If global warming poses an existential threat to the Maldives, Islamic fundamentalism arguably presents an even greater political and economic challenge to the island nation in the short term to medium term.
This danger was evident recently when the government ordered the shutdown of all spas and health centers at all resorts on the island. The decision came in the wake of a protest by an opposition conservative Islamic party, Adhaalath party or Justice Party, calling for a complete ban on such spas, which they believe are operating as brothels. Protesters were also demanding a ban on the sale of alcohol, demolition of monuments that the Islamists see as idols and a halt to direct flights to Israel.
In an apparent about-face, the government last week rescinded the ban, not least because of the damage that an extended ban would have done to the economy, which relies heavily on tourism. According to one estimate, approximately 900,000 tourists visited the islands last year.
Most of the 1,200 islands that make up the Maldives, which has a total population of more than four hundred thousand, practice Sunni Islam. But the character of this island nation has still traditionally been liberal and tolerant – women there don’t typically wear the burqa, and they are active in the socio-economic arena. Indeed, President Mohamed Nasheed recently advocated for a “tolerant” form of Islam in his country.
But this hasn’t stopped a very determined minority working to radicalize society. Some blame former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom for turning the country toward radical Islam by declaring Islam to be the state religion in 1997, thereby restricting the freedom of non-Islamic beliefs.
In 2002, a Maldivian named Ibrahim Fauzee was arrested in Karachi for having links with al-Qaeda and was whisked away to Guantanamo Bay by the United States. In 2003, an Edhyafushi Island poster praising Osama bin Laden appeared on the walls of a school. In 2005, Islamic fundamentalists attacked a shop in the capital Male for showcasing a picture of Santa Claus. In September 2007, foreign tourists were injured in an explosion in the capital’s Sultan’s Park.
When I last visited the Maldives I got the sense there was underlying apprehension about the expansion of Islamist extremist forces in the country. I interviewed President Nasheed recently to ask him about these concerns, and he told me that although he understood people’s fears, that there was no need to worry. He felt the radicals were a tiny minority that would be rejected by the people.
But some of the officials I spoke to were less sanguine. They explained that ideological support for the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan is increasing, and they expressed concern over the rising number of Maldivian students going to Pakistan and the Arab World to seek religious education.
It’s clear that rising sea levels aren’t the only threat to the Maldives’ way of life. And while no nation in the 21st century should have to fear any religion, extremism has a tendency of eating up and spitting out even the best intentions of some countries.