By Taimour Lay
October 8, 2006
Under the headline ”Stormclouds over the Indian Ocean: Behind the veil in the Maldives”, Britain’s Independent newspaper published a feature on Thursday which warned of the ”radical” form of Islam gaining popularity in the archipelago.
Witnessing the “decadent” lifestyles of wealthy tourists, Meera Selva wrote, is turning Maldivians against western mores.
Rogue preachers, armed with “dangerously persuasive arguments”, are preying on isolated and socially conservative islands.
Increasing numbers of women are wearing the veil, and withdrawing from active roles in society.
Arab donors are exporting ideas and cash in an attempt to undermine the Maldives’ traditionally tolerant and inclusive strain of Sunni Islam.
President Gayoom, the article maintained, is seizing on Islam as a last support for his ailing regime, branding foreigners as Christian missionaries and demanding political quiescence under the guise of “religious unity”.
But how accurate a portrait of religious trends here has the Independent newspaper given its readers?
The increasing popularity of “conservative” Islam across the Maldives cannot be denied, but there is no consensus over its actual extent, and what is precisely fuelling it.
The government blames foreign preachers. The opposition blames Gayoom and the politics of control. Other analysts point to broader economic and sociological changes that may, or may not, prove reversible in the medium term.
While more women are undoubtedly wearing the veil, in Male’ and on smaller islands, it does not immediately follow that they are being systematically forced out of positions of prominence in society.
“We should first distinguish between women who are wearing the veil and those who are adopting the traditional middle eastern hijab,” says Attorney-General Hassan Saeed, whose book Freedom of Religion, Apostasy and Islam, published in 2004, calls for “absolute” freedom of religion to be permitted in modern Muslim societies and says punishments for apostasy should be discarded.
“And if you look at the number of women working in the professions and gaining a good education, then it’s hard to say that they are playing a lesser role in society,” Saeed argues.
But Saeed does accept there is a problem of “extremism” in some places.
When he points the finger at “foreigners”, I ask him who these people are and how many are operating in the country. The Maldives is too small a place for the government to claim ignorance.
But claim ignorance he does.
“We don’t know,” Saeed maintains. “We are investigating.”
He ascribes the rise of conservative Islam to the loosening of restrictions on freedom of expression after 2004.
While the ‘reform process’ was designed to encourage secular political participation, Saeed argues that the formation of the Islamic Democratic and Adhaalath parties helped to create a climate in which individuals are able to propagate alternative religious views.
“The Maldives was a very controlled society for a long time. We anticipated that the new situation would lead religious conservatism becoming an issue. Some people didn’t want to allow religious parties but I disapproved of that,” he added.
The Maldives may be a more pluralist society in 2006, but the government still retains considerable control over imams and preachers through the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs.
Many in the opposition think it inconceivable that Gayoom has not sanctioned the spread of more radical ideas.
Under Article 38 of the constitution, Gayoom is the ”supreme authority to propagate the tenets of Islam in the Maldives”.
Discussion of religious freedom is “vigorously denied and the few that dare to raise their voices are denounced and threatened”, the UN Special Rapporteur Asma Jahangir concluded after her visit in August.
She raised the cases of several Muslims imprisoned for preaching “unsanctioned doctrines”.
Dr. Saeed also admitted that under the new penal code, whipping for men and women caught drinking alcohol will be retained.
“There are some exceptional areas but, on the whole, if you look at the code, it is as if you are reading the American or British codes, and it is consistent with the principles of sharia’ law,” he said.
There is considerable evidence that President Gayoom is responsible for the trend, since he has long seen Islam as both a moral buttress for his personal authority and a useful tool of social control.
But what has been established by Gayoom has sometimes slipped beyond his direct control and caused acute international embarrassment.
Some of the 52 madrassas (Islamic schools), set up under the president’s patronage, have been linked to militant Islam in recent years.
A Maldivian idenitified as Ibrahim Fauzee appeared in the list of detainees held by the United States at its military base at Guantanmo Bay, Cuba. He was released in 2005 and has since returned home.
Just last week, Ali Jaleel, a rogue preacher accused of encouraging Maldivians to wage jihad abroad, was sentenced to two years’ house arrest by the criminal court in Male’.
He, and six others, were arrested in Colombo in April while attempting to board a flight to Qatar. Sri Lankan police accused them of intending to join “militant” groups in the Middle East.
No charges relating to that incident have yet been brought.
The government instead accused Jaleel of holding classes for a group of 10 students, during which he had “spread themes and ideas not approved by the council”, in particular “on the concept of jihad”.
Gayoom’s attempt to portray himself as “protector of Islam” in the Maldives, against unspecified foreign threats, has helped to create a paranoid atmosphere in which radical ideas have spread.
Conservative supporters of the government, particularly on isolated islands, often say that “Islam will only be safe with Gayoom” – testament to the president’s success in underming the Islamic credentials of the MDP.
But it will only be at the next parliamentary elections that the real strength of the Adaalath and Islamic Democratic parties will be tested.
The IDP has often been dismissed as a creature of Gayoom – but both it and Adhaalath have significant, though still decidedly minority, support.
One man in Thinadhoo began to explain to me why he didn’t support Gayoom. I expected the usual MDP litany of complaints about corruption and human rights abuses. But his priority was quite different.
“Gayoom is not a good Muslim,” the man said. “Because he doesn’t make his wife Nasreena wear the veil. That’s why I support the IDP.”
There may be more beards and veils on the streets but Dr. Saeed argues that among the majority of Maldivians there is stable support for moderate Islam.
The opposition MDP agrees.
“Maldivian society is avowedly Muslim, as this month’s Ramazan testifies, but we are inclusive and tolerant, too,” one official said.
Prominent human rights activist Jennifer Latheef told the Independent that the existence of luxurious holiday resorts was helping radicals recruiting on the islands.
“These teachers go to the women in the villages and say ‘your men are working at these hotels, surrounded by loose women and alcohol. If you want to save his soul and your marriage you must be virtuous – cover up, stay inside, and he will come back to you’,’’ she said.
“These women then come under tremendous peer pressure to conform.”
But there are broader socio-economic factors behind the trends, too.
Poverty and inertia on many islands, coupled with the erosion of indigenous culture, has lent Islam a central role in cultivating national identity and societal cohesion.
The ever-rising problem of drug addiction amongst young people has persuaded many anxious parents that the only protection lies in restricting social freedoms.
Dissatisfaction with the government has encouraged many to seek moral authority and welfare through the mosque, rather than the island office.
There has also undoubtedly been an attempt by some men to reassert control over women under the guise of religious doctrine.
And yet none of these explanations necessarily means that “extremism”, as opposed to the increasing popularity of moderate religious observance, will flourish.
An analyst criticized the Independent article for underestimating the ability of Maldivians to engage critically with their religious culture.
“The article makes a big mistake saying that 93% of Maldivians are illiterate and therefore vulnerable to charismatic preaching,” she told me. “The country is, in fact, 98% literate. We have problems with our schools system, certainly, but we are still a relatively very well-educated society.”
Moreover, 75% of the population is now under 35 years of age. The young, in Male’ especially, are unlikely to be seduced en masse by teachings that decry their social and economic freedoms.
Some observers think that conservative Islam is reaching its high-water mark now and will begin to decline once political change accelerates.
“Some people will choose a certain type of Islam, certainly. That will be the product of a more pluralist society. We are also currently living in a very polarized world where Muslims everywhere feel under threat,” another analyst in Male’ told me.
“But I think it very unlikely that a majority of young men and women here will be voting for very conservative parties after 2008. They are more interested in jobs and marriage and Hindi pop music than imposing restrictions on themselves.”
As Ramazan enters its third week, almost the entire population will be fasting, praying and continuing the hard grind of daily life: from shop-owners and taxi drivers in Male’, to fishermen and rope weavers on the most remote islands.
Islam remains a central part of Maldivian identity. It has been the archipelago’s good fortune to adapt the religion successfully to progressive attitudes towards women and indigenous cultural mores.
A radical fringe most definitely exists. It poses a challenge to liberals and moderate Islamists alike.
But that challenge can be a healthy one, if it forces political parties and religious leaders to work harder to tackle the roots of societal discontent and confidently reaffirm the rights of women.
Ultimately, of course, democratic transition will place the Maldives’ political and religious fate in the hands of tens of thousands of young men and women at the ballot box.
A healthy democratic polity, with pluralism supported by a strong majority, should ensure that the extremist “challenge” never becomes a “threat”.