The nascent multi-party democracy in the Maldives, which, like Saudi Arabia, claims to have a 100 percent Muslim population, has plunged the country into a political crisis that may help Islamist extremists to gain a foothold in this Indian Ocean archipelago.
The 300,000 citizens of the Maldives are all Sunni Muslims, but they practice Islam like Egyptians do—“pragmatic” Islam, as some Maldivians identify it. The former Maldivian president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled the nation with an iron fist for 30 years until 2008, kept religion and its institutions under his control. He was particularly known for his aversion to Wahhabism, a strict form of Islam known for insisting on adherence to “pure” Islam. However, he could not insulate the country against the wave of Islamism following the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Gaining strength quietly in some Maldivian islands over the years, homegrown extreme Islamists exploded a bomb in Malé, the capital, injuring 12 tourists, in 2007. Gayoom responded with a harsh crackdown on “unofficial” mosques and groups.
Terrorist groups from Pakistan were believed to have motivated Maldivian youth to launch the attack. In 2008 a strong people’s movement against Gayoom’s authoritarian regime led to the nation’s first multi-party presidential elections. A democracy activist known to be a liberal Muslim, Mohamed Nasheed, emerged as the winner, as he had promised major political reforms. With Nasheed’s victory, the cultural and religious atmosphere became more liberal. Mosques were given more freedom and preachers from abroad could now come for public meetings. A flip side of this freedom was that Wahhabism began to grow once again.
Many Maldivians today sport long beards and wear the outfits and skull caps that mark Wahhabi Muslims. Nasheed’s regime acknowledged the growth of extremism, but instead of using force, he sought to check it with counselling and rehabilitation programs. Nasheed’s liberal policies angered opposition parties, most of which are conservative. In 2009 the main opposition party led by Gayoom, the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP), won a majority in the parliamentary election (the Maldives follows the presidential system of governance) and took on the government by adopting a policy of noncooperation in parliament.
As a result, President Nasheed alleged helplessness in introducing reforms. The tussle between Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and the conservative DRP and its allies peaked in June 2010 over Education Minister Dr. Mustahafa Luthfee’s plan to make Islam and the national Dhivehi language optional in school curricula for senior students. This led to intensified conflict between the opposition and the MDP, with members of the former being arrested on allegedly trumped-up charges, as well as to an outbreak of violent street protests.
The peace talks between the government and the opposition—often mediated by the UN and Western diplomats—have virtually failed. While Nasheed may not find it too difficult to survive the clash, which may carry on until the next elections in 2013, the ensuing weak governance and policing can benefit the extremist groups that have long wanted to promote their ideology and recruit youth for their war against the West
— By Vishal Arora, a New Delhi, Indiabased freelance writer.