The rising tide of religious intolerance in the Maldives is threatening the country’s young democracy, writes Sudha Ramachandran for the Asia Times.
Monuments donated by Pakistan and Sri Lanka were vandalised last week as they were seen to be “idolatrous” and “irreligious”.
Member-countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) donated monuments to mark the just-concluded 17th summit of the regional grouping that the Maldives hosted.
The monument gifted by Pakistan consisted of an image of its founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, and also featured figures, some of them drawn from seals belonging to the ancient Indus Valley Civilization. Historians have argued that these figures of animals and human beings point to early religion. The Sri Lankan monument was of a lion, the country’s national symbol.
On the eve of the unveiling of the Pakistan monument, a mob reportedly led by the opposition Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), the party of former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, toppled the bust of Jinnah. A day later, the monument was set ablaze and the bust stolen. The Sri Lankan monument was found doused in oil with the face of the lion cut off.
Sources in the Maldivian government told Asia Times Online that the vandalisation was driven by political motivations rather than religious beliefs. “This is the opposition’s way of damping the success of the SAARC summit,” a member of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) said.
The PPM has hailed the vandals as “national heroes” and promised to “do everything” it can to secure the release of the two men arrested over the incidents.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs has ordered the government to remove the monuments as they “breach the nation’s law and religion”. Islamic Affairs Minister Abdul Majeed Abdul Bari told the local media that the Pakistan monument was “illegal” as it “represented objects of worship of other religions”.
Adhaalath Party president Sheikh Imran Abdulla told Minivan News that the monument “should not be kept on Maldivian soil for a single day” as “it conflicts with the constitution of the Maldives, the Religious Unity Act of 1994 and the regulations under the Act” as it depicted “objects of worship” that “denied the oneness of God”.
Sunni Islam was declared the official state religion of the Maldives under the 1997 constitution. This was retained in the 2008 constitution. Article 9-d says that “a non-Muslim may not become a citizen of the Maldives”. While the constitution allows non-Muslim foreigners to practice their religion privately, they are forbidden from propagating or encouraging Maldivians to practice any religion other than Islam.
The island nation in the Indian Ocean is formed by a double chain of 26 atolls has a population of about 314,000. It is the smallest Asian country in both population and land area. With an average ground level of 1.5 meters (4 foot 11 inches) above sea level, it is the planet’s lowest country.
Although religion plays an important role in the daily lives of Maldivians, the kind of Islam practiced here has never been puritanical or rigid and it is suffused with local cultural practices. Faith in Islam has co-existed with belief in spirits and djinns. Traditionally, Maldivian women did not veil their faces or even cover their heads and men did not grow beards. That is now changing with a puritanical version of Islam taking root.
Religious conservatism has grown dramatically in recent years, as has intolerance. A small but vocal group of religious radicals espousing Wahhabi or Salafi Islam has campaigned for inclusion of sharia law punishments like flogging and amputation in the penal code, used intimidation to force women to veil themselves and declared listening to music as haram (forbidden).
Maldivians who are atheist, agnostic or profess the milder Sufi Islam have been hounded by radicals. In May last year, 37-year-old Mohamed Nazim, who professed in public to be non-Muslim, was threatened by the Islamic Foundation of the Maldives, a non-governmental organisation.
Three days later, he went on television and asked for forgiveness. Two months later, 25-year-old Ismail Mohamed Didi, who admitted to being an atheist and had sought political asylum abroad, was found hanging at his workplace.
Some blame the recent spurt in religious radicalism on the country’s nascent democracy. A Maldivian political analyst who Asia Times Online spoke to in 2009 pointed out that “unlike Gayoom, who jailed people like [controversial religious preacher] Sheikh Fareed for their views, under the new democratic government extremists are able to advocate their version of Islam without fear of being arrested and detained.”
Others blame what they describe as President Mohamed Nasheed’s “appeasement of religious elements”. Indeed, not only did Nasheed create a Ministry of Islamic Affairs but he also put it in under the control of the Adhaalath Party, a party of religious conservatives.
Although Adhaalath parted ways with the ruling MDP in September, Nasheed has retained Bari, who is a member of Adhaalath, as his minister of Islamic affairs.
Nasheed’s reluctance to take on religious radicals has eroded his support among young Maldivians who voted for him not only because they wanted to see the end of four decades of Gayoom’s authoritarian rule but also because they expected him to put in place real freedom, including the right to religious freedom. Their hopes seem to have been dashed by the government’s flirting with the fundamentalists.