Islamist politics rages in sun-kissed Maldives, India worried

Last Updated: Mon, Feb 13, 2012 12:00 hrs

New Delhi, Feb 13 (IANS) The dramatic transfer of power in the Maldives has ripped the mask off a placid tourist paradise with sun-drenched beaches and global jetsetters. Behind the veil is brewing a heady mix of Islamisation and politics that also has India worried.

"The Islamist parties stoked resentment against the Nasheed government and tried to discredit him as anti-Islamic. Islamists ganged up with the disgruntled sections of the police, the military and the opposition to engineer a coup," Ahmed Shaheed, Maldives former foreign minister and a key aide of Nasheed, told IANS over the phone from Male.

Ahmed Naseem, who succeeded Shaheed and was foreign minister till last week when Nasheed resigned amid a police mutiny, has also blamed the Islamists for the coup in the Maldives, a 100 percent Sunni Muslim nation. Naseem incurred the wrath of hardline opposition last year when he became the first senior Maldivian diplomat to visit Israel.

In fact, on the day Nasheed resigned amid a coup, a group of vandals destroyed priceless Buddhist statues and artefacts from the pre-Islamic era, considered idolatrous by hardline Islamic salafists, in the National Museum in the capital Male, an assault that was reminiscent of the the Afghan Taliban's destruction of priceless Buddha statues at Bamiyan in 2001.

In the weeks before opposition protests became more strident after the arrest of a judge at the behest of Nasheed, the tussle between the moderate, modernist Islam and the radical hardline version came to the fore when the Nasheed government was forced to order the closure of spas in hundreds of luxury resorts.

On Dec 30, a statement from the president's office said: "The government has decided to close massage parlours and spas in the Maldives, following an opposition-led religious protest last week calling for their closure."

The order followed concerted protests led by the opposition Adhaalat, or Justice Party, seen as an offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood movement, and several rag-tag groups that accused the Nasheed government of compromising Islamic principles and wanted a strict adherence to strict Islamic law. The protests are now referred to as the 'Dec 23 revolt'.

In fact, the protesters demanded prohibition of the sale of alcohol in the island resorts and shut down of massage parlours which they accused were a front for prostitution. Alcohol is forbidden in the capital Male but is available at the luxury island resorts catering to upmarket tourists.

Calling for a return to conservative Islam, the protesters had also demanded demolition of monuments gifted by other South Asian countries at the 17th SAARC summit in Addu island.

It's not clear how the new dispensation led by Mohammed Waheed Hassan will shape up and what role the Islamists will get to play in the new power structure or the new national government of unity.

For now, it appears that the Islamists will wield considerable clout. Mohamed Jameel, the newly appointed home minister who had gone to a religious high school in Pakistan, is known to have a hardline Islamist posture. Last month, his party issued a pamphlet claiming that empty bottles of alcohol were found in the presidential offices and accused the government of planning to sell land to Israel. Many of seven new cabinet members announced the new president are known to have pro-Islamist sympathies.

"Islamist organisations and Islamist media outlets have proliferated in the public sphere. Their influence in the political society and the state has increased," said Azim Zahir, a Maldivian analyst.

The trend towards Islamisation in the Maldives, located strategically at the crossroads of vital sea lanes of communication, has India worried as it fears that if it is not checked the island nation could become a staging post for radical extremists.

What had added to New Delhi's anxiety is that many Maldivians have for the past few years been going to madrassas (traditional seminaries) in Pakistan and then return as radicals. In 2010, nine Maldivians were arrested in Pakistan's South Waziristan where they were training with al-Qaeda and Taliban elements.

In the only terror attack on Maldivian soil in 2007 when 12 tourists were injured in a blast in central Male, the masterminds are said to have escaped to Pakistan.

India is closely watching the unfolding situation and is buttressing its intelligence gathering to ensure that the country does not slip into the trap of fundamentalists.

(Manish Chand can be contacted at

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