ISSN 2330-717X

Understanding The Hold Of Islam On Maldivian Society And Politics – Analysis

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Islam is seen as a shield against Western and non-Islamic influences in a globalized world

The three arrests made thus far in the case relating to the bid on the life of the Maldivian Parliament Speaker and former President Mohamed Nasheed in Male on May 6, show that Islamic radicalism is alive, kicking and deep-rooted in the Maldives. According to the Commissioner of Police, Mohamed Hameed, the three suspects arrested, Adhuham Ahmed Rasheed (25), Mujaaz Ahmed (21) and Thahumeen Ahmed (32), belong to a “dangerous extremist ideology”. Hameed stopped short of identifying their ideology, but it is generally accepted that they owe allegiance to a radical Islamic group.

Though there are various causes for the resurgence of radical Islam from time to time, the basic fact is that Islam has been part and parcel and a determining factor in the Maldives from the 12 th.Century onwards.  According to Hassan Amir (Islamism and Radicalism in the Maldives: Naval Postgraduate School, California, 2011) the conversion might have been fuelled by a desire to minimize threats from the Buddhist and Hindu rulers of Sri Lanka and India.

Conversion to Islam is the single most important event in Maldivian history. The period prior to conversion is derisively referred to as jahiliyya (period of ignorance), Amir says. The Sultans made Sharia the basis of the legal system, thus deeply impacting social norms.

Portuguese rule from 1558 to 1573 disrupted this order. After the  Portuguese were ousted by a local hero, Mohamed Thakurufaanu, de-Chrisitianization was vigorously pursed. When Sheikh Muhammad Jamaluddin, a learned Islamic scholar from Yemen was made Chief Qadi  the Shafi code of Sunni Islam was made the official religion.

In 1952, Maldives became a republic. But the experiment with modern democracy failed because its Westernized leaders introduced laws which were too radical for the general population. Commenting on this Amir said: “It is a common phenomenon in many Islamic societies to turn towards Islam in times of such crises and adopt much more stringent laws and legal codes. This helps coalesce the population and allows people an illusion of control over their external environments.”

Fear of the outside world and its alien culture has continued to give rise to call for a return to puritanical Islam right down to this day.      

Gayoom’s Role

In more contemporary times, radical Islamic ideology developed deep roots in the Maldives from the 1970s. As in the past, this trend has had open or clandestine State support. From the Presidency of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom to that of Abdulla Yameen, governments have used Islamic conservatism to bolster their regimes and serve their partisan ends. This has spurred radicalism. On the downside, radicals set off bombs, killed a liberal blogger and a journalist, went to fight for the ISIS in Iraq and Syria in substantial numbers, and campaigned for Sharia law in the Maldives. Only Mohamed Nasheed has been consistently speaking against Islamic radicalism. He may have been the target for this reason.     

Gayoom unabashedly used Islam as an instrument to further his political career. A graduate in Sharia from the Islamic Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Gayoom created in 1980, the Mauhadu-al Dhiraasaathul Islamiyya, an educational institute dedicated solely to Islamic studies, with assistance from Islamic countries.  Under Gayoom, Maldives started to play a prominent role in the Organization of the Islamic Countries (OIC).

” It was at this time that significant numbers of Maldivian youth began attending various Islamic education institutes in places such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and India. These youth later became the vanguard of the Islamic revivalist movement in Maldives,” Amir recalls.  

However, ironically, Gayoom’s suppression of the democratic opposition, made people look upon radical Islam as a rallying point against him and also as a panacea for their secular problems. In 2005, when political parties were allowed to operate in the Maldives, parties used Islam to gather support and challenge rivals. An avowedly Islamic party, the Adhalath Party, came into being. These parties branded their rivals as heretics and as agents of Western ideas and agendas, including Christian proselytization. Recently, President Yameen made such accusations against his rivals, Mohamed Nasheed fist and then Ibrahim Solih.

Social Factors    

Social conditions have also helped Islam to gain a strong grip over Maldivians. Large extended families tend to live together and act as a security net. Families are connected to one another through intermarriages and kinship ties. Therefore, social pressure to conform is irresistible. Maldivian families use strict adherence to Islam as a shield against cultural encroachment by Western and South Asian non-Islamic countries. With increasing globalization, the urge to preserve its identity has only grown.   

Globalization which has entered through tourism, has led to GDP growth, but it has also brought cultural degradation. Drug abuse is one of the most pressing concerns in Maldivian society. Drug abuse and gang violence have often gone hand-in-hand. Given the moral degradation, there is a tendency to see radical Islam as a panacea. This has resulted in “Arabization”. Arabization enables Maldivians to more easily receive and internalize radical Islamic thoughts from restive West Asia.

Impact of Tsunami Aid

In her paper dated March 22, 2021 in Global Risk Insights Antonia Gough says that following the 2004 Tsunami, various Saudi Salafist (Wahhabi) NGOs came to the Maldives on the pretext of helping rebuild badly affected areas. “Members of these organizations brainwashed young Maldivian men who were living below the poverty line into believing that the Tsunami was a punishment for failing to follow the true teachings of Islam. Over the next 15 years, radical Islamist ideology infiltrated the social fabric of the islands,” Gough observes.

Hassan Amir recalls that one Moosa Inas, a mysterious aid financier, later became one of the perpetrators of the Sultan Park bomb blast in 2007, which injured twelve foreign tourists. Charity fronts such as Idara Khidmat-e-Khalq (IKK) came into being. The IKK is affiliated with Jamaat-u-Dawa (which is engaged in Tabligh, i.e., active proselytizing)  and the more sinister Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the Pakistani-based terrorist groups responsible for numerous attacks in India and Pakistan. In an interview to CNN-IBN in 2009, Mohamed Nasheed said that thousands of Maldivian youth were being recruited to join Jihadi operations in Pakistan to fight in Afghanistan and further afield. There have also been Indian intelligence reports linking Maldivians to the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, Gough adds.  

She even charges that “Salafist ideologies have not just infiltrated the young islanders, but also the islands’ security forces, who play a part in recruitment of young men to ISIS.” A ruling Maldivian Democratic Party activist said last week that he has no hope that the attempt on Nasheed’s life on May 6 will be properly investigated as he fears that the security forces have been infiltrated by Islamic radicals.    

Gough quotes official figures to say that 173 Maldivians had travelled to Syria to fight and 432 had attempted to go. As of December 2019, there were approximately 1,400 “religious extremists” located on the archipelago. In 2014 an independent journalist, Ahmed Rilwan, was abducted and possibly killed. In 2019. President Yameen was accused of being directly involved in Rilwan’s disappearance and his possible death. Blogger Yameen Rasheed, known as a critic of the political establishment, was stabbed to death in his apartment in 2017.

In February 2020, three foreigners were stabbed on one of the islands. Soon after the incident, a Maldivian radical group affiliated with ISIS claimed responsibility via a video message. In this video, three masked men announced: “The portrayal that this [Maldives] is paradise […] has become a mirage. From now on, the only thing they [foreign travellers] will taste [in the Maldives] is fire”

P. K. Balachandran

P. K. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist working in Sri Lanka for local and international media and has been writing on South Asian issues for the past 21 years.

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