WEA-RLC Research and Analysis Report: Religious Freedom Takes Further Beating in Maldives

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October 25, 2011 

The Indian Ocean archipelago of Maldives recently enforced a law that was introduced by former dictatorial President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom to bring religion under the government’s control. The new regulations under this law put harsh restrictions on the freedom of religion and expression of both Maldivian citizens and expats. 

The Protection of Religious Unity Act of 1994 seeks to unify the practice and preaching of Islam and to restrict practice and expression of any religion other than Islam. The new regulations under this Act were published in the government’s gazette last month and thereby brought them into force. 

According to Compass Direct News, police in Raa Atoll this month detained and deported a 30 year-old school teacher from India for possessing a Bible, showing the authorities’ resolve to enforce the law. 

One of the objectives behind the new regulations is to frustrate the calls for religious freedom by the international community.  

The Maldives, an archipelago of 1,190 islands, claims that all its citizens – about 300,000 – are Sunni Muslim. Although many refute this claim, the country’s constitution states that a non-Muslim cannot become a citizen of the Maldives. 

The drafting of the regulations – agreed upon by 11 religious scholars, a police legal team, the President and three Attorneys General – was overseen by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, whose minister is a member of the conservative Adhaalath Party (also known as the Justice Party). 

At its national meeting in July, the Justice Party – which seeks to emulate Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and advocates for Sharia law in the country – Islamic Affairs Minister Dr Abdul Majeed Abdul Bari urged the government to implement the Religious Unity regulations to address some of its concerns. He said insulting Islam and “every kind of sinful behavior forbidden in Islam” had become routine in the country. He also said foreign parties were “working tirelessly” to introduce freedom of religion in the Maldives. “We hear arguments of how non-Muslims should have the freedom to express their disbelief and how everyone should have the right to change religion.” 

The new regulations seem to be part of a deal between the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and the Justice Party, a former ally of the coalition government. The Justice Party broke away from the MDP-led ruling coalition days after the Religious Unity regulations were published. The conservative party, citing one of the reasons for parting way, alleged that the government amended the draft regulations before publishing them. Though highly repressive, the regulations are being seen as liberal by some conservative Muslims. 

As per the regulations, permission from the government is mandatory for delivery of Islamic sermons and lectures and dissemination of information on Islamic principles. These sermons, lectures or literature must not contradict Islam or general agreement reached among Islamic scholars or the Quran or the Sunnah or the Hadith. 

The regulations also ban preaching of other religions. “It is illegal in the Maldives to propagate any faith other than Islam or to engage in any effort to convert anyone to any religion other than Islam.

It is also illegal to display in public any symbols or slogans belonging to any religion other than Islam, or creating interest in such articles.” It is also illegal in the Maldives “to carry or display in public books on other religions (other than Islam) and books and writings that promote and propagate other religions, and the translation into Dhivehi language such books and writings on other religions,” the regulations state. 

Another clause says, “It is illegal for non-Muslims living in the Maldives and non-Muslims visiting the Maldives to express their religious slogans in a way such action is carried out widely in public, and conducting such religious activities by forming groups and conducting such activities in public places and engaging any Maldivian in their activities of such kind.” 

Yet another clause states, “It is illegal to possess, distribute or publicize programs, writings, artworks and advertisements on religions other than Islam.” 

The penalty for violating the rules is two to five years of imprisonment for Maldivians, and foreigner who violate it, “shall be handed over to the Department of Immigration and Emigration for deportation.” 

When Mohamed Nasheed became the president of the Maldives in 2008, there were hopes that former President Gayoom’s policy of religious restrictions would be eased. On the contrary, Nasheed’s government is seemingly reinforcing it. 

During his presidency, Gayoom, leader of the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party, or DRP, engineered the country’s identity as a 100 percent Muslim but liberal nation and promoted a government’s version of Islam during the 30 years of his rule. Gayoom cracked down on Christian expats on suspicion of missionary work and deported them. He also imprisoned a few local converts. Using Islamic nationalism, he sought to justify his autocratic rule. 

Gayoom’s successor President Nasheed is apparently a progressive Muslim. But the opposition DRP and its allies have majority in the parliament and they veto Nasheed’s attempts to deviate from conservative policies. The country’s bureaucracy and independent institutions are also highly politicized to this day thanks to Gayoom’s handpicked officials many of who remain in office. 

The Gayoom-infused exclusive Islamic identity, which was propagated through government-controlled media for decades, has become part of the psyche of many Maldivians. During the democracy movement to overthrow Gayoom’s authoritarian regime, many Maldivians feared that democracy could cost their nation its Islamic identity.  

Even after the arrival of multi-party democracy, measures like sending Maldivian troops to the United Nation-led peacekeeping operations to conflict zones, inviting doctors from Israel, and civil rights are seen as anti-Islamic.  

Now with the implementation of the repressive Religious Unity Act, the country has moved further away from religious freedom reforms.  

This will harm the Maldives’ international reputation and tourism industry, and hurt the country’s youth in particular. There have been instances of suicides by, and persecution of, Maldivians who have gone public about their disbelief in Islam. Crime and violence are also rising. 

The stifling of essential human freedoms is incompatible with both true Islam and liberal democracy. The falsehood of a “100 percent Muslim but liberal democracy” will not cut ice, at least with the international community.

World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) Religious Liberty Commission (RLC) sponsors this WEA-RLC Research & Analysis Report to help individuals and groups pray for and act on religious liberty issues around the world. WEA has a consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council. 

This report was researched and written by Fernando Perez, and moderated by the WEA-RLC Executive Director, Godfrey Yogaraja. It can be used for distribution or publication with attribution to WEA-RLC.