Beatings, jail sentences, cultural vandalism, terrorism… Mariyam Imad searches for the roots of the religious intolerance that is gripping her homeland.
For eight hundred years, the Maldives has been a devout, yet moderate Muslim state. Its citizens have worn colorful clothing, welcomed foreigners and peacefully progressed towards independence and democracy. But the tolerance and respect which once characterized these tropical islands are rapidly shifting towards Islamic extremism. Outsiders sometimes balk at the increasing attendance of mosques since the advent of multi-party politics, or the spread of beards and headscarves on the streets of the capital, Malé. In reality, these developments offer a welcome affirmation of the freedoms which have been newly acquired by the Maldivian people. They pose no threat. But more recent outbursts of violence and persecution do.
In 2007, the country suffered its first terrorist attack. The jihadists were Maldivian citizens who targeted “infidel” tourists. Although the Maldivian government condemned this act, it has encouraged other steps towards Islamic radicalization. Only a year later, the constitution was amended to include adherence to Islam as a legal requirement for citizenship. As Shari’ah constitutes the basis of the country’s legal code, non-Muslims in the Maldives are marginalized, homosexuality remains illegal, and women’s rights have lagged far behind other areas of reform. Earlier this year, the international community had to intervene to prevent the flogging of a 15 year old girl which had been charged with pre-marital fornication for having been raped by her step-father.
The problem runs deeper than an entrenchment of conservative values. A rejection of dialogue is replacing Islamic traditions of tolerance and introspection. Religious minorities are forbidden from practicing their faith outside their home, and the Ministry of Islamic Affairs is pushing to ban people from even talking about any religion other than Islam in public. In 2011, it also blocked the website of Khilath Rasheed, a religious freedom campaigner who was subsequently assaulted, jailed and almost murdered before he fled the country. Last year, a mob of Islamic vigilantes vandalized Buddhist and Hindu artifacts dating back to the 6th century BC. “The collection was totally smashed and destroyed,” laments Ali Waheed, director of the National Museum of the Maldives, “the whole Pre-Islamic history of the Maldives is gone”.
How can this rise in Islamic fundamentalism coincide with the country’s demonstrations for freedom and democracy? The swing towards conservatism may be better understood in light of the changes which have been transforming the country at breakneck speed. In recent decades, the Maldivian economy has boomed, as has its drug abuse problems and its already crowded population. Then, the 2004 tsunami devastated the nation’s infrastructure, along with popular morale and the economy. Now as the financial crisis racks the tourism sector, unemployment is increasing, a gang culture is emerging and crime rates are escalating across the islands. Although the country’s politics are arguably opening up, there is no telling how the country will react to the outcome of the presidential elections in two weeks’ time. Many Maldivians are in search of stability – and Islam has provided their countrymen with a safe haven for close to a millennium. It is no surprise that they turn to it in hours of need.
But the kind of Islam which they turn to reflects trends across the Muslim world. Many Maldivians now have access to television and the internet. Some feel a sense of kinship with other Islamic countries – and share their resentment with respect to the corruption of Muslim values, or the military and economic excesses of the West. Increasingly influential foreign benefactors are also endorsing more radical strands of Islam through charitable work in the Maldives. Saudi and Pakistani funds have made schools, mosques and university grants available to Maldivian citizens, exposing them to more radical interpretations of familiar texts. The votes collected by the most extreme Maldivian parties suggest that Islamic fundamentalists represent only a minority of the population – but an intimidating minority nonetheless.
The stakes are high. Further fundamentalist reforms would test the Maldives’ fragile democracy and endanger its hardly won peace and prosperity. They would isolate the country from intergovernmental organizations and sit awkwardly with the tourism sector on which the national economy is based. Holiday makers are unlikely to opt for countries in which alcohol, bathing suits and dancing are prohibited. A stable and moderate Muslim state at the heart of the Indian Ocean would prove a welcome ally in defusing regional tensions. It would build a precedent for tolerance, lending the Maldives credentials to mediate between secular and Muslim countries in Asia.
The choice of how to interpret the Quran belongs in the ballots of the Maldivian people. But the international community can remind them of the prospects lying beyond their islands. Peace and trade have built the wealth and freedom which the Maldivian people value so dearly. It would be wrong to mistake current Maldivian dismay at new predicaments with disloyalty towards liberal reform. In these hard times, neighborly patience and understanding may be the key to softening the islands’ strand of Islam and consolidating stability in the region.