By: WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal
MALDIVES: HOPE IS BORN
- the struggle for liberty is just beginning.
Five hundred kilometres south-west of the southern-most tip of India is a
series of coral atolls. Looking like a patch of emerald sequins, the Republic
of Maldives stretches 885km across the Indian Ocean. It might look
extravagantly beautiful, but the Republic of Maldives has long been one of the
world's most repressive Islamic police states. This name synonymous with
luxury and elite tourism is also synonymous with totalitarian dictatorship and
violent political and religious repression involving gross human rights abuses.
This longer posting concerns the issue of reform in Maldives. In 2004, to
placate swelling domestic and international opposition, President Gayoom
started a reform program that he didn't actually want and has been working
hard ever since to obstruct and circumvent. But while Gayoom has been quite
successful at delivering reform that is still-born, the promise of reform has
given birth to real hope with real life, and a new hope for a 'New Maldives'
is rising. Gayoom may have won this round, but it is clear that this new hope
and life has a momentum and determination that will not be stopped.
RELIGIOUS REPRESSION IN MALDIVES
Some dozens of Maldivians became Christians through the late 1980s and 1990s
after Christian literature and gospel radio became available in the national
language, Dhivehi. Even though these believers were ostracised and persecuted
for their faith, they treasured the gospel radio broadcasts from Seychelles
and were prepared to risk much to hear the gospel teachings and possess the
newly published Dhivehi language gospels which had been smuggled in for the
In June 1998, up to 50 local Christians were arrested, imprisoned and tortured
in the notorious political prison of Dhoonidhoo, a tiny island close to the
capital of Male. Up to 25 foreign workers were detained and their possessions
confiscated before they were expelled from the country on allegations of
missionary activity. The Maldivians were arrested for being Christians and
while in prison they were under intense pressure to participate in Islamic
rituals and return to Islam. As a result of loud international protest, the
Christian prisoners were released in November that year.
After a prisoner was tortured to death in September 2003, domestic and
international outrage swelled to a crescendo. President Gayoom placated the
mounting opposition by promising to create and implement a reform agenda. The
reforms that Gayoom put forward in June 2004 were radical. He promised changes
to the constitution that would limit presidential powers, permit political
parties, separate the powers of the executive from the judiciary, introduce
the office of Prime Minister and increase liberties. (Link 1)
However it took Gayoom less than two months to renege. On Thursday 12 August
2004, around 5000 pro-democracy supporters filled the streets of Male calling
on the government to release five pro-democracy activists who had been
arrested on 9 August. They also called for the resignation of the
anti-democracy hardliners in Gayoom's government. The protesters gathered in
Republican Square for a night vigil which continued with speeches into the
Friday. The government's response to this was a violent crackdown both on the
streets and through door-to-door round-ups. Members and supporters of the
Maldivian Democracy Party (MDP) were savagely beaten and around 90 were
arrested. A state of emergency was declared. In many ways it was Male's
"Tiananmen Square". (For background see South Asia Analysis Group, paper 1086,
But Gayoom was advancing some reform. He was engaged in the process of legal
reform and was preparing to formulate "the world's first criminal code of
modern format that is based upon the principles of Shari'a". Daniel Pipes
noted at the time that Gayoom was being assisted in this project by American
legal experts and academics from the University of Pennsylvania Law School who
were convinced that the Sharia promotes social justice. Pipes, who was
horrified, protested: "The Shari'a needs to be rejected as a state law code,
not made prettier." (Link 3)
The December 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami devastated Maldives and forced President
Gayoom to re-address the issues of openness and reform for the purpose of
reconstruction. But it has been more than three years since reforms were first
promised and nothing has changed. Or has it?
On 18 August 2007, Maldivians turned out for their chance to choose what style
of government they would prefer: a US-style Presidential system or a
British-style Parliamentary system. A new constitution will be drafted by
November and elections will be held in 2008.
In many ways the referendum was a vote on the popularity (or otherwise) of
Gayoom. Gayoom, who monopolised the media during the campaign period, was of
course advocating a strong presidency, while the opposition, which is totally
fed up with presidential abuses of power, was advocating a parliamentary system.
There has been so much discontent in Maldives that Gayoom has frequently been
described in the Western media as being embattled, losing his grip on power or
of running a "failing dictatorship".
Prior to the referendum, those opposed to Gayoom - many in the media, some in
Gayoom's government and all those other Maldivians frustrated by the slowness
of reform and the government's human rights abuses - were anticipating change.
"Wind of change stirs in Maldives as President's iron grip weakens", by Jeremy
Page, South Asia Correspondent for the Times (17 Aug) is one pre-referendum
piece that well described the mood. (Link 4)
On 18 August, the people of Maldives voted. For an interesting selection of
opinions on the fairness and the choice, see "Referendum: Maldives Speaks"
Whilst Gayoom's opponents felt positive before the referendum, that air of
anticipation quickly evaporated after the referendum with Gayoom sweeping to
victory. Now the opposition forces are crying foul. (Link 6)
But there are two possibilities: (1) that Gayoom is not as unpopular as it had
been widely thought; (2) that the referendum was rigged and the result was
Underneath Jeremy Page's "Winds of Change. . ." article in The Times (link 3)
is a "Have your say" spot. One respondent writes from Male, Maldives: "I'm
ashamed of the lies you have printed on this article, our great and holy
leader has done so much for us for the past 30 years, commoners are never
thankful for what our great leader has done for us, we are the richest people
in asia because of him, we are muslims because of him and we are so happy
today because of him, our great leader Gayoom is a direct dissendent of the
holy prophet and we should always obey and listen to him. There are just a few
christian minded people in the Maldives who oppose our great and holy leader
This response is a blatant demonstration of what results when political
leaders use religion (in this case Islam) to legitimise their rule, as Gayoom
has done. (Also, from what I understand, the term "Christian" in this response
is used primarily as a swear word, an obscenity, a bit of offensive
name-calling. E.g., change-minded equals "Christian-minded" equals positively
REFORM STAGGERS WHILE ISLAM GALLOPS
Gayoom has long promoted himself as the guardian and supreme propagator of
Islam in the Maldives. His government retains considerable control over imams
and preachers in the country through the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs
and so it is interesting that over recent years while reforms have stalled,
Islamisation has progressed at a remarkable rate.
Two articles that examine the progress of Islamisation and radicalisation in
Maldives are: "Stormclouds over the Indian Ocean: Behind the veil in the
Maldives", by Meera Selva, 5 Oct 2006, (link 7) and "Is Islam A Threat To The
Maldives?" by Taimour Lay, 8 Oct 2006 (link 8).
Selva notes that Maldives culture is being Arabised, that women's traditional
colourful dresses are being replaced with black burkas, that little girls no
longer play outside, that men are growing beards and asserting their
dominance, while foreign-funded mosques and madrassas are proliferating. Selva
comments that "individual preachers have been advocating a more radical
version of Islam on the poorer islands which are cut off from the mainstream
media". She says that while the government has been cracking down on political
opponents, "fundamentalist preachers have continued with their mission in the
villages, using simple language and dangerously persuasive arguments to
convert people to a more radical Islam". (Link 7)
Selva comments that while the government is aware of political unrest and
rising Islamic fundamentalism, "The government prefers to divert attention
away from its shortcomings by arguing that the real threat to stability in the
Maldives comes from Christianity, not a lack of democracy. This view sometimes
seems to border on paranoia. This April , for example, the minister of
fisheries ordered the residents of Kulhudhuffushi island to tear down their
new $75,000 indoor market built by Maldives Aid, a UK-based charity, because
it was funded by 'Christian missionaries'. Schoolteachers from nearby Sri
Lanka and India are regularly expelled from the island for trying to convert
Maldivian citizens to Christianity."
Selva quotes one Maldivian commentator as saying: "The government respects
Islam but is not Islamic. However, if the government does not act soon, it
will find itself overtaken by a more extreme power, instead of the
pro-democracy forces it so fears."
Selva's analysis is that Islamic fundamentalism has increased as the
government has been distracted with other issues. She also claims that
fundamentalism rises because "93 per cent of the population are illiterate",
and therefore the "word-of-mouth form of conversion can be remarkably
effective". In other words, she lays the blame at the feet of foreign Islamic
fundamentalist preachers exploiting Maldivian ignorance while the government
is not looking.
However, this analysis is not universally held. For a start, according to
UNESCO "96.3% of adults and 98.2% of youth are literate". (Link 9)
The second article, which was written by Taimour Lay and published in Minivan
(independent news for Maldives: < http://www.minivannews.com/ >) questions
Selva's analysis. Lay says: "The increasing popularity of 'conservative' Islam
across the Maldives cannot be denied, but there is no consensus over its
actual extent, and what is precisely fuelling it. The government blames
foreign preachers. The opposition blames Gayoom and the politics of control.
Other analysts point to broader economic and sociological changes that may, or
may not, prove reversible in the medium term." (Link 8)
Lay continues: "Many in the opposition think it inconceivable that Gayoom has
not sanctioned the spread of more radical ideas. Under Article 38 of the
constitution, Gayoom is the 'supreme authority to propagate the tenets of
Islam in the Maldives'.
"Discussion of religious freedom is 'vigorously denied and the few that dare
to raise their voices are denounced and threatened', the UN Special Rapporteur
Asma Jahangir concluded after her visit in August. She raised the cases of
several Muslims imprisoned for preaching 'unsanctioned doctrines'." (In this
case I understand that 'unsanctioned doctrines' relate primarily to messages
against the government's corruption, dictatorship and political repression.)
Lay also notes that the goal of Gayoom's law reform is a criminal code based
on Sharia! He writes: "There is considerable evidence that President Gayoom is
responsible for the trend [Islamisation, rising fundamentalism], since he has
long seen Islam as both a moral buttress for his personal authority and a
useful tool of social control."
Lay continues: "Gayoom's attempt to portray himself as 'protector of Islam' in
the Maldives, against unspecified foreign threats, has helped to create a
paranoid atmosphere in which radical ideas have spread. Conservative
supporters of the government, particularly on isolated islands, often say that
'Islam will only be safe with Gayoom' - testament to the president's success
in undermining the Islamic credentials of the MDP."
As Lay notes, drug taking, endemic poverty and repression are all factors
driving increasingly desperate Maldivians towards Islam in the hope that it
will solve their problems. This is a common trend where Islam is believed to
be the only alternative to corruption, poverty and repression. Isolation is
the best friend of all those dictators and systems that cannot survive in an
open and free environment.
Most interestingly, Lay does not believe that Islam will continue to flourish
in Maldives. He notes that the population is overwhelmingly young, literate
and increasingly well educated and well connected. As such, he notes, they
"are unlikely to be seduced en masse by teachings that decry their social and
economic freedoms. Some observers think that conservative Islam is reaching
its high-water mark now and will begin to decline once political change
accelerates. . . I think it very unlikely that a majority of young men and
women here will be voting for very conservative parties after 2008. They are
more interested in jobs and marriage and Hindi pop music than imposing
restrictions on themselves."
According to the reform agenda a new constitution will now be drawn up by
November, in advance of multi-party elections in 2008. Hopefully the new
constitution will enshrine real, not illusory, liberties. However, the fact
that Gayoom's US-approved legal reform produced a criminal code based on
Sharia doesn't inspire much optimism.
While Gayoom has been quite successful at delivering reform that is
still-born, the promise of reform has given birth and life to a genuine reform
Three reformist young-guard members of Gayoom's cabinet resigned in August in
protest over the slowness of reforms. They are Attorney-General Dr Hassan
Saeed and Justice Minister Mohamed Jameel, who both resigned on 5 August; and
Foreign Minister Dr Ahmed Shaheed who resigned on 19 August.
Dr Hassan Saeed and Dr Ahmed Shaheed were key architects of the June 2004
reform agenda. Both men earned their PhDs at the University of Queensland,
Australia. Dr Hassan Saeed has written a book on Freedom of Religion, Apostasy
and Islam (2004)
< http://www.amazon.co.uk/Freedom-Religion-Apostasy-Islam-Hassan/dp/0754630838 >
which describes the law of apostasy as largely a religio-political tool and,
according to Taimour Lay, "calls for 'absolute' freedom of religion to be
permitted in modern Muslim societies and says punishments for apostasy should
Commenting on the 5 August resignations of the Attorney-General and Justice
Minister, Minivan reports: "Dr Saeed said President Gayoom had blocked decrees
on an independent judiciary and freedom of assembly. Jameel said, 'the
President has not done enough to control extremist Islam.' 'We submitted an
action plan to control religious extremism, but the President has sat on it
for six months,' added Dr Saeed." (Link 10)
Concerning the Foreign Minister's 19 August resignation, Reuters reports:
"Shaheed called Reuters from the capital Male just before handing his
resignation letter to President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. 'There is a conservative
guard within the parliament and cabinet which is resisting the proposals of
reformists like me,' Shaheed told Reuters. 'So I think the answer is to work
outside the system and find a middle ground and provide an alternative.'"
Reuters adds that Dr Shaheed "will now join fellow reformists - the former
justice minister and attorney-general who quit earlier this month and call
themselves 'New Maldives' - to forge an alternative centre ground ahead of the
first multi-party presidential elections next year."
Minivan also reported that when the Attorney-General and Justice Minster
resigned something quite new happened in Male: the resigning ministers held a
press conference, which MinivanNews described as "the first public show of
defiance by outgoing ministers under President Gayoom". (Link 10, includes
There is hope for Maldives yet. The struggle for liberty is just beginning.
1) Maldives reforms proposed. 10 June 2004
By Adam Mynott, BBC South Asia correspondent.
2) South Asia Analysis Group. Paper no. 1086.
UNEASY CALM, RUMOURS GALORE IN MALDIVES
By B.Raman, 14 Aug 2004
3) The Maldives and the Professor
15 August 2004
4) Wind of change stirs in Maldives as President's iron grip weakens
By Jeremy Page. The Times, 17 August 2007
5) Referendum: Maldives Speaks
By Aiman Mohamed, 18 August 2007
6) Maldives Backs President in Referendum
By RAVI NESSMAN, 19 August 2007
7) Stormclouds over the Indian Ocean: Behind the veil in the Maldives
By Meera Selva, 05 October 2006
8) Is Islam A Threat To The Maldives? By Taimour Lay
8 October 2006 http://www.minivannews.com/news/news.php?id=2500
9) UNESCO Institute for Statistics; Education in Maldives.
10) Cabinet Resignations Rock Government
By Ajay Makan, 5 August 2007
11) Maldives Foreign Min quits over reform pace. By Simon Gardner, 22 Aug 2007
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