Maldives cleric's murder raises fears of growing religious extremism

Malé, Maldives - The killers worked quickly. Their victim did not even have time to reach his own front door, only a few yards away. Stabbed repeatedly in the head and back, Afrasheem Ali, member of parliament and a cleric, bled to death in minutes.

The murder in Malé, the capital of the Maldives, in October shocked many. Claim and counterclaim quickly circulated. The police hinted the killers of the cleric, from a party loyal to the former autocratic ruler of the island nation, had political links to the opposition. But according to Ibrahim, a gang leader in Malé, the murderers were from a gang of extremist Muslims angered by Ali's moderate views. The cleric was slain immediately after a live television show in which he discussed his faith.

"I met the men who attacked him in prison. They are kind of fanatics. They are different to other gangs because they are religiously minded and think anyone who doesn't think like them is not a true Muslim and can be killed," Ibrahim said.

The Maldives are known more as a luxury tourist destination than a test case for political and religious change in the Islamic world. But, like other states affected by the Arab uprisings of the past two years, the tiny island nation is wrestling with key questions of religion, society and politics, and how the three can be reconciled in the aftermath of the fall of a dictatorial ruler.

The near 1 million foreign tourists who visit the island each year meet few of the 400,000 inhabitants other than staff at their resorts, where consumption of alcohol is tolerated, and fail to notice a deep 900-year-old Muslim culture. A sultanate for many centuries, though a British protectorate from 1887 until full independence in 1965, the Maldives was ruled for 30 years by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, an autocrat who encouraged "moderate" strands of Islam which bolstered his authority.

Increasingly more conservative and more politicised strands of Muslim practice and thought made inroads. Recent years have seen increased attendance at mosques, more men growing beards as a sign of devotion, and more women forgoing traditional colourful dress and donning headscarves. Such trends mirror those elsewhere in the Islamic world and, since Gayoom left power and multiparty elections were held in 2008, have intensified.

"There has been a genuine awakening of fundamental Islamic values throughout the Middle East and Islamic countries. This has caught momentum here since the 1970s. What was previously seen as extreme has become mainstream [in the Maldives]," Mohamed Nasheed, the former president who won the 2008 polls but was forced to resign in February in what supporters say was a coup supported by Islamists.

Observers point to a combination of factors to explain the phenomenon, ranging from the end of strict controls on mosques and clerics under Gayoom to a new exposure to events elsewhere in the Islamic world through satellite TV and the internet. Another factor may be the growing influence of wealthy Gulf states who see the propagation of very conservative strands of Islamic practice as a key foreign policy goal and a religious duty. Saudi Arabia has given $1.5m (£1m) for building mosques in the Maldives.

Finally, rapid economic development, political instability and wide-reaching social change, all accompanied by unemployment, overcrowding, drug abuse, a new gang culture and rising crime, has disorientated many ordinary Maldivians, leading some to seek refuge in the rigid certainties of conservative religion or to see Islamism as a solution to everyday problems.

"The Maldives has developed over the last 15 or 20 years. It has grown from an ignorant society to a well-educated Muslim society and more and more people are applying true Islam in their lives," said Sobah Rasheed, head of the media committee of the new Adhalat (Justice) party which models itself on Turkey's successful moderate Islamist AKP though has yet to establish significant support. Adhalat officials accused Nasheed, the former president, of "the politics of fear" by posing as a bulwark against radical Islam.

"We condemn all acts of terrorism, advocate women's rights but it is very easy to stereotype automatically anyone who feels strongly about their religion, [here] and internationally, " said Abdullah Humaid, the party's director general. Ibrahim Fawzi, a Maldivian who spent three years in the US prison camp at Guantánamo Bay after being detained in Pakistan in 2002, said that "true ... peaceful ... Islamic values" were the solution to the country's problems.

"A society with a better understanding of Islamic values will have less corruption and less crime," said Fawzi, who was cleared of all terrorist charges and now runs an Islamic educational centre and television channel in Malé.

Though the only terrorist attack on the islands so far was a bomb in 2007, Indian, US and British officials remain worried that the Maldives could become a base for violent militants. The attack on moderate cleric Afrasheem Ali, as well as a second earlier violent assault on an outspoken blogger critical of religious groups, have raised fears that extremism might grow.

"Some of the rhetoric is overblown scaremongering for sure ... but there are concerns," a Delhi-based security official said. What is certain is that as political parties manoeuvre for power, religion has become key and issues such as alcohol, alleged idolatry, visits by Israeli doctors, landing rights for Israeli planes at the main international airport, and the activity of missionaries, real or imagined, become political flashpoints.

Hassan Saeed, special adviser to the current president, admitted there was now "a tension between conservatives and moderates." Nasheed, the ousted president who has proposed that "liberal Muslims" in what he calls east Asia create "a narrative" to counter the new conservatism, said it was important that the "concerns of the people" that society is "un-Islamic" were addressed. "The people are religiously minded," he said. "But I don't think they want a saint for a president."