Maldives cracks down on Islamic extremism

Male, Maldives - The Maldives unveiled tough measures to combat Islamic extremism and protect its vital luxury tourism industry after an unprecedented bombing wounded British, Japanese and Chinese holiday makers.

An order from President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom said fundamentalists should not be allowed to conduct religious services and that foreign clerics should not be able to enter the country without special permission.

The decree, which also outlaws head-to-toe covering for women, comes in the wake of a bombing on September 29 which wounded two Britons, two Japanese and eight Chinese tourists visiting a park in the island capital of Male.

The bombing has unsettled the Maldives, a nation of 330,000 Sunni Muslims who have been practising a liberal form of the religion and built South Asia's most successful economy with the region's most exotic and upmarket destination.

The Maldives is a chain of 1,192 islands of coral, white sand and palm trees scattered across about 850 kilometres (550 miles) of clear blue water off the southern tip of India.

Officials said Gayoom's order underlined a desire to stem fundamentalism that could undermine the tiny atoll nation's status as one of the world's top destinations for well-heeled tourists.

"The president addressed letters to the ministries of education and higher education and the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs outlining the measures to curb religious extremism," the government said in a statement.

But the opposition Adhaalath Party said banning the full covering and the full veil for women could not stop "terrorism."

"The government is going to fight terrorism by banning the beard and the burka," Adhaalath party leader Abdul Majeed Abdul Baari told AFP. "We are asking the government to study the causes of terrorism and extremism.

"Economic conditions also form part of the problem, but the main issue is the ideological differences and we need to address them."

Under the tough new measures, the government will also not recognise educational qualifications obtained from madrassas, or Islamic seminaries.

Maldivian authorities are holding more than 50 people suspected of links to a radical Islamic sect in connection with September's bombing.

Authorities are concerned that a small but growing number of youngsters are being drawn to religious extremism with some educated in radical forms of their religion in Pakistan.

Women enjoy equal status in education and jobs in the Maldives, but more of them have been covering their faces in recent years.

The punishment for those who continue to wear the head-to-toe covering was not specified, but officials said those who violate the decree are initially expected to be warned and that tougher action could follow.

Former education minister Mohamed Zahir Hussain said a minority of people believed that tourism was against Islam and were keen to disrupt the mainstay of the economy.

"I am sure we can manage," Hussain said. "People are shocked, but we can deal with the problem because of the geography of the Maldives."

Only 200 of the island's are inhabited and tourist resorts are separated from the island's occupied by the locals. Foreigners are not allowed to spend the night in inhabited islands except the capital island Male.