Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Has Gayoom created an Islamist paradise?

Slate.com reporter John Lancaster has traveled to the Maldives to find out if the sleepy Indian Ocean archipelago has become a tropical paradise for Islamic extremism. His report, however briefly, touches upon the role of dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in creating a fertile environment for Saudi backed Islamic fundamentalism and religious intolerance.

Since taking office in 1978, Gayoom has ruled the Maldives with a heavy hand, issuing severe restrictions on press freedom and jailing and torturing political prisoners. As Lancaster points out, one Gayoom's primary tools in promoting his political legitimacy is his relentless promotion of Islam, highlighted by the tireless promotion of his own Muslim piety; a hoary tactic used by Muslim dictators from Libya to Baghdad. However, it appears that Gayoom's relentless use of Islam as a political tool may have had the unintended consequence of helping create a homegrown Islamic fundamentalist movement opposed to his rule, instead of the relatively meek and harmless relatively secularized political opposition Gayoom handled so easily.

So what's a dictator to do? Gayoom's apparent solution is to give up, and transform the Maldives into a genuine democracy by 2008. Skepticism abounds, however, and they may be onto something: how many dictators can you name who have put their jobs on the line by risking free and fair elections? Then again, Gayoom's proposed political reforms, however insufficient to some, might just do enough to keep a marriage of political unrest and fundamentalist Islam from gaining traction, in which case, it might be a shrewd move by one of Asia's most obscure autocrats.

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