Intolerance grows in the Maldives

Bangalore, India - 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 incidents.

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 religions".

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 fundamentalists.

"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 thought.

"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 exposed.

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 September.

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 advancements".

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 Islamic scholars.

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 Monday.