10/23/2007, 00.00
MALDIVES
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Islamic extremism targets foreign tourists

September bombing might be part of a strategy to scare off tourists who bring ‘customs’ contrary to Islam. Population however is largely moderate and wants to keep lucrative tourist industry. Police arrest more than 50 extremists.

Male (AsiaNews/Agencies) – A rise in Islamic militancy poses an unprecedented threat to the Maldives' status as South Asia's most upmarket holiday destination. The first concrete sign of trouble came on September 29 when 12 foreign tourists, including a honeymooning British couple, were wounded in a bomb attack. The government however is determined to beat the extremists.

Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom issued a decree whereby foreign clerics should not be allowed entry without a special permit, barred women from covering themselves from head to toe, and ordered that educational qualifications from foreign madrassas, or Islamic seminaries, would not be recognised.

Former Education Minister Mohamed Zahir Hussain said a minority of people in the moderate Sunni Muslim nation of 330,000 believed that tourism was against Islam because it leads to the importation of practices contrary to their religion like the sale of liquor.

However, “we can deal with the problem because of the geography of the Maldives,” Mr Hussain said.

Only 200 of the 1,192 islands are inhabited, and tourist resorts are kept separate, with foreigners not allowed to spend the night on any inhabited island except the capital Male.

Maldivians are employed in resorts, but cannot work as bar tenders.

“There is no popular support for them,” Tourism Minister Mahamood Shougee said.

Tourism is the mainstay of the archipelago’s economy. This year the Maldives hopes to welcome 650,000 holidaymakers, about 10 per cent up from last year, the minister said, adding that the industry earned the country US$ 200 million to 300 million annually.

Earlier this month, the government raided the stronghold of radical extremism on an island some 100 kilometres south of Male and detained more than 50 people who clashed with police and security forces.

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