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Maldives, hailed as democracy poster child, turns to Islamist fundamentalism

The tropical Maldives, recently held up as a victory for democracy, has taken a nosedive, says its ousted president. He is now looking for international help.

By Rebecca ByerlyCorrespondent / April 27, 2012

Former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed gestures during a press conference in New Delhi, India, Thursday, April 19. The ousted president of the Maldives is asking foreign governments to press for immediate elections in his island nation to restore elected leadership.

Manish Swarup/AP

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New Delhi

The Maldives, long known as a tropical paradise destination for the rich and famous and held up as a democracy good news story, has recently taken a democratic nosedive, says its ousted president who is now looking for international help.

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  • Maldives

    Graphic Maldives
    (Rich Clabaugh/Staff)

Mohamed Nasheed ushered in what he termed the “dawn of democracy” when he was elected president in the Maldives’ first multiparty elections in 2008. After three years in power, he says he was forced to resign by an angry mob of police officers and soldiers. The coup, he says, was engineered by his autocratic predecessor, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who served as president from 1978 until 2008.

Mr. Nasheed has expressed his dismay at India’s recognition of the new president, Waheed Manik, and says he is concerned that the current Maldivian government is a catalyst for conservative Islamist groups to take a deeper hold on society.

He points to the 2008 presidential race: The main Islamist political party did not perform well then, and in subsequent parliamentary and local cabinet elections it did not win a single seat. But after the coup, the new government gave the Islamist Party three seats in the parliament. The parliament is currently composed of 77 members. 

“There are radical elements within the military and within the cabinet,” Nasheed says. “This disproportional representation is alarming. These Islamist groups want to have a better hold on society, because they have found an inroad into power through the current government.”

Nasheed says he is now trying to restore democracy by drumming up international support for early elections. The sitting Maldives government announced it would hold elections early, in July 2013, but Nasheed and many analysts are skeptical.

Islamic fundamentalism on the rise

The conservative Saudi Arabian strand of Islam, known as Wahhabism, has been growing in the Maldives for decades. 

Nasheed says conservative Islamic groups are already pushing for changes in educational curricula and making moves to stop entertainment, singing, and music. Recently an Islamic Party called on the state television broadcaster to ban the annual televised national singing competition because the group believes the music is against Islamic teachings. 

“It is so sad these reforms are happening without the consent of the people and while the people want something else,” he says.

Azra Naseem, a Maldivian woman who studies the radicalization of Muslims, says women are likely to be most affected by the conservative shift.

“The increasing degradation of women, the calls for women to cover up and stay home, to drop out of the labor market, and to engage in anachronistic and often cruel practices, such as female genital mutilation or child marriages.  This was not a part of Maldivian life as we knew it only a short decade ago.”

With only one university in the Maldives, and that one recently built, if young people wanted to pursue their education beyond high school they often relied on scholarships from abroad. Many of these scholarships came from private religious schools in places like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. That was the greatest contributor to the spread of radical Islam in the Maldives, says Dr. Naseem.

 “These young Maldivians came back home and began preaching a much more conservative version of Islam. Given the remoteness of the islands, it’s easy for returning preachers and graduates to influence an insulated island population," she says. It was “in defense of this radical and totally un-Maldivian Islam that a large percentage of Maldivians were recruited by Islamists to partake in, or at least support, the overthrow of its first democratically- elected government.”

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