From Charybdis to Scylla?
Xavier Romero-Frías & Aishath Naazneen
“The Shah left people a choice between
Savak and the mullahs. And they chose the mullahs.
When thinking about the fall of any dictatorship,
one should have no illusions that the whole system
comes to an end like a bad dream with the fall.
The physical existence of the system does indeed
cease. But its psychological and social results
live on for years, and even survive in the form
of subconsciously continued behaviour. A dictatorship
that destroys the intelligentsia and culture leaves
behind itself an empty, sour field on which the
tree of thought won’t grow quickly. It
is not always the best people who emerge from hiding,
from the corners and cracks of that farmed-out field,
but often those who have proven themselves strongest,
not always those who will create new values but
rather those whose thick skin and internal resilience
have ensured their survival. In such circumstances
history begins to turn in a tragic, vicious circle
from which it can sometimes take a whole epoch to
Ryszard Kapuscinski Shah of Shahs
have been riots and troubles at other times in the history
of Maldives, but never before has the unrest been so persistent
and relentless. President Maumoon Abdul Gayyoom used to
pride himself of having brought stability to the country
during his long tenure. However, his latest measures have
included meeting every sign of civil strife with increased
repression. This vicious circle is heightening the instability
of the island nation and is making the situation in Malé
more volatile day by day.
"After having opened hundreds
of mosques and Islamic schools all over the Maldives, he
sent many young men and women on scholarships to foreign
Maumoon’s recent behaviour is marked by a lack of
decisiveness and consistency. One day he promises to initiate
reforms, the next day he arrests pro-reformist people; meanwhile
in the Maldive media the charade that he enjoys unanimous
popular support continues as usual.
However, in the light of his increased clumsiness, it is
easy to view President Maumoon as being surrounded by cliques
of advisers who on one side tell him to show no mercy and
strike hard at his opponents, while others on the other
side tell him to initiate dialogue and promote some limited
Maldivians both at home and abroad have triggered a protest
movement that seems unstoppable. Some of the protesters
are asking for freedom and democracy, but the most unanimous
demand is that President Maumoon must step down.
Talking to Maldivian young people we noticed that almost
none of them knows what they really want after Maumoon is
gone for good. In a situation that seems confusing and uncertain,
the only ones who know what they want, and they know it
very well, are the religious hard-liners. They are already
taking positions, preparing for the time when the dictatorship
will be over.
"One can easily picture the day
when the few true freedom and democracy lovers of Maldives
will be overrun by the highly organized religious fanatics."
One can easily picture the day when the few true freedom
and democracy lovers of Maldives will be overrun by the
highly organized religious fanatics.
Maumoon fared well during the first years of his tenure;
by playing both the role of the Ayatollah and the Shah at
the same time, he had all the aces up his sleeve. Let no
one think that he was ever a moderate. His only expertise
is Islamic religion and many of his ministers were appointed
on the basis of having studied like him at the religious
university of el-Azher in Cairo. He cherished the power
that his religious halo gave him, for as both head of an
Islamic state and religious leader he was invulnerable as
long as he was at the forefront of keeping the Maldives
as Islamic as possible. Thus, President Al-Ustaadh
(Revered Teacher) Maumoon Abdul Gayyoom was a zealous Islamic
missionary from the start, and embarked on an ambitious
programme of propagation and reinforcement of the Muslim
doctrine that spared no Maldivian and reached every corner
of the nation. After having opened hundreds of mosques and
Islamic schools all over the Maldives, he sent many young
men and women on scholarships to foreign Islamic hotbeds.
He conveniently didn’t want to have any Universities
or centres of higher education close to his palaces. But
there seems to be no limit to the extremism that an Islamic
education can produce, for the very people that Al-Ustaadh
Maumoon Abdul Gayyoom trained have turned against him. The
religious hard-liners that he himself bred in such numbers
are now calling for his overthrow.
"The religious hard-liners that
he himself bred in such numbers are now calling for his
Compared to the present government and its long arm, the
NSS (National Security Service), the fanatic hard-line religious
leaders seem like good people. The NSS keeps people in fear;
it is the Maldivian version of the former Iranian Savak.
Police and Army at the same time, the NSS is not very competent
when it comes to keep law and order. Drug trade and robberies
are rife, which is quite amazing in such a small and tightly-controlled
country. But NSS agents are highly effective when it comes
to keeping every Maldivian man and woman, old or young,
in the grip of permanent terror.
Even though President Maumoon’s detractors accuse
him of not being Islamic enough, he has carried out such
strongly religious-oriented Islamic domestic and foreign
policies, that there is almost no room left for his potential
successors to become more Islamic than him. They can hardly
do anything new unless they crack down more ruthlessly on
the personal lives of the Maldive citizens and impose a
Taliban-style rule whereby women die of hunger at home and
everyone gets his share of Islamic Sharia’ by being
maimed, lashed or killed for the slightest offence.
Greek mythology, a sea monster called Scylla lived
underneath a dangerous rock at one side of the Strait
of Messia, opposite the whirlpool Charybdis. She
threatened passing ships and in the Odyssey ate
six of Odysseus' companions.
was a nymph, daughter of Phorcys. The fisherman-turned-sea-god
Glaucus fell madly in love with her, but she fled
from him onto the land where he could not follow.
Dispair filled his heart. He went to the sorceress
Circe to ask for a love potion to melt Scylla's heart.
As he told his tale of love to Circe, she herself
fell in love with him. She wooed him with her sweetest
words and looks, but the sea-god would have none of
her. Circe was furiously angry, but with Scylla and
not with Glaucus. She prepared a vial of very powerful
poison and poured it in the pool where Scylla bathed.
As soon as the nymph entered the water she was transformed
into a frightful monster with twelve feet and six
heads, each with three rows of teeth. Below the waist
her body was made up of hideous monsters, like dogs,
who barked unceasingly. She stood there in utter misery,
unable to move, loathing and destroying everything
that came into her reach, a peril to all sailors who
passed near her. Whenever a ship passed, each of her
heads would seize one of the crew.
was once a nymph-daughter of Poseidon and Gaia who
flooded lands for her father's underwater kingdom
until Zeus turned her into a monster and had her suck
in and out water three times a day. She lived in a
cave at one side of the Strait of Messina, opposite
the monster Scylla, the two of them forming a dangerous
threat to passing ships.
It is not that President Maumoon is the best choice within
the present scenario. He seems now almost certainly poised
to be defeated, but he thought himself eternal and “forgot”
to prepare the Maldives for the future. The brightest and
most creative Maldive intellectuals are now exiled or imprisoned,
for they were easier to dispose of than the dissenting hard-line
religious leaders. The atmosphere of lack of intellectual
life and relevant knowledge of the Maldives was cultivated
by President Maumoon to the extent that the only substitute
for intellectuality is religious study.
When the present “law and order” situation
breaks down, the average Maldive person who never enjoyed
any freedom or any power, whether political or religious,
will be left without knowing what to do. Maldive nationalism,
the Islamic religion and politics are so hopelessly muddled
together that few people have clear ideas now, and their
ideas will be even less clear in a changed scenario. Before
the President is gone, and considering the dangers that
loom ahead, this is the time that all Maldivians should
brace themselves and think hard about what it is that they
want for the future of their country.
The Maldives badly needs peace and a stable transition
in which a democratic leader who knows how to train the
people to be free and give freedom should emerge, but it
definitely doesn’t need another religious teacher
Will the Maldive people be able to rise out of the chaos
and finally freely choose to live in a prosperous and free
society where law and order, including respect for each
others’ freedoms, rule? Or will they have a continued
religious hard-line threat looming over their heads which
will inevitably produce more people like President Maumoon
in the future?
Romero-Frías, is a European Union
national from Barcelona. He lived in the Maldives
between 1979 and 1991 studying the oral tradition
and other folk expressions. He has worked for the
Ministry of Education of the Maldive Government dealing
with the publication of schoolbooks, and for UNDP
in a project for the promotion of the local handicraft
industry. He is the author of a 300-page illustrated
ethnography on the Maldives, The Maldive Islanders,
A Study of the Popular Culture of an Ancient Ocean
Aishath Naazneen of Gäge house
in Malé, Maldives is married to Xavier Romero-Frías.
She is a Divehi language broadcaster whose voice is
heard in the Maldives, Minicoy, India and Sri Lanka.
Presently they reside with their
family in the city of Trivandrum, South India.
24 August 2004