Male, Maldives – Guests on a five-star honeymoon resort in the Maldives caught a rare glimpse of the decades-long political and religious tensions rocking this island nation when policemen – armed with axes, concrete saws and ropes – stormed the Fairmont Maldives to destroy model human figures that had been deemed un-Islamic.
The unprecedented raid on Friday came as President Abdulla Yameen railed against what he said was a plot by the “Western-backed opposition” to undermine Islam in the Maldives ahead of a highly charged election on Sunday.
Standing in a tropical storm on the tarmac in a half-completed airport in northern Maldives, Yameen lambasted his opponents for promoting “Western standards” that “are intolerable to our society and values”.
“I bring you development and prosperity,” he declared as the rain and wind whipped coconut palms in the distance.
“What does the opposition offer? They talk of democracy … What do they do in the name of Western-backed democracy? They protest to seek rights for homosexuals.”
He made no mention of the police raid on the resort.
Yameen, who is seeking re-election after fives years of rule marred by allegations of human rights abuses and corruption, had ordered in July the removal of the nearly 30 statues from the Fairmont Maldives Sirru Fen Fushi citing “significant public sentiment against” them.
That was after several clerics warned against “the sin of worshipping idols” when the Fairmont hotel opened the art gallery, called a coralarium, to the public.
The Candian hotelier called it the world’s first semi-submerged gallery, and Jason deCaires Taylor, the British-Guyanese artist behind the installations, said his aim was “to raise awareness for the protection” of Maldives’ coral reefs, which are under threat from warming oceans associated with climate change.
On Thursday, police said the civil court had issued a ruling ordering the resort to take down the sculptures, saying the installation “undermines Islamic faith, peace and order” in the country.
The judgment ordered the police and the army to remove the human models if the resort failed to do so within five hours, the police said in a statement.
Shahindha Ismail, executive director of human rights group Maldivian Democracy Network, described the police’s actions on Friday a “destructive and desperate” attempt by the president to court the religious vote.
She said Yameen, who is facing sanctions from the European Union over alleged rights violations, began his re-election bid by putting Islam at the centre of his campaign.
Indeed, after facing criticism from Western powers and neighbouring India over a wideranging crackdown on dissent, Yameen has sought to portray himself as defending sovereignty and religion in the Sunni Muslim nation. He quit the Commonwealth, and fostered close ties with China and Saudi Arabia, praising the two countries for funding his development agenda without interfering in the country’s affairs.
As his running mate this year, he chose a cleric with close ties to the Saudis, Dr Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed.
His opponents, however, accuse him of politicising Islam in order to deflect criticism over rights abuses.
Over the past five years, Yameen has jailed or forced into exile nearly all of his political rivals, suspended parliament, shuttered critical and independent media, and declared two states of emergencies over alleged threats to national security.
He has presided over a crackdown on liberal voices even as scores of young men and women left the country to join armed groups in various conflicts in the Middle East, including fighting with Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Meanwhile, a journalist was disappeared, a blogger was killed, and several rights activists have received death threats for criticising street crime and religious violence.
Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, the opposition’s joint candidate, has promised to investigate the attacks, restore democracy, release dissidents and investigate corruption allegations against Yameen.
Ismail, of the Maldivian Democracy Network, said those who seek to promote human rights and democracy in the country have been “branded anti-Islamic” ever since prison riots in 2003 led to a democratic uprising.
Successive governments have used religion to legitimise authoritarian actions since then, she said, which has empowered far-right religious actors in the country.
That is why the art installation at the Fairmont has become a flashpoint, she said.
The hotel did not respond to calls for comment.
Ibrahim Muaz Ali, Yameen’s spokesman, denied any link between the taking down of the statues and the upcoming vote, but refused to answer additional questions.
Meanwhile, Ahmed Nihan, parliamentary group leader of the ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives, posted a tweet with police destroying the statues and the hashtag #YameenShaheem2018.
He had previously thanked Yameen for the removal order.
A similar outcry occurred in 2011 during a meeting of South Asian leaders in the Maldives’ southern Addu City over the installation of statues gifted by the country’s neighbours.
Several monuments, including a bust of Pakistan‘s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was torched, while the head of Sri Lanka‘s lion statue was decapitated.
The police eventually took down all the monuments.
Hamid Abdul Ghafoor, spokesman for the Maldivian Democratic Party, which leads the four-party alliance seeking to remove Yameen, declined to comment on the removal of the statues from the Fairmont hotel.
Isha Afeef reported from Male. Zaheena Rasheed reported and wrote from Colombo.