Renowned for pristine beaches and crystal blue waters, the Maldives is rapidly gaining prominence as a haven for jihadist recruitment. Maldivian men – reportedly 200 of them – have been streaming to Iraq and Syria to join the ranks of the Islamic State (IS) militant group, the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra organization, as well as other radical organizations. This is a large number considering the Indian Ocean archipelago of around 1,200 islands has a population of roughly 359,000 people (Indian Express, April 15, 2015). Not only does the Maldives thus have the world’s largest number of jihadists per capita active in Iraq and Syria, but it also accounts for the biggest number of jihadists from any South Asian country fighting in these countries. Several jihadists have taken their wives and children to the Middle East battle zones with them (Haveeru Online, February 5, 2015; Maldives Independent, Sept 21, 2015 and Dhivehi Sitee, December 2, 2015).
Sunni Islam is the official state religion of the Maldives and adherence to the doctrine is essential for citizenship. However, while religion is an important part of the lives of many Maldivians, the Islam they traditionally practice is not particularly rigid. It has been suffused with local cultural traditions; worship of Allah tends to coexist with belief in spirits and djinns. It is only in the last couple of decades with Maldivian clerics and students returning home after studying in universities and madrassas in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan that hardline Wahhabi and Salafi beliefs entered the archipelago, providing Maldivian Islam a puritanical spark. This injected religious intolerance and conservatism into a society that was once moderate in its religious observances and relatively liberal (Asia Times, November 11, 2009).
As a result, religious radicals are threatening the traditional Maldivian way of life. Women who did not wear headscarves have been violently attacked, alongside Sunni moderates, Sufis, atheists, agnostics and followers of other religions who speak up against intolerance. Radicals are also pressing for a strict enforcement of sharia laws (Minivan News, September 6, 2014). Anything deemed un-Islamic is under fire. For instance, in 2012, a mob stormed the National Museum in the capital Malé and destroyed Buddhist statues. The attack was aimed at wiping out Maldives’ pre-Islamic, Buddhist history (Minivan News, February 9, 2012).
In 2007, the Maldives witnessed its first ever Islamist terrorist attack when a bomb targeting Chinese, Japanese and British tourists went off in Malé’s Sultan Park. A police raid on the Dar-ul-Khair mosque on Himandhoo Atoll a few weeks later laid bare the serious threat that Islamists posed to the Maldives; police had to fight off dozens of radicals holed up in the mosque. The Salafist preacher, Ibrahim Fareed, was then found to be running a “shari’a-governed mini-state” from the mosque (The Hindu [India], November 24, 2007).
Over the past decade, Maldivian Islamists have increasingly heeded the call to global jihad. In 2002, for example, a cleric named Ibrahim Fauzee was arrested in an al-Qaeda safe house in Karachi, Pakistan. He was subsequently held in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp until his release and repatriation to the Maldives in March of 2005 (The Hindu, November 24, 2007). Al-Qaeda in the Maldives reinforced its presence through a 2009 suicide attack on the Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence agency headquarters in Lahore, carried out by a Maldivian al-Qaeda member and two accomplices. Around the same time, nine Maldivians were arrested in Pakistan’s Waziristan region, which borders Afghanistan, during an attempt to travel to jihadist training camps (The Hindu, February 21, 2012).
Following this trend, a number of Maldivian jihadists headed to Pakistan initially. One reason is that following the deadly 2004 tsunami, several Pakistani-based Islamist organizations came to the archipelago for relief and rehabilitation work. Some like the Idara Khidmat-e-Khalq, the charity front of the Pakistan-based terrorist organization, Lashkar-e-Taiba, reportedly recruited scores of Maldivian boys to study at madrassas in Pakistan (Times of India, February 13, 2012). From there, it was a short road to violent jihad. In more recent years, however, the spectacular rise of the Islamic State seems to have influenced the travel plans of Maldivian jihadists, prompting them to head to Syria and Iraq instead.
Flirting with Fundamentalism
Although religious extremism was brought to the Maldives by South Asian and Middle Eastern groups, it gained traction in the Maldives’ largely tolerant society under the autocratic rule of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Gayoom espoused a moderate strain of Islam in stark contrast to the one he harshly imposed. President Gayoom used religion as a political tool to legitimize his dictatorial rule; he wooed religious conservatives by projecting himself as the “guardian of Islam”. In 1994, for instance, his government enacted the Protection of Religious Unity Act, which imposed Sunni Islam on Maldivians by restricting their freedom to practice other religions (Himal Southasian, June 20, 2012).
Gayoom continued to pursue policies that contributed to the rise of Wahhabi and Salafi Islam in the Maldives. He set up the first Arabic-medium schools in the archipelago. Text books that had imparted a liberal interpretation of Islam were replaced by books from Saudi Arabia that fostered a puritanical outlook. Maldivians were given scholarships to study in Islamic universities and madrassas in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. When they returned home, they preached a puritanical version of Islam that was previously alien to the Maldivian people. Gayoom quashed public articulation of any extremist ideologies, but this only pushed the problem underground (Asia Times. November 11, 2009).
It was during democratic rule that religious radicalism exploded into the open. President Mohamed Nasheed, a great votary of democratic rights, allowed unrestricted freedom of speech. Religious extremists therefore came to enjoy “absolute freedom of expression” and thereby the free availability of extremist literature in bookshops and airing of radical ideologies in mosques and public rallies, as well as the more far-reaching radio and Internet (Divehi Sitee, October 9, 2012). Only exacerbating the spread of radical ideology, the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) entered into a politically expedient alliance with the Adhaalath Party, which embodied an Islamist platform. Placed in charge of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, the Adhaalath Party enjoyed the rein and clout to implement its agenda. In the process, Nasheed appeased Islamists, including radical ones (Asia Times, November 23, 2011). His government, for instance, offered clemency to 16 Islamists who were serving jail terms for their role in the 2007 Dar-ul-Khair mosque standoff (Minivan News, February 10, 2010). It sent a signal to extremists that they could carry out violent activities without repercussion.
In the years since Nasheed’s ouster in 2012, successive governments have denied or downplayed the problem of religious extremism, facilitating the Maldives’ emergence as a breeding ground for jihadists. In May 2014, President Abdulla Yameen claimed he was unaware of Maldivians traveling to Syria or Iraq to take part in combat. Later that year, in December, Home Minister Umar Naseer finally acknowledged the problem but minimized it by insisting that a mere seven Maldivians were fighting overseas. A month later, however, Commissioner of Police Hussein Waheed put the figure at 50, though still a smaller number than that claimed by Indian and Western intelligence agencies (Maldives Independent, September 6, 2015).
Fighting or Fueling Religious Extremism?
In recent months, the Yameen government has announced measures ostensibly to address the threat of terrorism. In October 2014, it enacted anti-terrorism legislation. A little over a month later, it announced that the Maldives would join a Saudi-led Islamic military coalition to combat “all terrorist organizations in the Islamic world” (Maldives Independent, December 15). Neither of these measures are likely to make a dent in the security dilemma that the Maldives faces.
Critics argue the anti-terrorism law is more an “instrument” to intimidate the public and suppress the regime’s critics and political rivals, as opposed to a means of countering violent extremism. The legislation’s “definition of terrorism does not explicitly include violent extremism, or religious extremism – the most prevalent type of terrorism today” (italics in original) (Divehi Sitee, November 11, 2015). It also does not focus on terrorism-related concerns that are endemic to the Maldives, such as recruitment of Maldivians for wars abroad, the spread of extremist ideologies and terrorism financing (Maldives Independent, July14, 2015; Maldives Independent, October 27, 2015).
As for the Saudi-led coalition, it is widely viewed as “unlikely to succeed” in eliminating terrorism (Asia Times, December 21, 2015). This is especially the case with the Maldives, where the Saudis have contributed substantially to bankrolling the spread of Wahhabi Islam in the archipelago, which has in turn fuelled religious extremism (Vivekananda International Foundation, March 31, 2015). Saudi-Maldivian bilateral ties in other realms have similarly surged in recent months; in August, the Saudis set up their first diplomatic mission in Malé. Cooperation in Islamic affairs dominates the relationship, seen in Riyadh’s building of mosques in the Maldives. Islamic NGOs are pouring money into education and training of Maldivian imams and providing scholarships for Maldivians to study in the kingdom. In November, the Saudis reached an agreement with the Maldives to establish “religious unity” between the two countries. The agreement confirms the Saudis encouragement of the Maldives to publish books on Islam in English, as well as speed up the completion of mosque-related projects such as the training of imams (Maldives Independent, November 19, 2015). This agreement does not bode well for addressing the Maldives’ problems with religious extremism and violence.
So far, religious extremists have posed a threat to Maldivian atheists, Sufis and secular Muslim moderates, in addition to the broader Maldivian culture and way of life. While extremists based in the Maldives have not yet organized themselves in an effort to overthrow the state, radicalized Maldivian youth are traveling abroad to join various jihadist groups and have the potential to return home. This threat, however, has not inspired the government to take significant action. This may change with the return of battle-hardened jihadists to their home country, particularly if they turn their guns against the state.
Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent researcher and journalist based in Bangalore, India. She has written extensively on South Asian peace and conflict, political and security issues for The Diplomat, Asia Times and Jamestown’s China Brief.