In the Maldives, there is no freedom of religion, as all citizens must be Muslim. Blasphemers and apostates can be tried in courts of religious law and sentenced to death. Rising religious extremism has become an issue, and extrajudicial attacks and murders on secular activists—or activists accused of secular sympathies—are common. There is no separation of religion and state, as the country is explicitly Islamic in character and design.
As of 2019, the Maldives has a population of 392,000, including an estimated additional 200,000 documented and 63,000 undocumented foreign workers, mostly from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India, and Pakistan. While it welcomes many foreigners to its popular beach resorts Maldives is hardly a paragon of acceptance, and is one of the strictest enforcers of religious law in the Muslim world. While historically moderate, it has at once radicalized and Arabized, and trends around dress and piety have changed in tandem. Blasphemy and apostasy are de-facto criminalized under the banner of hudud crimes, as well as explicitly under the penal code’s prohibition of “criticism of Islam.”
Islam arrived via Arab traders, who, by the 8th century, had established a colony in Canton. The gradual conversion process began 1147-1153, starting with the last Buddhist Sultan, who subsequently ordered the rest of the country to adopt Islam. The Islamisation of the Maldives was a complete one; whereas other neighboring countries synthesized Islam with local traditions, Islam supplanted them.
The Portuguese occupied the islands in 1558, and would remain in control for 25 years before being ousted by popular revolt after attempts to impose Christianity. In the mid 17th century, they fell under Dutch, then, British control under which they were a protectorate by 1887. The country became a republic in 1953, returned to the Sultanate system a year later via coup, then gained independence in 1965. Social Islamization that persists to this day took place under President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom (1978-2008), who, under article 38 of the Constitution, declared himself the “supreme propagator of Islam.” Gayoom weaponized accusations of apostasy against enemies of administration, but these also claimed the lives and freedom of ordinary Maldivians.
Development of Blasphemy Laws
The 1997 constitution established Islam the state religion, prohibiting the practice of any other religion. Additionally, the president must be Sunni, given the power of “supreme authority to propagate the tenets of Islam.” The constitution stated that individuals have a right to freedom of thought and expression, but only in a manner “not contrary to the tenets of Islam.” A new constitution, enacted in 2008, explicitly requires that all citizens of the Maldives be Muslim.
The penal code also grants judges free discretion to impose sharia penalties for hudud crimes, apostasy named among them. The penal code criminalizes “criticism of Islam,” which includes a broad range of behaviors deemed to “disregard” Islam,” with imprisonment for up to one year. The restrictions apply to non-Muslims as well; those living in or visiting the country are legally prohibited from “openly expressing their religious beliefs, holding public congregations to conduct religious activities, or involving Maldivians in such activities,” under penalty of up to five years or house arrest, fines ranging from 5,000 to 20,000 rufiyaa ($320-$1,300), and deportation.
Attacks on perceived blasphemers are carried out extrajudicially, such as the 2014 kidnapping of roughly 40 perceived atheists by a group who was later photographed with the country’s Islamic Minister. Other incidents include the murders of blogger-journalists Ahmed Rilwan and Yameen Rasheed in 2014 and 2017, respectively.