At the Maldives’ National Museum, smashed Buddhist statues are testament to the rise of Islamic extremism and Taliban-style intolerance in a country famous as a laid-back holiday destination.
On Tuesday, as protesters backed by mutinous police toppled president Mohamed Nasheed, a handful of men stormed the Chinese-built museum and destroyed its display of priceless artefacts from the nation’s pre-Islamic era.
“They have effectively erased all evidence of our Buddhist past,” a senior museum official told AFP at the now shuttered building in the capital Male, asking not to be named out of fear for his own safety.
“We lost all our 12th century statues. They were made of coral stone and limestone. They are very brittle and there is no way we can restore them,” he explained.
“I wept when I heard that the entire display had gone. We are good Muslims and we treated these statues only as part of our heritage. It is not against Islam to display these exhibits,” he said.
Five people have since been arrested after they returned the following day to smash the CCTV cameras, he said.
The authorities have banned photography of the damage, conscious that vandalism of this kind which echoes the 2001 destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan by the Taliban is damaging for the nation’s image.
The gates of the two-storied grey building, which opened in 2010, are padlocked and an unarmed guard keeps watch.
The Maldives, a collection of more than 1,100 coral-fringed islands surrounded by turquoise seas, is known as a “paradise” holiday destination that draws hundreds of thousands of travellers and honeymooners each year.
Visitors’ contact with the local population is deliberately kept at bay, however, with most foreigners simply transferring from the main international airport directly to their five-star resorts on outlying islands.
Few have any idea they are visiting a country of 330,000 Muslims with no religious freedom, where women can be flogged for extramarital sex and consuming alcohol is illegal for locals.
Islam is the official religion of the Maldives and open practice of any other religion is forbidden and liable to prosecution.
The religious origins of the Maldivian people are not clearly established, but it is believed that a Buddhist king converted to Islam in the 12th century.
Thereafter, the country practiced a mostly liberal form of the religion, but more fundamentalist interpretations have spread with the arrival of money and ultra-conservative Salafist preachers from the Middle East.
In 2007, following a bombing that wounded a dozen foreign tourists, the former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom banned head-to-toe coverings for women as a sign of his intent to battle conservative Islamic thinking.
At the museum, another official said that fundamentalists had threatened to attack the museum on previous occasions unless it withdrew the Buddhist display.
The country’s ultra-conservative Islamic group, the Adhaalath Party, condemned the attack, but said they remained opposed to Nasheed’s decision to accept three monuments from India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
“Our constitution does not allow idols and that is why we objected to the monuments,” General Secretary Mohamed Muizzu Muizzu said, referring to the gifts to mark a South Asian summit held in November in the Maldives.
The monuments, which included one of pillar featuring Buddhist motifs, and which had been on display in the southernmost island of Addu, have all since been vandalized.
The Adhaalath party supports new president Mohamed Waheed, who Nasheed accuses of taking part in a coup, and is due to join the new government.
Waheed called the museum attack “totally unacceptable” and denied there was religious violence in his country.
Former foreign minister Ahmed Naseem disagreed.
He said extremists were thriving in the Maldives and that they were partly responsible for the toppling of Nasheed and the installation of Waheed. “What we had was a military coup backed by religious extremists,” he said.
“There is a strong influence of Islamic fundamentalists in the country and they will get stronger,” Naseem told AFP. “These groups are funded from abroad. “This threat is not only to us, but the rest of the world as well.”
The moderate Nasheed, who was educated in Sri Lanka and Britain, was consistently accused of being under the control of Jews and Christians by religious opposition parties now linked to the government
There were also demonstrations over proposals from the transport ministry to allow direct flights from Israel.
“We strongly condemn the anti-Semitic words and the other commentary recently,” U.S. assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs Robert Blake said during a visit to Male on Saturday.
“Under President Nasheed, the Maldives tried to improve relations with Israel and showed what a progressive country they were and we really commend them for that.”