Recent weeks have put a spotlight on Islamic fundamentalism in the Maldives after a 15-year-old girl who had been repeatedly raped by her stepfather was sentenced to 100 lashes for ‘fornication’,” writes Eric Randolph for UK-based newspaper, The Independent.
“A petition by the global advocacy group Avaaz has been signed by more than two million people demanding a tourist boycott until the flogging sentence is annulled.
In a rare interview at his home this week, President Mohammed Waheed told The Independent that he strongly opposes the court ruling.
“This case should not have come to the courts at all. We see this girl as a victim,” he said, adding that he has set up a committee to “understand what went wrong”.
But that sits awkwardly with his recent decision to enter into a coalition with the religious Adhaalath party with elections to be held in September.
In a recent statement, Adhaalath backed the flogging, saying: “The purpose of penalties like these in Islamic shariah is to maintain order in society and to save it from sinful acts. We must turn a deaf ear to the international organisations which are calling to abolish these penalties.”
Few of the million visitors to the Maldives each year see this side of the country. Most are whisked off to uninhabited resort islands before even setting foot on the crowded, alcohol-free capital of Male’. But the flogging case was not an isolated incident – Islamic hardliners, many trained in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, have become a shadowy but powerful presence here.
They are blamed for a raid on the national museum last year in which a priceless collection of ancient Buddhist artefacts was destroyed. They are also thought to be behind the killing in October of a member of parliament who had spoken out against extremism. The police have made little progress in either case.
Religious conservatives were also the driving force behind weeks-long protests that toppled the country’s first Democratic President, Mohamed Nasheed, in February last year.
Mr Nasheed’s election in 2008 had ended 30 years of dictatorship, but his liberal, Western style was used by opponents to paint him as un-Islamic – even a secret Christian. Although Mr Nasheed resigned on live television, he later claimed it was done “with a gun to my head” and that he was the victim of a coup.
The new President says the changeover was perfectly legal. But eyebrows were raised when he gave ministerial posts to the son and daughter of the former dictator Maumoon Gayoom, and chose three religious leaders from the Adhaalath party for his cabinet, even though the party holds no seats in parliament.
Dr Waheed defended his choice this week, saying: “They want to ensure Islamic values are protected. We are all working with that in mind.”
Out on one of the Maldives’ 200 inhabited islands, Mr Nasheed and members of his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) were back on the campaign trail last week, hoping they can regain through the ballot box what was lost to the mob.
On most islands he receives a hero’s welcome, still the man who endured torture and years behind bars to bring democracy to the country. But this day’s campaigning brought him to the island of Huraa: as stunning as the rest, with its turquoise waters, palm trees and white sands, but a stronghold of conservative forces.
Women greeted Mr Nasheed with a table of whisky bottles to imply his alleged love of alcohol.
As he tried to address a small crowd in the town hall, they stood outside shrieking maniacally in an attempt to drown him out. Attempts to approach them for their views almost triggered a riot.”