Maldives faces up to extremism
By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE - The Maldives, which is at the forefront of a campaign to get the
international community to act on a looming global warming crisis, has a more
immediate problem on hand. A rising tide of religious extremism is driving this
tropical paradise of a low-lying string of islands down the road to a new
What is more, the spread of militant Islam in the country and the appeal of a
radical strain of Islam are drawing Maldivian youth into global jihadi groups.
"Hundreds of Maldivians" have been recruited by the Taliban and are fighting in
Pakistan, Maldivian President Mohammed Nasheed told the CNN-IBN news channel
during his recent visit to India.
An Indian Ocean archipelago of over 1,992 coral islands strewn
across the equator, the Maldives is renowned for its emerald green waters and
sandy beaches. It has been in the grip of political turmoil in recent years.
Opposition to president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom's authoritarian rule exploded in
mass demonstrations for democratic reform from 2003 onwards, which the
government sought to crush with a heavy hand. The Maldives has since adopted a
new constitution, held multi-party presidential and parliamentary elections -
which Gayoom lost in 2008 - and set up an independent judiciary, a commission
for human rights and other reforms.
But newly democratic Maldives is up against a serious challenge - religious
extremism. Maldivians are Sunni Muslim and adherence to Islam is required for
citizenship. Historically, religion has been an important part of the daily
lives of Maldivians, but the Islam followed here was never rigid or
Maldivian Islam is suffused with local cultural practices and faith in Islam
has co-existed with the belief in spirits - djinns. Alongside praying to
Allah, Maldivians turned to magic and spells for protection against evil
Traditionally, women did not veil their faces or cover their heads and men did
not grow beards. Interaction between men and women was allowed and arranged
marriages, practiced in most Islamic societies, was never the norm here.
That is now changing.
A puritanical version of Islam has taken root. Signs of conservatism are more
evident on the streets of the capital, Male, today than they were even a few
years ago. The number of burqa-clad women has been increasing steadily
as has that of bearded men.
And religious conservatives have become increasingly assertive. Ongoing efforts
by the government to revise the penal code have come under intense opposition
from a small but vocal section that wants sharia law punishments like the death
penalty, flogging and amputations to be included. Several public demonstrations
supporting flogging have taken place in Male in recent months and those who
have spoken against this practice have been threatened.
Among those demanding the inclusion of sharia punishments in the revised penal
code is the Adhaalath Party, a constituent of the ruling coalition, which
controls the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. Many describe it as an extremist
party. But more extreme than Adhaalath are organizations outside parliament,
like the Jamiyyathul Salaf.
Registered as a non-governmental organization with the Ministry of Home Affairs
and set up to "raise religious awareness and promote the values of Islam", the
Jamiyyathul Salaf is actively engaged in spreading Salafi Islam in the
Maldives. In 2008, it declared music to be haram (forbidden) and forced
the closing of a school library in Male that had "Christian story books". More
recently, it invited a preacher, Bilal Philips, who endorses girls being
married off when they attain puberty, to visit.
Informed sources are of the view that "there is no evidence yet" directly
linking organizations like Adhaalath and Salaf with armed violence. "It is
mainly to the Maldivian way of life that these organizations pose a threat,"
said Halath Rashid, a freelance journalist. "We could lose our liberal, secular
and tolerant way of life that we've enjoyed for centuries.”
The popular support these organizations enjoy is still limited. Adhaalath for
instance failed to win even a single seat in the recent general elections. If
they have been able to get many to adopt their brand of Islam it is through
intimidation and their tactic of labeling their critics as anti-Islam that they
have been able to do so.
The roots of the religious radicalism visible in the Maldives today can be
traced to Gayoom's "Islamification" policies. According to a Maldivian
political analyst, Gayoom, "though not an extremist by any standard", pursued
policies that have made the Maldives vulnerable to religious radicalism.
He started the first Arabic-medium schools and replaced the liberal Islamic
studies textbooks that were taught with until then with a stricter version he
imported from the Middle East. Students coming out of these Islamic schools
went to study in Islamic universities in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
Flushed with Saudi funds, they returned home to preach a more rigid form of
Islam that is alien to Maldives.
If an earlier generation of Maldivians came back to preach, today an even more
radicalized lot is picking up the gun. Maldivians who have gone to Saudi and
Pakistani madrassas (seminaries) to continue their studies, especially
those who studied in seminaries like the Jamia Salafia Islamia at Faisalabad,
which has produced several al-Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba leaders, have been
drawn into jihadi networks.
The involvement of Maldivians in the global jihadi network received a fillip in
2005 when the Lashkar-e-Toiba's charitable front, the Idara Khidmat-e-Khalq
(IKK), began engaging in relief operations in the Maldives following a tsunami.
Scores of Maldivian boys were recruited through the IKK and sent to seminaries
Several Maldivians have been arrested in recent years in connection with
terrorism-related activities or en route to training or fighting in Pakistan
and Afghanistan. In April, nine Maldivians were arrested with weapons near the
Pakistan-Afghanistan border. A fortnight earlier, three Maldivians were
arrested for illegally entering the Waziristan tribal area in Pakistan. One
Maldivian national has spent three years at the Guantanamo US detention
facility in Cuba and more are likely to follow. According to the Maldivian
president's press secretary, 10 Maldivians currently in Pakistani jails are
likely to be transferred soon.
It is not just in Pakistan-Afghanistan that Maldivian jihadis are active. Some
were sent to carry out attacks in India. At least two Maldivian nationals are
known to have died fighting in Kashmir in early 2007, and Nasheed recently
pointed to "a Maldivian connection" to the terrorist attacks in Mumbai a year
Maldivian radicals have carried out attacks in the Maldives as well. In
September 2007, Maldives witnessed its first terrorist attack when a bomb went
off in Sultan Park in Male, injuring 12 foreign tourists. There is concern too
that jihadis could use Maldives’ remote islands as safe havens.
Rashid says while there is no evidence yet of armed Islamic organizations in
the Maldives, "well-connected Maldivians" told him about "terrorist cells
operating in Maldives which can be mobilized to act the moment orders arrive
from 'headquarters'”, with 'headquarters' possibly referring to "any extremist
leader operating out of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, etc".
The government has been criticized for not doing enough to address the
extremist problem. This month, Ahmed Saleem, president of the Human Rights
Commission of Maldives said the government's efforts to stop religious
extremism from spreading in the country were "inadequate".
Concern is mounting in the Maldives and outside over the increasing brazenness
with which religious extremists are operating. Even if organizations like
Adhaalath and Salaf are not armed themselves they are promoting a culture that
provides an ideal breeding ground for jihad groups to thrive.
They are more active under the new democratic government than they ever were
under Gayoom. A part of the problem is Nasheed's alleged "appeasement" of
religious parties like Adhaalath. "Unlike Gayoom, who used to jail people like
[controversial religious preacher] Sheikh Fareed for their views, under the new
democratic government, extremists are able to advocate their version of Islam
without fear of being arrested and detained. So they are able to operate and
preach more freely and organize rallies and so on," the political analyst said.
The inclusion, too, of Adhaalath in the ruling coalition has given the party a
new legitimacy. In control of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs it has been able
to wield far more influence on religious affairs than it has in the past. It
exercises clout far greater than that which its support base would merit or
But sources in government say that with Adhaalath in the ruling coalition, the
government is able to deal more easily with the more extreme Salafis on various
religious issues. Besides, Adhaalath in government is less dangerous than
outside. Keeping them out of the government would push them to the fringe and
could encourage them to join hands with the Salafis.
The Maldivian government is considering legislation to tackle terrorism. A
counter-terrorism bill is in the cards. It has also stepped up defense and
security cooperation with India.
In August, the countries signed a pact under which India has assumed
responsibility for the archipelago's security. It will set up a network of 26
radars across the Maldives' 26 atolls, which will be linked to the Indian
coastal command. Besides, a fortnight-long joint exercise between the armies of
the two countries was held recently in India which is aimed at achieving
interoperability in the event of future joint counter-terrorism operations.
But counter-terrorism cooperation with India or other countries alone cannot
eliminate the problem. The solution to countering terrorism is domestic.
Nasheed will have to rein in the religious extremists if he is keen to deny
terrorism a safe haven in Maldives.
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in