The government in the Maldives has lifted a nationwide ban on spas and massage parlors, revoking a circular sent by the Tourism Ministry last week which ordered spas to cease operations.
President Mohamed Nasheed, told a press conference at Kurumba Maldives resort that the government has requested the Supreme Court to advise whether spas are legal under the Maldives constitution. Kurumba Maldives is the country’s first resort, which began operations in 1972.
The President said he has ordered the authorities to lift the ban on spas with immediate effect, while the country awaits the Supreme Court’s verdict.
The President said he was confident all the institutions of state would realize the importance of placing national development first and would not act in a way that would damage the tourism industry.
The President reasserted his view that the vast majority of Maldivians reject religious extremism and want to continue the moderate form of Islam the Maldives has followed for the past 800 years.
The government’s actions over the past few days follow an opposition rally in the capital, Male’, on December 23, aimed at “defending Islam.” During that rally, all the major opposition parties in the country attacked the government’s religious credentials; many speakers went further, calling for the creation of an “Islamic state” with the strict imposition of Sharia.
Following the rally, the government ordered the country’s spas closed.
According to a statement from the President’s office, “Since the government’s ban on spas, the opposition parties – most of which are headed or heavily influenced by resort owners – quickly changed their positions and stated they do not support a ban on spas nor wish to damage the tourism industry.”
“We wanted to impress upon everyone where the opposition’s demands were ultimately going to end,” the President explained on Wednesday.
The President said the government’s ultimatum “woke the nation from its slumber and sparked a healthy national debate about the future direction of the country.”
“The extremist demonstration on December 23 attracted a sizeable crowd. But their radical demands awoke the silent majority who categorically reject extremism,” the President said.
Political and religious tensions have been building up in the Maldives over the past year, with government supporters accusing opposition parties of colluding with religious extremists to destabilize the administration.
It is interesting to note that concerns about religious extremism are not new in the Maldives. President Nasheed’s predecessor, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who was toppled from power in 2008, had begun a crackdown on Islamic militant groups whose activities, he said, could affect the peaceful image of the popular tourist destination.
As a foreign journalist based in the Maldives observes, “The Maldives is a country of many contradictions, and this is one that finally came to a head with the apparently opposition-sponsored ‘Defend Islam’ protests on December 23.
“For 30 years, the Maldives has comfortably sold alcohol and pork and massages to appreciative tourists, while simultaneously describing itself as a 100 percent Islamic nation. It’s telling that this has only become an issue during a time of great political turmoil.”
The journalist adds that, strictly speaking, the Maldivian constitution outlaws the creation of any laws contrary to the tenets of Islam, which could arguably include those around the handling and sale of haram commodities such as pork or alcohol, adding: “The Maldives has traditionally got around this by designating resort islands as ‘unihabited’ islands, even if several hundred people may live and work there. However, visiting scholars such as Zakir Naik have questioned whether Islam itself provides for such a distinction, as have several Islamic finance experts I have privately discussed the matter with. Some have suggested that an outside company should manage resort bars as a separate entity, to keep the hotel profits ‘clean.’”
“That aside, like everything here, the recent kerfuffle is not really a religious issue, but rather a political one. The Maldives is fiercely divided along political lines, and Islamic nationalism remains a very strong political card that could well influence the outcome of the 2013 election. It’s likely that the President is allowing this particular wave to break early when it will do him less damage, as well as make a point,” said Naik.
At the same time, if opposition-aligned tourism tycoons – who openly profit from the sale of haram goods – were indeed funding rallies demanding greater Islamic conservatism to score points against the ruling party as claimed this week, then that would to the outside observer seem an own-goal of staggering magnitude.
The journalist concluded by saying that it is no understatement to suggest that the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision is a watershed moment for the Maldives, as it struggles to reconcile the inherent contradiction of its economy.