MALE, Maldives (Reuters) - Few of the million or so tourists who visit the Maldives each year would catch even a whiff of the troubled politics or growing militant threat roiling the islands of one of the world’s most renowned get-away-from-it-all destinations.
President Mohamed Nasheed, who initiated multi-party democracy in the Indian Ocean archipelago with an historic election victory in 2008, stands accused of adopting the autocratic methods of his predecessor and bitter rival, which he had pledged to abolish.
Last month, Nasheed ordered the military to arrest Criminal Court Chief Justice Abdulla Mohamed, accusing him of being in the pocket of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.
Nasheed’s opponents have adopted a hardline style of political Islam to savage his religious credentials.
The entry of that brand of Islam into politics has unnerved practitioners of traditionally moderate Maldivian Islam and Western governments alike, and raised worries it could threaten the nation’s toddler democracy.
In the outer islands of the Muslim archipelago, there are fears that hardline militant Islam is taking root.
Taking a page from the book of Gayoom, Nasheed ordered Mohamed’s arrest and defied a Supreme Court release order, sparking more than three weeks of sometimes-violent protests by opposition parties that scented a chance for their own Arab Spring in the Indian Ocean.
The reason, Nasheed says, is because the judge, like the other 200-odd criminal court judges, was illegally sworn in for a life term and has blocked every attempt to bring multi-million-dollar corruption, rights abuse and criminal cases against Gayoom’s allies and relatives.
“Gayoom is running the judiciary,” Nasheed said. “When he lost the presidency, he was clever enough to carve out a territory and hide there, or get protected there. And none of the cases are moving.”
So to make good on his electoral promise to enact a new constitution and establish an independent judiciary, Nasheed says he has acted outside of it.
“You have to push everyone to the brink and tell them ‘You do this or we all fall’,” Nasheed told Reuters in an interview at the presidential bungalow in Male, the capital island.
“I think it would be so wrong of me not to tackle this simply because I might fall or simply because people may raise eyebrows.”
And it has done just that, drawing private diplomatic rebukes from Western nations which backed his ascendancy to lead the archipelago of 1,200 islands out of 30 years of Gayoom’s rule, which was widely criticized as dictatorial.
“It’s just indefensible. It’s almost like Nelson Mandela coming out and locking up all the white people,” a businessman based in Male who works with a government-linked company told Reuters, asking not to be identified.
An Asian diplomat serving in Male said Nasheed was undermining the very institutions he was supposed to build.
“He is a champion of democracy by soul and heart, make no mistake about that,” the diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity. “But the worst thing that has happened here is people are doubting democracy and asking ‘Did we do the right thing?’”
Even Nasheed appears uncomfortable, if unwavering.
“For god’s sake, I don’t want to arrest anyone. I have no intention of keeping anyone under arrest, and the man is kept very nicely - that’s no justification at all - but it’s not the kind of dump we were kept in.”
There have been nightly and sometimes-violent opposition protests since the judge’s detention, prompting the government to get U.N. and Commonwealth assistance to break the impasse.
The protests have also prompted virulent attacks on Nasheed’s Islamic credentials.
The Dhivehi Quamee Party (DQP), run by the urbane former attorney general Hassan Saeed, issued a pamphlet accusing Nasheed of attempting to undermine Islam by bringing in Christianity, establishing diplomatic relations with Israel and of doing business with Jewish businessmen.
“It was a critique of the government’s religious policy, and it must be read in that context,” Saeed told Reuters in his law office near the Male port. “Our main problem is the business relationships with Jews of Nasheed and members of his cabinet.”
On Twitter, opposition-linked groups or individuals have called for Nasheed’s impeachment and, in at least one case, beheading under sharia law.
But while the political fray goes on with all eyes on the 2013 presidential election, Maldivian intelligence officers and Western officials say hardline Salafist and Wahabist groups are gaining political ground in the more distant atolls and making a beachhead in Male.
The capital island is home to almost 200,000 of the Maldives’ 330,000 people, all Sunni Muslims. It is also home to the majority of the estimated 30,000 people on the islands who are addicted to heroin, according to U.N. estimates.
“It’s potentially a tropical Afghanistan. The same forces that gave rise to the Taliban are there — the drugs, the corruption and the behavior of the political class,” a Colombo-based Western ambassador who is responsible for the Maldives told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
“The Salafists are taking over atoll after atoll. They work on the ground and it is insidious. Nero is definitely fiddling while Rome burns.”
None of the 931,000 well-heeled tourists who came in 2011 to visit desert islands swathed in aquamarine seas, ringed by beaches of icing-sugar sands, would get a hint of that.
Most tourists are whisked straight to their island hideaway by seaplane or speedboat, where they are free to drink alcohol and get luxurious spa treatments, insulated from the everyday Maldives, a fully Islamic state where alcohol is outlawed and skimpy beachwear frowned upon.
Pressure from Islamist parties prompted the government to briefly shut down all hotel spas in January, before realizing they may be killing the golden tourism goose of the Maldivian economy, which is believed to account for two-thirds of gross domestic product.
“Whatever winds that blow with trade from the Middle East always stop in the Maldives first,” Nasheed said, referring to conservative influences brought back from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan over the past three decades.
“They’re really quite infiltrated into many, many islands and they have literally taken over our way of life.”
The Maldivian government has under watch about 100 people who have links to al-Qaeda or other militant groups, or who trained in camps in Pakistan or Afghanistan, two Maldivian intelligence officials told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
“We do have a somewhat good understanding of who could be a violent extremist, who has trained in terrorist camps with terrorist groups,” one of the officials told Reuters. “We do understand this problem is huge and if we don’t tackle it, it is going to be a big problem in the future.”
Though not on the top of Western intelligence agencies’ radars, four diplomats from the United States and Europe, including Britain, confirmed Maldivian militants were being tracked and intelligence was being shared with the government.
“There are some extremely nasty people on some of the outer atolls, where you wouldn’t want to go,” an American diplomat told Reuters.
The geographic isolation creates an intelligence-gathering problem, the Maldivian official said: “Surveillance is very difficult because on an island, if you send anyone in, they can easily be spotted.”
The arrest of the chief justice has given Gayoom, still active through his Progressive Party of the Maldives, a chance to put the shoe on the other foot and kick Nasheed in the political arena.
“If Nasheed’s solution is to remove people from the system, when does that stop? If you allow the military to intervene in a political issue, that’s dangerous,” former Gayoom spokesman Mohamed Hussain “Mundhu” Shareef said.
Shareef and Faris Gayoom, the former president’s eldest son, said Nasheed had resorted to extra-constitutional measures because he was facing an election in 2013.
“We have seen abuses now we didn’t even imagine,” Faris Gayoom told Reuters in a café in Male. “They (Nasheed) came into power after character-assassinating my father, with allegations of torture and corruption.”
The government has implicated Gayoom’s relatives and allies in human rights abuse cases and graft cases involving hundreds of millions of dollars pilfered from state institutions including the Bank of Maldives and the oil trading administration.
“We totally, 100 percent deny everything,” Gayoom said. “For me, this is personal and for my father as well.”
Nasheed denied it was a vendetta against the man who jailed him 27 times, but simply a refusal to let a handful of corrupt men stop the Maldives from having an independent judiciary.
“They have their resorts, they have their property and the government can get it through the courts,” Nasheed said. “All of it goes right back to them and that is why they can’t let go of Abdulla Mohamed (the chief justice). That would be the end of them.”
Editing by John Chalmers and Robert Birsel