This is the final chapter of Xavier Romero-Frias' "The Maldive Islanders". With the direction the Maldives appears to be heading in, it is perhaps even more relevant now than when it was first written. If you wanted to know why so little is done to preserve Maldivian culture and heritage, this is why.
A POLICY OF DESTRUCTION
The relentless effort to promote Arabic cultural values within the Maldive island society is allegedly made with very good intentions. Its supporters claim to hold the monopoly of moral and spiritual values, and steadfastly affirm that their aim is to create a more virtuous society. However, local resistance against the arbitrary imposition of an alien desert culture on this equatorial oceanic nation has never been officially defined or at least assessed and has rather been stubbornly ignored. Hence, as the saying goes “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” and, humans the world over being who they are, as soon as a new law to promote virtue is enforced, a new trick to circumvent that very law pops up.
The result is that the country has become a virtual police state, but certainly the society is not becoming any more virtuous. Lacking perspective of their cultural identity, average island people are simply helpless to fight back the cultural forgery imposed on them. The state religion has been Islam for the past eight centuries and, in the eyes of the islanders, Islam is synonymous with a formidable machine of power and authority which cannot be contested. Thus, Maldivians have to put up with the role of remaining passive onlookers when freshly arrived Arabic teachers or ‘holy men’ harshly criticize their own island traditions with impunity.
It is a secretly acknowledged fact, though, that within the island population there are many who feel that they are traveling on a boat which is going in the opposite course they wish to go, but they feel helpless to do anything about it. This conflict is, if anything, compounded by the intense propagation of hard-line Islamic ideologies, including the construction of mosques and Arabic religious schools137 throughout the country since 1978.
The Arab religious schools, fruit of the petrodollar wealth, were first opened in the capital Male' in 1983 and they set a pattern of cultural and political indoctrination for schools all across the Maldive Islands.138 Boys or girls attending those schools have problems having pride in their own culture because they have been pitched against the basic Maldive cultural values ever since their first classes. One unavoidable side-effect of Islamic education is that students end up admiring the Arab culture and despising their own traditions. Children who are unaware of causing any harm are made willing accomplices in the dismantlement of their own cultural heritage.
With the media in the hands of an Islamizing government and the spread of Arabic madrasahs throughout the country, the pace and depth of Arab influence is growing fast. During the 1970’s, except for a few modern schools in MaleØ, most Divehi children were taught Quraìnic reading in the small traditional ‘maktabs.’ However, this situation changed in the 1980’s, when two heavily funded Arabic schools ‘Mawhad Dirasì at-ul-Islamiyya’ and ‘Madrasat-ul-Arabiyya-al-Islamiyya’ opened in MaleØ. These schools, teaching undiluted Islam, were instrumental in introducing the Arab veil among girls and in the crystallization of Arabic mores within the Maldive society.
Even the phonetic sounds of the Divehi language are changing. Local letters are abandoned and disappear. The indigenous sound ‘p’ has been replaced by the Arabic letter ‘f’ during the last couple of centuries; and the autochthonous retroflex ‘nö’ (nöaviyani) has been slowly vanishing to the point of having been deleted from the local written alphabet by Muhammad AmÄín in mid-20th century.
In contrast to this carelessness towards their own phonetics, young Maldivian students are very particular in their efforts to reproduce with fidelity Arabic phonetic sounds,139 alien to their own language, in order to win Quraìn-reading contests promoted by their government. This trend is to blame for the growing tendency towards the abandonment of retroflex sounds not existing in Arab phonetics. Those retroflex sounds ‘lø’ (Löaviyani), ‘dö’ (Döaviyani) and ‘tø’ (Taö viyani) and ‘nö’ (Nöaviyani) made by flapping the tongue against the palate are a characteristic feature of the Indic languages. However, they were the bane of some highly fastidious, Arabophillic local learned men who sought to replace the local Divehi Akuru with the Arabic script in the past.
After many unsuccessful attempts, the ‘Taìna’ alphabet now in use was devised as a compromise. This three-century-old although some present-day documents propagated by the government claim that it is older in order to fit it into their particular vision of history140 artificial alphabet is based mostly on the Arabic numerals and diacritical signs and, more importantly, is written from right to left like Arabic. The abandonment of the Divehi Akuru141 and the introduction of the Taìna form of writing was a decisive step towards a greater Arabization of Divehi culture. The new form of writing could easily accommodate words and even whole sentences in Arabic within texts in the local language. Therefore, in practice, the Taìna alphabet became a wedge for the further introduction of a foreign Semitic tongue into the written form of Divehi.
During the past five or six centuries, Maldive identity has steadily lost its color and vitality. Local dances, songs, festivals and ceremonies that were deemed un-Islamic have been weeded out and repressed with almost sadistic ruthlessness. Hence, most autochthonous ancestral cultural expressions have degenerated or have disappeared. Kite-flying and mutual water-splashing (fenô kuliø ), are among the popular festivals that were forbidden by the Maldive government during the latter half of the twentieth century .
Since the early 1980’s, during a government drive to promote Islam in the Atolls called ‘DÄínuge Heìlunterikanô’, Islamic preachers sailed from island to island, to scold the islanders with fiery speeches. Acting with the same zeal characteristic of the former Sayyids, these enforcers of religious ideology saw sin and depravation in the normal sexual dimorphism of dress and behavior and in the open expression of youthful joy by means of dances and songs, which are a vital part of any healthy society.
Devoid of popular entertainment, except for modern sports, island atmosphere has become extremely dull.142 Despite the introduction of consumerism and the relative economic buoyancy of the last two decades of the 20th century, things have not changed very much since C. Maloney reported in the mid-1970’s that:
This particular island appeared (...) as an enervating place, with almost no games, no music or scheduled events, except prayers, and few surprises (...). Only the changing of seasons, (the Muslim month of) Ramzaìn and the two Iïd (Muslim festivals) broke the passage of time. The KatÄíbu (government official) ruled in a tyrannical way (...). There is no crack in the shell of orthodoxy, at least in appearance. The majority of citizens of the Maldives pass their time on such islands as this, (...) scarcely touched at all by the civilisational vibrancy of the outer world.143
Since 1979 Arab preachers have been periodically invited to the Maldive Islands by the government and given VIP treatment. Conferences where those ‘holy men’ are the star figures are organized in the evenings during their stay. Government officials and schoolchildren from the capital are forced to go to listen to their religious speeches. These aggressive sermons in Arabic are not only broadcast live in the national radio, but their recordings are routinely aired during the following months.
However, an Egyptian friend of mine who knew well that type of person, Mahmoud Salama, told me that no one in Egypt would pay so much respect to those cheap preachers. According to him, they were totally unimaginative types, from a mediocre background who were basking in the exaggerated attention they were receiving. “These are backward characters. What good can the Maldivians learn from them?” another Egyptian friend, AmÄín ‘Pako’, one day commented. And yet, during the last twenty years, these Egyptian preachers have been let loose in the Maldives to indoctrinate the local people under special orders from the President’s office.
These brash preachers seize with glee their unearned high status in the Islands. Often they use to grow quite passionate and eloquent in their speeches about the torments of hell, probably provoked by the un-Islamic appearance of the crowds who are gathered in to listen to them. For the fact is that Maldives got most of its Islamic facade mosques with minarets, Moorish arches and veiled women only from the year 1981 onwards, when the petrodollars began pouring abundantly into the country. And there are many locals who have not adopted the Arab look.
Initially these Egyptian propagandists were not liked by Maldivians at all. They appeared rude and gross to them, terribly lacking in manners. The calm, monotonous voice of the Divehi translator contrasted sharply with the impassionate, hysterical screams and violent gesticulation of the Arab religious preacher. To make them more palatable, in later years, the indoctrinators were coached by government officials regarding how to behave in front of the Maldive public and they learned how to talk in a more culturally sensitive cool and regular tone. And yet, the crude content of their sermons remained the same. 144
Throughout Divehi history, Arabs were still viewed as foreigners by the average Maldivian. However, the last quarter of the twentieth century has seen a new phenomenon appear in the Island society’s horizon: The ‘Arab wannabe.’ These are Maldivians who leave the islands in their childhood and are sent to Arab countries or to Pakistan to receive Islamic training. Eventually, when they return to their country as adults, they behave exactly like the Arab Sayyids of old. These uprooted Arab impersonators put much effort into weeding out the last remnants of true Maldive national identity. Since the end of the 1970’s, many very high government posts in the Maldives are held by such ‘Arab wannabes’ and their number is increasing.
In the outer Atolls, the average attitude of these young, but religious-wise highly trained people is, at best, arrogant and insensitive. They are usually contemptuous towards the ‘aløuverinô’, or old religious males of the island, whose time-tested combination of folkwisdom and religion, is too unislamic for their taste. At the same time, their position as young persons and religious learned men simultaneously is still highly incongruous. Within the ancestral island society, there was a role for old religious men, but none for inexperienced youngsters happening to be well-versed in Arabic and religion.
Traditionally, one was supposed to acquire knowledge along with wisdom with age. Hence, young aløuverinô, or young learned men, simply didn’t exist. The result is that these brazen young ‘Arab wannabes’, full of Islamic zeal, put much effort into discrediting their elders, slandering them for not being orthodox enough. In this manner they have led people not to pay attention to the old local aløuverinô and have ended up destroying the traditional hierarchical system, in which old people had to be respected. This is paving the way for a break-up of the moral fabric of Divehi society.
It is a well-known fact that presently in Maldives, there is a secret hostility to excessive arabization, but it is leading nowhere. This ‘resistance’, if it even may be called so, is not only unorganized, but its goals are not defined and it has no visible leadership.145 Moreover, there seems to be nowhere else to go in the other direction, for the ancestral Divehi culture is effectively lost.
- 137 Decades before the murderous spree led by religious hard-liners in Algeria, and long before the opening of those schools in the Maldives, Algerian writers like Rachid Mimouni had already questioned the wisdom of mass-religious indoctrination. “What do they want? A country of muezzins? Or a country of pious unemployed people (chomeurs)?”
- 138 Paraphrasing Vivekananda, in those schools the first thing a Maldivian child is taught is that his father is a fool because he can’t understand the Quraìn as he doesn’t know Arabic, the second that his grandfather was a lunatic because he held on to many folk beliefs that were unislamic, the third that his mother is shameless because she doesn’t cover her hair, the fourth that his grandmother was a whore because her form of dress revealed too much of her body, the fifth that all the old Maldivian books and stories are lies, and the sixth that Divehi courtesy is rude because Maldive Islanders don’t go around saying all the time ‘Assalaìm alaykum’ as polite Arabs do (the traditional Divehi way being to ask: “Where are you going?”), etc. Vivekananda, a well-known Indian reformist, denounced British education in the schools of the Raj for giving Indians a false perspective of their own culture.
- 139 Letters: thaì, hâaì, khaì, dhaìl, Ïaìd, Íadì , Ìaì, Ña,ì Âyn, gôayn`and qaìf. These are foreign Semitic sounds that don’t come naturally to the Divehi people and are, thus, very difficult to pronounce for them. Even so, since they are positive that Arabic is the language of heaven, much effort is invested among Maldivians since childhood in order to achieve the correct pronunciation.
- 140 The claim that the Taìna script was devised in the 16th century is, however, not supported by historical documents. The oldest writing specimens in that alphabet, interspersed with Arabic, are from the 18th century. These are the Iïdu Miskit Dorosöi inscriptions, dated AH 1170 (AD 1757).
- 141 The traditional Maldivian writing whose most ancient manuscripts (in the form called ‘Eveìla’ by H.C.P. Bell) go as far back as the 7th century AD. The last manuscripts written in Divehi Akuru are from mid-19th century.
- 142 According to most islanders, the only excitement is to be found in secret illicit relationships.
- 143 C. Maloney, ‘People of the Maldive Islands.’
- 144 For example, this is how Maldivian women were coaxed to cover their hair: “Every single hair of a woman not covered by the veil will become a poisonous snake in hell.” From a speech by an Arab guest preacher in Divehi Raìjjege Adöu (Radio Maldives) translated from the Arabic into Divehi and broadcast during the month of Ramzanì in 1990.
- 145 Commenting on the power of the government and the power of Islam in turn-of-the-millennium Algeria, Mohammed Arkoun, director of the Institute of Arab-Islamic Studies at Paris-III University, writes: The nationalist vision insists on the continuity in time of the Arab-Islamic culture and, consequently, of the state. Thus, the social spirit dominating today is directly connected with the official thesis that refuses to make the indispensable room to the scientific analysis of facts and problems. Intellectuals who, like Mustafa Lacheraf, invest their efforts into the separation between the functions of the official ideology, which pretends to mobilize national construction, and the critical knowledge of the ingredients that have fashioned real Algerian society, are extremely rare. M. Arkoun, ‘Une SpiritualiteØ qui deØpasse la Religion d’EÚtat’ (GEO n 114).