Is Islam A Threat To The Maldives?
By Taimour Lay
October 8, 2006
headline ''Stormclouds over the Indian Ocean: Behind the veil in the Maldives'',
Britain’s Independent newspaper published a feature on Thursday which warned of
the ''radical'' form of Islam gaining popularity in the archipelago.
the "decadent" lifestyles of wealthy tourists, Meera Selva wrote, is turning
Maldivians against western mores.
preachers, armed with "dangerously persuasive arguments", are preying on
isolated and socially conservative islands.
numbers of women are wearing the veil, and withdrawing from active roles in
are exporting ideas and cash in an attempt to undermine the Maldives’
traditionally tolerant and inclusive strain of Sunni Islam.
Gayoom, the article maintained, is seizing on Islam as a last support for his
ailing regime, branding foreigners as Christian missionaries and demanding
political quiescence under the guise of "religious unity".
accurate a portrait of religious trends here has the Independent newspaper given
increasing popularity of "conservative" Islam across the Maldives cannot be
denied, but there is no consensus over its actual extent, and what is precisely
government blames foreign preachers. The opposition blames Gayoom and the
politics of control. Other analysts point to broader economic and sociological
changes that may, or may not, prove reversible in the medium term.
women are undoubtedly wearing the veil, in Male’ and on smaller islands, it does
not immediately follow that they are being systematically forced out of
positions of prominence in society.
first distinguish between women who are wearing the veil and those who are
adopting the traditional middle eastern hijab," says Attorney-General Hassan
Saeed, whose book Freedom of Religion, Apostasy and Islam, published in 2004,
calls for "absolute" freedom of religion to be permitted in modern Muslim
societies and says punishments for apostasy should be discarded.
"And if you
look at the number of women working in the professions and gaining a good
education, then it’s hard to say that they are playing a lesser role in
society," Saeed argues.
does accept there is a problem of "extremism" in some places.
points the finger at "foreigners", I ask him who these people are and how many
are operating in the country. The Maldives is too small a place for the
government to claim ignorance.
ignorance he does.
know," Saeed maintains. "We are investigating."
the rise of conservative Islam to the loosening of restrictions on freedom of
expression after 2004.
‘reform process’ was designed to encourage secular political participation,
Saeed argues that the formation of the Islamic Democratic and Adhaalath parties
helped to create a climate in which individuals are able to propagate
alternative religious views.
Maldives was a very controlled society for a long time. We anticipated that the
new situation would lead religious conservatism becoming an issue. Some people
didn’t want to allow religious parties but I disapproved of that," he added.
may be a more pluralist society in 2006, but the government still retains
considerable control over imams and preachers through the Supreme Council for
Many in the
opposition think it inconceivable that Gayoom has not sanctioned the spread of
more radical ideas.
Article 38 of the constitution, Gayoom is the ''supreme authority to propagate
the tenets of Islam in the Maldives''.
of religious freedom is "vigorously denied and the few that dare to raise their
voices are denounced and threatened", the UN Special Rapporteur Asma Jahangir
concluded after her visit in August.
the cases of several Muslims imprisoned for preaching "unsanctioned doctrines".
also admitted that under the new penal code, whipping for men and women caught
drinking alcohol will be retained.
some exceptional areas but, on the whole, if you look at the code, it is as if
you are reading the American or British codes, and it is consistent with the
principles of sharia’ law," he said.
considerable evidence that President Gayoom is responsible for the trend, since
he has long seen Islam as both a moral buttress for his personal authority and a
useful tool of social control.
But what has
been established by Gayoom has sometimes slipped beyond his direct control and
caused acute international embarrassment.
Some of the
52 madrassas (Islamic schools), set up under the president’s patronage, have
been linked to militant Islam in recent years.
idenitified as Ibrahim Fauzee appeared in the list of detainees held by the
United States at its military base at Guantanmo Bay, Cuba. He was released in
2005 and has since returned home.
week, Ali Jaleel, a rogue preacher accused of encouraging Maldivians to wage
jihad abroad, was sentenced to two years’ house arrest by the criminal court in
He, and six
others, were arrested in Colombo in April while attempting to board a flight to
Qatar. Sri Lankan police accused them of intending to join "militant" groups in
the Middle East.
relating to that incident have yet been brought.
government instead accused Jaleel of holding classes for a group of 10 students,
during which he had "spread themes and ideas not approved by the council", in
particular "on the concept of jihad".
attempt to portray himself as "protector of Islam" in the Maldives, against
unspecified foreign threats, has helped to create a paranoid atmosphere in which
radical ideas have spread.
supporters of the government, particularly on isolated islands, often say that
"Islam will only be safe with Gayoom" – testament to the president’s success in
underming the Islamic credentials of the MDP.
But it will
only be at the next parliamentary elections that the real strength of the
Adaalath and Islamic Democratic parties will be tested.
The IDP has
often been dismissed as a creature of Gayoom – but both it and Adhaalath have
significant, though still decidedly minority, support.
One man in
Thinadhoo began to explain to me why he didn’t support Gayoom. I expected the
usual MDP litany of complaints about corruption and human rights abuses. But his
priority was quite different.
not a good Muslim," the man said. "Because he doesn’t make his wife Nasreena
wear the veil. That’s why I support the IDP."
There may be
more beards and veils on the streets but Dr. Saeed argues that among the
majority of Maldivians there is stable support for moderate Islam.
opposition MDP agrees.
society is avowedly Muslim, as this month’s Ramazan testifies, but we are
inclusive and tolerant, too," one official said.
human rights activist Jennifer Latheef told the Independent that the existence
of luxurious holiday resorts was helping radicals recruiting on the islands.
teachers go to the women in the villages and say ‘your men are working at these
hotels, surrounded by loose women and alcohol. If you want to save his soul and
your marriage you must be virtuous - cover up, stay inside, and he will come
back to you’,’’ she said.
then come under tremendous peer pressure to conform."
are broader socio-economic factors behind the trends, too.
inertia on many islands, coupled with the erosion of indigenous culture, has
lent Islam a central role in cultivating national identity and societal
ever-rising problem of drug addiction amongst young people has persuaded many
anxious parents that the only protection lies in restricting social freedoms.
Dissatisfaction with the government has encouraged many to seek moral authority
and welfare through the mosque, rather than the island office.
also undoubtedly been an attempt by some men to reassert control over women
under the guise of religious doctrine.
And yet none
of these explanations necessarily means that "extremism", as opposed to the
increasing popularity of moderate religious observance, will flourish.
criticized the Independent article for underestimating the ability of Maldivians
to engage critically with their religious culture.
makes a big mistake saying that 93% of Maldivians are illiterate and therefore
vulnerable to charismatic preaching," she told me. "The country is, in fact, 98%
literate. We have problems with our schools system, certainly, but we are still
a relatively very well-educated society."
75% of the population is now under 35 years of age. The young, in Male’
especially, are unlikely to be seduced en masse by teachings that decry their
social and economic freedoms.
observers think that conservative Islam is reaching its high-water mark now and
will begin to decline once political change accelerates.
will choose a certain type of Islam, certainly. That will be the product of a
more pluralist society. We are also currently living in a very polarized world
where Muslims everywhere feel under threat," another analyst in Male’ told me.
"But I think
it very unlikely that a majority of young men and women here will be voting for
very conservative parties after 2008. They are more interested in jobs and
marriage and Hindi pop music than imposing restrictions on themselves."
enters its third week, almost the entire population will be fasting, praying and
continuing the hard grind of daily life: from shop-owners and taxi drivers in
Male’, to fishermen and rope weavers on the most remote islands.
remains a central part of Maldivian identity. It has been the archipelago’s good
fortune to adapt the religion successfully to progressive attitudes towards
women and indigenous cultural mores.
fringe most definitely exists. It poses a challenge to liberals and moderate
challenge can be a healthy one, if it forces political parties and religious
leaders to work harder to tackle the roots of societal discontent and
confidently reaffirm the rights of women.
of course, democratic transition will place the Maldives’ political and
religious fate in the hands of tens of thousands of young men and women at the
democratic polity, with pluralism supported by a strong majority, should ensure
that the extremist "challenge" never becomes a "threat".