The Silk Highway

Beatings, jail sentences, cultural vandalism, terrorism… Mariyam Imad searches for the roots of the religious intolerance that is gripping her homeland.

For eight hundred years, the Maldives has been a devout, yet moderate Muslim state. Its citizens have worn colorful clothing, welcomed foreigners and peacefully progressed towards independence and democracy. But the tolerance and respect which once characterized these tropical islands are rapidly shifting towards religious extremism.

In 2007, the country suffered its first terrorist attack. The jihadists were Maldivian citizens who targeted “infidel” tourists. Although the Maldivian government condemned this particular act, it has encouraged other steps towards Islamic radicalization. Only a year later, the constitution was amended to include adherence to Islam as a legal requirement for citizenship. As Shari’ah constitutes the basis of the country’s legal code, non-Muslims in the Maldives are marginalized, homosexuality remains illegal, and women’s rights have lagged far behind other areas of reform. Earlier this year, the international community had to intervene to prevent the flogging of a 15 year old girl which had been charged with pre-marital fornication for having been raped by her step-father. Although the country’s politics are arguably opening up, there is no telling how the country will react to the outcome of the elections in two weeks’ time. Many Maldivians are in search of stability – and Islam has provided their countrymen with a safe haven for close to a millennium. It is no surprise that they turn to it in hours of need.

But the kind of Islam which Maldivians turn to reflects a trend across the Muslim world. Many Maldivians now have access to television and the internet. They feel a sense of kinship with Islamic states – and may share resentment regarding the corruption of Muslim values, or the military and economic excesses of the West. Increasingly influential foreign benefactors are also endorsing more radical strands of Islam through charitable work in the Maldives. Saudi and Pakistani funds have made schools, mosques and university grants available to Maldivian citizens, exposing them to more radical interpretations of familiar texts. The votes collected by the most extreme parties suggest that Islamic fundamentalists represent only a minority of the Maldivian population – but an intimidating minority nonetheless.

A stable and moderate Muslim state at the heart of the Indian Ocean would prove a welcome ally in defusing regional tensions. It would build a precedent for tolerance, lending Maldivian politicians the credentials to mediate between secular and Muslim countries in Asia. The choice of how to interpret the Quran belongs in the ballots of the Maldivian people. But the European Union can remind them of the prospects lying beyond their islands. Peace and trade have built the wealth and freedom which the Maldivian people value so dearly. It would be wrong to mistake their current dismay at new predicaments with disloyalty towards liberal reform. These are hard times in the Maldives and neighborly patience and understanding may, in the long term, be the key to a softer strand of Islam and a more stable region.

Read more on the religious intolerance in the Maldives.

Mariyad Iman

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