Whose Islam?: Religion and Identity Politics in the Maldives

May 30, 2010


What price democracy without religious freedom? Religious extremism raises fundamental political questions for newly democratized Maldives.


The prospect of Jihadi groups gaining ground in the Maldives has been flagged for a long time as a potential source of insecurity in the Indian Ocean region. Its archipelagic nature makes monitoring activities in the outer islands challenging, and there has been a history of using them as a staging ground for illegal activities. (See for instance the section on the Maldives in my chapter, “South Asia’s Small States in World Politics,” in South Asia in World Politics, edited by Devin Hagerty, Rowman and Littlefield, 2005.)

In this blog, we have pointed on at least two occasions to this concern. The first was in the context of an interview by the Maldivian president during which he spoke of Maldivians being involved in the 26/11 conspiracy.    The second was a link to a report on jihadi recruitment in the Maldives.

For Maldivians though, this is a secondary concern. Jihadi activity is only one by-product of rising religious extremism.

Islam came to the Maldives in the twelfth century and its advent forms part of the founding myth of Maldivian society. Islam in the Maldives has traditionally been very liberal and open, and this was especially evident in the freedoms that women enjoyed.

In the later years of the Gayoom regime, the government used support to Islamic preachers and madrasas as one way of repressing the nascent movement for democratization. It also made an issue of Christian missionary activity in the islands, accusing some pro-democracy aid organizations of the same as a way to stop them.

Democracy has, as it will, let the genie completely out of the bottle. The Adaalath Party is part of the ruling coalition and holds the Islamic Affairs portfolio. Adaalath favours Islamicization and holds conservative views on gender issues, opposing for instance, the eligibility of women to contest Presidential elections. But compared to the Jamiyyathul Salaf, their politics are mainstream. The Jamiyyathul Salaf propagates an ultra-conservative Islam and in tandem, these forces inside and outside government are attempting to change the nature of Maldivian society. You might say that the processes, practices and exigencies of democratic politics are undermining the bases of liberal society.

Sudha Ramachandran, Maldives faces up to extremism, Asia Times, November 11, 2009.

The Ministry of Islamic Affairs has regularly invited foreign scholars, preachers and tele-evangelists to the Maldives to address large and small groups on religious matters. This week, Mumbai-based Dr. Zakir Naik visited the Maldives, close on the heels of Dr. Bilal Philips from Qatar.

JJ Robinson, “Feminist group launches letter writing campaign against sponsors of Dr Bilal Philips event,” Minivan News, May 27, 2010.
Aishath Aniya, Comment: An evening with Mrs. Naik, Minivan News, May 29, 2010.

The ideas and interpretations they espouse, with great publicity, are a source of profound anxiety to the very young, liberal, educated Maldivians who now occupy important positions in state and civil society. At a recent conference on the Maldives, for instance, participants spoke about cabdrivers playing propaganda tapes about veiling when ferrying unveiled women around Malé. The question they ask, within and outside their country, in conferences and social media: What price democracy without religious freedom? This is not a question to which their high-profile, activist President Nasheed has provided the unequivocal answer that they want to hear.

In the Maldives, religious freedom is closely tied in with citizenship. The constitution explicitly states that “a non-Muslim may not become a citizen of the Maldives.” The idea that the Maldives is 100% Muslim is also interpreted to suggest that those who are not Muslim cannot be Maldivian. The propagation of increasingly conservative interpretations of Islam are seen not just as changing Maldivian society and especially the rights of Maldivian women, but also as potentially limiting the civil liberties, even human rights of Maldivians generally.

Hilath Rasheed, “Zakir Naik will turn Maldivian against Maldivian – VIDEO,” Hilath Online,  May 26, 2010.
Dr. Zakir Naik and Nazim,” Dhivehimedia, May 29, 2010.

Climate change and rising sea-levels many not be the only threat of extinction that Maldivians are battling. Moreover, just as the Internet provided the easy rallying grounds for the pro-democracy activists, so will it do for this first-order debate about the nature of Maldivian society.