In 2020, Maldives and the United Arab Emirates joined hands to foil a move by Pakistan to set up an informal contact group of envoys from OIC countries on Islamophobia at the United Nations, apparently to corner India.
Maldives Permanent Representative Thilmeeza Hussain declared then that it was incorrect to single out India over alleged Islamophobia, as it undermined religious harmony in South Asia. She also said social media campaigns against Islam did not not represent the feelings of 1.3 billion Indians.
On June 6, the staunchly pro-India Ibu Solih government of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) in Male issued a statement that it was “deeply concerned by the derogatory remarks made by some officials of BJP, India, insulting the holy Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) and the religion of Islam”. The statement also “welcomed the denouncement of the derogatory remarks by the Indian government and the suspension and expulsion of the two leaders”.
Behind this statement of condemnation is a story of how recent trends in “domestic politics” in India, carried across international boundaries by social media swiftly, have put the best of its allies on the defensive in their own domestic arenas, and breathed life into India-baiters in those countries.
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Maldives is an Islamic nation. Under the Solih government, this small but important Indian Ocean neighbour of India, has officially declared its foreign policy as “India first”, in response to an “India Out” campaign led by former President Abdulla Yameen, who courted China during his years in office. In April, President Solih banned anti-India protests by decree.
Earlier this year, images of the hijab row in Karnataka travelled over the Indian Ocean to Maldives and became a subject of social media discussion there. The hijab is not compulsory attire in Maldives, but videos of the hijab and burqa-clad women protestors in Karnataka went viral and there was much public discussion on the issue.
The OIC, Kuwait, Bahrain and Pakistan and the US condemned the hijab ban as an attack on the freedom of religion. But Male held its ground and did not follow in the footsteps of the other countries.
This time, too, the MDP tried its best to fend off pressure to condemn the attack on the Prophet by the BJP spokesperson. On June 5, as condemnation poured in from many countries in the Islamic world, Maldives at first remained silent.
On June 6, in the People’s Majlis, an emergency motion was tabled by the opposition People’s National Congress MP Adam Shareef Umar, calling on the government to condemn the hate speech. Presenting the motion, Shareef said sanctity and protection of Islam was deeply rooted in Maldivians and mandated under the Religious Unity Among Maldivians Act.
The motion said it was “extremely concerning that Maldives as a fully Islamic country has not said a word over the slander of Prophet Muhammad whilst Indian Muslims, leaders and citizens of Islamic countries have protested, condemning the act in strong words; foreign relations bodies of some countries have summoned Indian ambassadors over the matter and social media campaigns have been launched at some countries urging action against India”.
Of the total number of 87 members, 43 were present. The MDP has 65 members. All 33 who voted to reject the motion were from MDP. A newspaper later carried the names of all the 33 to “name and shame” them.
Earlier the same day, the Progressive Congress Coalition (PCC), an opposition combine of the PNC and the Progressive Party of Maldives, issued a statement condemning Nupur Sharma’s remarks, and said “the comments were a testament to the growing Islamophobia, systemic racism and caste-based violence in India”.
Two other Maldivian political parties – ruling coalition partners Adhaalath Party and Maldives Reform Movement – also condemned the insult to the Prophet in India in the “strongest” words. Adhaalath said slandering the Prophet’s name was an act against the whole Muslim Ummah, and “millions of Muslims in India and across the world [will] stand up to defend the Prophet’s identity.”
As pressure from the ground grew, the government issued its statement late in the evening which was criticised by a section of the Maldivian media and Maldivian social media influencers as “tepid”.
Later, the MDP parliamentary group came out with its own statement defending the rejection of the motion, saying they would “not allow Islam to be wielded as a political weapon”. The group said the emergency motion was a “ruse” for political gain, and one of its motivations was “to turn the Maldivian citizens against the government”.
Yameen, who heads the PCC opposition alliance, has in the past painted the MDP as an “anti-Islamic” party with a “westernised” leadership. The presidential election is due in 2023. MDP political leaders hope that hate speech in India will not become part of Yameen’s anti-India campaign. The PCC statement on the issue carried the India Out logo prominently.
“Yameen has no other platform in the election than accusing the government of selling out to India, but his campaign is losing steam, he is running out of support for it,” said an MDP leader.