In recent weeks, it’s not images of pristine beaches and arcadian resorts off the Maldives coast that make it to the mainstream media. Rather, its riot police and angry demonstrators that have absorbed the attention of cameras in a polarized political climate, encapsulating the turmoil of an ongoing power struggle in this Indian ocean archipelago.
Mohammad Nasheed won the Presidency in Maldives’ first ever multi-party elections in 2008 after fighting Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s autocratic rule for decades, and often from the confines of a jail cell. In January this year, opposition Islamists called for a jihad against Nasheed and in February he offered up a public resignation, later comparing the nature of this forced act to a coup by the police and military. Last week, Nasheed was summoned to court for illegally having the chief justice arrested during his tenure as president, however, Nasheed refused to show up, citing the corruption of judges and courts under the new regime of Mohammad Waleed Hasan (his once deputy), as an appropriate reason. The struggle between the two factions is ongoing, and a key dispute revolves around radical Islamic roots being strengthened on the island, something Nasheed sought to dispel.
Mohammed Waheed Hassan, the current President, is said to call his supporters the “mujahideen” (holy warriors), and under the banner of Islam urged them to defend Maldives against “the enemies of this country”. While in power, Nasheed’s progressive and moderate policies were not always welcomed joyfully, however, without Nasheed in office, it seems the Maldives is more likely than ever to yield to extremist Islamic ideology.
The Adhaalath (justice) Party was part of an Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) run coalition under Nasheed, in October 2009 it criticized and contested the ex-President’s statement that the death penalty and punishment of amputation should not be incorporated into the penal code. The leader of the Adhaalath Party put it aptly: “Islamic Shariah is Islamic Shariah. Things cannot be omitted from it.”
In the last decade more women have started wearing head scarves and burqas, and an increasing number of young men can be found at local mosques. The thirty year stronghold of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was centered around creating a national identity for Maldivian’s, and the focal point of this identity was recognition of Islam and a promotion of a unified Muslim people. Mohammad Nasheed, back in 2008, stated that “there is a tendency to imitate foreign terror groups, even if there are no formal links.” The roots of the extremist violence that tarnished the Maldivian landscape in 2008 can be seen in both internationally an imported extremist ideology and homegrown radicalism, peaking before the advent of democracy with Mohammad Nasheed. An unstable political climate increases the threat of radicalism, and with accusations of the fostering of fundamentalism in the new regime by again promoting hardline Islamic ideals, Maldives has an uncertain and troubling future ahead.
Maldives’ strategic importance is highlighted by it’s location in the middle of major crude oil trade routes in the Indian Ocean. However, the resignation of Nasheed did not rattle the bones of any significant power, and with both the United States and India abstaining from any political or diplomatic interference, the two states were looked upon dejectedly by Maldivian liberals in their unwavering democratic cause. Nasheed, for one, was notably unhappy with the loss of support and said, “We did so much to make the Maldives more liberal. To suddenly see the United States, so quickly — they could have held onto their horses for a few minutes and just asked me — so quickly to have recognized the status quo, that was very sad and shocking.”
For several years, Maldives’s booming tourist industry has been threatened by environmental factors. Rising sea levels and global warming combined with the threat of radical Islam will be a strong deterrent for the many international tourists to visit the alluring beaches that have so warmly welcomed them in the past. Such a move could in turn strongly damage the Maldivian economy, which is heavily dependent on revenue from tourism.
With the next elections due to take place in 2013 and Mohammad Nasheed’s participation in doubt, does Maldives have the means to prevent fervent Islamic fundamentalism that is the spreading like a plague all over south Asia?
– Sameer Tayebaly