The perils of rising religious fundamentalism in the Maldives

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In recent months several newspapers, blogs and academic outlets have highlighted the tumultuous domestic skirmish between Nasheed and Waheed in the Maldives as well as the strategic balancing act of the Archipelago State between India and China. Surprisingly however the troubling rise of religious fundamentalism within the Maldives has not fully moved into the limelight of international media and organizations. This is especially astonishing, because the battle between moderate and extremist forces within the country not only has a strong impact on the upcoming elections in September but also on civil society as a whole. Islam, which only decades ago did not play a major role within the public sociopolitical sphere, has turned into a divisive “game changer”. Moderate, peaceful and inclusive forms of religious expression are being violently pushed aside by adherents of fundamentalism.

On April 19th a protest movement aimed at implementing Sharia as the sole source of legal guidance within the archipelago state manifested itself as hundreds of men and women took to the street calling for the full enactment of Islamic Sharia. Today the judiciary of the island state under article 142 of the constitution is required to turn to Sharia regarding matters where codified law is silent. Since judicial competency is at best inadequate, and judges in the past have predominantly been chosen along party affiliation and not expertise, they have become easy targets for forces within the country advocating a hard-line implementation of Sharia. Australia and India have offered assistance in form of legal training, but more needs to be done to ensure the establishment of an unbiased, independent judiciary. One crucial step in the right direction would be a full-fledged translation of legal texts and documents from English into Dhivehi, the national language of the Maldives. If the judiciary remains incapable of fulfilling its role within the state, principles of good governance and democratic values will continue to suffer from erosion. In addition, changes to the constitution should be made, if the Maldives wants to be regarded as a pluralistic and liberal society. Under the current constitution non-Muslims are not allowed to become citizens which is a strong violation of article 18 of the Human Rights Charter (Right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion). Furthermore, the line between codified law and Sharia is becoming increasingly blurry. On March 28th the parliament drafted a penal code bill which includes “Hudud” punishments, such as amputation for theft or flogging for fornication.

The danger of radicalization is not a mere “de jure” threat. There have been several examples in the past months which exemplify a rise in extremist attitudes and actions. Maybe the most shocking incidence occurred in February of this year when a 15 year old traumatized teenage girl, who was raped several times by her stepfather, was sentenced to 100 lashes for having engaged in pre-marital sex and fornication. Although President Mohammed Waheed condemned the sentence saying that the country had to “set up a commission” and that this “case should not have come to the courts at all”, these statements seem shady. Waheed’s comments are not in line with his decision to form a coalition with the “Adhaalath Party”(Justice Party), which backed the flogging, saying “the purpose of penalties like these in Islamic Sharia is to maintain order in society and to save it from sinful acts. We must turn a deaf ear to the international organization which are calling to abolish these penalties”. The “Adhaalath Party” is one of the major forces actively lobbying for a rigid and strict implementation of Sharia. The key proponent for more austere religious practices is the current Minister of Islamic Affairs, Shaykh Shaheem Ali Saeed, who has been quoted saying that music and singing are “haram” (forbidden) and that Christians on the island who he calls “freemasons” are “out to wipe out Islam from the Island”. Another troubling phenomenon is the education of many young Maldivians in madrasas abroad, especially in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Students who unknowingly attended more radical madrasas often return home to the Maldives, expressing their newly acquired fundamentalist views. Many link this new strand of radicalization to the increasing degradation of women, who in some cases are told to stay home and drop out of the labor market. The International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics voiced their concern in November 2011 over potential female genital mutilation occurring in the Maldives.

Democracy is above all the constructive interaction between differently minded sections of society. If certain opinions or beliefs are aggressively suppressed, and individuals or interest groups have to fear persecution and punishment for their views, democratic and pluralistic values cannot flourish. If instilling terror becomes an accepted “modus operandi” in everyday Maldivian politics and political forces turn a blind eye or even encourage discriminatory atrocities, the young democracy will not make it out of adolescence.

This article was first published in “Think South Asia”, Nr. 9, the monthly Bulletin of the “South Asia Democratic Forum” (SADF)

Photo credit: Seattlepi.com

About Author

Djan Sauerborn

Djan Sauerborn is editor at the International Security Observer. Djan is a Policy Advisor at the Brussels based "South Asia Democratic Forum" as well as the Editor in Chief of the monthly bulletin "Think South Asia". He has a background in Political Science and Anthropology. His main focus areas are: democratization, fundamentalism and civil-military relations. He is a German and English native speaker and is also fluent in French.

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