Praveen Swami

Religious chauvinism takes hold of the islands’ first real Presidential election.

Democracy might have come late to the Maldives islands, but its politicians have taken little time to master that great South Asian election trick: the competitive exploitation of religion.

Later this month, opposition Presidential candidate Mohammad Nasheed is due to take on President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in a run-off necessitated by the failure of any candidate to secure an outright majority in the Maldives’ first multi-party Presidential election.

Mr. Gayoom, who has ruled for three decades through controversial “yes-no” referenda, won 41 per cent of the vote; Mr. Nasheed, a long-standing dissident who represents the opposition Maldives Democratic Party, came in second, with 25 per cent. When the run-off is held on October 29, Mr. Nasheed will have the support of religious right, in the form of the Aadhalath Party.

In one recent press conference, MDP Religious Scholars Council chief Adam Naseem said religion in the Maldives was facing a “dangerous time.”

President Gayoom, he claimed, had led the Maldives into a “deep hole economically, socially and religion-wise by encouraging its citizens to talk about religion as if it is a joke.” For his part, Aadhalath Party cleric Abdul Majeed Abdul Bari said that Mr. Gayoom’s policies had encouraged the rise of “harsh thoughts”code for Islamism.

President Gayoom’s ruling Dhivehi Raiyyithunge Party for its part, alleged that the MDP is fronting for Christian missionaries, and accused the Aadhalath Party, which backed millionaire businessman Gasim Ibrahim as its candidate, of “selling religion.”

Competitive chauvinism

Ugly polemic has scarred the election campaign. Last month, the opposition Aadhalath Party moved the Supreme Court against President Gayoom’s re-election bid, claiming that he was “without doubt an infidel.”

In their petition, Aadhalath representatives Sheikh Hussein Rasheed Ahmad and al-Usthaaz Shaheem Ahmad claimed that Mr. Gayoom opposed concepts such as the death penalty and amputation of limbs for for certain kinds of serious offences. Aadhalath leaders alleged that he had also repudiated certain theological concepts.

They also claimed that the President, rather than the opposition, was attempting to spread Christianity, an activity that is illegal in the Maldives.

Earlier, 44 religious scholars, including the vice-president of the official Supreme Council on Islamic Affairs, set up by Mr. Gayoom two decades ago in an effort to use religion to undermine his political opponents called on the President to “repent and fear Allah.” In their fatwa, the scholars addressed several of the issues raised by Aaadalath in its Supreme Court litigation. Arguing that Mr. Gayoom had “used power and influence to use religion as a tool,” the scholars advised Maldives voters to “stay away from his words and writings to save your religious opinions from danger.”

Back in March, 22 clerics came out in opposition against claims by Mr. Gayoom that music was halal, or permitted by Islam’a proposition that was backed by state-endorsed liberal preacher Afrashim Ali. While Mr. Gayoom asserted at a DRP gathering in February that listening and singing songs was acceptable, Mr. Ali declared on state-run television that the Prophet Mohammad himself had sung songs.

At a meeting organised by a right-wing non-governmental organisation, Jamiyaathu Salaf, some 800 people showed up to hear clerics — some linked to the Supreme Council on Islamic Affairs, the Human Rights Commission — lashing out at the President’s approval of music. Adhaalath party president Abdul Majeed Abdul Bari was present at the meeting, as was the Maldives Democratic Party’s religious council member, Adam Naseem.

Islamists, mostly drawn from the neoconservative Salfist sect, known in India as the Jamaat Ahl-e-Hadith, have made opposition to music a centrepiece of their campaign in the Maldives. Ali Rameez, the Maldives’ most famous rock star, declared his conversion to neoconservative Islam three years ago by having his compact discs thrown into the sea off Male, and invited his fans to follow neoconservative preacher Sheikh Ibrahim Fareed’s teachings.

President Gayoom’s religious credentials, in particular, his degree in Sharia law, obtained from Egypt’s famous al-Azhar university, did a great deal to propel his rise to power in 1978. Religion-based opposition to recognition of Israel and calls for prohibition were central to Mr. Gayoom’s campaign to dethrone Prime Minister, later President, Ibrahim Nasir. He used his religious credentials to buttress his unelected government, putting in place a constitution which decreed that the office of the President would be “the supreme authority to propagate the tenets of Islam in the Maldives.”

In recent years, Salafist intellectuals, who reject the conservative traditions of al-Azhar, have proved adroit in hijacking the state-run religious institutions Mr. Gayoom set up to buttress his authority.

For example, the Supreme Council on Islamic Affairs refused, in October last year, to endorse the President’s calls to outlaw the use of the all-enveloping veil, known in the Maldives as the buruga. Mr. Gayoom’s anti-buruga campaign came after the September 29 bombing of tourists at Male’s Sultan Park, an attack that investigators later linked to local Islamists who had trained in seminaries with close Lashkar-e-Taiba links.

Maldives authorities determined that several suspects had escaped to Pakistan after the bombings, but were unable to secure their extradition.