Thousands demonstrate in Maldives for and against strict Islamic law

Male, Maldives - Thousands in the Maldives protested Friday, calling on the government to halt what they called “anti-Islamic” activities, including a plan to allow direct flights to Israel. More moderate supporters of the president rallied as well as debate swells over the future of the state’s religion.

The Indian Ocean archipelago of 300,000 Muslims prohibits practicing any other faith.

The protesters want authorities to stop the sale of alcohol in the islands, shut down brothels operating in the guise of massage parlors and demolish monuments gifted by other countries marking a South Asian summit last month because they see them as idols.

More than 3,000 people heeded a protest call by the opposition Adhaalat, or Justice, Party and several other groups that accuse President Mohammed Nasheed’s government of compromising principles of Islam and call for strict Islamic law.

“Islamic Shariah is equal to peace,” read some placards carried by protesters.

Though the country is known more for its exquisite island resorts and does not allow stoning or executions, it is under scrutiny for its absence of religious freedom and for punishments such as public flogging.

Debates on religious issues have emerged since a group vandalized a monument gifted by Pakistan marking a South Asian summit last month with the image of Buddha. Buddhism was part of the present Islamic republic’s history. An angry protest last month followed a call by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay for the Maldives to end the punishment by flogging of women who are found to have had sex outside marriage.

Other residents also rallied Friday in support of the president, who said he stands for a brand of moderate Islam traditionally practiced in the country and that it is vital to preserve the country’s economic lifeline, tourism.

“To build our economy we need foreign investments and we need to create an environment in which foreigners can invest,” Nasheed said.

“We can’t achieve development by going backwards to the stone age or being ignorant,” he added.

“Should we ban music? Should we mutilate girls’ genitals? Should we allow 9 year-olds to be married? Should we forbid art and drawing? Should we be allowed to take concubines? Is this nation building?” he asked.

One blogger who has called for religious tolerance has been detained for more than a week by authorities who accuse him of blasphemy and of promoting anti-Islamic concepts such as gay rights.

Khilath Rasheed, whose website was blocked last month, has said he was being victimized because he belonged to the Sufi sect of Islam and not the majority Sunni branch recognized by the authorities.

London-based human rights group Amnesty International has called for his immediate release.