The Maldivian government’s “respect for religious freedom declined” last year, according to the US State Department’s 2013 International Religious Freedom Report published on July 28.
“The authorities did not recognise or respect freedom of religion and it remained severely restricted,” the report observed.
“Governmental pressure to conform to a stricter interpretation of Islamic practice increased, particularly in the lead-up to presidential elections.”
Moreover, press freedom was curtailed by the government using religious grounds, the report found.
“Some Muslims expressed concern about increasing ‘Islamic radicalism,’ though advocates of religious freedom generally believed the public was becoming more aware of the issue,” it added.
The report also noted incidents of “societal abuse and discrimination” based on religion, “including incidents against Maldivians who did not want to conform to a strict, conservative interpretation of Islam.”
“There was an increasing trend among political leaders to call for greater limits on religious groups and activities, and impose criminal punishments in accordance with Islamic law,” the report stated.
“The use of religion in political rhetoric increased substantially, which led to derogatory statements about Christianity and Judaism and harassment of citizens calling for a more tolerant interpretation of Islam. Anti-Semitic rhetoric among conservative parties continued.”
Religious freedom in the Maldives is restricted by law and the constitution, the report explained, which was enforced by the government.
“Restrictions were not enforced for foreign tourists on ‘uninhabited’ resort islands,” it added, noting that foreign workers were allowed to practice their religion in private while congregations, however, were banned.
Officials from the US embassy in Colombo meanwhile emphasised the importance of religious freedom to the authorities, the report noted.
“The embassy advocated the right of all residents of the country to practice the religion of their choice in the manner of their choosing, and encouraged efforts to promote religious tolerance.”
Among incidents from 2013, the report highlighted the case of a 15-year-old rape victim sentenced to 100 lashes for fornication, which Amnesty International called the “tip of the iceberg” of the country’s treatment of victims of sexual abuse.
The Ministry of Islamic Affairs exercised control over religious matters, the report noted, and set standards for imams to “prevent ‘extremist’ teachings from gaining ground.”
The report referred to Islamic Minister Dr Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed claiming in February 2013 that Islam was threatened by a “strong psychological war” conducted by Christians and Freemasons.
In his Eid sermon last week, Shaheem reportedly warned of efforts by elements within and without to “destroy” the Islamic ideology of the Maldives through psychological tactics.
The report also noted the Maldives Media Council’s investigation of Minivan News in late 2012 at the behest of the Islamic ministry concerning an alleged breach of the religious unity law by allowing a comment deemed anti-Islamic.
Meanwhile, during 2013, “discrimination, intolerance, and harassment of individuals calling for any discussion of a different kind of Islam increased,” the report observed.
“Politicians manipulated the public discourse by calling into question the Islamic values of political rivals and effectively stopped constructive discourse on social issues,” it explained.
“This created a culture of self-censorship and fear as politicians, civic figures, and journalists were unable to initiate discussions on Islamic values or basic human rights.”
The NGOs Jamiyyathul Salaf and the Islamic Foundation of Maldives “worked closely with the country’s political parties to promote strict, conservative Islam” while the Adhaalath Party (AP) “further limited the civil, political, and religious space for any outlook that did not align closely with Sunni Islam.”
The report referred to street protests in April led by the self-titled ‘National Movement‘ – comprised of NGOs and the AP – “calling for presidential candidate and ex-President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) to be ‘hanged’ for apostasy.”
It noted that former Foreign Minister Dr Ahmed Shaheed observed at the time that anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia, and religious intolerance were “deeply entrenched” in the political discourse.
Moreover, a group of religious scholars issued a pamphlet in October urging Nasheed to “repent” for his alleged anti-Islamic policies, the report noted.
“The religious/irreligious rhetoric grew wider in the lead-up to presidential elections,” the report continued, referring to “laadheenee (irreligious) graffiti targeting MDP supporters” spray-painted on walls across the capital.
“Public pressure for women to conform to a narrow standard of appropriate dress intensified, and women who did not wear a veil were reportedly harassed,” the report observed.
“On the other hand, those who wore a full face-covering veil were subjected to public harassment and derogatory comments.”
Press freedom NGO Reporters Without Borders meanwhile labelled local extremists groups “predators of freedom of information,” the report noted. Such groups were accused of “misusing free expression to promote a religious agenda, using religious arguments as a ‘political and social weapon,’ and ‘resorting to violence, and even murder, to silence dissenting opinions.'”