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Hate crime bill widens Islamic divisions in the Maldives

'Irreligious' or not? Debate splits ruling party, fuels instability in South Asia

The Maldives' capital, Male. The archipelago of 400,000 people is being divided by a religious dispute.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Two years after a landslide victory in the general elections, the governing Maldivian Democratic Party has been rattled by sharp divisions within its ranks as lawmakers split into factions in an emerging battle for the soul of Islam in the South Asian archipelago.

In one faction is Hisaan Hussein, a female MDP lawmaker who submitted a bill in May to criminalize a wave of hate speech in the largely moderate Muslim country. In the bill's sights are ultraconservative Islamists who publicly berate their adversaries as la dheenee, which means "irreligious" in the local Dhivehi language, or as kafirs, nonbelievers.

But in the weeks since, Hussein and other members of the MDP's progressive wing have faced a backlash from ultrareligious quarters as the bill made its way through the parliamentary process. It has forced her -- an ally of charismatic parliamentary Speaker and former President Mohamed Nasheed, the victim of an assassination attempt in May, allegedly by Islamic extremists -- to seek a security detail for protection.

"Hisaan was the first to come under threats," said Azra Naseem, a Maldivian political scientist who has been tracking Islamic radicalization in the country. "[She] now lives with a security detail; so do many of the other [parliamentarians] who have demonstrated their support for the bill."

Being labeled a "la dheenee," as one MDP parliamentarian backing the bill has been, is not viewed lightly in the wake of the country's record of spreading Islamic extremism. "Once the 'la dheenee' label is attached to someone, death threats made against them should be taken seriously," added Naseem. "Many who have been so labeled have been murdered in the Maldives in the name of Islam."

Maldives President Ibrahim Solih and former President Mohamed Nasheed, right, arrive at an election campaign rally in Male in April 2019.   © Reuters

Not surprisingly, Nasheed, himself a victim of the inflammatory "nonbeliever" label before the bomb attack, has berated the MDP's faction loyal to President Ibrahim Solih for turning their backs on the hate crime bill.

"When the conservative religious parties who are part of a political alliance with the government objected, the government withdrew support for its own Bill," Nasheed charged in a scathing statement released over the weekend. "If the government is unable to employ the leadership required to support this bill and all it stands for, then I find it difficult to support the government."

Solih struck a more conciliatory note when pressed about the bill a month after it was submitted, stating that the language to amend the Maldives Penal Code would not target any particular groups. He said it was meant to prevent hate crimes fomenting "violence and physical harm," according to Maldivian media.

Not to be outdone, ultraconservative religious groups like Jamiyyath Salaf have taken to social media to stoke opposition against the bill, warning that the Islamic identity of the Maldives is at stake. Al-Sheikh Hassan Moosa Fikry of Jamiyyath Salaf warned that the bill will lead to secularism, adding that "it isn't fundamental rights that come with secularism in this age."

But in a region where radical Islamic networks have spread southward from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the political infighting in the Maldives is now on the radar of some South Asian intelligence agencies and political analysts. These sources reckon that the outcome of the bill will attract more regional interest in the Maldives, given the spreading influence of Islamists in the country of 400,000 people.

Police secure the area following a blast that injured parliamentary Speaker Mohamed Nasheed, the Maldives' first democratically elected president, near his home in Male on May 6.   © AP

Pan-Islamic networks like al-Qaida and the Islamic State group have over the years attracted Maldivian men to join their ranks. At the height of IS operations in Syria and Iraq, between 250 and 450 Maldivians had left to join the Middle East terrorist network -- making the Maldives the world's largest supplier of IS recruits per capita.

This trend brought notoriety to a country that had been better known for tourism -- its idyllic resort islands attract high-spending vacationers -- and its strategic location, straddling the busiest shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean.

"Within South Asia, the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan would strengthen these groups in the Maldives and would be detrimental to the tourism industry," said Pankaj Kumar Jha, professor of defense and strategic studies at the New Delhi-based O.P. Jindal Global University. "So [the outcome of] this hate crime bill is important for the Maldives' future, and also for better ties with India."

But some Maldivian observers have warned that the bill is not without its flaws and, if not fixed, could be exploited to restrict fundamental rights such as the freedom of expression. "Anyone seriously considering international human rights cannot support the current form of the bill," said Azim Zahir, a Maldivian political scientist at the Perth-based University of Western Australia. "It is very unfortunate and disappointing that a party that once claimed [to be] the champions of human rights are damaging the discourse of human rights in the country."

The draft bill, Zahir points out, "goes beyond regulating hate speech by targeting speech that should be protected under international law." It is also "meddling with Islamic jurisprudence issues."

The proposed bill is "quite bad and contradicts Maldives' obligations under international human rights law," because it violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by "unduly infringing on freedom of expression," added Zahir.

The prospect of cooler heads to assess the merits of the bill is becoming increasingly remote as the political temperature rises, first on social media and then in the public square. Officials at the Islamic Ministry, a bastion of ultraconservative Muslims, are also reportedly against the bill.

Naseem, the Islamic radicalization tracker, fears that political games are coming to a head. "A confrontation seems imminent," she warned. The MDP has "not weathered the latest onslaught on its founding principles very well."

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