Maldives: Save island from fundamentalists

The Guardian
An Islamic scholar is facing flak for not wearing the right beard. We must not let Wahhabism suffocate this island nation's identity, writes Maryam Omidi, editor of Maldives-based website Minivan News.
On his recent visit to the Maldives, Salih Yucel, a Turkish Islamic scholar and lecturer at Monash University in Australia, was rejected by his fellow Muslims who deemed his beard too short and his trousers too long for him to be a bona fide Muslim. The response to the former imam came as no surprise, being symptomatic of the puritanical Wahhabism taking root in the Indian Ocean archipelago, a favourite haunt of honeymooners and A-list celebrities.
The country's legislative architecture entrenches this intolerance, in a constitution that recognises only Muslims as citizens and a Religious Unity Act that stringently demarcates the type of Islam to be practised. Nor are the country's non-Muslim expatriates, largely Buddhist Sri Lankans and Hindu Indians, permitted to practise their faiths in public as all places of worship apart from mosques are banned. The intolerance does not end here: for Wahhabis, even other Muslims, such as Shias and Sufis, are apostates.

The onset of Wahhabism in the country can be linked to a rise of the ultraconservative ideology in the region, above all in Pakistan, where many Maldivians travel for a free education at one of its madrasas. While the teachings at the vast majority of these institutions are benign, there are those, financed by Saudi Arabia, that serve as conduits for the Wahhabi ideology.

Wahhabism, a back to basics Islam, states adherents must follow the way of the Prophet Muhammad and his disciples to the letter. The result has been a doctrinaire outlook among devotees and a repudiation of the Maldives' historically moderate past.

As with other countries in the region such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, Islam in the Maldives was suffused with elements of Sufism; further, unique to the island nation are the influences absorbed from its Buddhist past. But today, a conflict between these traditions and calls for greater orthodoxy is palpable.

Many pin the upsurge in radicalism on former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, an Egyptian-educated scholar, who according to one journalist, brought Islam to the forefront of the nation's identity at the expense of other cultural attributes. The upshot has been the destruction of indigenous Islam in the Maldives and a cultural identity crisis.

The losers in this formerly matriarchal society have been women and girls. A groundswell of devotion over recent years has led to the number of headscarves worn soaring, though often through social pressure rather than piety.

More recently, families refusing to send their daughters to school or vaccinate their children, while uncommon, are beginning to worry the authorities. More alarming are reports about men keeping underage girls as concubines to have sex with when their wives are menstruating. Although yet to be verified, the reports have moved the Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed to call for an investigation. While the Ministry of Islamic Affairs denounced concubinage as un-Islamic, for many it was a nod to the practice of taking slave-girls as concubines during the prophet's time.

In July, I wrote an article about the gender disparity in issuing punishments for those convicted of premarital sex, for which the sentence under sharia law is 100 lashes. While pregnancy incriminates women, men deny their involvement in the act and get off scot-free. Latest statistics from 2006 revealed that out of 184 people sentenced to the punishment, 146 were women. The article and Amnesty International's consequent call for a moratorium on flogging led to protests demanding my deportation and the resignations of the foreign minister, an MP and the Maldivian high commissioner to the UK, all of whom I quoted in the article.

What the protests underscored was the absence of a public space for religious debate. While a predominantly moderate sentiment may still exist, the few bold enough to ask questions are labelled un-Islamic or worse still, intimidated into silence. A recent announcement by the minister of Islamic affairs that only scholars well-versed in the Qur'an should speak about religion affairs tightened the screws further.

The rise of Wahhabism is one of the many challenges the fledging democracy has to face. Although led by a young, liberal president, the coalition government's failure to encourage dialogue on religion has precluded the possibility of alternative narratives taking hold.

The government's ambitions to reappropriate its heritage through the restoration of its Buddhist sites and the introduction of Maldivian history in schools may be one antidote. Another lies in the country's largely young population. While outwardly at least devotion has rocketed, behind closed doors, many young people hunger for an Islamic reformation. The question is, who will dare to lead the way?

28 September

By Maryam Omidi

Source: The Guardian