Maldivian history: A mockery of past and present

Filed in Features & Analysis by on November 8, 2013

Marx said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.

In an isolated country such as ours, with a culture that goes back thousands of years, history has become twisted beyond all recognition and ended up as an unnavigable tangle of myths and falsehoods. And it appears we are not done yet.

An unreliable history

The story goes that in the mid-16th century, the Maldives was dominated for a period of 15 years by the Portuguese who – for reasons lost to history – attempted to forcibly pour alcohol down pious Maldivian throats.

Three brothers from the island of Utheemu – Mohamed, Ali and Hasan Thakurufaanu – then intervened heroically, in a tale of cunning and tact, to overthrow the infidel Portuguese, and became heroes of Islam who saved our pious nation from the alcoholic, Christian invaders.

This grand, sanitised version of the story, where an Islamic hero defends the faith of the Maldivians from evil infidels would prove very useful for later rulers of the country, like Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who constantly stoked fears of evil Christian missionaries trying to take over the Maldivians precious Islamic faith – a tactic that persists to this day. In 2009, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found a paranoid Maldives to be among the world’s Top Ten most religiously intolerant nations.

Over time, it became apparent that it was not just foreign invaders that threatened to take away our Islamic faith, but our own dead forefathers whose entire rich Buddhist culture was swept under the carpet so tidily that to this day, it cannot be properly acknowledged – much less celebrated.

As much as we tried to erase it from memory, a vexatious history kept throwing at us evidence of a rich pre-Islamic cultural past in the form of statues, Buddhist stupas and ancient coral stone engravings uncovered from all parts of the country that became impossible to entirely ignore.

Thus, a legend came into existence; a fantastical story of a sea-demon, the Rannamaari, who came from the oceanic depths and had to be appeased by a virgin sacrifice every month. Then, Abul Barakat, a Berber scholar from Morocco arrived in the country in the early 12th century and heard of the story from a grieving family.

When it was time for the next girl to be sacrificed, Abul Barakat volunteered to step in. He stood vigil throughout the night, reciting from the Qur’an at the idol-house where the virgins were left every month to be ravished and killed. That night, the sea-demon rose from the depths and drew close, only to plunge again beneath the waves upon hearing the holy recitation which continued till dawn. In the morning, the islanders rejoiced, and upon hearing this, the King was pleased and instantly converted to Islam – willingly followed by the entire population of the country who discarded their idols and got enlightened overnight.

This happy outcome continues to be the version of history taught in schools today, although local historians have since discovered copper plate inscriptions from the 12th Century that describes a much more blood-soaked process of conversion – with Buddhist priests being summoned to Male’ and beheaded. Many terrified islanders buried their beautiful coral stone idols in the sand, covered with palm leaves, to protect it from the King’s men.

The idols survived the king’s men. But they could not survive the religious paranoia of their descendants, who are left with a toxic relationship with reality, having been brought up on a diet of distorted history.

In December 2011, this writer wrote a piece mentioning the statue of Gautama Buddha recovered from the island of Thoddoo in 1959, that was decapitated and soon afterwards had its body smashed to bits by paranoid Islanders, leaving behind only its serenely smiling head.

Less than two months after the piece was published, Islamic radicals vandalised the National Museum, and completed the job by destroying the head in a fervour to protect their Islamic faith from this perceived historical threat.

An embellished past

As far as stories go, the tale of the demon Rannamaari is only slightly more embellished a truth than the tale of a model Islamic hero overthrowing the Portuguese who were trying to force alcohol down our throats.

Maldives chronicler Abdul Majid points out that Buraara Koi, an ancient narrator of history, described Mohamed Thakurufaanu as “an adulterer, a necromancer, a cheat and someone who enjoyed trapping birds into his extended adolescence” – characteristics unworthy of an Islamic hero.

To set right this historical glitch, Hussain Salahuddin, a conservative twentieth century chief justice and a former royal commissioner of history, “openly purged the traditional versions of ‘objectionable’ events and accounts and inserted politically correct material in their place – some of it fabricated by his own admission”.

While no authoritative version of our history could survive our endless assault on facts, the end result of both these tales – the Rannamaari and the Portuguese invasion – is very politically convenient. In both cases, the tale inextricably weds our national identity with Islam in a grand, exaggerated and sanitised recalling of past events, while simultaneously assigning our history to be as much as an enemy of our identity as any foreign invader.

Recently deposed President Nasheed, a self-proclaimed history buff, marked the Independence day by narrating tales of Maldivian history on the radio. He added another spin on this already convoluted story by saying that there isn’t evidence that Islam was ever under threat by the Portuguese – asserting that Maldivians were simply more pious than that.

Nevertheless, the Portuguese, whose archives interestingly seem to record no evidence of direct rule of the Crown over the Maldives, ended up as being yet another incarnation of the Rannamaari;  another woven yarn about a demon that had to be defeated to demonstrate the valour of Islam that finds resonance to this day.

For instance, Umar Naseer – one of the primary actors in the overthrow of the elected government last year – has described his actions as being equivalent of the overthrow of the infidel Portuguese. In the Maldives, anything can become a Rannamaari. Even an elected government.

As a population, we revel in collective myths.

Muddying up the present

President Nasheed is also fond of pointing out the cyclicality of history – and how we are a nation with a long history of subterfuge, conspiracy and coup d’etats.

After all, the first Maldivian republic collapsed in 1954 after President Mohamed Amin Didi was deposed in a coup engineered by his Vice President Ibrahim Mohamed Didi, who in turn was deposed and exiled to make way for the restoration of the monarchy.

Yet, the police and military backed coup in 2012 that installed Waheed in power seemingly came out of the blue. For a nation as fearful and hostile to its own past, learning from history is out of the question and the cyclic nature of events becomes inevitable.

And thus, all the pieces fell into place on Friday night, on the occasion of the country’s Independence day, for a farce so gigantic that one could almost hear the giant wheel of history grind in motion.

On that night, Mohamed Waheed, installed in power in last year’s coup d’etat, conferred upon the former dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the NGIV (Nishan Ghaazeege ‘Izzatheri Veriya, the Most Distinguished Order of Ghazi) – the highest civilian honour recognized by the Maldivian state.

The location chosen for this travesty could not have been more appropriate. It was the very museum hall where the priceless, exquisitely carved coral stone remnants of our Buddhist history were reduced to dust last February as the coup was unfolding. Disregarding expert advice, the surviving artifacts in the museum were moved aside to make way for this momentous sham. Outside, the muscular SO riot police had forcibly shut down the neighbouring Art Gallery and held back protesters.

The coral stone dust of our forgotten past still lingered in the air when Waheed proceeded to essentially give a giant one finger salute to two generations of Maldivians – including, as many point out, his own mother and brothers – who have suffered under the yoke of Gayoom’s tyranny.

As far as this writer is concerned, the title bestowed upon Gayoom is about as legitimate as regime that conferred it upon him – which is to say, not at all.

Nasir spins in his grave

Another President – President Ibrahim Nasir – was conferred the same honour by the Sultan of the time.  However, President Nasir – who introduced modern English medium curriculum, and radio and television and civil aviation and tourism and mechanized fishing boats that breathed life into, and continues to prop up, the Maldivian economy in the decades ever since – was stripped of his kilege and other titles by his successor, the Gayoom regime.

Much like former idols, spirits and sea goddesses were demonised overnight to fit a new historical narrative, former President Nasir was vilified, exiled to Singapore and sentenced in absentia in the early days of the Gayoom regime. Indecent cartoons and songs mocking him were played by the Gayoom regime on the very government radio stations that Nasir introduced.

Today, Nasir’s reputation lies impossibly tangled. On one hand, he is praised as the hero of our national independence and architect of the modern Maldives who was harsh on corruption. On the other hand, he is criticised as a heavy handed autocrat who allegedly stole from the public coffers. He lived out his final years in ignominy and disrepute but, having died just after the fall of the Gayoom regime, was given a hero’s burial in Male’ alongside his royal ancestors.

Whether Nasir was a hero or a villain, we can no longer rely on our muddled history books to tell. Gayoom’s attempt at manipulating history and his muddying his predecessor’s legacy was thus an unqualified success.

And last Friday, Waheed stacked yet another card on the house of cards that we call our nation’s history; another attempt to muddy up the waters, another perversion of history itself in a bid to whitewash Gayoom’s indefensible legacy.

To quote from Hegel’s Philosophy of History, “What experience and history teach is this—that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it”.

In a country where gods have morphed into demons, and falsehoods have become the basis of our faith, and myths explain our origins, and history itself is a giant farce – it is clear that Gayoom intends to be remembered not as the vain leader of a corrupt, nepotistic, iron-fisted regime who never faced justice for his decades long crimes – but as someone who can now point to his shiny new medal and count himself among the highest, most distinguished and honourable among our citizens.

And it looks like he just might get away with it, and history will be none the wiser.

[First published on Minivan News, July 27, 2013]

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