From Islam to Atheism and a Struggle for Democracy and Secularism in the Maldives – Talk at BCHA

Above in the talk, I gave to the British Columbia Humanist Association on 19th November 2017. Below is the text of the full text of the talk. The talk is an overview of my life which has made me a refugee in Canada as a protected person in their Urgent Protection Program (UPP).  

Thank you to the BC Humanists Association for letting me speak to you all and allowing me to tell you my story. I wrote a much longer introduction first, but found out that it was eating into my time, so as much as I would like to thank individually everyone that’s helped in making this talk possible, time constraints had to be taken into account. You know who you are and I really appreciate all that you have made possible.

My story is multiple stories in one;

  • There is a story of me applying for asylum, becoming a refugee, and then being resettled in Canada.
  • There is also the story of leaving religion and becoming an atheist, its consequences and how it’s impacted my personal relationships.
  • There is also the story of human rights and secular activism in an Islamist country.
  • And also a story of being jailed unfairly in a dictatorship which lead me to want to change the country.

All of these are stories that would take much longer time to tell than the 45 minutes allocated for me to do this talk.

My arrival in Canada is the result of a series of events in my life and that of the country I am from. The domino effects of these events had resulted in my close friends being attacked, murdered and abducted – leaving me and many others heartbroken. These events culminated with me becoming a UNHCR refugee – resettled in Canada as a Protected Person in the federal government’s Urgent Protection Program.

I am from the Island nation of the Republic of Maldives. It is a group of sand Islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean just below the tip of the Indian subcontinent and south of Sri Lanka. It’s an independent nation of proud people, with our own language and history that has been recorded for more than 2000 years. Out of those 2000 years, for the last 900 years, the people of the Islands have been, mostly Muslims. Before conversion to Islam, historical archeological evidence shows the people were Buddhist. The current population of this small country is just a little over 400,000 people living on 200 islands out of 1200 islands that make up the country. These islands are tiny – the capital situated on a small island of four square kilometers. The lack of land meant anything of significant size that requires a lot of space had to be built on their own islands. This geographical makeup of the islands gives the Maldives its unique character with its airport islands and the one island one resort business model.

The Maldives has also had a tumultuous political history. The late 70s saw Maumoon Abdul Gayoom came to power as president. A position he would hold for 30 years of dictatorship. His iron-fisted dictatorial rule went side by side with a drive for modernization of the islands. Tourism was introduced in the 70s and over the years the industry grew significantly into the multi-billion dollar industry that it is today. Locally the tourism industry is known as the goose that lays the golden egg.  It gives the Maldives its international reputation for an upmarket luxury tourism destination, bringing in untold amounts of wealth to the country. But there also lies one of the Maldives’ major problem. The larger public does not see this new found wealth being passed down to them. There is no trickle down. Because of the Gayoom dictatorship, the tourism industry would end up being owned by a cartel-like group of 30 odd families who were extremely loyal to him and part of the inner circle of the president. Current statistics shows the Maldivian tourism industry was annually invoicing more than 3 billion US dollars.

And these islands are also Islamic. By law, one cannot be a citizen without being a Sunni Muslim. This was the another problem of the Maldives.

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I am the second child of five siblings born to my parents. I have one sister and three brothers. The middle child in the family is my sister. All my siblings are two years apart. My mother passed away when I was six years old from a brain aneurysm, and my father raised us as best as he could, given the circumstances. My father is a hard working man and by all definitions a “good Muslim.” He prays five times a day and has a very strict worldview informed by the Islamic doctrine he believes to be the universal truth.

And it is that same Islamic doctrine that everyone else around me believed as well. You see, there are only a handful countries in the world that proclaim proudly as a “100% Islamic country”. Maldives is one of them. The others are Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Somalia. Everyone I knew growing up, was Muslim as far as I knew. At least outwardly they were. Later in life, I would learn that this is not true and that it was near impossible to have a large group of people who were homogeneous in their beliefs and character. I would learn that quite a few did not believe in Islam and are burdened by the restrictions the religion placed on their lives, including myself. However, as far as appearances go, everyone nevertheless played along as Muslims. The reason for this being the sinister nature of the religion of Islam and how it is used as a political tool to maintain a false sense of unity as one people.

Throughout most of my childhood, I grew up in a bubble unaware of most of the things that were happening around me. You see, I was born into the previously mentioned privileged group of people that ran the country all this time. It was the privilege of wealth and power that came from being from the elite class. And my privilege made me blind to what was happening in the country as I grew up.

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An essential element of my story is that I am an ex-Muslim atheist. In the language of Islam, an apostate. My leaving of Islam wasn’t a decision made lightly nor was it made in ignorance of what some have argued with me was the lack of my understanding of what “true Islam” is.

My journey out of Islam was cemented due to some significant events in my life early on. The first such incident happened at the very young age of 9 years, in a Quran class.

The class was a private class run by a middle-aged couple with 30 to 40 students attending per session. We referred to the woman as “sister” and the man as “brother”. One day in class as I opened my bag, I discovered that I had forgotten to bring my copy of the Quran with me. Which really shouldn’t have been an issue as there were many spare copies of the Quran in the class. But instead of being given a replacement Quran that day, I was severely beaten with a stick by the woman. My torment didn’t end there. For the duration of the class, I was then locked up in an outdoor toilet. The toilet had a large well and some trees. I stayed there crying and sobbing – horrified at the experience, scared of being alone and hurting from the beating I had just received. The added fear of a jinn coming and taking me away reduced me to near paralysis. We grew up being told of the existence of these supernatural beings called Jinns according to Islamic tradition. And these jinns supposedly crossed into the human realm frequently possessing people and doing harm when they cross over. My fear intensified as I remembered stories of naughty children being taken away by jinns.

After an hour and a half – that was the duration of the class,  which to me felt like an eternity – I was lead out of the toilet. The male teacher then proceeded to advise me on being a “good boy” and to remember to bring the Quran next time. I would insist to my father on never coming back to the class again which he agreed. I don’t remember anything being done about my treatment because the experience I just had was considered quite normal.

After all here is what Islam’s prophet says on what is termed as “permissible beating” of children:

“Teach your children to pray when they are seven years old, and smack them if they do not pray when they are ten years old, and separate them in their beds.”

This experience left a mark on me, and I would then forever look at anything Islamic through a negative lens. At the time I didn’t know or understand how to articulate why I didn’t like religion. But I knew deep in my heart something was not ok with religion. I just didn’t know what it was.

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The 90s saw the mass introduction of drugs in the Maldives. Heroin and hash oil – was the entirety of the Maldivian drug scene at the time. The drugs were freely available in the country and incredibly cheap. At first, the public didn’t understand the implications of this. I remember most young people in the country thought it was cool to do drugs. And all the popular girls preferred boys who did drugs. This was the grounds for an addiction epidemic. Maldives is also a country where the public is not allowed to drink legally.

By age 13, I was smoking cigarettes, and by age 15 I was occasionally using hash oil, and by age 16 I was introduced to brown sugar, a street name for heroin. I never injected heroin because of a fear of needles and my aversion to pain in general. I still wasn’t using regularly, and I wasn’t addicted, yet. Which made me notably cocky about my drug use. I was safely smoking heroin while others I knew was getting sick. And like everyone else, I didn’t understand at the time how addiction worked. The drug problem in the country over the next decades would spiral out of control into a full-blown epidemic.

The 90s also saw the arrival of Salafi-Wahhabi ideology in the Maldives. “True Islam” they called it. It was significantly different from Gayoom’s version of Islam which he learned during his time as a student in Al Azhar University in Egypt and by now was enforced in the Maldives. Both was equally harsh. The latter was worse.

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The other significant event was my trip to Saudi Arabia at the age of 16. My father had begun to suspect that I may be dabbling in drugs. And he was concerned about some of the friends I had. And he thought I could be changed by taking me to Mecca and getting me exposed to more religion.

He planned the trip for both myself and my brother to accompany him for the whole month of Ramadan in ‘96. With no internet, I had no idea what to expect before the trip. As a teenager, I was more excited about a trip abroad which was much more exciting to me than the much-coveted pilgrimage to Mecca to visit the Kaaba and pray. I would see new places and would have stories to tell when I was back. So I agreed and went.

To my pleasant surprise, my brother and I were not the only ones on the journey in our age group being coerced by parents to go because our parents want to influence our thinking with more religion. So I had company.

In Mecca, this was the first time I was attempting to honestly fast and pray. And it wasn’t going very well at the beginning.

The first half of the trip went with me cheating prayers – I attended the prayers as there was no other option available. I was mostly mimicking my father and others in the group in my prayers. I was also eating sneaked food at the rooftop of the hotel I was staying and exploring the city of Mecca. One such day my brother and I got caught by the hotel staff as we were eating on the terrace and were promptly marched downstairs to be handed over to the police. The leaders of our Umrah contingent intervened, and we were not handed over to the police. I cannot imagine what the outcome would have been if we had been handed over to the police.

On this first Saudi trip, I learned a few valuable life lessons;

  1. That we are not all equal – even though we are always told in the eyes of God that we were.  

    The entire area of the holy mosque and Kaaba in Mecca is called the Haram (not to be confused by haraam which means “forbidden” in Islam). Any prayer done within the boundaries of the Haram is considered as done at the Kaaba and supposedly of equal value. On the edge of the holy mosque is a grand palace within these boundaries. The Palace has a large prayer room (almost a separate mosque if you will) with large floor to ceiling windows overlooking the Kaaba. The Saudi royals usually pray there and only come down to the actual floor level of the Kaaba just when they need a photo opportunity.
  2. Lying and cheating is common among those that portray to be more religious than others. Keeping in mind that those that visit Mecca on their own accord are incredibly religious.

    Some people who go to Mecca use begging as a lucrative means to earn a living while resorting to trickery and pretending to be disabled or sick just to win sympathy. They use the holy month of Ramadan as an opportunity to earn vast amounts of money, targeting pilgrims to the sacred mosque. And some of these beggars abuse people who don’t give alms. Scolding and yelling in foreign languages – as beggars in Mecca come from all backgrounds and nationalities. I don’t know how much of this has changed today.
  3. Religion is not a means to end human cruelty or create more compassion towards our fellow man. But can and is used as the source of cruelty and to control people.

    Among the vast number of beggars in Mecca lay hidden something more menacing. Organized crime and human trafficking. Women and children were being used as tools to beg from pilgrims by cartel like gangs. And sometimes those that are used as tools of begging are maimed intentionally to create sympathy from their targets.

    I was by far more curious and inquisitive than I even knew about myself. I learned this through befriending some beggars that hung outside our hotel all the time.
  4. Religious people are unforgiving in their attempt to find fault with people and seeking to exact revenge and punish those who they see as doing wrong (even if they had not done anything wrong).  
  5. Religion was boring and monotonous. The praying, the incessant recitation of the Quran and all the rituals were neverending. It drove me out of my mind.

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After coming back from the Saudi trip – for a few months – I was confused. The first few month I tried to pray but it eventually did not take, and I was back to my old self again. This time more sure about the things I observed there and the lessons I learned from it. Soon I was getting high more frequently, and before long I was addicted.

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In 1998, I finished my O’level. I skipped Dhivehi Language and Islam in the exams. Soon after doing my O’levels, I went to Sri Lanka. While in Sri Lanka, I attended an Australian Education Fair and found a private college that would accept me for a bridging course that would allow me to skip doing my A Levels and go straight to University. So in January 1999, I was in Perth, Australia enrolled in college. On the flight to Australia, I went into withdrawal and by the time I landed I was too sick to do anything. I cleaned up cold turkey alone in the first couple of weeks because I was determined to get an education. Six months later I graduated from the college bridging course and was enrolled at University studying a Marketing Degree as my father had wanted.

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After spending a year in Perth, I arrived back in Maldives for a visit in December ‘99 for the Christmas / New Year holidays. It was the year of the big new millennium celebrations. Still in the Maldives, in January 2000 as a 19-year-old, I was taken into custody by the Maldivian Police Service because of a phone call I made.

My trip back home coincided with a Parliamentary by-election. It was still during the height of Dictator Gayooms power. Apparently, there were some arson threats, and as part of ongoing intimidation and fear by the regime, the government had decided to take in people for questioning, and sometimes detention when they were seen outside in groups of more than four people. As things would have it, the brother of my girlfriend at the time was detained during this arresting spree. The phone call I made was to the police was to complain about this. During the call I mentioned something along the lines of how the police was wasting resources doing what they were doing, and all the while the real arsonists were probably about to torch a minister’s house as we speak. Bad idea. Now in hindsight, I was just a foolish young man trying to impress a girl.

During this detention, I spent 20 days in lock-up at the central police station in Male’. It was a general holding cell where everyone that is brought in was kept all together in a cramped space with bunk beds. After the temporary holding cell, I was transferred to a solitary confinement cell in the basement of the main police station in the capital. I was deprived of daylight or any connection to another human being. I spent another 14 days there. At the end of the isolation confinement, I was then transferred to the country’s largest prison facility – Maafushi prison – for another 56 days. I turned 20 while in Maafushi prison. I was no longer a teenager but a young adult.

In Maafushi prison, I was kept in a large warehouse type prison cell with 120 other prisoners sharing three toilets. We were given a liter of clean drinking water each day. The water coming from the taps in the bathrooms had a slimy, muddy scum in it. And we slept on concrete slabs. While in detention, a number of my teeth started to rot, and I developed a skin condition around my waist and groin area which resulted in some scarring. Much later, after the imprisonment, some of my damaged teeth would eventually fall out, and now I have a bridge at the bottom front teeth.

During this entire period of detention in various facilities, there was minimal questioning that was relevant to what was going on in the country or any alleged involvement of mine in any of it.

During this time in prison, I was exposed to the horrors of prison torture in the Maldives. Not to me directly, but to others around me. I met people who were maimed in many ways. I will never forget meeting a guy who was denied much needed medical treatment after prison guards broke his spine in one of their beatings. He was carried around on a makeshift stretcher made out of plywood by other prison inmates.  

Then one early morning while in Maafushi prison, I was told to get ready because I was to be taken to court. After a 2-hour boat ride from Maafushi prison, I was back in Male’ and presented at court on the same day. In court, I was denied access to a lawyer or the opportunity to speak on my behalf. On the same day, I was sentenced to 15 years in prison under the terrorism law of Maldives at the time. The judge also reduced my sentence in the same court session to 150 Maldivian Rufiyaa (equivalent to US$10) fine because I was “a student with no criminal record.” They then let me go.

I would learn that this was a common practice by the regime to sentence people to lengthy prison sentences on trumped up charges then reduce the sentence or suspend it. It was a means of controlling people. Fear of reinstated convictions usually keeps people on a short leash.

I left the country on the same day to Sri Lanka where I got treatment for some of my injuries and then onwards to Saudi Arabia accompanied by my father. My father had made a Nadhr to take me to Hajj if I was released.

A Nadhr is an Islamic vow where a person making it obliges himself to do something as a form of prayer because of something they wanted to happen or achieve. In this case my freedom.

I was relieved to be free from prison, and I happily obliged and went. This time, I even performed the Hajj as it’s supposed to be done – maybe I wanted to show my gratitude for being free.  

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By the time all this had happened, my University classes were back in session and I applied to defer my classes. After some negotiations with my father, I would change my major and relocate to Brisbane, Australia, to study at the Queensland University of Technology for my Bachelor’s Degree in Film & Television in a broad media degree.

I didn’t come back to the Maldives for my holidays for a while, eventually returning at the end of the 2002 year-end holidays for what I hoped to be a brief visit. On arrival at the airport, I was picked up by the police for what they claimed was for the crime of “drinking overseas”. They had waited for me to collect my bags at the baggage carousel before arresting me and I was then transferred with my luggage to the police station. My family was at the airport to receive me but never got the chance to even speak with me after spending nearly two years overseas, as I was taken away in front of them. I was made to give a urine sample and kept overnight at the station. The following morning I was transferred to house arrest without a specified limit to my detention. Five days passed before I was taken back to the police station for questioning. They wanted to know why my urine sample test had come back negative. I had managed to tamper with the sample with the help of the young police officer who accompanied me to extract the sample. After all, I had a couple of drinks in Singapore before getting on the plane and didn’t want another prison sentence now that I was in custody.  

After some intense questioning at the police station, I was then transferred to another prison on the same day. I spent eleven days in solitary confinement again, this time in Dhoonidhoo Prison, well known and notorious for torture. During my time there I was kept in a single cell building made from concrete, towards the beach of the island. The cell had corrugated metal sheet roofing, and I baked – like I was in an oven in the 30° plus heat during the day and nearly froze during the night. I passed the time reading government-produced religious material which was provided. After 11 days without any questioning, I was again transferred back to house arrest, this time indefinitely. My passport confiscated. During this time, I was told nothing about my extended detention. Any attempts by me to reach out to someone at the police were met with deaf ears as I tried to find respite to my imprisonment. Back in Australia, the new semester started, and again I found myself deferring a semester due to my predicament.

Two months into my house arrest, an aunt agreed to plead for my release with the then first lady of the country. My aunt and the first lady were close friends and relatives. My aunt was informed that I should write a letter pleading to the president to release me; I did, and my aunt delivered the message to the President.

The following day, a police van picked me up and took me to the military headquarters instead of the police headquarters. I was reminded that I had a suspended terrorism conviction and that “my behavior” needed to be improved or the sentence would be carried out. I was also told “the boss” had requested me to be released. After the stern warning, I was freed and my passport returned.

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I immediately returned to Australia the same week. Since my classes were back in session and I had already deferred my studies for a semester, I used the free time to hang around the volunteers at the local Brisbane chapter of Amnesty International. I did that for a couple of months. It was around this time that I picked up a strong sense for justice, equality, and human rights as something I was extremely passionate about. The next semester, I would resume classes as usual.

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While things in my life returned to normalcy, a Maldivian prisoner named Hassan Evan Naseem was murdered by prison guards on the 19th of September 2003. The beaten and bruised beyond recognition body of Evan was brought back to the capital Male’ for burial. At the cemetery, his brave mother showed the body to the public – questioning the ongoing and never-ending injustices in the Maldives. This single act of bravery from the mother of the dead prisoner triggered a domino effect that resulted in the formation of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP for short) and the birth of a real democracy movement in the country. A bittersweet turning point in our recent history.

All this time, despite everything that has happened to me, I never really thought I should do something about what’s happening in my country or get involved in politics or activism, but the brutal way in which Evan was murdered made me rethink it.

The same year I would start a news website called Dhivehi Observer. It was my first entry into the Maldivian political landscape.

While working at Dhivehi Observer, I would write an editorial titled “Is Calling for the Resignation of the President Unconstitutional?” (which is available on my blog). This editorial put me back on the map of the Gayoom regime, and my father was summoned for questioning as I was still in Brisbane.

My ongoing disobedience and by now the rising star of my father’s own political career angered President Gayoom enough to arbitrarily and illegally freeze our family business bank accounts and change ownership of one of the two resorts the family owned. The resort was at the time closed for renovation, with our family owned construction company’s workforce, equipment, and machinery heavily utilized on the island to rush through a three months renovation project to open the island in time for the peak tourist season during the Christmas and new year holidays. Another resort we owned was used as collateral for the funds needed for the renovation of the first resort.

The domino effect of the government’s actions would later go on to bankrupt our family businesses.

By the end of 2004, I graduated from university. It was the same year of the great tsunami in Asia. The disaster resulted in the death of 82 people in the country as the massive waves washed over the islands, briefly submerging the whole country under water for a moment. After all, the highest point in the natural formation of the islands is just a mere two meters above sea level.

Salafi-Wahhabi activists used the opportunity to intensify their activism fueling a new wave of religiosity in the country.  

In January the following year, I got married to my first wife in Sri Lanka, because I was unable to go to the Maldives, fearing arrest. I would move to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia after my marriage. I quit working on Dhivehi Observer in October 2005 when my son was born.

While I was in Malaysia, my father continued to negotiate with the government for me to be able to return to the Maldives without reprisal or consequence. By now, the opposition to the Gayoom regime was formidable, and most exiled politicians and activists overseas were coming back to the country. Late 2005, my father got confirmation that I would be allowed back in the country.

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I returned to the Maldives with my new family in January 2006. I stayed away from politics and activism during the whole first year that I was back. While my father focused on his growing political career as an MP, I was working in the family businesses along with my father’s business partner, an uncle of mine; not that there was much left of it. I tried to revive the family business without much luck.

2006 also saw my 3rd visit to Saudi Arabia for another month. This time, my infant son and his mother also accompanied me. I was going back as a responsible adult because I needed closure to my struggle with Islam. It was around this time; I finally read the whole Quran with an effort to understand it. By the time I came back I was firmly in the atheist camp. The last vestiges of Islam was my fear of hell, ingrained in my mind since childhood. What if I was wrong? This was no longer the case. I was no longer afraid of hell. And it was remarkably freeing. I could now focus on just living my life and making a difference in the world.

However, I didn’t start using the “Atheist” label to describe myself until I got a little help. My reading of The God Delusion by Professor Richard Dawkins was the final nail in the coffin of Islam for me.

Unfortunately, 2006 ended badly for me in my personal life, as my first marriage ended in divorce soon after my son’s first birthday. And in early 2007, the family business declared bankruptcy. It was a chaotic and painful time.

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In the 2008 elections, former Amnesty International prisoner of conscience and international climate change darling, Mohamed Nasheed became the first democratically elected president of the Maldives. The defeat of the 30-year-old Gayoom regime signaled the long-awaited arrival of democracy in the Maldives.

After Nasheed’s MDP and the coalition won the election, my father would be given the portfolio of Minister of State for Home Affairs. I also went for a job interview at the Press Office of the president’s office. I did not get hired because I hadn’t completed high school Islam and Dhivehi which is a prerequisite for non-political civil service in the Maldives. Which was a shame. No crying over spilled milk, I worked at for changed the party level.

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Changes were slow moving because even though the country was now a democracy, the system was still entrenched with members of the old regime, and hard to root out without resorting to authoritarianism. This hurt progress in the MDP government.

After the transition to democracy in 2008, the country as a whole began to face a new problem. Salafi-Wahhabi Islamic supremacists, who were mostly until now politically dormant in the community, began to abuse democracy and free speech rights opened up by the new government. They used the new environment to penetrate Islamist ideas and radicalization on the pretext of free speech, free political activity and religion. The work was done through traditional media such as newspapers, TV, and Radio, and later on social media.

Maldives has the most number of social media users in South Asia with estimates as high as 80%. Mobile phone penetration is much higher at 140%. 46% of the population has smartphones, and 80% of all cellular connections are at the minimum 3G connections. The proliferation of internet connections has vastly helped in the racialization efforts.

But some of the most impactful work by the radicals was done offline. Radical imams began to spend time in the outer islands for months at a stretch preaching their extremist views and indoctrinating a mostly undereducated population in the islands.

It didn’t help matters that Nasheed in a misguided move allowed the Islamists to infiltrate the democratic government by forming an Islamic Ministry which didn’t exist before. Nasheed would later admit to this as a mistake.

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Also in 2008, I would get married for a second time. This time to my current wife. She is is here today.

By 2010 I was extremely frustrated at the slow pace of progress in the country.

And then something happened that would start a new chapter of my life. It began when my youngest brother opened up to me about being gay and his secret founding of the Rainbow Maldives movement.

And as a flamboyant and effeminate young man, he was getting harassed and bullied almost on a regular basis whenever he went outside.

My brother was six months old when my mother passed away. When we were children, I was never a particularly good brother to my siblings – largely due to my own personal issues that I was battling with and I sometimes bullied him. But as an adult, I felt remorseful for my behavior as a child and was overcome by a sense of duty towards him. I had to do something to help him out of the situation he was in. The events that followed made me closer to him, and I would end up being one of his staunchest supporters as he navigated through his experiences.

One day my brother introduced me to a quote by French philosopher Albert Camus.

It read;

“The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”

My brother told me that it inspired him. I also found the quote resonated with me at a deep level – no surprise there. My entire life and that of my brother would go on to become an act of rebellion advocating for peaceful revolutionary change every moment and every opportunity we got.  

Pretty soon, I began working independently with marginalized groups in society who were shunned by mainstream politics. I came to know a lot of Ex-Muslims, atheists, and members of the LGBTQ community in the Maldives.

My brother and I quickly worked up a plan to bring out to the mainstream, the plight of the marginalized in our society. By then we firmly believed this to be the right course of action given the situation. And also because everyone was talking about “human rights” and “democracy” after all. I viewed human rights more broadly, outside of the Islamic context as universal – as it should be. There should be no space for exceptions or cultural relativism when it came to human rights.  

One such plan was organizing low-key blogger meetups in the country. We needed to find like-minded people who were brave and determined enough to be part of what we were doing.

During this process, by Mid 2010, I would meet some incredible people whom I would go on to build enduring relationships. Hilath Rasheed, Ahmed Rilwan and Yameen Rasheed were among them and were some of the more noteworthy of those we met at the blogger meetups. They were liberal bloggers, committed human rights activists, and free speech advocates. We clicked on a fundamental ideological level with common interests and a passion for changing the country. I cannot speak for someone else’s religious belief, so I won’t – I can only speak for my own. But this group of guys would go on to form a de facto leadership of a new wave of secular activism in the Maldives. There are others, but I won’t be naming names for their security as some of them still live in the lion’s den. Others are overseas, but not acting openly.   

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Early activism by group include running a petition asking the government to end religious groups from influencing government policy.

We also held the first protests in the country calling for religious tolerance in the Maldives. We held two protests on the international Human Rights Day – December 10th – in 2011 and 2012. We called the events Silent Solidarity. Islamic gangs who viewed our activism as “anti religious” attacked us on the second protest, seriously injuring some of us. The police refused to investigate attacks.

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Events in local politics soon brought to end the first democratic government in a coup d’etat carried out by the Police and Military of the country on February 7th, 2012. Due to time constraints, I am skipping through a lot of the details.

On the day of the coup, several government supporters and key political figures were attacked by rogue police, the victims of which sustained severe injuries. My father was among those that were targeted. He ended up with three broken vertebral columns.

The same week of the coup, my father would leave the Maldives to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for what would end up being neverending medical treatments. This was a permanent relocation out of the Maldives for my father. After multiple operations, today he is fortunate to walk. But his legs still swell up at the end of the day, and his medical problems never went away. Any remaining money in the family savings would now go towards his medical treatment.

In the middle of 2012, Hilath Rasheed, by now a close friend, was attacked by Islamist thugs, and his throat was slashed with a box cutter while outside his home in the capital. He was also a journalist and a blogger. Being gay himself, he was also one of the very first LGBTQ activists in the country. Miraculously he survived the attack. Emotionally and mentally he would never recover, and Hilath would later retire from public life. He disappeared without being in touch with anyone in our activist community.

The post-coup government would refuse to acknowledge that the attack on his life has anything to do with religious extremists despite him having reported many threats since the Silent Solidarity protests to the Maldives Police Service.

By now, I was also starting to receive similar threats. Because of the risks to my life for participation in the protests and my vocal social media persona, I left Male’ city around the middle of 2012. I took a job developing a tourist guest house project in one of the islands. I ‘tried’ to stay out of direct politics during this time and focused on the work hoping it to be a distraction.

However, whenever I was back in Male’ during weekends or for any other reason, I would still end up joining the protests – staying away from politics as I had originally intended was next to impossible.

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On December 22nd 2012, exactly a little bit more than a year on from the 2nd protest calling for religious tolerance – I founded Secular Democratic Maldives Movement (Secular Maldives for short) as an internet only activist movement. The movement exists to this day on Facebook and Twitter.

With the birth of the Secular Maldives, I was now focused on secularism, minority rights, its related politics and activism. Gays, liberals, secularists, atheists, agnostics, and persons of other religions are deemed an abomination by Maldivian society. And in my view that had to change for there to be any meaningful progress in the country.

They are treated as an underclass with little or no access to justice or state redress and are heavily persecuted and ostracized in society. Therefore it came as no surprise when Secular Maldives was formed; it was met with opposition. Its popularity among the local youth further enraged the detractors.

At the same time, I was also helping out with Rainbow Maldives movement projects. I soon became a key heterosexual ally to the gay community in the country.

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After launching Secular Maldives, realizing that the Maldives was no longer safe for me I quietly relocated myself to Kuala Lumpur in January 2013.

In the years that followed the coup, a lot of the activism went online due to security reasons. The trend of the rise of radical Islam had increased almost exponentially since the coup. However, our online activism was slowly but steadily countering that extremism. A lot of other independent but related pages and groups sprang up on Facebook.  

The Maldivian Freethinkers, Maldivian Atheists, and Women’s Rights Maldives are some just to name a few – there are many more than I can list here. All were operating under the same modus operandi, each dedicated to their own unique cause – online and anonymous. I was a collaborator on the pages that I just mentioned here. Advising, guiding, coordinating, sharing my experiences and sometimes creating content.

My involvement with the Maldivian Freethinkers page was with its founder Naail Naseer. In September of 2014, he was found dead on the beach of one of the islands in an extremely suspicious drowning. A couple of weeks before his death Naail told me that someone might have found out that he was running the Freethinkers page. Writing his eulogy was one of the hardest things I did in my life. It is available for anyone to have a read on the page as the last post ever made. I am currently the only admin left, and the page is controlled by me today. The page does not publish anymore.

Pretty soon, the Maldives Police Service began investigating the Maldivian Atheists page. It continues to be under investigation by the police.

Just to give you some stats, Secular Democratic Maldives Movement has 5600 fans on Facebook and 590 followers on Twitter. Maldivian Atheists page has 3800 fans on Facebook. Women’s Rights Maldives has 2800 fans on Facebook. Maldivian Freethinkers has 1560 fans on Facebook. Rainbow Maldives has 835 fans on Facebook. Just the pages I had any involvement in was commanding a sizable audience in the Maldives. And there was still my own social media accounts as well.

All this added momentum, to the Secular Maldives movement and another online social discussion forum called ‘Colourless’ – also on Facebook.  

‘Colourless,’ was a Facebook group created by a friend of mine on 7th February 2012 on the same day of the coup d’etat, to promote harmony and public conversation amongst a hugely politically polarized population. The group was not anonymous and the administrators of the group, though openly visible, did not intervene at all, but let the discussions flow freely. With more than 5000 members, the group took its own form and was well known in Maldives for the unmoderated exchange of ideas in the group. In a natural progression, by June 2014, the group had moved on from politics to discussions about human rights, social cohesion, and ultimately religious beliefs.

The group created the stage for the anonymously run pages to directly advocate against extremism and converse with newly recruited extremists about the flaws of their ideology. This then actually started to make a difference and young individuals were once again becoming less radicalized and began turning away from the mullah scaremongering.

As a response, militant extremist groups acting anonymously and gangsters in the country took control of the group. After that they started a witch-hunt of sorts against what they called “secular undesirable faggots”.  

The same week, the people involved in the take over of the group were photographed in a meeting with the country’s home minister (who is also the head of the police force) and also the Islamic minister of the time.

The following day, vigilantes took to the streets, armed with machetes and knives. They kidnapped perceived atheists, homosexuals and secularists who they called ‘laadheenee’ (an Arabic word meaning irreligious) and took possession of their smartphones in an attempt to unveil the admins behind the new wave of unprecedented online activism. The individuals were coerced to read “the shahada” – the two fundamental declarations of the Islamic faith and ask to repent for their sins. The treatment received by these individuals were horrid: they were beaten up, lit cigarettes were put out on their flesh, and they were tortured into fear and submission. These individuals to this day, have not come out with their stories for fear of persecution. One of them is a very close and personal friend. They are acutely aware that they live in a society where they are ostracized, persecuted with complete state complicity, with no access to justice or redress. Those individuals now tread very carefully on the streets of Maldives and have stopped their online activism. At this time, I do not know the extent to which the identities of the admins have been compromised, but it is safe to say that other individuals, who like myself, who have been very open in declaring our commitment to universal human rights and secular humanist views have only been unhurt because we live overseas or use anonymous social media accounts. They would just need access to the account of one contributor, and the whole veil of secrecy will disappear. It is not unlikely that this has already happened. These kidnappings occurred, and the witch hunt went on from mid to late June 2014.

In August of the same year, Ahmed Rilwan famously known by his Twitter handle @moyameehaa, goes missing. The official account of his disappearance is deceptive.

The established facts around his disappearance are:

  1. Rilwan was a blogger, social media commentator and journalist critical of Islamic radicalization, the religious gangsters, social hypocrisy and the Gayoom brothers. He was well known for his secular and humanist views.
  2. His last known investigation was regarding the funding, pragmatics, and logistics of dissemination of jihadist individuals from Maldives to Syria. Because he was a good friend of mine and involved in our secular activism, we spoke frequently. I talked to Rilwan 3 times the week he disappeared. He told me of the latest work he was involved in.
  3. He was last seen on the 8th of August on CCTV footage, boarding a ferry from Capital Male’, bound to nearby Hulhumale’ where he lived.
  4. His neighbor reported hearing loud screams from his flat and witnessed an abduction in a red car on the night he went missing.
  5. The police retrieved a knife from the scene of the abduction.
  6. His family reported him missing on 13th August.

 

Around the same time, a government cabinet minister was tweeting about a government-led war against “un-Islamism,”. Soon after Rilwan’s abduction, my other friend and co-collaborator Yameen Rasheed would begin a relentless campaign to find his best friend, Ahmed Rilwan.

More details of his abduction, efforts to find him, related news media about him along with a timeline of events are available on http://findmoyameehaa.com/  if anyone wants to learn more about him.

While the search was going on, a well-known government-sponsored social media commentator and online activist tweeted to stop looking for Rilwan because he has been killed – drowned to the bottom of the ocean.

Around the same time, the then Islamic Minister was accused of connections with the Islamic State, which he denies. Maldives Police Service and the Maldivian National Defense Force was also accused of being involved with radical Islamist activities. By now Maldives had already become a hotbed for recruiting to the Islamic State and has a large number of fighters in Syria and Iraq. By some estimates, there are 250 Maldivians fighting in Syria making the Maldives the highest foreign fighter contributor on a per capita basis.

In this new environment, Islamists and Jihadi groups were also targeting social and cultural activities in the country as well.

Despite all this, the government’s official stand was two-faced, talking about combating radicalism overseas while allowing them to fester and grow at home.

—————————–

By the end of 2016, my frustration was building because none of the secular activism was making any progress. The problem that I identified was, none of these activities had a face, no personality was attached to it. It was time for me to start a new approach to the activism.

On November 20th, 2016, I launched my own Facebook page as a Public Figure and began my own Youtube web video series in the name of FikuryIngilaab. Fikury Ingilaab, the words, means “Thought revolution.”

—————————–

In March of this year, with my visa expiring in Malaysia, I flew to Colombo, Sri Lanka on the 17th with plans to settle down in Sri Lanka.

A couple of days after I arrived in Sri Lanka, Salafi-Wahhabi activists accused me on social media of running the Maldivian Atheist page. The same week, a prominent sheik in the country, Mohamed Shafiu issued a fatwa for my beheading.

The Fatwa issued by Sheikh Shafiu was brief and straight to the point. It read: “Those who mock Allah and the prophet shall be beheaded. That is the Islamic way.”

The sheik went on to elaborate further: “Muju Naeem has disrespected the Prophet Mohammed repeatedly, much more than Abu Jahl did. Pious believers would not stay quiet and calm when someone disrespects Allah and his messenger. We are not writing this just because. If you don’t know the rulings regarding this matter, please look it up and educate yourself”.

Soon as the fatwa was out, I received a phone call from someone claiming to be working at the Embassy of the United States of America in Sri Lanka. After verifying the person was who they claimed they were – I was introduced to some more people operating in Sri Lanka, helping in the media and human rights space to expand my support network while being advised to proceed with applying for protection and asylum at the UNHCR office in Colombo, Sri Lanka. I am skipping through details here for privacy and security reasons of the people involved. By the end of March, I had applied for asylum with the UNHCR.

While waiting for my asylum application to be processed by the UNHCR, my time in Colombo would become a hellish nightmare after Islamist social media accounts started posting about me being in Sri Lanka. This put me at imminent risk in Sri Lanka.

Because of security concerns, I was frequently moving around Sri Lanka with the help of a network of Sri Lankan human rights activist. While in Sri Lanka, I slept in 17 different places – sleeping on floors, couches and in beds whenever possible. I was soon running out of money, and I applied for assistance for funding from various organizations that helped those of at risk in media, blogging and journalism space. Freedom House granted me respite by approving my application for financial assistance.

—————————–

While I was waiting for my application for asylum being determined at the UNHCR, one of the most hurtful thing in my life happened. All this time my father and other relatives were unaware of my atheism. Sure they knew I wasn’t particularly religious, but deep down my father had always hoped that it was a phase that I would eventually get over. He could not understand why I had a fatwa for my beheading and why I applied for asylum. With the fatwa on my head, and the social media networks in the Maldives buzzing about my atheism, it was no longer a topic that I could avoid when he confronted me, and I told him everything. He promptly declared that I was no longer his son. He would not accept me as a non-Muslim. While he is a complicated man to deal with, I loved him dearly, and it hurt me a lot. Today I leave a door open to him for reconciliation, which I hope he would take. But for any reconciliation to happen, he would have to accept me for who I am. I hope he does.

Previously when my brother told my father he is a gay atheist; he was also disowned. My brother is now also a refugee in New Zealand.

—————————–

As soon as I applied for asylum, on the 31st of March, a Maldivian model, and medical student studying in Bangladesh, Raudha Athif, was found dead in her room. News media immediately reported that the death was a suicide. With my background knowledge of extremist activity in the region, I was the first to call out the possibility of Islamist murder and started blogging about the incident.

I blew the story wide open and got local media and the international media to take notice. You can read about her murder on my blog if you would like to know more about the incident.

—————————–

What happened next was the most unforgettable and heartbreaking event in my recent memory. While waiting for my refugee status to be determined, my dear friend and longtime collaborator Yameen Rasheed, who headed the #FindMoyameehaa campaign, authored The Daily Panic blog and regularly featured on my Youtube Channel was murdered on 23rd April 2017. He was found stabbed to death, by the staircase of his apartment building in the early hours of Sunday morning. The news sent me reeling, and it felt like the world just got pulled under from my feet. I loved Yameen like a brother, and I had the utmost respect for him. I have said this before, and I repeat it again, I have never known a better human being than Yameen.

According to Yameen’s father “his throat was slit, he had been stabbed in 35 places, and part of his skull was missing,”  The authorities in the country hid the facts around his murder and continue to obstruct justice.

The details about his murder, news coverage, efforts for justice and a timeline of events can be found on https://weareyaamyn.com/  

Just two days before Yameen’s murder, I was sent a message on my Facebook, by an anonymous account. The senders profile was full of Islamists material.

It read and I translate; “If you want to live in this world, stop posting different things. I can’t even breathe properly with you alive. Where are you? You are such a coward that you can’t even reply to the message after reading it? I think you will be the next person to disappear from the Maldives. If you have so much guts, just tell us where you are. I want to know where you are. The day I see you may be the last day of your life. You think you are posting stuff because you will not die? You donkey even have your picture (on your profile). We are now looking for you. We will find you, Insha Allah. No. I will even pray for calamity to befall you every time I pray. Allah will grant me my dua (prayers). You will get a disease in this world with my prayers. That you will die a death of misery. There is nothing prayer can’t do. You father is extremely sad, isn’t it? That you and your brother is acting like this. I know who your father is. Because of that, it would be easier for me to find you. Don’t be too happy about things. Your father was an MDP member, isn’t it? I know who he is. You are very afraid, aren’t you? We will kidnap your father and family members till we find you (or you give up)”

—————————–

While waiting for my asylum application to come through, things continued to escalate further.

I was invited to appear on a video podcast with “The Secular Jihadists of the Middle East.” By doing so, I had openly talked in public about my predicament and what was happening in the Maldives. The Maldives police service promptly issued an arrest warrant for me. Every newspaper in the country carried the story as headline news.

—————————–

Early in June, our refugee application was granted by the UNHCR in record time – two months since the application was made. Our case file first went to the Americans, which promptly bounced because of President Trump’s refugee ban. Then it was passed over to the Canadian embassy in Colombo. We had two meeting with the embassy. The first meeting was for an interview which lasted for 3 hours. We were informed after the interview that we were being placed in the federal government’s Urgent Protection Program and being resettled in Vancouver. The second meeting was to get our passport stamped with a Temporary Resident Pass. After an anxiety-laden airport process with the International Organization for Migration officials (they take care of refugee transit on behalf of the UNHCR) we landed in Vancouver on June 22 of this year. From application to resettlement it all happened just under 3 months.

This week, we became permanent residents of Canada.

—————————–

The security risks posed for anybody as seriously involved in the online secular movement as me in the Maldives cannot be underestimated. The problem is the complexity of the matter.

We are dealing with a country which was ruled by a dictator for 30 years, and went through a democratic reformation process in the dictator’s last years of rule and saw a democratic government for three years before a coup d’etat reversed the process.

Throughout the last 40 years, Maldives has been caught up in the global trend of Islamic radicalization primarily funded by Saudi Arabia, with Maldives becoming a hotbed for terrorist recruitment by 2012.  With heavy political infighting in the country between actors with no determined political ideology other than fighting over who gets to control the lucrative tourism industry – Islam is used as a tool of control and fear. All the while politicians pay lip service to Islamists, so they can continue to plunder the wealth of the nation.

Secularists, atheists, agnostics, gays, people of other faiths in the country see no end to the situation. Moderate Muslim Maldivians who constitute the vast majority of the population continue dreaming and hoping for a better day. No politician could actively advocate secularism for fear of losing popularity amongst their base. The lack of honesty by prominent political actors continues to make the situation worse for everyone. Anybody that tries to uphold universal values of human rights or call for secularism are targeted and persecuted with violence, harassment, and economic duress, by a mix of government complicity and/or government incapacity, Islamic extremists sects and social conservatism.

Today, I am a member of a small ostracized minority group in the Maldivian society. Perceived as ‘atheist homosexual secularists,’ I am not only being persecuted for my views on LGBTQ rights, politics, and religion, but I am persecuted for a combination of all of this which boils down to the question of my identity – in essence, who I am.

My very existence questions the status quo in a heavily Islamicized conservative Maldivian society which is officially known as a “100% Muslim country”.


 

References (My asylum declaration documents to the UNHCR);

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