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Maldives Sees Islamist Resurgence

WASHINGTON, Jun 27 2012 (IPS) - Former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed expressed concerns Monday about the state of democracy in his home country, noting the dividing effect of a rising tide of Islamist extremism.

In the midst of a tour of the United States – which includes an award from the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict – Nasheed, speaking at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP), said, “People don’t want radical Islam to take over.”

Indeed, Sharia law, a source of dispute between Islamic fundamentalists and modernists over its modern-day implementation in the Maldives, serves as a supplement to Maldivian jurisprudence.

According to the country’s constitution, citizens are not allowed to engage in actions at odds with Sharia law, and judges must be “educated in Islamic sharia or law”.

According to the Pew Research Center, there were 309,000 Muslims in Maldives in 2010, a number that it projected to grow to 396,000 by 2030. According to the 2008 Maldivian constitution – the 13th in the country’s history – a non-Muslim is not allowed to become a Maldivian citizen, unless already a citizen.

At a press conference in New Delhi in April, Nasheed was even more forthcoming about what he perceives as a threat. “There are radical elements within the military and within the cabinet,” he said.

“These Islamist groups want to have a better hold on society, because they have found an inroad into power through the current government.”

In February, Nasheed was ousted from power in a coup d’état, replaced by his Vice President Mohammed Waheed Hassan. Conflicting reports have said that Nasheed stepped down peacefully or was forced out at gunpoint, by forces loyal to Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom or Hassan.

Nasheed had been president for four years, having taken over for the third president, Gayoom, following years of civil unrest. Gayoom was voted out of office in 2008, following 30 years as an autocratic ruler of Maldives.

One of his biggest critics was Nasheed, a journalist by trade, who, in a 1990 article in the political magazine Sangu, alleged that the previous year’s elections had been rigged.

Following the publication of the article, Nasheed was allegedly tortured twice, placed in solitary confinement for 18 months and has been detained more than a dozen times between 1989 and 2005. In the process, he has earned himself the moniker of the “Mandela of the Maldives”.

At the heart of the struggle between the two major political parties, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), Nasheed’s party, and the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM), Gayoom’s party, is a tussle over the role of Islam in newly minted democratic state. Religious tensions have often been at the root of politics in the Maldives, which has seen significant push and pull between secularism and fundamentalism.

In the aftermath, some officials and Nasheed himself pointed out that his more secularist views, including an attempt to have a school curriculum and law system based not solely on Sharia, might have led to small but powerful factions calling for his political demise.

The founder of the MDP, Mohamed Latheef, pinned a rise in extremism on Gayoom, saying that he had perpetrated the upsurge. “He is the person who brought Islamic fundamentalism into the country. Before he came into power, there weren’t all these madrassas exposing extremist forms of Islam at all,” he says.

“Now he has been using Islam as a tool of governance.”

Meanwhile, Gayoom and his supporters accused the Nasheed government throughout his presidency of being guilty of cooperating with Christian missionaries and Jewish parties, in an effort to “wipe out Islam” from the Maldives, according to the Minivan News.

One of the first signs of the growth of Islamic fanaticism in Maldives was when a Maldivian man named Ibrahim Fauzee was arrested in Karachi, Pakistan, in 2002. He was arrested for alleged links to Al-Qaeda and was taken to Guantanamo Bay, though he was released several years later.

Since then, Maldivian society at large has reportedly become increasingly restrictive.

In 2006, when the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief, Asma Jahangir, visiting a Maldives still under the rule of Gayoom, she stated that religious freedom was being “vigorously denied, and the few that dare to raise their voices are denounced and threatened”.

In December 2011, Ismail Rasheed, a Maldivian journalist, organised and took part in a demonstration in the Maldivian capital of Malé, calling for religious tolerance. He was subsequently arrested for his “involvement in an unlawful assembly”, according to the Maldivian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Watchdog groups around the world responded loudly to Rasheed’s detention. Amnesty International named the journalist a prisoner of conscience. Reporters Without Borders noted, “Religion is becoming a taboo subject in the Maldives and media workers are under threat of imprisonment every time it is debated.”

Earlier this month, Rasheed was nearly killed after he was throat was slit, barely missing a major artery. Reporters Without Borders, stating that Rasheed has made many enemies with his confrontational blogging, claimed that that it “has all the hallmarks of a targeted murder attempt”.

Nasheed’s ascension to power, a peaceful precursor to the Arab Spring, was viewed as a major step towards freedom of speech and religion, given his background as a journalist. However, it has taken a hit in recent months.

As political turmoil ensued in February following the ousting of Nasheed, a half-dozen men entered the Maldives National Museum and destroyed Buddhist artifacts, including a large depiction of the Buddha’s head, one of the few remnants of what once was a predominant Buddhist culture on the island centuries ago.

Ali Waheed, the director of the National Museum, however, bemoaned the demolition of the culturally and historically significant artifacts. “The collection was totally, totally smashed,” Waheed said. “The whole pre-Islamic history is gone.”

Officials claimed that the men attacked the figures because they viewed the sculptures as idols, thus illegal under sharia and national law.

While the situation in the Maldives mirrors the situation in Arab Spring, with the overthrow of a dictator, the vandalism of major museums and the attacks on journalists, Nasheed sees it as an opportunity.

“I feel that what has happened in the Maldives,” Nasheed said at the USIP, “would help us in trying to understand what might happen in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Libya, in Syria and so on.”

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