The Supreme Court has rejected the government’s request for a consultative opinion over whether the Maldives can import pork and alcohol without violating the nation’s Shariah-based constitution.
Pork and alcohol are prohibited items under Shariah law.
The judges unanimously rejected the case on the grounds that the matter did not need to be addressed at the Supreme Court level.
The Court did note, however, that pork and alcohol have been imported under provisions of the Contraband Act and that there is a regulation in favor of the trade. As no law has declared the regulation unlawful, the import of pork and alcohol is indeed legal, the court claimed.
Meanwhile, Article 10 of the Constitution states that “No law contrary to any tenet of Islam shall be enacted in the Maldives.”
The Constitution also states that any law not struck down by the courts is valid.
The government last week requested a consultative opinion from the Supreme Court on the matter to level a heated debate over the compatibility of resort tourism and Maldives’ national religion Islam, prompted by protests on December 23, 2011 in defense of Islam.
Responding to demands made of the government by the protesting coalition of religious NGOs and opposition parties, the government issued a circular closing spas in all resorts and announced it was considering a ban on pork and alcohol, in a move to align government policies with Islamic standards.
While the trade of alcohol is not conducted by the government, the government receives a significant profit of the trade from the Goods and Services Tax (GST).
In particular, opposition Jumhoory Party (JP) Leader and MP ‘Burma’ Gasim Ibrahim owns Villa Hotels resort chain and is allegedly one of the biggest beneficiaries of the alcohol trade.
A tolerant society with a dependent economy
Since resorts first opened in the Maldives in the 1970s, tourism has been the core of the island nation’s economy. To accommodate the industry as well as the national Islamic faith, in 1975 the Ministry of Economic Development regulated the sale of pork and alcohol to tourist establishments (Act 4/75).
While there is no regulation or set of guidelines specific to spa operations in resorts, Article 15(a2) of the Goods and Services Tax Act stipulates that spas are legally accepted in the Maldives as tourism goods, and therefore may be operated in compliance with tourism regulations.
After its formation in 2009 the Parliament had nine months to reject any legislation which did not conform with the Constitution.
Parliament did not reject the regulation on the sale of pork and alcohol in 2009, thus allowing it to stand by default.
Speaking to Minivan News last week, Attorney General (AG) Abdulla Muiz believed that although the regulations were clear, legal clarification would mitigate concerns. He suggested that the recent debate has had more to do with internal politics than the oft-cited public preference.
“We are quite a tolerant society, although there a few elements which walk a hard line,” he observed. “I don’t think there is a public concern over the sale of alcohol and pork in resorts.”
The AG pointed out that the majority of the nation’s citizens are primarily interested in the quality of their daily life. He added that the population of 350,000 is annually trumped by the over 700,000 tourists would come to- and invest in – the Maldives.
“If there is a decision prohibiting the sale of alcohol in the tourism sector, it will have a great impact on the economy. The 2012 State Budget of Rf14 billion [US$946.8 million] is very much based on the estimated revenue from the tourism sector. And the government has obligations to investors–it has leased 100 resorts and awarded 5o to 60 islands for development. I hope the Supreme Court will take the economy into account,” he said prior to the Court’s decision.
Muiz said a court ruling would assure investors that the current system is valid.
A problematic profile
Two months ago, protestors demanded that UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay be “slain” for her comment against flogging as a punishment for extra-marital sex. One month ago, the coalition formed by religious groups and opposition parties for the “defend Islam” protest called for stricter regulations in keeping with Shariah law, notably stricter regulations on the sale of pork and alcohol and the closure of massage parlors “and such places where prostitution is practiced.”
International media subsequently reported the story with varying degrees of accuracy, presenting a Maldives starkly different from widely-marketed white sand and turquoise waters.
Noting that the tourism sector had suffered many cancellations in past weeks, MATI Secretary General Sim Ibrahim Mohamed previously pointed out that “people get jittery when you talk about fundamentalism, radicalism, extremism–since 9/11 these have been very sensitive words.”
Speaking to Minivan News last week, religious conservative Adhaalath Party chief spokesperson Sheik Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed said, “Maldivians are very nice people, you don’t see any country like the Maldives in the Islamic world, so why would we want to damage these people? These are Muslim people and they like moderate views.”
Calling tourism “the backbone of our national economy”, Shaheem said he was “100 percent sure there is no prostitution in the tourism industry here. It is very professional, it is the most famous tourism industry in the world and is accepted by the international community. Why would we want to attack ourselves?”