Anthropology professor and Fulbright scholar Brian Didier recently returned from a Fulbright-sponsored trip to the Maldives, a small South Asian country off the coast of India. Didier’s distinguished research there led to a personal meeting with the Maldivian president and inspired the organization of an upcoming international conference on South Asian Muslim communities.
Didier traveled to the tiny country of the Maldives to study the nation’s coastal Islamic communities. He has worked extensively in the field of religious conflict and collective violence, particularly in the Muslim world, and wanted to further research the country to understand how religious leaders there use their authority to push for political reform.
With a population of 200,000, the Maldives has received little to no Western attention in the past few years and has no strong relationships with any Western countries despite receiving increased attention from other Islamic nations.
Didier’s Fulbright application, which was originally rejected by the Maldivian government, was eventually personally approved by Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayyoom. Didier said Gayyoom’s personal interest in his research is part of the Maldivians’ larger goal of democratic reform and further engagement with the West. According to the Fulbright Scholar Program, Didier was one of the first two academics ever welcomed to that country in the history of the program.
Islamic countries in coastal South Asia, where Muslims tend to be in the minority, do not receive enough attention compared to North Indian and Middle Eastern Muslim communities, Didier said.
After thorough ethnographic research and interviews with Muslim clerics, he drafted a proposal with collaborator Edward Simpson, an anthropology professor at the London School of Economics, for an international conference entitled “Islam Along the South Asian Littoral.” The conference is now slated for December 2006, thanks in large part to President Gayyoom.
“I sent the proposal directly to the president in March,” Didier said. “My logic was that if he lent support, all the other government officials would follow suit. The president called me in early September, and I met him the following day.”
Gayyoom’s personal interest in the topic helped catalyze Didier’s efforts to create the forum. The president set Didier up with the clerics of the Maldivian Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs, whom Didier commended for their help and support of the project.
Gary Garrison, assistant director for Asia and the Middle East at the Council for International Exchange, expressed great admiration for Didier’s work and groundbreaking research. No other current Fulbright scholar has ever had a personal audience with the host of his or her country, Garrison said.
The conference that Didier’s research sparked will focus on the many Muslim communities in the coastal and island regions of South Asia and their history, culture and religions, eventually addressing these communities’ future political landscapes.
Didier hopes to attract over 30 scholars from the field who have never been able to compare notes before the conference. As host of the conference, the Maldives will welcome some of the world’s most renowned and respected scholars, taking a place on the world’s intellectual stage and basking in some attention of its own.