Intolerance grows in the Maldives
By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE - The rising tide of religious intolerance in the Maldives is
threatening the country's young democracy.
Monuments donated by Pakistan and Sri Lanka were vandalized last week as they
were seen to be "idolatrous" and "irreligious".
Member-countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation
(SAARC) donated monuments to mark the just-concluded 17th summit of the
regional grouping that the Maldives hosted.
The monument gifted by Pakistan consisted of an image of its founder, Mohammed
Ali Jinnah, and also featured figures, some of them drawn from seals belonging
to the ancient Indus Valley Civilization. Historians have argued that these
figures of animals
and human beings point to early religion. The Sri Lankan monument was of a
lion, the country's national symbol.
On the eve of the unveiling of the Pakistan monument, a mob reportedly led by
the opposition Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), the party of former
president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, toppled the bust of Jinnah. A day later, the
monument was set ablaze and the bust stolen. The Sri Lankan monument was found
doused in oil with the face of the lion cut off.
Sources in the Maldivian government told Asia Times Online that the
vandalization was driven by political motivations rather than religious
beliefs. "This is the opposition's way of damping the success of the SAARC
summit," a member of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) said.
The PPM has hailed the vandals as "national heroes" and promised to "do
everything" it can to secure the release of the two men arrested over the
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs has ordered the government to remove
the monuments as they "breach the nation's law and religion". Islamic Affairs
Minister Abdul Majeed Abdul Bari told the local media that the Pakistan
monument was "illegal" as it "represented objects of worship of other
Adhaalath Party president Sheikh Imran Abdulla told Minivan News that the
monument "should not be kept on Maldivian soil for a single day" as "it
conflicts with the constitution of the Maldives, the Religious Unity Act of
1994 and the regulations under the Act" as it depicted "objects of worship"
that "denied the oneness of God".
Sunni Islam was declared the official state religion of the Maldives under the
1997 constitution. This was retained in the 2008 constitution. Article 9-d says
that "a non-Muslim may not become a citizen of the Maldives". While the
constitution allows non-Muslim foreigners to practice their religion privately,
they are forbidden from propagating or encouraging Maldivians to practice any
religion other than Islam.
The island nation in the Indian Ocean is formed by a double chain of 26 atolls
has a population of about 314,000. It is the smallest Asian country in both
population and land area. With an average ground level of 1.5 meters (4 foot 11
inches) above sea level, it is the planet's lowest country.
Although religion plays an important role in the daily lives of Maldivians, the
kind of Islam practiced here has never been puritanical or rigid and it is
suffused with local cultural practices. Faith in Islam has co-existed with
belief in spirits and djinns. Traditionally, Maldivian women did not
veil their faces or even cover their heads and men did not grow beards. That is
now changing with a puritanical version of Islam taking root.
Religious conservatism has grown dramatically in recent years, as has
intolerance. A small but vocal group of religious radicals espousing Wahhabi or
Salafi Islam has campaigned for inclusion of sharia law punishments like
flogging and amputation in the penal code, used intimidation to force women to
veil themselves and declared listening to music as haram (forbidden).
Maldivians who are atheist, agnostic or profess the milder Sufi Islam have been
hounded by radicals. In May last year, 37-year-old Mohamed Nazim, who professed
in public to be non-Muslim, was threatened by the Islamic Foundation of the
Maldives, a non-governmental organization.
Three days later, he went on television and asked for forgiveness. Two months
later, 25-year-old Ismail Mohamed Didi, who admitted to being an atheist and
had sought political asylum abroad, was found hanging at his workplace.
Some blame the recent spurt in religious radicalism on the country's nascent
democracy. A Maldivian political analyst who Asia Times Online spoke to in 2009
pointed out that "unlike Gayoom, who jailed people like [controversial
religious preacher] Sheikh Fareed for their views, under the new democratic
government extremists are able to advocate their version of Islam without fear
of being arrested and detained."
Others blame what they describe as President Mohamed Nasheed's "appeasement of
religious elements". Indeed, not only did Nasheed create a Ministry of Islamic
Affairs but he also put it in under the control of the Adhaalath Party, a party
of religious conservatives.
Although Adhaalath parted ways with the ruling MDP in September, Nasheed has
retained Bari, who is a member of Adhaalath, as his minister of Islamic
affairs. Independent journalist Ismail Hilath Rasheed, an outspoken critic of
the religious fundamentalists, told Asia Times Online that the Ministry of
Islamic Affairs was "still effectively run by Adhaalath, though unofficially".
Nasheed's reluctance to take on religious radicals has eroded his support among
young Maldivians who voted for him not only because they wanted to see the end
of four decades of Gayoom's authoritarian rule but also because they expected
him to put in place real freedom, including the right to religious freedom.
Their hopes seem to have been dashed by the government's flirting with the
"I was under the impression that the MDP after coming to power would launch an
education and awareness campaign to gradually inculcate in people the value of
freedom of religion granted by the Koran so that in the end people would become
aware that no real change can come to a civilization unless there is freedom of
"Hence, I was under the [false] impression that the MDP would dare to break the
Islamic theocracy and feudal system that Maumoon [Gayoom] used to keep the
Maldives' population under his tight grip," Rasheed wrote in his blog less than
a month ago. "But now it has become clear that what the MDP was talking about
was only about unseating Maumoon," and not real change.
Rasheed's blog has been shut down by the Communications Authority of the
Maldives on the order of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. "The reason they gave
was that my website is anti-Islamic. But the real reason is that the
Wahhabi-leaning Islamic Ministry cannot digest my Sufi Muslim ideals," he told
Asia Times Online.
Death threats calling for Rasheed's beheading appeared on a popular website
that publishes content in the Divehi language. A couple of months later he was
found unconscious on an uninhabited island in the Raa atoll.
While the action against Rasheed's blog or the order to remove the
"irreligious" monuments came from the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, it is the
MDP's commitment to democratic values and individual freedoms that now stands
The past three years have not been easy for the MDP government. It has had to
keep moderate Islamists from moving to the fringes; hence the alliance and
"appeasement" of the Adhaalath party.
This cautious approach is evident in the new regulations under the Protection
of Religious Unity Act of 1994 that were published in the government gazette in
On the one hand they seek to control religious extremism by forbidding
unlicensed preaching of Islam. They forbid preachers from creating hatred
towards people of other religions and requires them to refrain "from passing
off as Islam one's personal stand - that may result in obstruction of human
progress and development and hinder modern findings and intellectual
Besides, in what appears to be an attempt to prevent outsiders from fomenting
trouble in Maldives, it forbids foreign scholars from criticizing Maldives'
social norms, domestic policies or laws.
While the new regulations go some way in keeping extremism under check, they
fail to take even a small step towards according to the individual his or her
right to freedom of religion.
Thus propagation of any religion other than Islam remains illegal under the new
regulations as is the "use of symbols or depiction of another religion other
than Islam for a common purpose and to generate public interest in it [is]
forbidden". The regulations also prohibit use of any website, blog, newspaper
or magazine that contradicts Islam or expresses any opinion that disagrees with
The new regulations have thus created space for the attack on the Pakistani
monument and the blocking of Rasheed's blog.
"I think this is just the beginning," Rasheed said in a statement issued on
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in
Bangalore. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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