As Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen completed three months in office on February 17, one could not help but notice the Indian Ocean archipelago’s return to religious conservatism and its growing engagement with China.
The Maldives, a string of 1,192 islands, has made several moves to cement the supremacy of Sunni Islam since Yameen was sworn in as president in November 2013.
The Ministry of Islamic Affairs has set its top priorities for 2014, which include blocking all religions except Islam in the nation, ensuring that all laws and regulations adhere to Islamic principles and developing and strengthening the Islamic Fiqh Academy to issue fatwas. The ministry has also signed an agreement with the Saudi Arabian Muslim Scholars Association to receive a grant of MVR1.6 million, or $104,166, for the “mutual goal” of developing and improving the study of the Quran and religion.
The Ministry of Education has meanwhile introduced Arabic as a subject in schools. The ministry now plans to have schools teach the Quran as a subject up to grade VII.
Yameen has set key targets for foreign policy. Chief among them are protecting the Islamic unity of the country and promoting Islamic characteristics internationally.
The parliament in December passed a bill to amend the constitution to restrict the legislature from removing the clause that gives Islam the status of state religion. The bill was introduced by the Maldivian Development Alliance, an ally of Yameen’s Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM).
These moves have been made against the backdrop of a projected threat to religion from both domestic forces, read progressive and pro-democracy parties, and foreign powers, read the “Christian” West.
Speaking on the “Maldives Conversion to Islam Day” on February 2, Yameen told the citizens, “We should also be very vigilant of foreign influences attempting to weaken our religious faith.”
On the Maldives’ National Day on January 2, Home Minister Umar Naseer issued a similar warning. He said there is an “ongoing psychological war aiming to lead astray our faith in Islam, and break up our ties of nationalism, a war that is escalating at a very fast speed.” He described the “war” as a “huge danger.”
Yameen pitched himself as a saviour of Islam in his campaign for the presidential election. “Think for yourselves, do you want Islam in the Maldives or do you want to allow space for other religions in the Maldives,” he said in an election speech.
Yameen, whose election manifesto pledged to implement death penalty under Shariah and strengthening of ties with Arab Muslim nations among other things, portrayed his rival Mohamed Nasheed as an enemy of the nation’s Islamic unity. Nasheed, who defeated former autocratic President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in the 2008 election but was ousted in an alleged coup in February 2012, had promised to bring true democracy for the nation’s progress.
At his party’s victory rally following the elections, Yameen, who is Gayoom’s half-brother, said, “We [the coalition] worked together to save the Maldivian nation, to protect the sacred religion of Islam.”
While Yameen didn’t mention relations with India or China—the two Asian giants competing for influence in the strategic Indian Ocean region—during the election campaign, Nasheed had warned that Gayoom and his allies would allow Beijing to play a much bigger role in the country.
In retrospect, Nasheed was at least partially right.
Soon after Yameen took office, he announced that China would give the Maldives a grant of U.S. $8.2 million “for the implementation of developmental projects and the advancement of public services.”
China’s hopes from the Maldives rose apparently after the annulation of the $500 million contract of the Indian infrastructure major GMR Group for developing the Male international airport. It was revoked under the presidency of Mohammed Waheed, who allegedly played a role in the 2012 coup against Nasheed and is considered close to Gayoom. The contract was initiated by Nasheed’s administration.
Before the 2013 presidential elections, which were delayed by controversial Supreme Court orders after Nasheed emerged as the frontrunner, Beijing called for “national stability and social development” to be maintained in the Maldives. China had rarely issued any statement concerning internal matters of the Maldives until the time.
On January 28, China announced a plan to construct 1,500 housing units in the Maldives. “We will work with the Maldivian side on how to make the best use of Chinese grant aid and the concessional loans to further benefit the economic and social development of Maldives,” Chinese ambassador Wang Fukang said.
The following morning, a Chinese Navy hospital ship, Peace Ark, arrived at the Maldives to provide medical services throughout the country until July 5.
The number of Chinese tourists visiting the Maldives also increased by 44.5 percent in 2013, compared with the previous year, according to the Ministry of Tourism of the Maldives.
Yameen made his first official visit abroad to India on January 1, and said that while the Maldives has “close ties” with China, “nothing will precede ties with India, which are far more precious.”
Unlike Nasheed, who maintained close relations with India and the West during his three years in office, Yameen and Gayoom perhaps see ties with Beijing as indispensable. China, after all, is known for supporting the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), an association of 56 Islamic states, in international fora such as the United Nations and its bodies.
The Maldives claims that all its citizens are Sunni Muslim. Article 9 of the Constitution declares that “a non-Muslim may not become a citizen of the Maldives,” a remnant of the legacy of Gayoom, who ruled for 30 years until 2008.
However, while Gayoom was known for opposing radical versions of Islam and Saudi influence in religion during his rule, his policy changed after pro-democracy Nasheed defeated him in the 2008 election. To snatch power from Nasheed, Gayoom expanded the opposition by roping in conservative Islamic parties and organizations.
In June 2010, the then Gayoom-dominated parliament sought to impeach the then education minister, Musthafa Lufthy, after he proposed to make Islam and the national Dhivehi language optional, instead of mandatory, subjects in high schools. They accused Nasheed of being a friend of Israel and the “Christian West” and of undermining Islam. It was this clash that culminated in Nasheed’s ouster in 2012.
The 2013 presidential elections were, therefore, decisive. The voters had a choice between a continuation of restrictions and conservative policies or progress through a genuine democracy. Those who opted for the latter were outnumbered by a thin margin. And the first three months under the new government offer a glimpse into the nation’s future.
Vishal Arora is a New Delhi-based journalist. His articles on politics, culture, religion, foreign affairs and human rights have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, and many other outlets.