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The Maldivian flag flies at Jumhooree Maidan, or Independence Square, in Male, Maldives.  © 2007 (WT-shared) Jpatokal/Wikipedia

Ibrahim Ismail, the chairman of Mandhu College in the Maldives and a former lawmaker, says he believes in debate rooted in facts and backed by citations, including over religion. But Ismail, better known as Ibra, recently discovered the potential danger of such debate.  

On January 7, 2019, a magistrate in Naifuri, an island in northern Maldives, sentenced a 25-year-old woman to death by stoning on charges of adultery. Although the Maldives Supreme Court overturned the verdict the following day, debate continued on social media. When Ibra challenged Islamic clerics over claims that the Prophet Mohammad had called for such a punishment, it prompted unidentified assailants to break the glass on his school’s main door, and open threats from Islamist groups that accused him of blasphemy and set up a social media campaign to track his movements.

While police are investigating the January 23 attack on the college, they have also questioned Ibra about his social media comments on religion. The Islamic ministry condemned those who “encourage harshness and violence in the name of religion,” but also warned citizens against mocking Islam.

Ibra is not the first to face such threats in the Maldives. Extremist groups in the Maldives, some linked to politicians, have endorsed violent ultra-nationalist or Islamist ideology. Islamist groups have deemed detractors as ladheene, or apostates, and several, including Ibra’s sister, Shahinda Ismail, have been threatened on social media.

In September 2018, Maldivians voted out the corrupt and abusive government of Abdulla Yameen. The new government of President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih has ordered investigations into the killing of blogger Yameen Rasheed in 2017 and the enforced disappearance of  journalist Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla in 2014. Known gang leaders had targeted both on social media as ladheene.

When I met Ibra last week, he said he refused to go into hiding, insisting that the state should ensure rule of law. Standing outside his college, he looked at the crowded street where his opponents could be lurking and told me: “I cannot let them believe that they can drive people to the ground by their belligerence.”

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