Growing pains for Maldives as radicals raise tensions

MALE, Oct 31, 2007 (AFP) – The Maldives has built South Asia’s most successful economy based on luxury tourism, but the atoll nation is now facing religious tensions as it undergoes a difficult transition to democracy. The tranquillity of the paradise holiday destination was shattered in September when Islamic radicals set off a home-made bomb, wounding 12 foreign tourists.

The attack was followed by a clash between troops and Taliban-style fundamentalists who want women to be totally covered, singing banned and no schooling for girls.

The government has hit back with restrictions to prevent militant Islam spreading in the moderate nation, home to 330,000 Sunni Muslims on 1,192 tiny coral islands scattered across the equator.

“We are going through a process of cultural change, an opening of our society,” Tourism Minister Mahamood Shougee said in an interview.

“But as much as we can’t allow women to cover from head to toe, we can’t allow half naked people on the roads.”

The problem of religious extremism has been seen as the result of either increased freedoms or opposition to President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who has served six consecutive terms in office since 1978.

Gayoom, 69, is now accu