By Sean Carey
Mention the Maldives to many Europeans and most of them will think of a string of paradise islands. Along with other countries in the Indian Ocean like Mauritius and the Seychelles, the Maldives is renowned as a honeymoon destination replete with 5-star hotels and luxury spas. In fact, like Mauritius and the Seychelles, the country derives most of its foreign currency from tourism.
Unlike secular Mauritius and the Seychelles, however, Islam is the official religion of the Maldives and public practice of other religions is forbidden. In order to exercise social and cultural control over relationships between the indigenous population and foreign visitors, authorities in the Maldives permit the development of tourist resorts on unpopulated parts of the territory, which consists of 1192 islands stretching 230 miles from south-west India. So far, this strategy has worked very well.
After 30 years of autocratic rule, the Republic of Maldives became a multi-party democracy in 2008, headed by President Mohamed Nasheed. The newly-elected leader has been praised by other members of the international community for his achievements, especially in creatively publicising the effects of climate change and rising sea levels on low-lying island states in the Indian Ocean and elsewhere.
The President has also indicated that he intends to open up the inhabited islands of the Maldives to tourists in order to attract more visitors from the new growth economies of China and elsewhere. “We’ve segregated ourselves in these little islands for too long,” he told foreign journalists last year. “The tourists don’t get to see the real Maldives and Maldivian culture. In the past there was a desire to segregate the Maldives from certain influences, but it also kept us from ideas and knowledge. Maldivians are Muslims but modern. The time has come to end the segregation from the outside world.”
Now comes the news that Reporters Without Borders new press freedom index 2011-2012 ranks the country, with a population of around 314,000, at 73 compared with its previous position of 51 in 2010. The reason for the drop? The NGO claims that the “rising climate of religious intolerance” in the country has had a significant impact on freedom of expression.
Like many other relatively closed societies that are opening up, the Maldives government, which is attempting to steer a middle course and maintain community cohesion, has found it hard to come to terms both with moderate and fundamentalist Islamic critics. Last September, in an attempt to wrong-foot opposition groups the Government issued new “religious unity” regulations, which prevents the media from producing programmes or disseminating unlicensed information that might be designed to “humiliate Allah or his prophets or the holy Quran or the Sunnah of the Prophet (Mohamed) or the Islamic faith.”
While this policy is relatively easy to enforce with traditional media like television, radio and newspapers, the Maldives, like all governments, has found new media platforms much harder to control. Nevertheless, in November, the Islamic Ministry ordered that the website of Ismail “Hilath” Rasheed, a moderate Sufi Muslim, be blocked on the grounds that it was a threat to the “Maldives’ young democracy.” On December 14, Rasheed was arrested and detained before being released on January 6 without charge after his involvement in a “silent protest” in the capital Male when he called for religious tolerance. The protest, designed to coincide with Human Rights Day on December 10, was deemed by the country’s police as “unconstitutional,” although Amnesty International was quick to make Rasheed a “prisoner of conscience.”
On January 20, the Maldives police arrested Sheik Imran, a prominent Muslim cleric and leader of the opposition conservative Justice Party. He had accused President Nasheed of encouraging “anti-Islamic waves” to the “shores” of the Maldives and called for the implementation of full Shari’a law. Interestingly, two days previously, the Maldives government issued a statement and warned foreign embassies that it was extremely concerned that “Islamic fundamentalism” could threaten the social fabric of the Sunni-dominated society, as well as the visitor economy, which contributes around 30 per cent or $1.5 billion to GDP.
On the page devoted to “culture” on the Maldives Tourism Board website – the country’s tagline is “Always Natural” — the final paragraph reads: “Maldivians are quite open to adaptation and are generally welcoming to outside inspiration. The culture has always continued to evolve with the times… Most Maldivians still want to believe in upholding unity and oneness in faith, but recent waves of reform in the country have created a whole new culture of new ideas and attitudes. The effects of the modern world are now embraced, while still striving to uphold the people’s identity, traditions and beliefs.”
The Maldives, like many societies organized on the basis of kinship and religious faith, is attempting to solve the conundrum of how to allow measured social and cultural change that maintains community cohesion and generates economic growth when many of the drivers for those changes — secular and religious ideologies — lie outside its borders and therefore beyond its control.
It’s a hard one to pull off.
Dr Sean Carey is research fellow in the School Social Sciences and visiting lecturer in the Business School, University of Roehampton
A version of this article has also appeared at anthropologyworks
* Published in print edition on 3 February 2012