Prospects of Religious Freedom Appear Grim in Islamic Maldives


Two years after political reforms, freedom of faith nowhere in sight.

MALÉ, Maldives, August 10 (CDN) — Visitors to this Islamic island nation get a sense of religious restrictions even before they arrive. The arrival-departure cards given to arriving airline passengers carry a list of items prohibited under Maldivian laws – including “materials contrary to Islam.”

After Saudi Arabia, the Maldives is the only nation that claims a 100-percent Muslim population. The more than 300,000 people in the Maldives, an Indian Ocean archipelago featuring 1,192 islets 435 miles southwest of Sri Lanka, are all Sunnis.

This South Asian nation, however, has more than 70,000 expatriate workers representing several non-Islamic religions, including Christianity.

Also, around 60,000 tourists, mainly from Europe, visit each year to enjoy the blue ocean and white beaches and normally head straight to one of the holiday resorts built on around 45 islands exclusively meant for tourism. Tourists are rarely taken to the other 200 inhabited islands where locals live.

Nearly one-third of the population lives in the capital city of Malé, the only island where tourists and Maldivians meet.

While the Maldivians do not have a choice to convert out of Islam or to become openly atheist, foreigners in the country can practice their religion only privately.

In previous years several Christian expats have either been arrested for attending worship in private homes or denied visas for several months or years on suspicion of being connected with mission agencies.

According to “liberal estimates,” the number of Maldivian Christians or seekers “cannot be more than 15,” said one source.

“Even if you engage any Maldivian in a discussion on Christianity and the person reports it to authorities, you can be in trouble,” the source said. “A Maldivian youth studying in Sri Lanka became a Christian recently, but when his parents came to know about it, they took him away. We have not heard from him since then.”

The source added that such instances are not uncommon in the Maldives.

“I wish I could attend church, but I am too scared to look for one,” said a European expat worker. “I have not even brought my Bible here; I read it online. I don’t want to take any chances.”

The British reportedly translated the Bible into the local language, Dhivehi, and made it available in the 19th century, as the Maldives was a British protectorate from 1887 to 1965. Today no one knows how the Dhivehi Bible “disappeared.”

“A new translation has been underway for years, and it is in no way near completion,” said the source who requested anonymity.

 

Religion Excluded from Rights

The 2008 constitution, adopted five years after a popular movement for human rights began, states that a “non-Muslim may not become a citizen of the Maldives.”

Abdulla Yameen, brother of the former dictator of the Maldives and leader of the People’s Alliance party, an ally of the opposition Dhivehi Raiyyathunge Party (Maldivian People’s Party or DRP), told Compass that the issue of religious freedom was “insignificant” for the Maldives.

“There’s no demand for it from the public,” Yameen said. “If you take a public poll, 99 percent of the citizens will say ‘no’ to religious freedom.”

Maldivians are passionate about their religion, Yameen added, referring to a recent incident in which a 37-year-old Maldivian citizen, Mohamed Nazim, was attacked after he told a gathering that he was not a Muslim. On May 28, before a crowd of around 11,000 Maldivians, Nazim told a visiting Indian Muslim televangelist, Zakir Naik, that although he was born to a practicing Muslim family, he was “struggling to believe in religions.”

He also asked Naik about his “verdict on Islam.” The question enraged an angry crowd, with many calling for Nazim’s death while others beat him. He received several minor injuries before police took him away.

“See how the public went after his [Nazim’s] throat,” said Yameen, who studied at Claremont Graduate University in California. When asked if such passion was good for a society, he replied, “Yes. We are an Islamic nation, and our religion is an important part of our collective identity.”

Asked if individuals had no rights, his terse answer was “No.” Told it was shocking to hear his views, he said, “We are also shocked when a nation legalizes gay sex.”

Mohamed Zahid, vice president of the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives, told Compass that the country has its own definition of human rights.

“It is to protect people’s rights under the sharia [Islamic law] and other international conventions with the exception of religious freedom,” he said. “We are a sovereign nation, and we follow our own constitution.”

Zahid and several other local sources told Compass that the issue of religious rights was “irrelevant” for Maldivians. “Not more than 100 people in the country want religious freedom,” Zahid said.

 

Politics of Religion

Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, a virtual dictator for 30 years until 2008, is generally held responsible for creating an atmosphere of religious restrictions in the Maldives, as he sought to homogenize religion in the country by introducing the state version of Sunni Islam. He also led a major crackdown on Christians.

The Protection of Religious Unity Act, enacted in 1994, was an endeavor to tighten the government’s control over mosques and all other Islamic institutions. The Gayoom administration even wrote Friday sermons to be delivered in mosques.

In 1998, Gayoom began a crackdown on alleged missionary activities.

“A radio station based out of India used to air Christian programs via the Seychelles, but the government came to know about it and ensured that they were discontinued with the help of the government in the Seychelles,” said a local Muslim source.

That year, Gayoom reportedly arrested around 50 Maldivians who were suspected to have converted to Christianity and deported 19 foreign workers accused of doing missionary work. A source said Gayoom apparently wanted to regain popularity at a time when his leadership was being questioned.

When the archipelago became a multi-party democracy in October 2008, new President Mohamed Nasheed, a former journalist and activist, was expected to pursue a liberal policy as part of the country’s reforms agenda.

Although Nasheed is the president, his party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), has only 28 members and the support of four independents in the 77-member People’s Majlis (Maldives’ unicameral Parliament). Gayoom, now in his 70s and the leader of the largest opposition party, the DRP, has a simple majority – which presents difficulties in governance. Nasheed pleads helplessness in implementing reforms, citing an intransigent opposition.

Today Gayoom’s party accuses President Nasheed of not being able to protect the country’s distinct identity and culture, which the opposition says are rooted in Islam. The Gayoom-led parliament recently sought to impeach the education minister for proposing to make Islam and Dhivehi lessons optional – rather than mandatory – in high school.

To pre-empt the impeachment move, the whole cabinet of Nasheed resigned on June 29, which caused a major political crisis that led to violent street protests. The Nasheed administration allegedly arrested some opposition members, including Gayoom’s brother, Yameen. Political tensions and uncertainties continued at press time.

Now that President Nasheed’s popularity is declining – due to perceptions that he has become as authoritarian as his predecessor – it is feared that, amid immense pressure by the opposition to follow conservative policies, he might begin to follow in Gayoom’s footsteps.

 

Growing Extremism

Both the ruling and opposition parties admit that Islamic extremism has grown in the country. In October 2007, a group of young Maldivians engaged government security forces in a fierce shootout on Himandhoo Island.

Nasheed’s party alleges that Gayoom’s policy of promoting the state version of Sunni Islam created an interest to discern “true Islam,” with extremists from Pakistan stepping in to introduce “jihadism” in the Maldives. The DRP, on the other hand, says that behind the growth of extremism is the current government’s liberal policy of allowing Muslims of different sects to visit the Maldives to preach and give lectures, including the conservative Sunni sect of “Wahhabis.”

Until the early 1990s, Maldivian women would hardly wear the black burqa (covering the entire body, except the eyes and hands), and no men would sport a long beard – outward marks of Wahhabi Muslims, said the Muslim source, adding that “today the practice has become common.”

Still, Islam as practiced in the Maldives is pragmatic and unlike that of Saudi Arabia, he said. “People here are liberal and open-minded.”

As extremism grows, though, it is feared that radical Islamists may go to any extent to extra-judicially punish anyone suspected of being a missionary or having converted away from Islam, and that they can pressure the government to remain indifferent to religious freedom.

How long will it take for the Maldives to allow religious freedom?

“Maybe after the Maldivian government legalizes gay sex,” the Muslim source joked.

Report from Compass Direct News

PAKISTAN: TALIBAN BOMBS CATHOLIC GIRLS’ HIGH SCHOOL


Blast claims no victims but reflects radical Islam’s tightened grip.

ISTANBUL, October 14 (Compass Direct News) – Taliban militants bombed a Catholic-run girls’ school in Pakistan’s war-torn Swat Valley as part of a larger effort to subvert women’s status in society through Islamic law, locals say.

On Wednesday (Oct. 8) the Islamic terrorist group bombed the Convent Girls’ School in Sangota, run by the Presentation Sisters, a Catholic religious order that has opened girls’ schools around the world. Militants have threatened the school frequently for offering education to females.

No one was injured in the attack. The school had closed a few months earlier due to deteriorating security in Swat, a source told Compass. Students and faculty left in July following threats.

“The Taliban said, ‘We have asked you so many times to close down the school but you are not listening. We are going to set it on fire,’” said Yousef Benjamin, a Lahore-based peace activist.

Militants had already attacked or blown up and forced the closure of many girls’ schools in Swat, said Cecil Chaudhry, executive secretary of All Pakistan Minorities Alliance. They told the nuns they would destroy their school if it weren’t closed. Following the bombing the militants ransacked the school’s adjoining convent.

The high school enrolled approximately 1,000 female students, nearly 95 percent of them Muslim.

The Santoga school has faced threats from Islamic extremists before. It closed its doors in September 2007 after received a threatening letter from extremists that demanded all teachers and female students wear the burqa. The letter claimed the faculty was working to convert Muslim students to Christianity.

The Taliban has not singled out the school for its Christian ties but instead wants to clamp down on all girls’ schools, which they believe encourage female participation in society, government officials claim.

In the last two years it has indiscriminately targeted more than 150 public and private girls’ schools in northwest Pakistan.

“For them it doesn’t matter if it’s a Christian school, government school or a private school,” Benjamin said. “Last week I was in [the northern city of] Peshawer and the Taliban told women to not even go to the market.”

The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1994 to 2001. They severely curtailed women’s rights, barring females from education, employment or traveling outside of their homes without a male relative.

“A few years ago the Taliban government in Afghanistan did not even allow women to be seen outside their houses, and that’s the version of Islam the Taliban promotes,” Chaudhry said.

Located near the Afghanistan border, Swat has been a flash point between the country’s security forces and Islamic militants. The area used to be a thriving tourist haven with hotels and a ski resort but came under complete control of Taliban militants in September 2007.

Government security forces cleared out the Taliban from the valley in recent months, but the area came under their control once again three weeks ago.

With their re-asserted control, the Taliban has forced all Swat residents to live according to their strict lifestyle guidelines, whether Muslim or Christian.

Men have grown beards and adopted Islamic dress. Women are required to wear burqas and sit in the back seat of their own vehicles. Advertisements cannot feature pictures of women.

“The Taliban wants to create a culture of terror, insecurity and they want to impose a self-created system of sharia [Islamic law] inspired by the system in Afghanistan,” said Shabhaz Bhatti, a National Assembly member from the Punjab province and chairman of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance.

The 70 or so Christian families scattered in the valley occupy the lower class, working as laborers and street sweepers.

Since July 2007, militants and followers of Muslim cleric Maulana Fazlullah have pressured the tiny community of Christians to accept Islamic law.

 

Political Motives

Islamic militants have stepped up attacks across Pakistan in recent weeks. Last Thursday (Oct. 9) a suicide bomber injured eight people in an attack on an Islamabad police station. In September another suicide bomber killed 50 people at the Marriott Hotel.

Motivations for the surge in attacks could be political as well as religious. Pakistani forces have been cracking down on militants in the nation’s tribal areas as the government has resolved to fight domestic terrorism.

The Pakistani military launched a three-week-long air strike operation in Afghanistan in August and killed more than 400 Taliban militants. Pakistan declared a cease-fire in September during Ramadan.

The militant attacks could also be in retaliation to recent U.S. bombings against Taliban targets within Pakistan, a source told Compass.

Inter-Services Intelligence Director Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha told Pakistan’s parliament on Wednesday (Oct. 8) that the Taliban had gained complete control over certain districts of the country. The military has attempted to regain control in a bitter struggle that has claimed the lives of 1,368 troops since 2001, according to the Pakistani Daily Times.

While Christians are worried about their safety, they stress that the Taliban is a threat to all Pakistanis, regardless of religion.

They urged fellow Christians to pray for the surging violence within the country to ebb.

“We ask a special prayer for peace in our country and that the terrorist elements who believe in violence would not succeed in killing innocent people,” Bhatti said. “Pray for Pakistani Christians – may God protect them and give them courage to remain strong in their faith and witness.”

Report from Compass Direct News