When I wrote an article a few weeks ago, "U Penn Prof for Shari'a," criticizing Paul H. Robinson for working with the Maldive government to implement a Shar'i criminal code, I focused on the Islamic law dimension, not the problematic political situation in the Maldives. But on Aug. 14, a major development took place, the declaration of a state of emergency resulting from violence attending a protest by about 5,000 people seeking more democracy. In one analysis, "Uneasy Calm, Rumours Galore in Maldives," I read such statements as "President Gayyoom has ruled the Maldives for the past 26 years as a police state" and even a comparison between him and Saddam Hussein. This makes it the more troubling that a distinguished American legal specialist should aid the regime with its laws, so I asked Professor Robinson about this and he wrote me that:
It is never a bad thing that a people have a criminal code that is true to justice. Does the present political turmoil suggest that it less likely that a proposed code will be put into effect? I think it is too early to tell. As the Chinese expression puts it: In chaos there is opportunity.
The current unrest is to a large extent a continuation of the public dissatisfaction that produced the press for a new criminal code in the first place. Logically, the continuing dissatisfaction ought not undercut a new code's prospects but it is also true that in chaos there is unpredictability.
All I can do is to carry out my planned code drafting reforms, with U.N. backing, and to hope that at some point in the not too distant future the political situation will be such as to support enactment. We shall see.
Not surprisingly, I see the matter differently, as his helping to prop up an evil and possibly failing dictatorship. (Aug. 15, 2004)
May 28, 2007 update: Just how bad is it in the Maldives? A dictator and a burgeoning Islamist movement define the poles of public life, writes John Lancaster in "Islamism Comes to Paradise: Looking for Osama in the Maldives."
As elsewhere, the growth of fundamentalist influence can be traced in part to Saudi Arabia, which built a seven-story-high school in Male - the Islamic Studies Institute - whose curriculum runs heavily to Arabic and the Quran. Moreover, many young Maldivians have studied at madrassas in the Middle East and Pakistan, where some have been recruited by militants. At a counseling center for recovering heroin addicts in Male, I met Ahmed Shah, a former recruit who nervously puffed on a cigarette as he told me of the 31 days he spent at a militant training camp in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, during a break from religious studies in Lahore. The camp was run by Lashkar-e-Tayyba, a Pakistani extremist group that U.S. officials have linked to al-Qaida. Now 28, Shah recalled the camp fondly. "So many Maldivians were training there," he said.
Blame can also be assigned to President Maumoon Gayoom, an Egyptian-trained religious scholar who has run the Maldives since 1978. In the time-honored tradition of Muslim autocrats everywhere, Gayoom uses Islam to promote his legitimacy-his official biography notes proudly that he designed the calligraphy in the capital's main mosque-while dealing ruthlessly with secular political rivals. Under pressure from human rights groups and Western governments, Gayoom has eased up a bit on the repression and pledged to hold free presidential elections in 2008. But the net effect of his policies has been to create a hospitable environment for extremists. "I can hear people sharpening their knives," warned Mohammed Nasheed, who heads the largest opposition party and was released from house arrest in September, after more than a year in custody.
Nasheed wasn't the only one expressing worry about the fundamentalist trend. "Obviously it is the biggest threat to this country," Hassan Saeed, the attorney general, told me. He voiced particular concern about the latent threat to tourism, citing a 2005 incident in which fundamentalists attacked a Male shop for displaying a Santa Claus in its window.
Lancaster describes his trip to one of the Maldives's smaller islands where he chatted with Majeed, "a young schoolteacher with a wispy beard." Before leaving the island, Lancaster asked a final question:
"How do people here feel about Osama Bin Laden?" Majeed smiled bashfully. "I think here we have to support him," he said. "He is the person who is trying to spread the Islamic religion in the world." An hour later, I was sipping a Corona in an open-air restaurant, surrounded by Italians in bathing trunks and bikinis. A sign advertised a discoteca starting at 11 p.m.
Comment: One shudders doubly to think of an American professor helping the regime apply Islamic law in this environment.
Feb. 7, 2012 update: The Islamist opposition, headed by former vice president Waheed Hassan Manik, today overthrew the democratically elected government of President Mohamed Nasheed.
Sep. 3, 2013 update: An article on "The Perils of Rising Religious Fundamentalism in the Maldives" by Djan Sauerborn for the South Asia Democratic Forum begins with this passage, which should cause advocates of Shari'a to think again:
The expansion of radical Islam across the Maldives has been accompanied by the gradual introduction of Sharia law. … Islam, which only decades ago did not play a major role within the public sociopolitical sphere, has turned into a divisive "game changer". Moderate, peaceful and inclusive forms of religious expression are being violently pushed aside by adherents of fundamentalism.
On April 19th a protest movement aimed at implementing Sharia as the sole source of legal guidance within the archipelago state manifested itself as hundreds of men and women took to the street calling for the full enactment of Islamic Sharia. … the line between codified law and Sharia is becoming increasingly blurry. On March 28th the parliament drafted a penal code bill which includes "Hudud" punishments, such as amputation for theft or flogging for fornication.
The danger of radicalization is not a mere "de jure" threat. There have been several examples in the past months which exemplify a rise in extremist attitudes and actions. Maybe the most shocking incidence occurred in February of this year when a 15 year old traumatized teenage girl, who was raped several times by her stepfather, was sentenced to 100 lashes for having engaged in pre-marital sex and fornication. …
The key proponent for more austere religious practices is the current Minister of Islamic Affairs, Shaykh Shaheem Ali Saeed, who has been quoted saying that music and singing are "haram" (forbidden) and that Christians on the island who he calls "freemasons" are "out to wipe out Islam from the Island". Another troubling phenomenon is the education of many young Maldivians in madrasas abroad, especially in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Students who unknowingly attended more radical madrasas often return home to the Maldives, expressing their newly acquired fundamentalist views.