Alcohol and a New Muslim Nation

Alcohol found aboard barge near Kumundhoo

I imagine that most Maldivans won't think it odd that the discovery of contraband alcohol [al-kuhl , something like "the distilled essence" in Arabic] is big news. After all, the Maldives currently forbids alcohol possession and consumption -- except for foreigners on the resort islands -- on the grounds that the Maldives is an Islamic nation, and citizens by law are Sunni Muslims.

The current regime has used its monopoly over the tenets of Islam to permit the influence of far more conservative forms of Islam (with varying degrees of success). The administration already liked to portray Christians as an enemy that must be stopped through force, and apparently increasingly zealous religious indoctrination.

This is all very good if you're trying to keep your hands on the reigns of government today, but this tactic is bound to unleash forces that you cannot control:

Gayoom’s attempt to portray himself as "protector of Islam" in the Maldives, against unspecified foreign threats, has helped to create a paranoid atmosphere in which radical ideas have spread.

Conservative supporters of the government, particularly on isolated islands, often say that "Islam will only be safe with Gayoom" – testament to the president’s success in underming the Islamic credentials of the MDP.

But it will only be at the next parliamentary elections that the real strength of the Adaalath and Islamic Democratic parties will be tested.

And if the Islamic parties win, what about alcohol? The entire economy is based on tourism, which is based on sandy beaches, luxury amenities, and alcohol. Tourists will not pay $2000 a night for two of the three.

Now, I won't argue here about the Koran's prohibition of alcohol for individuals, but I will argue that alcohol prohibition is not a good policy for any country -- even one founded on Islamic principles. (Among writers on this subject, there seems to be no notion that a step is missing in the logic that transfers duty from person to policy. Because something evil can come between a man and his God, why must other men rush in to help eliminate it? Shouldn't a man himself -- or God -- be doing this?)

Anyway, in 2:219 the Koran describes what seems to be a cost-benefit test for the morality of drinking, and comes down against drink and gambling, but I think the Koran is clearly wrong in its policy implications:

"They ask thee concerning wine and gambling, say: "In them is great sin, and some profit, for men; but the sin is greater than the profit..."(2:219)
Even if the sin of individual consumption is greater than the profit, the example of U.S. prohibition has showed that the sin of alcohol will only worsen if you try to forbid personally profiting from it. I really don't buy the idea that Muslims are more likely to abstain in the long run -- and neither do the wives of those who work in the Maldivan resorts, who converted to more conservative forms of Islam precisely because they thought their husbands weren't stout enough personally to resist the drink. Yes, I'm arguing that these women should not have the force of law to stop their husbands from drinking.

All this is important because, as you can see from the other posts on T&B, a new Maldives is on the horizon. It will have a mix of traditional, reformist, and hardline Islamic elements.

Maldivans should be asking themselves whether they want to continue to live in a country in which the government forbids the people from making their own moral choices -- a government that insists, under threat of incarceration or banishment for any transgression of sharia, that all Maldivans be true and pure Muslims. Do Maldivans really want their imams (and husbands and wives and neighbors!) to have the power to punish them for every personal moral failure, as is the case when there is no separation between religious and secular authorities?

The Maldives could become free, peaceful, prosperous, and democratic nation rooted in the self-denying personal conduct required by honest adherence to the tenets of a relaxed Islam. Or Maldivan leaders can pretend that Islam contains a comprehensive code of interpersonal conduct for a world that has become far more complex over the past millennium.

However, given the current spread of conservative Islam to the outer atolls, it is likely that in the formation of a multi-party system, there will be a power struggle between those who see democracy as a process in the struggle for freedom and modernity, and those who see the elections democracy offers as a swift means of gaining control over the legislature, the budget, the courts, the police, and hence, the people.

In the Maldives, I have no idea who will win.

Let's hope that Maldivans realize that it isn't true that all one needs to ensure stability and individual morality is a strict enough law -- and a powerful enough police force.

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This page contains a single entry by Kevin published on November 6, 2006 2:23 PM.

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