissent was raised by religious leaders — modern democrats took off from there, in due course. In a succession of pro-democracy rallies and protests, young Maldivian men with flowing beards and women in Islamic head-gears, including the once-unconventional full-face covers, were seen in large numbers, drawing a distinct line between religious practices and political preferences and priorities.

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