With its bright blue sea and white sandy beaches, the Maldives is a picturesque holiday destination.
Tourism makes up the largest industry in the island state, accounting for 28% of its GDP. However, visitors rarely explore the capital island –Male City– where about a quarter of the citizens reside. Most tourists are ferried off to beautiful resorts spread across the Indian Ocean country, blissfully unaware of how differently locals live compared to the extravagant services they are provided with.
The state religion of the Maldives is Islam and it plays an important role in the lives of Maldivians. Laws are made to uphold the principles of the religion. It is taught in all schools throughout the twelve years of schooling, even beside international curriculum. No native is exempt from it.
Despite all of this, the most shocking revelation that comes to most people is that being a Sunni Muslim is legally required in order to be a citizen of the Maldives.
The consequences of not following this law are quite severe.
An air traffic controller by the name of Ismail Mohamed Didi was found hanged in the air traffic control tower of Male International Airport 5 years ago. Local news source Minivan News reported two emails he had sent prior to this event on June to human rights organisations, requesting asylum to escape the persecution he faced from the people who knew about his irreligion. One dated June 25 2010 is listed below.
———- Forwarded message ———-
From: ismail mohamed <email@example.com>
Date: 25 June 2010 09:30
Subject: a plea for help
I’m a 25 year-old Maldivian living in Male’. I have been working as an Air Traffic Controller at Male’ International Airport for almost 7 years now.
I started becoming disenchanted with Islam around 5 years ago and am now an atheist. During my transformation, and even now, I am quite the idealist, and when i was confronted about two years back by a couple of my colleagues about my aversion from the daily practices of Islam, i somewhat foolishly admitted my stance on religion.
I had asked them to keep it a secret from the rest of our workforce at ATC, although I now realize I should have known better. It did not take long for everybody at work to find out and since then, I have faced constant harassment in my work environment.
An atheist is not a common feature at all among Maldivians and the word has spread like wildfire since then. It has now come to the point where everyone I know, including my family, have become aware of my lack of belief.
In a society that has always been proud of their religious homogeneity, you can imagine what i am being put through. I have been subjected to numerous consultations with religious scholars and even my closest friends are not allowed to see me.
My company has already begun investigating a complaint regarding me, collecting testimony from fellow workers about my apostasy.
Just 3 days ago, I received two anonymous phone calls threatening violence if I do not start openly practicing Islam.
I am at my wit’s end now. I have been trying for sometime to secure employment abroad, but have not yet succeeded.
The only other alternative I can think of is to flee the country to seek asylum elsewhere. I have already written an e-mail to your organization, and am anxiously waiting for a reply. I found your e-mail address on facebook. I am in dire need of assistance and know of no one inside the country who can guide me.
I would have already left the country if I was sure I could meet the required burden of proof in an asylum claim. I would like to know if you would be able to help me in anyway should i travel to the U.K to seek asylum and what my chances are of making a successful claim.
Thank you for your consideration
Ismail Mohamed Didi
In most parts of the world, a reveal such as this would cause an uproar. However the website Raajjeislam had other reasons for concern about this case.
“This is an issue that a Muslim government should consider,” the website said. “Because when these types of people die, they are buried in the same [cemetery] where Muslims are buried. Their funeral prayers and body washing are also conducted as for Muslims. It is questionable as to whether this is allowed according to Islam.”
Not all Maldivians are content with this deprivation of what the United Nation considers a basic human right (freedom of thought, conscience and religion). But even this does not bid well for those involved. A Maldivian journalist Khilath Rasheed, who was controversial at the time for his “anti-Islamic” blog, organised a peaceful rally calling for greater religious tolerance in the country. Him and his fellow demonstrators were met with stones and bricks. Mr. Rasheed was taken to Indhira Gandhi Memorial Hospital to treat his fractured skull, but was subsequently arrested by police regarding his involvement with the protest for over 3 weeks.
This was not the end of the violence done unto Mr Rasheed. Months later, Minivan News reported that the self-professed Sufi Muslim was stabbed in the neck and was once again hospitalised. Mr Rasheed was one of the few Maldivians brave enough to advocate for freedom of speech. Sadly, after years of suffering the social consequences of his values he has apparently reverted to Sunni Islam, publicly denouncing the “blasphemous” posts (which are now deleted) he had made in his blog.
It is evident that not enough protection or help is granted to religious minorities in the Maldives to ensure their security. The constitution does not recognise non-Sunni Maldivians and the society at large values the so-called religious homogeneity in the 100% Islamic country. It is a widespread cultural belief that this law promotes peace and social stability. Many today, especially within younger generations, are however questioning its worth considering the hate crimes and oppression self-imposed on the citizens.
On the other side of the spectrum, religious extremism continues to rise, as do anti-Western sentiments. Jihadism grows in appeal to people from many different backgrounds, including the capital, and incidences of Maldivians leaving to fight in Syria have grown. There is a large focus on gangs being involved. However, there has even been a case of a family being taken to Syria. Ibrahim Ali’s wife, daughter-in-law and granddaughter (10 years old at the time of reporting) were taken to Syria by his son due to his beliefs in religious purity, and it was done under the pretense of obtaining medical attention in another island.
“He was radicalised through the internet and when he went to Malé to study, he spoke all the time about how Muslims were being treated, the importance of jihad and about living in a pure Islamic state,” said Ali, 46. “I have lost my whole family.” (The Guardian, 26 Feb 2015)
The widening divide in terms of views on religious freedom is undeniable and difficult to address. There is international concern over the government’s stance of limiting freedom of speech and criticism of theocratic policies. It paints an ironic picture then, that the average tourist sipping wine on a lounge chair by the clear blue sea, is unlikely to wonder why alcohol is illegal for actual citizens to consume.
In the Maldives, hypocrisy is easily justified when it’s profitable, and human rights are for the powerful to interpret. With its suppressed conflicts, the island paradise isn’t always a land of sunshine and clear skies.