MALE - A rise in Islamic militancy poses an unprecedented threat to the Maldives’ status as South Asia’s most upmarket holiday destination, but the government is determined to beat the extremists.
The first concrete sign of trouble in the archipelago traditionally seen as the holiday-maker’s paradise came last month, when 12 foreign tourists including a honeymooning British couple were wounded in a bomb attack.
President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, an Islamic scholar, responded quickly, ordering a major crackdown in the moderate Sunni Muslim nation of 330,000.
While well-heeled tourists are welcome, Gayoom has made it clear Muslim clerics eager to bring Taliban-style extremism to the turquoise blue lagoons and secluded tiny coral islands are not.
Gayoom decreed foreign clerics should not be allowed entry without special permission, barred women from covering themselves from head to toe, and ordered that educational qualifications from foreign madrassas, or Islamic seminaries, will not be recognised.
Extremist elements oppose revenues from tourism, including the sale of liquor, which is prohibited by Islam.
“I am sure we can manage,” Hussain said. “People are shocked, but we can deal with the problem because of the geography of the Maldives."
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.
Tourism Minister Mahamood Shougee said he believed extremism would simply fizzle out.
“There is no popular support for them and the extremists had reached the maximum level they could,” Shougee told AFP, adding the problem could also be tackled without undermining growth in tourism, the mainstay of the islands’ economy.
The Maldives hopes to welcome 650,000 holiday-makers this year, around 10% up on 2006, he said, adding that the industry earned the country about 200 to 300 million dollars annually.
However, the September 29 bombing at the Sultan Park in Male, a popular stop for tourists visiting this highly congested, one-square-mile capital, has tarnished the country’s image as a peaceful destination.
Former attorney general Hassan Saeed warned the problem could escalate unless the government took immediate action to address the underlying economic and social problems.
“If the situation is left unattended, there will be more serious trouble,” Saeed said. “It can be stopped. The good thing is that Maldivians are traditionally moderate."
Earlier this month, the government raided the epicentre of radical extremism on an island some 100 kilometres south of Male and detained over 50 people who clashed with police and security forces.
Saeed said Maldivian extremists may be inspired by events in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the troubles in the atoll nation were essentially due to underlying domestic issues.
“I believe it is home grown,” said Saeed, who quit as attorney general in August saying the government was not taking adequate measures to deal with the problem.Asian diplomats believe the government may even be trying to play up religious extremism to allow it to crack down on dissent in a country that recognised political parties only two years ago.