Trouble in the Maldives: Will Islamists Take Over Paradise?

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Eranga Jayawardena / AP

Maldives' former President Mohamed Nasheed, center, waves to wellwishers as he marches with his supporters in Male, Maldives, Friday, Feb. 10, 2012.

If the factions that unseated Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed this week hoped to sideline the former activist and dissident, they were sorely mistaken. A darling of the Western media, Nasheed has cut a defiant pose, confirming to press that he is the victim of a coup while rousing thousands of supporters to take to the streets of the island capital Male. Within a day of his forced resignation from office, Nasheed had an op-ed in the New York Times, likening his cause with that of other pro-democracy forces in the Arab world struggling against the cancerous legacy of decades-old dictatorships. “Long after the revolutions,” Nasheed warns, “powerful networks of regime loyalists can remain behind and can attempt to strangle their nascent democracies.”

That narrative has been frequently aired in the days since Nasheed’s Tuesday ouster. Nasheed won the country’s first free and fair elections in 2008, defeating Abdul Maumoon Gayoom, a strongman who had ruled the archipelago for three decades. But Gayoom, whose networks of patronage and support still shape much of the country’s political fabric, did not retire, as was hoped. Instead, his hand is suspected in fomenting the unrest and army mutiny that forced Nasheed out this week. As a democracy activist, Nasheed was detained and tortured for six years during Gayoom’s rule. He’s now back on the streets again, calling for fresh elections to restore democracy to the country. YouTube footage shows what appears to be a violent police crackdown on yellow-clad supporters of Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party.

The country’s new President (and Nasheed’s former Vice President) Waheed Hassan dismissed the call for new elections. According to the BBC, he rebuked Nasheed for acting like a “dictator” — Nasheed has been criticized for arresting and detaining a prominent judge loyal to the old regime — and putting on a “show” for the international media. Western diplomats and U.N. officials are scrambling to reach the Indian Ocean archipelago, whose 400,000 people live largely cut off from the myriad, exquisite luxury island resorts that draw in nearly a million tourists a year.

Writing in the Guardian, Maryam Omidi, a British journalist who used to edit The Minivan News, an independent English daily in Male, puts the crisis into perspective:

Three years after the country’s first multiparty election, the tit-for-tat politics, corruption and violence that characterised the previous regime shows no signs of abating. In the months leading up to Nasheed’s departure, the opposition also wielded another political weapon: religion. Increasingly he was accused of undermining Islam – a slur in a “100% Sunni Muslim” nation with a growing conservative fringe.

Islam has a long, fascinating history in the Maldives, which, because of its position along the path of monsoon winds, served for centuries as a stopping point for Arab seafarers and traders. Five times a day in tiny, congested Male, the call to prayer rings out from over a dozen mosques on the two-acre capital island. In recent years, orthodox, Saudi-funded Wahhabism has crept into what was once a far more tolerant, syncretic brand of Islam. The Gayoom regime kept a lid on the country’s Islamists, but pandered to them when attempting to defeat Nasheed in 2008 — his personal faith as a Muslim was called into question and he was said to be in league with Christian missionaries, bent on destroying Islam.

Nasheed shrugged off those rather laughable charges, but now faces more. One Islamist faction claims to have found a cache of liquor bottles in his presidential residence, punishable as a crime under Maldivian law. Earlier, they accused Nasheed of being a “madman and a Christian” and consorting with “Jewish parties,” while exaggerating the environmental threat the country faces from rising sea levels. Nasheed has built his international celebrity through his climate change activism.

However outrageous the attacks on Nasheed may be, other reports are more worrying. The country was rebuked last year by U.N. officials for the resurgence of the practice of flogging women who engage in pre- or extra-marital sex. (This in a nation once hailed by the 14th century Arab traveler Ibn Batutta for the friendliness and laissez faire licentiousness of its people.) Indian analysts fear the steady infiltration of elements collaborating with Somali pirates and fundamentalist militant groups such as Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba. In the wake of Nasheed’s removal from office, Islamists ransacked the country’s National Museum, reportedly vandalizing a number of Buddhist artifacts dating back to the country’s obscure pre-Islamic past.

With protests ongoing and Nasheed defiant, it’s hard to tell where the country’s political crisis will lurch next or, indeed, what role some of the Islamist parties may play in a new government. Gayoom has been conspicuously silent, away on travel in Malaysia. When Nasheed spoke to TIME in 2009 soon after winning the presidency, he envisioned a future for his tiny country built on rule of law and a healthy respect for differing opinions. As politics descends into a zero-sum game fought on the streets, it’s a future whose prospects look increasingly dim.