Photo: thadu83, flickr.
Photo: thadu83, flickr.

A tool for the atolls

While Islamisation of the Maldives is currently making news, the nation's history shows that Islam has often been used as a means to gain political power.

Islamic radicalism, which played a key role in the ouster of the government of Mohammed Nasheed, continues to grow in the Maldives several months after his 'resignation'. While Nasheed has repeatedly warned of the danger of growing religious intolerance, political polarisation around the issue has also meant that for the first time space has opened up that allows protests and criticism of religious extremists.

Religion has historically been extensively used for political control in the Maldives. While the active targeting of political opponents as apostates might be relatively modern, the Maldives has had a xenophobic view of 'foreign religions' for much longer. This state of fear has been carefully preserved and cultivated instead of being eradicated by modern dictators like former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who found it a useful political tool. 

Gayoom came to power on an Islamic platform, as a religious alternative to the (by then unpopular) former President Ibrahim Nasir, once considered the hero of Maldivian independence as he presided over the end of the British colonial presence. With Gayoom's tacit approval, Nasir was subsequently vilified by the government radio channels which broadcast songs insulting Nasir, calling him a 'Latin-importing, Islam-hating, pig'.  

Gayoom consolidated his power by making Sunni Islam virtually synonymous with the national identity. Any dissidents, including the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) in later years, were painted as anti-Islamic agents of the West trying to import Christianity or 'other religions'. In 1994, Gayoom introduced the Protection of Religious Unity Act, restricting the freedom to practise any religion other than Islam. Unfortunately, even the 'democratic' Maldivian constitution of 2008 explicitly denies non-Muslims Maldivian citizenship. It has now become common for local politicians to refer to the country as being '100% Sunni Muslim' – a statistic that Gayoom popularised but which has no basis in any actual research or documentation. 

Gayoom, an Islamic scholar trained at Al Azhar University in Cairo, sought to unify the atolls under one religion. He was a proponent of a moderate strain of Islam – one that he nonetheless imposed harshly. Until the turn of the century, beards and veils were heavily discouraged, niqabs were banned, and there are examples of women being forced out of their jobs for covering their hair. Similarly, ultra-orthodox Salafi and Wahhabi clerics trained in madrassas in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan were severely suppressed. For example, when neo-Salafi preacher Mohamed Ibrahim Sheikh returned to the Maldives from a Pakistani seminary in 1983, Gayoom banished him to the southern atolls, away from the spotlight. 

During Gayoom's rule, religious authority was vested in the President and in members of the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs which the President appointed. Through the council, Gayoom strictly regulated discussions surrounding religion, as a result of which many of the ultra-conservative movements  such as the 'dotcoms' or 'Dots', named after the jihadi websites they consulted, operated underground.  

Double-edged freedom
All that changed with the movement for democracy in the early 2000s. Riding the popular wave of anti-Gayoom sentiment, conservative clerics suddenly found themselves a mainstream platform to preach their views from. For instance, Ibrahim Fareed Ahmed, a radical Salafi sheikh who was imprisoned several times during Gayoom's rule, gained public sympathy and a large audience for his fiery speeches following reports that he was tortured and had his beard shaved off with chilli sauce while in prison. Today, he continues to give public sermons organised by The Islamic Foundation, a local ultra-orthodox NGO founded by a former Guantanamo bay inmate, Ibrahim Fauzy. 

As anti-Gayoom sentiments spread, religious radicalism gained acceptance as a legitimate avenue of dissent.  Towards the end of the democratic uprising in the late 2000's, as the restrictions on media and freedom of speech were gradually lifted, Salafi radio stations mushroomed and bookstores began to sell fiery, jihadi titles publicly. A casual stroll down the capital today reveals an overwhelming majority of women wearing burqas – a dramatic transformation that took less than a decade. 

Despite the lifting of media restrictions, mainstream media in the Maldives continues to exercise strict self-censorship when it comes to debates surrounding religion. Public discussion on topics such as freedom of religion or minority rights is virtually non-existent. According to a study published in 2009 by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, the Maldives ranks among the top 10 religiously intolerant nations. Unfortunately, politicians frequently seek to exploit this social paranoia by slandering their opponents as those attempting to 'import other religions'.  

Unlike Gayoom, Nasheed is not a trained Islamic scholar and ran on a platform of freedom of expression for all religious clerics. However his early attempt at religious reform was tarnished by steps taken by his political partners, the religiously conservative Adhaalath Party, to impose online censorship. It issued a number of bans on blogs, websites and New Year's Eve celebrations, which it termed 'un-Islamic'. Nasheed defended his decision to provide religious radicals a ministerial platform by saying that excluding them from the political scene would only push them underground, as it did during the Gayoom regime.  Despite allowing the Adhaalath party a role in his government, Nasheed has stepped in to prevent radical religious shifts. In 2010 when the Adhaalath party sought to introduce the new Religious Unity regulations to reinterpret the Religious Unity Act of 1994 and give expansive powers to the Ministry of Islamic Affairs to regulate television content, raid media outlets and censor websites and blogs, the Nasheed administration stepped in. When the Regulations were finally published, a lot of the draconian provisions were removed while fresh clauses forbidding hate speech towards non-Muslims were added. In protest, the then-State Minister of Islamic Affairs Sheikh Shaheem resigned. (Today, he is the Minister of Islamic Affairs in Mohamed Waheed's cabinet.)

Unlike in the Gayoom era when Islamic fundamentalism was harshly suppressed to project an air of stability and peace, perhaps with the tourism industry in mind, Nasheed's administration publicly acknowledged the problem of widespread religious fundamentalism. Consequently, his government made the calculated move to align itself closely with India and the West, while controversially renewing ties with Israel – a move that sparked an outcry from the religious right. Nasheed was also instrumental in plugging the Maldives into the Indian security grid by calling for a policy of coordinated patrolling of Maldivian waters, working with India to build a country-wide network of radars that feed information to Indian coastal command centres, and actively sharing intelligence on suspected militants with Indian agencies. 

According to the US State Department cables leaked by Wikileaks in 2011, Nasheed’s government sought scholarship opportunities for Maldivian students in the West so as to prevent them from joining madrassas in the Middle East and Pakistan, which often serve as recruiting grounds for militant organisations. 

Nasheed often defended the traditionally liberal, moderate and Sufism-influenced Maldivian belief system, and appealed to the public to reject imported practices such as female genital mutilation and keeping concubines. He also publicly threw his weight behind cultural activities such as music and dance which had long been under attack from the ultra-conservative religious right.

Religiously ousted
Perhaps as a result, the events leading up to the dramatic toppling of the first democratically elected government in February 2012 had a distinctly religious nature. The first major protests against the MDP government launched in early 2010 were against the government’s alleged plans to permit the sale of alcohol to foreigners in an upmarket hotel in the capital. Following the success of that protest, all the subsequent protests against the MDP government took on a religious tone, labelling the MDP as a promoter of ‘irreligiousness’. 

In October 2011, during the 18th SAARC summit in Addu city, opposition parties organised strong protests with radical religious overtones. When monuments such as the statue of a lion gifted by Sri Lanka were declared ‘idols of worship’ and vandalised, the vandals were hailed as ‘national heroes’ by the parties which are now represented in Waheed’s cabinet. These parties also condemned Navanetham Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, when she spoke against medieval practices such as public flogging, which are still prevalent in the Maldives. Protesters on the street raised placards demanding that Pillay be flogged. 

The series of religious protests culminated in a massive rally on 23 December 2011, when a coalition of opposition parties came under one umbrella to label the government ‘un-Islamic’. 

The December rally exposed a dangerous strategy employed by the then-opposition coalition – a disturbing willingness to steer the rhetoric to the far, militant right. The official website for the protest even put up a demand for people who ‘went against Islam’ to be killed. The article was soon taken down, citing ‘technical errors’, but not before it was reported in the local media.

Although the 7 February police and military mutiny that eventually led to the fall of the Nasheed-led government was sparked off by clashes between pro- and anti-government groups, it ended up emitting strong religious tones by the next day. Videos from that fateful day show uniformed military and police personnel marching down the streets to loud chants of ‘Allahu Akbar!’, as they proceeded to attack the MDP party campus. Ironically, by giving voice to an Islamic party, Nasheed allowed the Adhaalath Party to run programs preaching the conservative form of Islam to targeted sections of the society, including prison inmates, police and military personnel. When Nasheed announced his ‘resignation’, top police officials, along with the alleged coup leaders, chanted religious slogans loudly in celebration.

Meanwhile, vandals had broken into the national museum and smashed ancient coral statues of the Buddha and other priceless artefacts from the Buddhist period of Maldivian history.

From across the aisle 
Stanford-educated President Waheed personally holds modern, secular, liberal views much like Nasheed. However, unlike Nasheed, he simply does not have enough political clout to stand up to the religious right. Indeed, in late-February in an effort to cement his support base among the Islamists, Waheed gave a fiery speech, invoking jihadi phrases and calling upon the ‘mujahideen’ to protect the national identity. Recently the Ministry of Islamic Affairs requested Waheed to allow the military and police to grow beards. Given that his fledgling National Unity Party has no elected members in either the Parliament or the local council, it remains to be seen how Waheed will respond to pressure from ultra-orthodox sections in his government.

The alleged coup d’état and the subsequent events have, however, also opened up some space for liberals. While only a couple of years ago it used to be taboo and highly unusual to criticise religious clerics who dabble in politics, their alleged role in the February ‘coup’ has made them fair game. For the first time today, party leaders are able to openly condemn the clerics, often going so far as to ask the public to refuse to pray behind them. The Adhaalath Party clerics such as Sheikh Illiyaas, while attempting to deliver sermons, have met with resistance from locals. Just as the radical clerics were embraced for their opposition to the Gayoom regime, they are now portrayed as villains for their alleged role in dislodging the elected government. As a result, secular parties such as the MDP, as well as individual liberals, have now found some room to criticise extreme Islamic politics.

Nevertheless, the glue holding the tenuous ruling coalition together has been radical Islam – and undoubtedly, it will be under strong pressure to keep reassuring its religious voting base. Already Gayoom’s party and family members, who dominate the ruling coalition, appear to have all but abandoned his more modernist views on religion, finding the radical approach more politically rewarding.

Former President Nasheed might have personal motives – attention from Western governments and foreign media – in raising the issue of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism under the present government. However, the international community would be well advised to follow how the extremist rhetoric that brought the Waheed regime to power plays out over the remainder of his term. Maldivian politics appears to have entered a new age where any attempts at religious moderation will be viciously attacked by even otherwise moderate political opponents willing to recklessly resort to extreme religious rhetoric and xenophobia to gain an audience. 

While politicians may find radical Islam just a convenient tool to usurp power, doing so has worrying implications for both internal stability and regional security. With an economy almost entirely dependent on its image as a peaceful, idyllic, secluded nation, the Maldives cannot afford to become synonymous with religious radicalism or get labelled a hotbed of extremism. 

Yameen Rasheed is a freelance writer and blogger from the Maldives currently writing for Minivan News.

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