Islamic radicalism, which played a key role in the ouster of the government of Mohammed Nasheed, continues to grow in the Maldives several months after his ‘resignation’. While Nasheed has repeatedly warned of the danger of growing religious intolerance, political polarisation around the issue has also meant that for the first time space has opened up that allows protests and criticism of religious extremists.
Religion has historically been extensively used for political control in the Maldives. While the active targeting of political opponents as apostates might be relatively modern, the Maldives has had a xenophobic view of ‘foreign religions’ for much longer. This state of fear has been carefully preserved and cultivated instead of being eradicated by modern dictators like former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who found it a useful political tool.
Gayoom came to power on an Islamic platform, as a religious alternative to the (by then unpopular) former President Ibrahim Nasir, once considered the hero of Maldivian independence as he presided over the end of the British colonial presence. With Gayoom’s tacit approval, Nasir was subsequently vilified by the government radio channels which broadcast songs insulting Nasir, calling him a ‘Latin-importing, Islam-hating, pig’.
Gayoom consolidated his power by making Sunni Islam virtually synonymous with the national identity. Any dissidents, including the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) in later years, were painted as anti-Islamic agents of the West trying to import Christianity or ‘other religions’. In 1994, Gayoom introduced the Protection of Religious Unity Act, restricting the freedom to practise any religion other than Islam. Unfortunately, even the ‘democratic’ Maldivian constitution of 2008 explicitly denies non-Muslims Maldivian citizenship. It has now become common for local politicians to refer to the country as being ‘100% Sunni Muslim’ – a statistic that Gayoom popularised but which has no basis in any actual research or documentation. [Continue reading]
(My piece for Himal Southasia, published 20th June 2012)