12/23/2008, 00.00
MALDIVES
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A democratic president, Islamic law and a tourist paradise without religious freedom

An evangelical site is blocked because of its Christian content. Despite the country’s first democratic poll and the election of a reformer, Mohamed Nasheed, the coalition that brought him to power includes important Islamic groups. Opposition to the old regime is not enough for reforms and freedom of religion.

Malé (AsiaNews) – “We’re sorry . . . .. the website you're trying to reach is no longer available,” reads the message that appears on www.sidahitun.com. The Maldives' Ministry of Islamic Affairs blocked the site at the end of November and it remains off limits to the general public. Led by Abdul Majeed Abdul Bari, the ministry censored the website because it contained material about Jesus Christ and Christian songs in English and Dhivehi, the Maldives’ main language.

Slammed by Minivan News, an independent news agency in the Maldives, Sidahitun’s treatment again raises the issue of freedom of religion in the archipelago. Its constitution says that the country is “based on the principles of Islam” (article 2), that “a non-Muslim may not become a citizen of the Maldives” (article 9), and that “No law contrary to any tenet of Islam shall be enacted in the Maldives” (article 10). Indeed the 1994 Protection of Religious Unity Act makes the country even more impervious to any other religion by banning any activity deemed un-Islamic.

In 1998 some 50 residents of the archipelago learnt this the hard way when they were jailed on suspicions of being Christian; 19 foreigners were expelled for the same “crime”.

Ten years later, in June of this year, the Islamic Democratic Party filed a case under the Protection of Religious Unity Act and the constitution to ban Freedom of Religion, Apostasy in Islam, co-authored by former Attorney-General and presidential candidate Dr Hassan Saeed on the grounds that it “violates Islamic principles.”

What happened to the evangelical website is thus but the latest chapter in a long story.

Sadder still is the fact that Sidahitun was blocked in late November, i.e. a month after an historic presidential election, the first truly democratic poll held in the country.

The victory of Mohamed Nasheed, leader of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), brought to an end the 30-year rule of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, unchallenged master of the archipelago since 1978. His election was seen by many as the start of a process of democratisation that would see the recognition basic freedoms in the country.

During the 3 September six-candidate presidential debate, the first ever in the history of the country, Mohamed Nasheed said: “Our country is moving towards a change. No one should doubt this. We are escaping from censorship on freedom of expression, and from barriers to human rights today. We are going to another Maldives.

A former political prisoner and an iconic figure in the opposition to the dictatorship, the president elect based his campaign on a reform-oriented platform, which included lowering the cost of living, reducing the gap between the rich and the poor, a better economy and improved health care services, and a fight against corruption and for human rights.

However, the MDP is held together by its members’ opposition to Gayoom. This explains why it is home to people who are in favour of the complete westernisation of Maldivian society as well as people who want to see it rigidly Islamised.

And the MDP’s fundamentalist faction wields considerable power inside the party. When its members railed against Mohamed Nasheed's choice of a woman doctor, Aminath Jameel as his running mate—deeming it un-Islamic on the grounds that she was a woman—the gender-equity-advocate Nasheed withdrew his nomination.

Similarly, Adaalath, a small rightwing fundamentalist party, belongs to the same coalition that won on 29 October.

When President-elect Nasheed named his cabinet in early November he appointed Adaalath Scholars Council Chairman Abdul Majeed Abdul Bari to the post of Minister of Islamic Affairs who then decided to censor the evangelical site.

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