Extremism is the ‘front and centre’ of concerns shared by Muslims all over the world, at least according to Farah Pandith, the US State Department’s Special Representative to Muslim Communities, who is paying a four day visit to the Maldives.
Pandith, who reports directly to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is using the visit to meet with government and political figures, as well as NGOs and local people, to look at the possible social challenges facing the Maldives as an emerging Islamic democracy, as well as how best to respond to such difficulties.
Speaking on Sunday at the American Centre in the National Library in Male’ to an audience of local people and foreigners from across the private and public sector, Pandith said that even in the current Facebook age, communication among Muslims was seen as a major challenge facing Islamic communities.
According to Pandith, a large proportion of the world’s Muslims are believed to be under 30 years of age, yet the US Representative claimed that amidst a divide between followers of the faith and non-Islamic people, many young Muslims were not part of the “conversation” relating to differing faiths and viewpoints.
The representative said that this lack of communication about Islam in some cultures has further added to a global culture of ‘us and them’ between Muslims and other faith and belief groups.
In such a climate, the US State Department claims to now be looking to work with NGOs and local enterprise to better directly address discontent in Islamic societies all over the world.
In considering this more hands on approach by the US government, Pandith acknowledged that some US foreign policy during the last deacde, particularly in the Arab world, had been “unpopular” – not just amongst Muslims but large swathes of the world’s population. However, she claimed the country was moving beyond a so-called “freedom agenda” of pushing democracy, by trying instead to promote initiatives and activities designed to directly address prominent social concerns.
In addressing local audience members at the talk, Pandith asked the 20 or so people in attendance what it meant to them to be Maldivian and Islamic.
The response, according to some in the audience, was confusion and possible consideration of leaving the country amidst concerns over what they perceive as issues of free speech in relation to the role of faith.
Having met Pandith during her visit, State Minister for Islamic Affairs Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed, told Minivan News that principles such as free speech and human rights were an important part of the Maldives constitution and the influence of Islam in the country.
“The Maldives is very unique as we are both 100 percent Muslim and democratic,” he said.
Pointing specifically to Article 27 of the constitution, Shaheem stressed that there was freedom of speech within the Maldives, though this right to speak was bound by the principles of the Islamic faith.
Ultimately, the State Minister for Islamic Affairs claimed that Islam has formed the backbone of Maldives society for hundreds of years and was central to national ideas of human rights and free speech.
“In war for example, Islam forbids the killing of woman and children,” said Shaheem as an example of the religion’s impact on the notion of human rights.
In relation to the potential challenges of establishing more debate over Islam in the country, Shaheem said he believed the major concerns the ministry faced in the country were more related to drugs and the emergence of extremist ideas, both religious and non-religious in nature.
Although stressing his belief that the country has no Al Qaeda-style organisations, the State Minister said it was important to counter and not give any opportunity for more radical, extreme forms of Islam to take root in the country.
To try and meet this aim, Shaheem claimed that education and academic pursuits formed a major part of efforts to retain the country’s status as a moderate nation.
The Islamic Ministry says that greater links it has with many western nations like the UK reflects a more collaborative relationship with Muslim communities across the world.