By Azra Naseem and Mushfique Mohamed

Popular Maldivian history does not go much further back than the 12th Century, when King Dhovemi Kalaminja converted to Islam and ruled that all his subjects must follow suit. Long forgotten or neglected history books, however, tell us that life in the Maldives—or Maladvipa; Dheeva Maari; or Dheeva Mahal as it was known in antiquity—began centuries previously. The ancient Sri Lankan chronicle of The Mahavamsa connects the origins of Maldivian people to the Sinhalese through the story of excommunicated Indian princes from the Kalinga kingdom in the 6th Century. More recent Maldivian research, A New Light into Maldivian History (1958), traces Maldivian life even further back to the 3rd Century. Some historians have theorised that the first settlers in the Maldives could have emerged as soon as Greco-maritime trade began in the region making it very likely that the first Maldivians were “Prakrit speaking Satavahanas of the Deccan, Tamil speaking Chera, Chola, Pandyas of South India, and Prakrit speaking Sinhalese of Sri Lanka.”

Among these early Maldivians who predate the arrival of exiled Indian princes were descendants of the Tivaru people of ancient Tamil origin who later came to be known as ‘Giraavaru people’. They practised an ancient form of Hinduism involving Dravidian ritualistic traditions venerating Surya, the Sun god. The Giraavaru people, although now so totally assimilated into Maldivian society as to be indistinguishable from the rest, maintained a variety of their distinct traditions and culture until as late as the 1980s. It took a concerted, and often inhumane, effort by the government to finally make them conform to the majority’s norm. Successive governments also made sustained and systematic efforts to wipe out all history of the Buddhist community that had long existed in the Maldives until about 900 years ago. Just like the history of the Giraavaru people, however, the digging does not have to be too deep to uncover just how ingrained Buddhist ways and culture had been in Maldivian life for years. While archaeologists like HCP Bell have uncovered Buddhist structures buried underground, ethnologists like Xavier Romero-Frais have traced the origins of much of classical Maldivian cultural, linguistic and traditional traits to the Buddhist era.

The beginning of the end of Maldivian Buddhism came with Arab domination of trade in the Indian Ocean in the 7th Century. Just as the rise of China and India, and the US foreign policy’s Asia Pivot, have made the Maldives geo-strategically important today, so it was with the ancient Silk Route. Foreign powers were drawn to the Maldives by its location and its abundance of cowry shells, the currency of many. The spread of Islam along the Silk Route is well documented. In the Maldives, it is a widely accepted ‘truth’ that the conversion of the Maldives population to Islam was peaceful—people willingly converted with their King. There are, however, historical accounts that dispute the narrative exist in the form of writing on copperplates (Isdū Lōmāfānu) dating back to the 12th Century. These have not been made widely accessible to the public. In their place is a legend, first told orally then formalised as historical fact and included in primary school text books, which depicts Maldivian conversion to Islam as a reaction to the cruel deeds of a sea demon. As the story goes, the demon appeared like a ‘ship of lights’ once a month, demanding virgin girls to be delivered to it at night to a designated location. In the morning the demon would be gone, and the virgin would be found dead. A Berber or Persian, who was visiting Maldives at the time, volunteered to go to the demon in place of the chosen virgin one night. He stayed up all night reciting the Qur’an. When the demon appeared, the sound of the Qur’an gradually diminished it in size until it was small enough to be put into a bottle. The Arab traveller sealed the bottle and disposed of it into the deep blue sea, banishing it forever. A grateful King Kalaminja converted to Islam, and his obedient subjects followed suit. Hundreds of years of Buddhism disappeared, allegedly, without trace. From then on King Kalaminja became Sultan Muhammad Ibn Abdullah and Maldives became 100 percent Muslim.

The first major threat to the new Maldivian way of life came four centuries later, with Portuguese occupation in the 16th Century. Unlike latter colonial powers like the Dutch and the British, the Portuguese occupiers did not allow Maldivians autonomy in their internal affairs. Stories of Portuguese wine-drinking and merry-making abound in Maldivian historical accounts of their presence. One of the most potent weapons used to rally Maldivians behind the efforts to oust the Portuguese was religious rhetoric—the biggest threat from the Portuguese occupation, it was said, was to the Islamic faith of Maldivians. The day on which the Portuguese were defeated is now marked as the National Day, and the chief protagonists in the story of their ouster are venerated as the most heroic of figures in the history of the Maldives.

Religious rhetoric as a means of rallying support for political change, established as a success during the battle against the Portuguese, was once again deployed with similar triumph in the 20th Century. In 1953, while Maldives was still a British Protectorate, Mohamed Amin Didi became the first President of the Maldives. Amin Didi is largely credited with ending monarchy and steering the country towards a Republic. He is also known as a moderniser and an advocate for women’s rights. Amin Didi’s presidency—and the First Republic—lasted less than a year. Just as religious rhetoric was successfully used in ousting the Portuguese, so was similar discourse produced to brutally end Amin Didi’s presidency. Even the famine caused by WWII was tied to religious discourse and blamed on Amin Didi.

The Maldives’ first experiences of ‘Western modernity’ began during the Second Republic, with the arrival of tourists from Europe. The world had just lived through the counter-culture of the 1960s, the Maldives was no longer a British Protectorate, the Second Republic had been established, and Ibrahim Nasir was the President. Unlike its neighbours and contemporaries in other parts of the world, modernity was not enforced on the Maldives by a foreign power—it arrived with tourists and was adopted voluntarily by many locals, especially in the capital Male’ and surrounding areas. The Islam that existed in the Maldives at this time was an amalgamation of Islamic teachings, Buddhist Eveyla traditions and Sufi practises and rituals. Writers and historians such as HCP Bell, Clarence Maloney, Francois Pyrad and Xavier Romero-Frias have provided rare insights into Maldivian Islamic traditions. Many of them have now disappeared, or been made to disappear, as Western modernity and Islamism took hold of and begun to dictate Maldivian life. The total obliteration of Islam as it was practised in the Maldives for centuries began in earnest with the assumption of power by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

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Gayoom, visiting an island during the early days of his presidency. Photo: Images of Maldives Past

Gayoom, who ruled the Maldives for 30 years (1978-2008), was the country’s third president. Gayoom had spent most of his adolescent years in Egypt, having arrived there at the age of 12 in 1950 and left in 1969 as a graduate of Al-Azhar University. His politics, faith and worldview was largely shaped by what he saw and learned during almost two decades in the Middle East. When he was sworn in as president of the Maldives in November 1978, Iran was paralysed by demonstrations that heralded the Islamic Revolution. Relations between ‘the Arab world’ and the West were tense after the Arab-Israeli War of 1967 and the OPEC-led oil embargo in 1973-74. From the moment Gayoom assumed power, he intertwined Maldivian identity with that of his own, i.e. influenced and shaped by Egyptian culture, outlook, and beliefs. Maldivian Islam was, for the next thirty years, shaped, directed and dictated by Gayoom, the Egyptian graduate.

The Maldivian Constitution of 1968 stipulated Islam as the State religion. In 1997 Gayoom enacted a new Constitution in which he gave the Head of State—then himself—the power to be ‘the ultimate authority to impart the tenets of Islam’. This formalised what had been the status quo since his rule began. The first real challenge to Gayoom’s religious authority, granted to him by a Constitution he more or less drafted, came from the Maldivian Islamic revivalist scholars educated in Pakistan, mostly on scholarships provided by external sources. Several of the returning graduates challenged not just Gayoom’s religious authority but also his right to dictate what form of Islam Maldivians should practise. Gayoom was brutal in his crackdown on the practise of fundamentalist Islam, driving those who practised it to unite against his authority. Adhaalath Party was the result. Since then the party has undergone many changes, and has evolved into the most vocal Islamist party in the history of the country. Its founding members are no longer together, some having left to join the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) while others have remained with Adhaalath which has, in a volte face hard to fathom, now aligned itself with Gayoom and his People’s Party of the Maldives (PPM). Adhaalath Party’s most successful time came during the first three years of democracy in the Maldives, flourishing in the environment of free expression fostered by President Mohamed Nasheed.

The global roots of Islamism

Changes in religious practises that Maldives has undergone throughout its history have invariably been linked with changing international patterns of behaviour. Islam came, for example, with burgeoning trade on the Silk Route. Portuguese influences that are said to have threatened Maldivian Islam came with the beginning of the European colonisation project. Gayoom brought with him Egyptian Islam at a time when Iran was going through the Islamic Revolution and tension was high between ‘the Arab world’ and ‘the West.’ Islamism arrived with a vengeance as the world began to talk to of a ‘clash of civilisations’ between Islam and the West. In attempting to understand the current religious habits of the Maldivian population, it is helpful to look at what Islamism is, and how it has progressed through history to become the force it is today.

The Columbia World Dictionary of Islamism describes political Islam as having emerged in its modern form as a movement against secular pan-Arabism and/or autocrats endorsed by the West. Its objective is to return to a ‘Golden Age of Islam’ where Shari’a is implemented and the State is Islamised at all levels. Intellectual heavy-weights of the movement such as Mawlana Abdul A’la Mawdudi, Sayyid Qutb and Abdulla Azzam shared and propagated the idea that man-made law is tantamount to apostasy and is denotive of Jahiliyya. Osama bin Laden was a great admirer of Qutb’s ideas and thinking. [Incidentally, in his authorised autobiography, Gayoom, too, professes to be a Qutb admirer.] The ideas made popular by Qutb and his contemporaries were, however, not new; they have been around for centuries. Thirteenth Century Salafist thinker Taqi al-Din Ibn Taymiyya floated such ideas during the Mongol Empire’s expansion into the Middle East; Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab, whose thinking engendered what is today known as Wahhabism, propagated similar ideas in the Eighteenth Century; and, Indian Muslim activist Sayyid Ahmed Rei Barelvi did the same in the early Nineteenth Century. Following in their footsteps, Islamist leaders have mobilised resistance against various types of regimes—imperialists, Muslim secularists, autocrats, liberal democracies—that were grappling with a shift from the traditional to the modern. Some analysts have contextualised Islamic fundamentalism as a strand of anti-colonial resistance to European expansion into territories previously held by the Ottoman Empire which began after the Enlightenment. In Al-Qaeda and What it Means to be Modern, John Gray points out, for instance, that Qutb—a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood—borrows heavily from European anarchism. His ideas were influenced, Gray has noted, by the ‘Jacobins, through to the Bolsheviks and latter day Marxist guerrillas.’ A similar explanation for the phenomenon of Islamism has been offered by French professor Olivier Roy in Globalised Islam: the Search for a New Ummah. Roy asserts that ‘fundamentalism is both a product and an agent of globalisation, because it acknowledges without nostalgia the loss of pristine cultures, and see [as] positive the opportunity to build a universal religious identity, delinked from any specific culture.’

Islamism in the Maldives

Being poor, under-developed and geographically isolated, and lacking in rich natural resources (other than beauty), foreign powers left Maldives pretty much to its own devices for most of modern history. Almost all of the Maldivian population remained oblivious (and a substantial part still does) to ideological changes that re-arranged human life—communism, socialism, Marxism, etc. It remained similarly impervious to changes and evolution in Islamic jurisprudence, ideas and thinking. Life, and faith, was simple. All Maldivians accepted themselves as Muslims and adhered faithfully to its core tenants, principles and values without much ado. There appeared no need to declare one’s ‘Muslimness’, and, apart from Gayoom’s efforts to become the Supreme Leader of Islam, religion and politics remained separate. All Maldivians accepted themselves as Muslims and adhered faithfully to its core tenants, principles and values. The change that Maldives could not remain impervious to, however, came in the form of globalisation in the 1990s.

As Maldives opened up to tourism, the world was becoming more inter-connected. The ripples of what happened in one part of the world could now be felt everywhere. With the end of the Cold War came the end of the bipolar world in which the United States and the Soviet Union kept each other and the rest of the world in check. For years, the US used Afghanistan to wage a war against the Soviet Union, and armed militant Islamists as weapons against USSR as part of its Cold War strategy. Violence in the Israel-Palestine conflict increased with the First Intifada; the first Gulf War was fought; and tensions between the Middle East and the United States was high. Back in the US, any acts of violence committed against Western interests by Middle Eastern actors began to be labelled as ‘Islamic terrorism’, and analysts began to predict a doomsday scenario in which ‘religious terrorism’ was going to annihilate the world as we knew it. In 1993, American scholar and analyst Samuel Huntington published his now famous theory predicting of an impending ‘clash of civilisations’, the worst of which was going to be between ‘the West and Islam.’

Just as Islamist leaders of the past mobilised against various types and forms of regimes they saw as a threat, modern Islamists began to rally the troops against what they saw as US imperialism. This time, the leader was Osama bin Laden and, with globalisation at its height, the effort was truly worldwide. For the first time since King Kalaminja embraced Islam as the state religion of the Maldives, Maldivian Islam became a subject of enormous interest to people in other parts of the world. Maldivians soon began receiving funds for religious education abroad. In contrast to the small numbers of Maldivian students who had previously acquired Arab-influenced education in respected Middle Eastern universities such as Al-Azhar of Egypt, students now left in droves to institutes of learning not just in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries, but also in the nearby Pakistan. Waves of Islamism were about to crash onto the sheltered Maldivian shores.

Gayoom, under whose control Islam was made a central focus in Maldivian life, was determined to remain in full control of all religious affairs. He cracked down on the newly arrived fundamentalist scholars; going to the extent of not just jailing them, but also torturing them in jail. But the days of Gayoom were numbered; and a new wind soon blew across the globe that he was powerless to control: the War on Terror. Despite frenetic denials by the West, the new war was widely seen as a war between ‘Islam and the West’. Led by Osama bin Laden, the nuanced meaning of the word Jihad was hijacked by both sides of the War to denote only one thing: Holy War. Another event of global magnitude—the 2004 Tsunami—became a powerful weapon in the hand of Maldivian Islamists who quickly labelled the catastrophe as ‘God’s wrath’ for not practising the ‘right Islam’. The ‘right Islam’ was, of course, the fundamentalist, puritanical, and often violent, Islam they preached. It was a message many believed. In the Maldives, one of the most peaceful and crime-free places in the world until early 21st Century, the first religiously motivated act of violence in a public place in living memory occurred in September 2007. Radical Islamists detonated an IED in the tourist centre of the capital island of Male’, injuring twelve tourists. The perpetrators fled to the island of Himandhoo, 89 kilometres from Male’ by sea. By the time police traced the perpetrators to the island in October 2007, a large percentage of residents had subscribed to the radical ideology of the militants and were ready for a violent confrontation with the security forces.

Since then many Maldivian Islamists have become a part of the global ‘Jihadist’ movement of militants who travel to conflict ridden areas in the world to participate in what they see as a global Holy War. A Maldivian handpicked by Jamia Salafia was, for instance, funded by an American and trained by Kashmiri Mujahidin to become one of the suicide bombers who attacked the Inter-Services Intelligence headquarters in Lahore, Pakistan in 2009. The same year, Pakistani authorities detained eight Maldivians planning to create a terrorist group in the Maldives. A Maldivian radical Islamist is also reported to have been part of the 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbaiand, more recently, in late 2013 intelligence that eight Maldivians had been called to join a similar attack on another Indian city sparked a major coastal security alert in India.

Democracy and Islamist radicalism

Maldivian experience with democracy and Islamism demonstrates that would be a mistake to subscribe to the widespread belief that democracy is an antidote to radical ideologies. The transition to democracy in November 2008 proved a godsend for believers in fundamentalist Islam and radical Islamists. The new president Mohamed Nasheed, a former Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience, was determined to end torture in the jails and promote freedom of expression for all. Radical Islamists, as they do the world over, made full use of the freedoms and modern technology to advance their ideology. The Internet, mainstream media—the entire public sphere—was saturated with their messages as they went all in to educate and indoctrinate people. The change from dictatorship to democracy also ushered in multi-party politics, another opportunity for Islamists to further their agenda. Faced with a choice of losing the election to Gayoom or forming a coalition with Adhaalath Party, Mohamed Nasheed’s MDP chose the latter. It proved a fatal mistake for his presidency, and a golden opportunity for fundamentalists. A number of changes followed that tightened their grip on governance and on society at large. Gayoom’s Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs was replaced by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. Under the coalition agreement, most members of staff at the Ministry were members of Adhaalath Party. All Islamic discourse was now officially in the hands of fundamentalists.

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A man leads his young daughter to anti-government protests in the name of Islam, 23 December 2011. Photo: Aznym

The party quickly moved to tighten the grip on education; ensure alcohol was banned from all inhabited islands; issue Fatwas banning music, dancing and other such matters; dictate women’s clothing and behaviour; above all, proselytise, proselytise, proselytise. Unsurprisingly, Adhaalath Party was in constant conflict with its coalition partner MDP. One party was formed to further fundamentalist Islam while the other was—originally, at least—driven by a secular democratic agenda. It is a mark of Adhaalath’s proselytising success that, with a vociferous and radical public having been made to fall in behind its Islamist agenda, MDP conceded to Adhaalath’s demands so often on religious issues that by the time the 2013 election came about, its original ideas of maintaining a safe distance between religion and politics were nowhere in sight. In September 2011, after many squirmishes, Adhaalath severed its coalition with the MDP government, and dedicated itself to bringing down the Nasheed administration. Adhaalath’s role in orchestrating the events of 7 February 2012, which prematurely ended the first democratically elected government of the Maldives, is now well documented. Without Adhaalath and other other fundamentalist radical actors labelling of Nasheed ‘an enemy of Islam’ and creating the discourse of ‘Nasheed’s devious plot to destroy Islam’, it is unlikely that Maldivians would have acquiesced to abandon the democratic experiment so soon after it began. The Maldivian habit of exploiting religion for political purposes successfully deployed many times in the past to bring down governments, remains a powerful weapon in its present.

It is another measure of Adhaalath’s success that it used the freedoms given by democracy to associate it, in the minds of their radicalised followers, with irreligiousness. They also successfully projected democracy as an extension of colonialism, a concept which undermined sovereignty. Largely through their subscription to this fundamentalist rhetoric, a majority of Maldivians remain convinced that democracy is a form of governance that Islam frowns upon, and which no proper Muslim should associate themselves with. A recent study by the NGO Transparency Maldives on Maldivians’ relationship with democracy categorised 75% of Maldivians as non-democrats, or people who do not believe in ‘democratic values’. The Transparency Maldives survey did not explore the relationship between people’s perceptions of democracy and their religious attitudes; if it had, there is no doubt the results would have shown a significant correlation between negative attitudes towards democracy and current religious beliefs of a majority of people.

On 7 February 2012, amidst the chaos that ended Nasheed’s presidency, one of the first actions carried out by the radical Islamists was to break into the National Museum and destroy a number of invaluable artefacts from the country’s pre-Islamic history. It signalled the beginning of a new era of intolerance, xenophobia and radicalism in the history of the Maldives. Within months, Islamists attempted to kill Hilath Rasheed, the country’s only openly gay blogger and human rights activist, and a few months later the same year, they succeeded in brutally hacking to death one of the country’s more moderate Islamic scholars and Member of Parliament Dr Afrasheem Ali.

Since Yameen Abdul Gayoom, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s brother, was elected the new president of the Maldives on 16 November 2013 after the most farcical of election processes, the Adhaalath Party has fallen curiously silent. They are no longer on the streets, rousing crowds into action in the name of religion. It does not mean they are not active—it is more likely a sign that they no longer have to fight the government for the right to further their agenda. This year alone, for example, they have quietly made several significant changes to laws and regulations that solidify their authority over religious practises and beliefs. Last month, amendments were made to the Religious Unity Act bringing all mosques back under the control of the Islamic Ministry and made Islam a compulsory subject in all schools from grades one to twelve. There is little doubt that the syllabi will be under complete control of the fundamentalists. There is a reason such moves are officially condoned instead of met with concern. In 2011 Maumoon Abdul Gayoom announced that his party, then called Z-DRP, shared the same ideology as Adhaalath. Yameen Abdul Gayoom, although not known for his staunch religiosity, was happy to associate with Adhaalath for the downfall of Nasheed’s government and the promotion of his own bid for presidency. Since his government came to power it has ended the 50 plus years long moratorium the Maldives maintained on the death penalty, while failing to express any concern or take any action to stem the normalisation of radical views in society. Now that Islamic fundamentalists have more or less won the fight for the hearts and minds of the people, if not the fight to govern the country, it is very unlikely that the Gayooms will attempt to curb their freedoms as they once did.

How did they do it?

The success of Islamic fundamentalism in the Maldives has been the result of external influences and the exploitation by Islamists of internal weaknesses. Since the borderless and endless War on Terror began, religion has been pushed to the forefront of many national political and social agendas across the world. In the globalised world where national identities are said to matter little and borders even less, Islamic radicals exploited all available means of communication to reach out to the ‘Islamic Ummah’ to unite against a ‘common enemy.’ The Maldives, one of the few countries in the world to bill itself as ‘100% Muslim’ and with a constitution that demands every citizen to be a Muslim, is an attractive prospect for those pursuing bin Laden’s agenda of an Islamic Caliphate. All studies of radicalisation so far analyses ‘Muslim communities’ within societies that are also home to other religions, ethnicities and races. In the Maldives is a whole Muslim population, living in relative geographical seclusion, with relatively little knowledge of, let alone participation in, worldwide ideological changes or debates. Global funders of radical Islamist movements poured large sums of money into changing the entire Maldivian population into fundamentalist Muslims, if not radical Jihadists. In the decade since the War on Terror began, converted fundamentalists began opening up small shops all over the capital Male’. They were usually fabric shops aimed at women. It was a means of establishing a foothold within society. A large number of people—especially disaffected youth addicted to drugs who had been jailed in their hundreds by Gayoom—were specifically targeted by the Islamists. Once converted, the men would return home to do the same with their families. Radicalisation in prisons is now a well known phenomenon in many societies. Maldivian preachers trained in Pakistani seminaries, meanwhile, returned to their home islands where conversion of the entire population was easy. Fundamentalists also recruited local celebrities such as singers and musicians who then gave up their own careers and previous ways of life to become preachers or recruiters themselves. It is by now a well-known tactic of radicals and fundamentalists to recruit people from prisons. In a decade, most Maldivians had changed their religious beliefs to that of fundamentalist Islam, and hundreds of men had been recruited into the radical Jihadi cause.

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Maldivian women lining up to greet Gayoom visiting their island during the early days of his presidency. Photo: Images of Maldives Past

The most clearly visible signs of the fundamentalists’ victory over the Maldivian people’s hearts and minds is in their appearance—in a short span of a decade or so, the female Maldivian population went from one in which only older women (usually at least over fifty) wore a head scarf to one in which approximately eight out of ten women, from teenagers to the elderly, wear it. It is now de rigueur for most men to wear a long messy unkempt beard and clad themselves in Pashtoon/Arabic attire. Even women who do not subscribe to fundamentalist views wear the headscarf for a variety of reasons—to be sexy; to be fashionable; to appease their husband/boyfriend; due to peer pressure; even to hide double-chins. It is a remarkable situation that in the Maldives, mothers and grandmothers have been pressured into wearing the headscarf by granddaughters who wear it. Only a handful of Maldivian women over the age of sixty can now be found without a headscarf. A Muslim woman, it is now accepted in Maldivian society, is not a proper Muslim woman unless they wear the headscarf; and the ‘more Muslim’ they are, the more they cover-up. To turn around the beliefs and outlooks of an entire population—even their very idea of beauty—is no small feat.

The grassroots social networks that the Islamists laid through their presence in the community with shops, prison visits, and the groups established in mosques, were augmented by the formalisation of these networks through political power. Once Adhaalath Party was given control of the Islamic Ministry, it—and those approved by it—began controlling what Maldivians could think, speak and practise as ‘true Islam.’ Any words spoken or written about religion by any individual or party not sanctioned by the fundamentalist Muslims were banned or dismissed as ‘nonsense.’ Only scholars educated in Arab or Pakistani institutes of learning, preferably at institutes that endorse Wahhabism or other puritanical forms of Islam, were given approval to speak of or discuss the religion. The Islamic Ministry also began procuring fundamentalist and radical preachers from abroad such as Zakir Naik of Peace TV, and Bilal Philips, banned in many countries for preaching hate, to address Maldivians. While it can be argued that such people have the right to address their beliefs and views; the tragedy is that only such views were allowed. Visitors who failed to express similarly fundamentalist interpretations of Islam were ridiculed, insulted, and hounded out of the country. When UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay addressed the Maldivian parliament and called for a moratorium on Hadd punishments—especially the practise of sentencing people who have sex outside of marriage to a 100 lashes—Islamist leaders condemned Pillay and rallied their followers to protest outside the UN building in Male’. MPs and prominent politicians jostled each other for airtime to condemn as vociferously and colourfully as they could Pillay’s championing of human rights ‘because nobody has the right to speak against the Shari’a.’ Taking full advantage of the freedom of expression provided by democracy to saturate society with their messages about Islam while simultaneously banning everyone else from speaking of Islam altogether has been one of the most powerful tools used by Maldivian Islamists in their successful campaign to take charge of religious faith in the Maldives.

The real-life social and political networks formed by the fundamentalists and Jihadists is enhanced and made more powerful by their use of social networking on the Internet. Radicals have been infinitely more open to the use of modern communications to spread their messages than non-radical, moderate or liberal Muslims. Compared to a handful of liberal bloggers and one or two Facebook pages promoting secularism and/or discussing more moderate Islam, Maldivian followers of fundamentalist and radical beliefs have scores of websites, Facebook pages and YouTube channels that publish and broadcast their material. They prolifically publish translations of Wahhabi and other fundamentalist literature from all over the world in Dhivehi, and make them freely available for download. There are Fatwas available online on anything and everything ranging from the ridiculous to the bizarre—from the forbidden nature of music, the question of whether it is haram to wear contact lenses when praying, to the manner and frequency for conducting conjugal relations and exorcising demons and have them expelled to Saudi Arabia for conversion to Islam and to calls for violent Jihad in Syria. Public spaces such as ferries between islands, taxis and buses play sermons freely distributed on CDs by radical preachers, forcing passengers to listen. Most of the public, who now either subscribe to the fundamentalist view of Islam or think it is wrong not to, lap it up and believe these messages to contain ‘true Islam’. Others have no choice but to put up with it and shut up. Such monopoly of all religious discourse and knowledge means that when confronted with an issue of national importance such as, for example, the death penalty, a majority of the population is only privy to one side of the debate. Most Maldivians are not even aware of arguments within Islam that Shari’a cannot be applied today because it is impossible to replicate the conditions under which such punishments are justified or those which argue that Islamic jurisprudence allows for the abolition of the death penalty. Controlling what can and cannot be considered true knowledge of Islam, without a doubt, has been the most powerful means by which Islamists’ fundamentalist beliefs have triumphed over the Maldivian Islamic faith and identity that evolved over hundreds of years.

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Adhaalath led demonstrators heading towards the airport to protest against GMR in the name of Islam and sovereignty on 12 November 2012. Photo: Haveeru

Not just about beliefs

Despite the continued proselytising for puritanical Islam, the overtly political among Maldivian Islamists have on many occasions demonstrated an astonishing willingness to sacrifice principles for power. Quite apart from participation in anti-government activities and the toppling of a legitimate government in 2012—neither of which is condoned in Islam—Adhaalath has also failed to speak against Supreme Court Justice Ali Hameed for his highly publicised fornication, a Hudd crime that Adhaalath wants everyone else sentenced to a 100 lashes for. Although it is loud in its calls for the establishment of Shari’a as the only legal system of the Maldives, it has shown absolutely no concern for the many injustices carried out by the farcical justice system currently in place. Nor has any Islamist leader spoken out against the rampant corruption at all levels of government. The ultra-nationalism which it showed towards the tumultuous end of Nasheed’s government, including whipping up pseudo-religious hate against Indian company GMR’s contract to handle the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport, appears to have been no more than a political tactic. Taking shelter behind the religious rhetoric, the government declared the US$500 million contract as ‘void ab initio’ at the potential cost of US$1.4 billion. Reports saythe current Maldivian government is soon expected to award a contract to develop the same airport to Singaporean company Changi for an estimated US$800 million. Also this month it signed a contract with Chinese state-owned company Sinohydro to develop a new apron at the same airport. Not a peep out of the Adhaalath or any of the Islamists on how Islam and Maldivian identity would suffer when foreign contractors are put in charge of ‘the gateway to the Maldives’. This hypocritical pragmatism, although obvious to those who have resisted the call to fundamentalist Islam, appears to the converted as of little importance or consequence. They remain impervious to the facts in front of them: the same people who are calling them to fundamentalist Islam, or violent Jihad in conflict ridden areas of the world are themselves often deaf to what they preach, and are quite happy to remain safe in the Maldives while dispatching scores of young people to war in distant places in the name of Islam.

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Today, tomorrow

Maldivian life of the present is dominated by fundamentalist Islam, and its future is haunted by the spectre of radical Jihadi violence. Last Sunday, local newspapers led with the report that a Maldivian Jihadist had killed himself and several others in a suicide attack in Syria. It was followed by the news on Tuesday that another Maldivian had been killed in a gunfight at another Syrian location. On Wednesday local paper Haveeru reported that several Maldivians fighting in Syria were under siege from government forces. This was almost immediately denied by, according to online newspaper CNM, ‘a Maldivian fighting with Jabhat Al-Nusra’. Jabhat Al-Nusra is a Syrian Jihadist organisation fighting to establish an Islamic state in Syria.

As always, changes to Maldivian Islam reflect global changes. The Syrian conflict is coming to be known as ‘the world’s first YouTube war‘; and Maldives is already represented. A group known as Bilad Al Sham Media has its own channel with the obligatory video of a fighter with a gun, calling Maldivians to ‘Jihad’ in Dhivehi. Bilad Al Sham Media are not just on YouTube, but are present on all social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter. Their media presence, and Maldivian papers’ easy access to Jabhat Al-Nusra’s Maldivian fighters signal a new chapter in the violent radicalisation of Maldivians. Unlike earlier times when news of Maldivians joining the ‘Holy War’ reached Maldivian news outlets long after the fact, today’s ‘Jihadists’ are eager to bring news of their fighting and deaths, keen to glorify it as ‘martyrdom’, eager to recruit more to the cause. There appears no need for violent Maldivian Islamists to hide any more—they are confident that no action will, or can, be taken against them. A substantial number of Maldivians, without a doubt, support the violent Jihadists. Many have responded to the news of the suicide bomber with joy, seeing the dead man’s actions as ‘glorious martyrdom for Islam.’ The response from the Islamic Ministry has been to deny all knowledge of Maldivian involvement in the global Jihadi movement and, astonishingly, to say that the matter is of no concern to the Ministry. Meanwhile, President Yameen reduced the issue of Maldivians joining the ‘Holy War’ to bad behaviour, claiming that ‘the government had always urged Maldivians to maintain discipline when living abroad.’ The official line is: there is nothing the government can [or will] do about the increasing number of Maldivians committing acts of terrorism abroad—if people want to kill themselves—and others—it is their business. As long as they do it in the name of Islam, that is.

With the government wilfully ignoring the radicalisation of Maldivians and other actors, including the civil society, unable or unqualified to do anything about it, it is hardly surprising that Maldives has become a place where fundamentalist views of Islam have become more or less the norm rather than the exception. Everyday the number of people who shun non-Arabic education as anti-Islamic are increasing, along with the number of people who refuse to send their children to school altogether ‘for religious reasons’. Even members of the security forces, it was recently alleged by MDP, have been radicalised. Recruitment, meanwhile, continues unabated in the prisons. Lawyers have reported that the only books allowed in the prison these days are what is described as ‘religious literature.’ Female genital mutilation is on the rise, just as sexual abuse of young girls who are increasingly accepted as adults once they reach puberty. Waves of infanticide have shocked the country in recent years which, too, can be linked to the harsh punitive attitude Islamists have fostered towards ‘women who sin’ as much as they can be to government failures. Rape and other violence against women are also on the rise. Tragically, a large percentage of the population have developed the attitude that victims of such crimes bring it upon themselves for ‘not staying at home where women belong’, or not being modest enough as required by Islam. It is very likely that the Maldivian gender inequality gap, at least as far as the general population’s attitudes are concerned, has never been wider in Maldivian history.

Consecutive governments have failed the Maldivian people by not making any serious efforts to stem the flow of fundamentalist and radical ideologies into the country. Gayoom tortured the radicals, which drove them underground and ultimately led to their unification as a political force. Nasheed’s government, on the other hand, failed to take strong enough measures against the rapid spread of their radical ideologies and made too many concessions to their demands for political reasons. This created the space in which fundamentalists and violent radicals could take control of all religious knowledge and discussion, thus facilitating their winning the ideological war and the ‘hearts and minds’ of most voters. The current government, which could not have come to power without the Islamists, looks almost certain to pursue a policy of appeasing them. Its chief strategy so far has been to deny that there are any violent extremists in the country or, when confronted with evidence of the opposite, say it has nothing to do with the government.

If things continues as they are, the new chapter in the history of Maldivian Islam will be one written entirely by the victors, that is, the fundamentalists and the Jihadists.

This article was first published on Dhivehi Sitee and has been reproduced here with permission of the author. 

Follow Azra Naseem on Twitter at @Manje

Follow Mushfique Mohamed on Twitter at @mushfique_

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2 Responses

  1. tech

    Your tone and enthusiasm really shows in your writing. Great post!

    Reply
  2. Ismail Azmee

    I am a maldivian, i love islam and i happily live in my country. I have no idea what Maldives you know of.

    Reply

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