Sunday, March 30, 2008

Murdering music

When former MDP chairman Mohamed Nasheed launched his campaign for the party's presidential nomination, he chose to call it "Thaahiru Dhiriulhun" or "Hygienic Life". While Anni may officially take hygienic existence to mean being able to afford ice cream every month, no one can fail to notice the right wing connotations in the phrase. It shouldn't, therefore, come as a surprise that Anni describes his party as a centre-right party. 

The largest political party in the Maldives has long allowed itself to be ruled by right wing ideals, particularly the religious right. When MDP's assistant secretary-general Aishath Aniya received death threats for questioning the need to wear the buruga, or the headscarf, from conservative Islamists within and outside the party, neither Anni nor Munavvar uttered a word to condemn the threats or to defend Aniya's right to the freedom of expression. 

Now, both these 'reformists' have openly gone against Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by publicly saying Maldivian citizens can only practice Islam. MP Ibrahim Ismail or Ibra, head of the officially unrecognised Social "Liberal" Party, has also repeatedly said that the country can only have Islam as its religion. As a member of the UN, the Maldives should in theory support its declarations; unfortunately in practice the UDHR is not binding. In 2005 the Maldives, under pressure, signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political and Rights or ICCPR with reservation against Article 18, which regards the freedom of religion, thought and conscience. Dictator Gayoom, in his last terms in office---and let's hope they are his last---signed any international treaty he was asked to sign, but continues to violate them at will.

Meanwhile, the religious right has bullied its way into the Maldivian way of life, by infiltrating its every facet. From the media to education, from family life to politics no institution has been spared. When a man was slashed and burnt severely on the island of Himendhoo in Alif Atoll, allegedly by its religious militants, police dismissed the case as one of self-infliction. The Adhalath Party had earlier advised them to practice extreme caution in its resolution.  Today, we're so scared of the religious right that even  marriage between "Haaby" adult males and underaged girls are failing to register public protest. 

Earlier in the year, when MDP members proposed an ammendment to the new constitution to bar women from running for presidency, its leadership failed to distance itself from the motion. Notable 'reformists' like Mohamed Shihab MP voted for it, while the 'liberal' Ibra abstained. Abstinence in this case can only be interpreted as siding with the misogynists, an accusation Ibra has repeatedly fail to address. Paradoxically, it was due to Gayoom's much criticised unelected members that this particular right of Maldivian women will now be preserved in the new constitution. 

And now, the religious right are targeting the arts. A recent meeting by former pop singer Ali Rameez's NGO Jamiyyathu Salaf, with representatives from the MDP and the government's supreme council for Islamic affairs, proclaimed music as "haraam", or prohibited in Islam. Ali Rameez, who made a fortune singing hundreds of songs to tunes stolen from Bollywood, is a success story in the religious right's infiltration of popular culture. The right wing organisation held the meeting in a reaction against the emergence of more liberal interpretations of Islam, especially by Dr. Afrashim Ali, who holds a PHd in Fiqh or Islamic jurisprudence.

Failing to challenge Dr. Ali in public debates, the religious right have resorted to character assassination and, even, physical assault. But what is disturbing about these developments is the part played by MDP's 'reformists' in the systematic rubbishing of liberal views. Believing Dr. Ali to be a stooge of Gayoom because of Information minister Nasheed's backing for him, the opposition has effectively joined forces with the likes of Ali Rameez, and the odious and hyprocritical Mohamed Rasheed Ibrahim, to stem the spread of liberal interpretation of Islam at a time when the country most needs it. 

Liberal scholars quote from Verse 2:256 of the Quran, and other texts, to argue that Islam prohibits Muslims to force any person into Islam. Interestingly, Dr. Hassan Saeed, in a book he co-wrote with his brother, "Apostasy in Islam', takes a similar position. In his manifesto, his first priority appears to be to strengthen Islam in the Maldives, but through moderate and liberal teachings. But Dr. Saeed has not come forward to defend liberal Islamic interpretation, suggesting that he intends to take a less risky road for his presidential campaign.

For musicians and artists who hold genuinely liberal views, the immediate future looks bleak. As democratic ideals and human rights get buried under pop-politics, and music overtakes the buruga as the latest target of choice of the religious right, it is becoming all too clear that Maldivians can expect little help from the self-proclaimed 'liberals', 'reformists' or 'human rights activists'.

Anni's "Hygienic Life" could well mean a life clean of democracy, human rights, and music.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Ibra for president

Ibrahim Ismail, high-profile MP and leader of the Social Liberal Party, early this morning mass-texted Maldivians to announce his intention to run for the country's top job. Ibra is making the announcement less than a week after a parliamentarian committee he is chairing grilled police commissioner or "chief torturer" Adam Zahir over the treatment of detainees, particularly the custodial deaths of Hussain Solah and Muaviath Mahmood.

Ibra has been trying to address issues and bring change from within the framework of the parliament and the constitutional assembly, and has a high-level of support among discerning Maldivians. Moreover, he is easily the best orator amidst the "reformists" and "politicians" that have cropped up in post-Eavan Naseem Maldives. 

Ibra beat Munnavar and Zaki to become MDP's first president, but was later  isolated within the party due to differences with its chairman and populist trends.  Some have commented that Gayoom's two ex-ministers cajoled Anni into making things so difficult for Ibra that he was eventually forced to leave. 

But Ibra's commitment to human rights, particularly gender equality, has been questioned. When an MDP member introduced a bill banning women from running for presidency, Ibra chose to play safe by voting neutral. People who have worked with him claim that he considers women inferior to men; he has reportedly remarked to people that he believes women are unsuitable to be the leader of a country because they are "easier to manipulate". 

Ibra has also repeatedly opposed the freedom of religion. Islam, he has publicly stated, must remain state religion, and the country's growing and, largely, closeted non-Muslims are understandably concerned about such attitudes coming from a leader of a party that calls itself social "liberal" party. 

But with the right campaign, Ibra could well win the hearts and minds of a population not only disillusioned with Gayoom's dictatorship, but fed up of its fragmented opposition.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Teaching torture: from one Zahir to another

Systematic torture, ranging from petty torment to gruesome murder, characterises Maumoon Abdul Gayoom's three decades of dictatorship, and the detention centres of Dhoonidhoo, Atholhuvehi and Maafushi prison have a notoriety, in the Maldives, that is equal to Abu Ghuraib or Quantanamo Bay. While sources leaning towards the Maldives Democratic Party or MDP tend to credit the commissioner of police Adam Zahir with much of the torture that goes on in those places, its foundation may have been laid much earlier, by another Zahir.

Old Gayoom faithful Umar Zahir, an ex-cabinet minister who held every portfolio under the sun, might have been the single-most important influence in the making of the monster we now know as Adam Zahir or the chief torturer. When the younger Zahir was a student at Majeediyya School, the older Zahir was its headmaster and the generation that went to school then has a host of stories about Umar Zahir's sadism.

Now widely regarded as a corrupt crackpot, Umar Zahir, as headmaster, would go round Male on his bicycle, to sniff out Majeediyya students violating their curfew. The next day, he would make them undress and wear gunny bags, and subject them to cruel public humiliation.  Young boys also had to endure extensive detention at school, sometimes for weeks, in an era strangely reminiscent of a Charles Dickens novel.  The little we know of those days is enough to illustrate that the young Adam Zahir would have witnessed, perhaps even have been victim of, systematic torture, at an impressionable age, by a master sadist. 

The former president Ibrahim Nasir eventually wised up to what was going on and relieved Umar Zahir, widely suspected to be a psychopath, of his duties. But in Maumoon Abdul Gayoom's government Umar Zahir found ways to continue his exercises in tormenting young boys. In his years as home minister, he established a culture of abuse on deprived boys in a reformatory. Directly under his supervision, well-documented incidents of child sexual abuse, horrific punishment, and even death due to negligence occurred there. Umar Zahir appointed a known sadist and paedophile to supervise the reformatory, and had tiny cells built to lock up boys for durations of over a month, in solitary confinement, for minor offenses. During this period, one boy "fell into the water tank" and died while another's short life ended in a lorry accident in which the driver employed by Umar Zahir didn't have a license. The abuse and the deaths were never criminally investigated and when things hotted up Gayoom just reshuffled Umar Zahir. 

Even as sports minister, the sadist devised ingenious ways to torment. He famously refused to allow a top footballer on the field because he would not cut his hair to the length prescribed by the minister. He would also detain athletes inside sports ministry compounds, threatening them with bans if they didn't do as he ordered.

Less known are Umar Zahir's actions as a supervisor overseeing the building of Kurumba Village, the first tourist resort in the Maldives. A waiter, tending to newly arrived guests, accidently split water on them in Umar Zahir's presence. The ex-headmaster ordered the young man to kneel down on the beach in full view of all the guests for hours, only pardoning him when flabbergasted guests begged on his behalf. 

Umar Zahir may no longer able to practice torment on the scale he enjoyed. But he's left a legacy that is being followed by a faithful student. Of course it's a bit simplistic to assume that the commissioner of police learnt his craft from his former headmaster. 

I'm just introducing an idea here and hope readers with information will post their views and stories in the comments.