As Muslims throughout the world celebrated the end of Ramadan and the beginning of the Eid Al-Fitr festival on 19 August, 2012, in the Maldives the celebrations were marred by controversy, with political and religious divisions overshadowing some of the joyful moments.
When the Ministry of Islamic Affairs announced that the morning Eid prayers in the capital city Malé were to be held in an open space, it created much controversy and debate. Eid prayers were previously held in mosques and some people viewed the decision to have it in an open space as a move by the present government and religious groups to consolidate power by abusing the country's religious identity.
Maldivian society has gone through deep divisions recently after the first democratically-elected government, headed by President Mohamed Nasheed, lost power on February 7 when the president resigned following a police mutiny. The military were seen as sympathetic to the police and failed to curb the mutiny, while some soldiers joined the mutinying police, on a day of total chaos.
Nasheed's deputy Mohamed Waheed Hassan was sworn in as the new president. Since then Nasheed and his supporters have been declaring that he was ousted through a coup, being coerced to resign. The present government, which comprises of a loose coalition of various political parties, insist that they came to power legally through constitutional means.
Protests by supporters of Nasheed, demanding an election, have become frequent in the Maldives, with several protesters having been injured during heavy police crackdowns. The police have suffered injuries too as protesters turned violent. Several journalists, who tried to cover the protests, have been threatened and injured through actions of both police and protesters, and the country's media has suffered in the wake of the violence.
The role of Adhaalath Party, a political party based on religion as its main ideology, in building a momentum against Nasheed during his final days in power — marked by daily protests against the president's controversial detention of a judge and what some viewed as policies that undermined religion — has made it a bitter enemy of Nasheed's supporters.
Ironically, it was Nasheed himself who brought Adhaalath Party to the corridors of power, assigning it a cabinet portfolio when he picked his cabinet in November 2008. Adhaalath Party split with Nasheed only in his final months as president. His successor, President Waheed, has let the religious party regain its cabinet post, presumably as a reward for the party leaders’ role in ending Nasheed's government.
When the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, headed by the Adhaalath Party, called for a large congregation to perform Eid prayers at an open space in the capital, the news was met with skepticism and hostility from citizens, who saw it as a publicity stunt to show numbers at the event and interpret it as support for the ruling government. Opposition supporters called for a boycott of the large congregation and instead for people to go to individual mosques for Eid prayers.
AS USUAL PLEASE GO TO ISLAMIC CENTRE FOR EID PRAYERS TOMORROW! ACT AGAINST MISUSING RELIGION FOR POLITICAL GAIN!
However, some Maldivians felt that a religious event such as an Eid prayer need not be politicized by any of the political sides.
Azim Zahir tweets:
Accusing Adalat of politicizing Eid prayer, opposition equally politicized it by urging ppl to attend Islami Marukaz. How long can we go on?
Azim Zahir emphasizes:
Instrumentalization of religion is a vicious cycle driven by all sides on the political divide. Eid prayer is a clear case.
Eid outdoor prayers
On the morning of Eid Al-Fitr, a large crowd of approximately 10,000 people turned out for the congregation, held at a football ground in Malé. Among them were even some supporters of ousted president Nasheed, giving credence to the view that most people saw the event purely as a religious gathering, free from political undertones. President Waheed and other senior figures of the present government were seen joining the open air congregation.
As expected, Nasheed himself, along with some of his supporters, boycotted the congregation and instead attended the prayers at the capital's largest mosque.
The large congregation itself was remarkably peaceful, with Maldivians praying side by side with migrant workers from Bangladesh, who are normally subjected to ill treatment in their daily lives. A number of women also attended the Eid prayers.
Hassaan Rasheed tweets:
The congregation was free from political rhetoric and provided a rare moment of unity and diversity; however, there were fears that politicians would use such events to consolidate their power, under the guise of religion or the call for social harmony. There were discussions on Twitter as to whether the large congregation symbolized a boost of support for the present government and for the religious groups. User Two Dead Fish tweets:
I bet they will politicize and call the people who attended stadium as their supporters.
Some Twitter users pointed out that a large proportion of the people who attended the prayers were expatriates. EhJu tweets:
@2deadfish It's alright. At least half the people there can't vote in a Maldivian election.
Adhaalath Party celebrated the success of the congregation, with one leader claiming [div] that more than 35,000 people attended the prayers. However, this claim was rebuked by some social media users who presented evidence such as this photo which seemed to indicate that numbers were not as huge as some religious leaders claimed.
The controversy over the Eid prayer congregation shows how polarized the Maldivian society is today and how even an event such as an Eid prayer is not spared from political wrangling. Azim Zahir tweets:
Three ladies head to Stadium for prayer, another shouts at them: supporters of coup. How long can we sustain these tensions and dissonances?
Azim Zahir adds:
Ordinary Maldivians are caught up in the dilemmas of instrumentalization of even their Eid prayer. Such mental burdens in today's Maldives.
Enjoying Eid nevertheless
Despite the political wrangling, Malé residents still enjoyed various games and theatrical street performances to celebrate Eid, as documented by photographer Muha in the following photos (used with permission).
For a brief time, children and adults – depicting dheli maali, a black demon – reigned the streets and captured people's attention, sidelining politicians and religious leaders.
More photos are available in a photo essay posted in Bug's blog.