Former president Mohamed Nasheed was forced on the defensive Wednesday after religious scholars denounced comments he made at a campaign event about developing the burgeoning mid-market tourism industry.
Lauding the success of guesthouse tourism on local islands introduced during his administration, Nasheed appeared to suggest a “bigger profit” could be made by authorising the sale of alcohol.
“I’m certain no one would have thought we were opening a multi-million, billion dollar industry when we decided to give permits for tourist business on inhabited islands back in 2009,” he said Tuesday night on the Thoddoo island in Alif Alif atoll.
“But there are certain realities in this world. Perfume is what sells most in the world, and then chocolate, alcohol and cigarettes. We know when we do business with these things, there’s a huge profit and we get richer.”
He added: “Guesthouse tourism can be done much better in Maldives. If we really think about it, it becomes an undeniable reality that we can take a [bigger] profit from this business.”
Taxes from tourism goods and services account for nearly 30 percent of government income.
In the face of accusations from religious scholars about pursuing a hidden anti-Islamic agenda, Nasheed insisted on Wednesday that he was not in favour of legalising the sale of alcohol.
“I don’t agree with selling alcohol on inhabited islands and I have not spoken in favour of it. Sad thing is those who spread this message and use religion as a weapon are the ones linked to the people who sells the most alcohol in Maldives,” tweeted the former president, now a Maldivian Democratic Party candidate for the April 6 parliamentary elections.
Religion is a hot-button issue in local politics.
Nasheed was accused of pursuing a secularisation agenda both during his three-year administration and his failed re-election bid in 2013. Religion was also a prominent part of the 2018 campaign with former president Abdulla Yameen accusing the opposition coalition of planning to introduce anti-Islamic practices to the 100 percent Muslim Maldives.
The sheikhs and scholars who denounced Nasheed’s alleged call to legalise alcohol sale included senior members of the Adhaalath Party, one of the four parties in the MDP-led ruling coalition, as opposition candidates also seized upon the controversy.
The MDP is competing against coalition partners as well as the opposition after deciding not to divide seats among the four coalition parties.
“The money earned from selling something forbidden by Allah will be haram,” Dr Mohamed Iyaz tweeted.
“While Allah has revealed that the sin in alcohol is bigger than its benefits, Muslims looking at only the benefits will condemn you to damnation in both worlds,” echoed Sheikh Ilyas Hussain, sharing a verse from the Quran.
Both scholars are senior members of the Adhaalath Party.
“I urge beloved Maldivians to stay cautious of outright sinful talk and hidden plans with evil intentions. Even if you fill your pockets with money, you go to the grave empty handed. For Muslims there is the afterlife as well, we must not forget,” Sheikh Ali Zaid warned.
“Don’t try to destroy the Islamic nationalism and discipline that’s been here for 800 years by showing people the fantasy of money. I call on all Muslim people not to vote for these people in the upcoming elections,” Zaid said in a second tweet.
In January, Nasheed was accused by prominent scholars of encouraging premarital sex for saying unmarried women should be prescribed contraception or allowed to have a tubectomy to prevent birth out of wedlock.
He later apologised for “misunderstandings” caused by his remarks, which he said was about children born out of wedlock who become vulnerable to drug addiction.