Official records, quoting the legend of conversion, say that Yousuf Shamsuddin-al Tabrezi, popularly known as Thabreyzgefanu, brought Islam to the Maldives in 1153. President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, with his penchant for ceremony, has declared the fourth day of the fourth month of the lunar calendar as The Day Maldives Embraced Islam. Yet, until the 1990s, Islam was not an issue of contest or control in the Maldives. Rather, it was merely the way things were.
While the Maldives may have adopted Islam nearly 800 years ago, even by the 1970s there were few learned men, and these almost exclusively belonged to upper-class families and their selected pupils. But when President Gayoom, himself holding a degree in Islamic studies from al-Hazhar University in Cairo, rose to office in 1978, there suddenly began a significant new drive for religious knowledge. The young president encouraged and opened up a host of heretofore unheard-of opportunities, including scholarships to study in West Asia. Many of those who have in recent times come forward as political Islamists left the Maldives during this time, including to study in Pakistani madrassas. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, many of these students had begun their return.
President Gayoom, who had risen to office on his Muslim credentials – and thereafter declared himself as the Supreme Authority on Islamic Affairs – had by then begun to regulate religion through the state, whereby Islamic issues could only be discussed by an authorised few who followed, and subsequently preached, his prescribed form of Islam. As such, Islam, despite its many variations, was essentially fed to the people of the Maldives as hegemonic. The president’s oft-repeated slogan became a reference to how “homogenous” the Maldives was.
The newly-arrived scholars had brought with them a diversity of ideologies from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Qatar, Kuwait, Libya and Egypt, and to each, his version of Islam represented the absolute truth. Furtive dissent to Gayoom’s form of Islam slowly emerged and grew. By the 1990s, women were beginning to wear the full burqa. The president reacted by officially banning the covering of the face – purportedly in the name of security – and detaining any men who publicly seemed to be moving away from Gayoom’s Islam. Hussein, one of many who were detained for following another form of Islam, recalls the torture that he experienced at the hands of the state. “They forcibly shaved me, using chilli sauce as shaving cream,” he said recently.
Such persecution continued until those opposed to President Gayoom’s decades in power began to force through the country’s current political opening-up. The reform process of 2004 had an unexpected fallout: the emergence of alternative religious views. When the formation of political parties was finally permitted, in 2005, two Islamist parties were created: the Adhaalath Party, initiated by 50 ‘sheikhs’, and the Islamic Democratic Party (IDP), led by Umar Nasser, an ex-military man without Islamic credentials. Although different from Gayoom’s brand of religion, these parties preached an essentially more conservative form of Islam. The main focus for the Adhalath has been on mandating that women wear veils, while the IDP advocates capital punishment – to kill both drug dealers and users. To date, neither of these parties has offered any significant contribution to substantive political change in the country.
With President Gayoom’s increasing fear of losing political power came a step-up in religious activities in the Maldives, which till 2004 had been under the almost complete control of the Male government. With this, the president’s rhetoric itself also began changing. To reinstate his control, President Gayoom presented the ‘threat’ to Islam in the Maldives as the “New Rannamaari” (Rannamaari, the goddess of the sea, was one of the country’s pre-Islamic spirits). In public presentations, President Gayoom repeatedly spoke of this ‘threat’ to Islam, from unspecified quarters, both foreign and domestic. He did, however, point his finger in one specific direction – at the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). According to pro-Gayoom websites, the MDP wants to ‘wipe out’ Islam in the Maldives. In one much-quoted speech, Gayoom even claimed that the MDP’s campaign to remove the 29 members he had appointed to the Constituent Assembly was an attempt to eliminate the faith from the atolls.
Perhaps inevitably, the MDP fell into President Gayoom’s trap, and soon it became compulsory for all opposition politicians to insist that they would ensure that there would be no space for any other religion in the Maldives but Islam. Islamic fervour subsequently grew among the islands’ populace. Global events, including the ‘war on terror’ and the invasion of Iraq, all fed into what Gayoom and the Maldivian Islamists had created: a jihadi zealousness to protect Islam, vis-à-vis the sovereignty of the Maldives. Open-mindedness and liberal ideas suddenly had no political future.
Even as extremist ideologies sprouted, and tolerance for divergent religious views plummeted in Male and the islands, Gayoom, the Supreme Authority on Islamic Affairs, remained eerily silent. When asked for his opinion on contested issues, he remained inaccessible for comment. The president’s silence – coupled with his sudden and then repeated references to the “Christian threat” – had the effect of sanctioning radical ideas more strongly than long discourses ever could, thereby significantly legitimising the political Islamists. A few islands even reverted to ‘the prophet’s time’, attempting to emulate the Arabian dress and lifestyles of the time of Prophet Muhammad. Men grew their beards and hair, took to wearing loose robes and pyjamas, and crowned their heads with Arab-style head-cloths. Women were wrapped up in black robes. Goats were imported, and fishermen gave up their vocation to become ‘shepherds’. The laws of the land were rejected, as young girls were taken out of school and married off in their early teens in religious ceremonies said to be sanctioned by Islam.
Stories also began appearing in the local media of young Maldivian men and women joining organised Islamist movements involved in jihad around the world. Many have reportedly simply disappeared into that void, while one or two have surfaced at Guantanamo Bay. Each of these cases is officially treated as individual ‘mistakes’, however. Meanwhile, the big picture of what is going on has gone unrecognised: of how social degeneration, injustice, repression and despair – not to mention President Gayoom’s own political abuse of Islam – are fuelling these tendencies.
Today, the 21st-century Maldives is a disparate collection of identities. With Islam being state-imposed and politicised, the religion provides more of a national identity than a belief. Even Muslims from other countries are being viewed by an increasing number of people in the atolls as ‘lower’ than Maldivian Muslims. As noted by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, Asma Jahangir, following a 2006 visit to the Maldives, religious freedom is being “vigorously denied, and the few that dare to raise their voices are denounced and threatened”. This extremism, encouraged by the state, may well be fuelling the fire of more serious extremist threats in the Maldives, as well as fanning the wind spreading that fire amongst the hopeless.
~ Aishath Velezinee is a journalist and human rights activist based in Male.