The Maldives is one of the few states — such as Saudi Arabia — that allows only one faith to be practiced publicly, and even insists that all citizens must be Muslims.
The Republic of the Maldives is a collection of 1,190 coral reef islands in the Indian Ocean, south west of Sri Lanka. Only 200 islands are inhabited, with 44 used exclusively as holiday resort islands. The Maldives has a population of about 300,000 citizens.
In the Maldives, citizens cannot practice any other religion than Islam, and they have to practice it in the way the government says.
Due to internal and external pressure to give their citizens freedom of religion, the Maldivian government instituted a reform. But here’s how they reformed it: Okay, you can practice any religion you want, but if it’s not Islam, you are no longer a citizen.
Maldivian non-Muslims and other Maldivians who do not want to practice their faith in the state approved way cannot practice their own faith. They cannot even pray the way they want. Kneeling down, folding hands or using religious symbols like crosses, candles, pictures or statues can lead to government action. Performing movements in the Namaadu (namaz or Islamic ritual prayer) differently to the state-approved way can also lead to arrest by the police.
Maldivians are not allowed to possess religious material — whether holy books, audio and video tapes, CDs and DVDs, pictures or artifacts — that is not approved by the government. Sometimes private houses and mosques are raided by police in their search for non state-approved religious material. When found, all such material is confiscated. Electronic media, radio broadcasts, the internet, and printed material are all censored by the government.
The luggage of Maldivians returning to the country is searched and all unauthorised religious material is confiscated. Foreign citizens arriving in the Maldives — whether as migrant workers or tourists — also have their luggage searched for “un-Islamic” materials. Small quantities of non-Muslim literature for personal use are generally permitted to foreign tourists.
Maldivians are also not allowed to discuss their faith with anyone. No-one is allowed to discuss religion without the explicit permission of the government. They do not even dare to discuss their beliefs with their spouses and children. The political intimidation of the public and the official denigration of religiously non-conformist people have led to widespread mistrust and fear. Children of people who are suspected of holding alternative religious convictions are sometimes interrogated by their teachers about their parents’ opinions and convictions.
Constant intimidation and oppression leads people to act contrary to their own convictions and beliefs. Some people feel forced to perform Muslim ritual prayers (in the state-approved way) to avoid any possible suspicion. They also feel forced to teach their children according to the government’s will instead of their own conviction. They are forced to observe the fast during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. After the first week of year’s Ramadan, a Maldivian radio station announced that the police had already arrested 76 people for not fasting.
Maldivians are — justifiably — fearful that they will face severe consequences if they publicly and identifiably defend everyone’s right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief. Because of this fear, Maldivians hope the international community will support their struggle. One step to do this is for states and human rights organizations to urge the Maldivian government to implement the recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Asma Jahangir, in her report (A/HRC/4/21/Add.3).
When I read this last paragraph, I thought, “This is one of those situations where someone is going to have to fight and die for freedom.” Probably it will be Maldivians. They have more at stake in the matter than anyone else.
We’ve seen many times that “international pressure” on Muslims has about as much impact as sticking our tongues out at them. What they need is not international pressure, but guns and walkie-talkies.