Maldives, the only South Asian country that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s outreach has not covered since he was elected in 2014, has its controversial president Abdulla Yameen visiting India on a two-day visit that began on Sunday. Given the size and population of the Maldives, his visit will not evoke any TV channel discussion or much newspaper coverage.
His imprisonment and treatment of the first democratically-elected president Mohamed Nasheed has been one of the most prominent actions since he assumed power but, what Yameen has embarked on in the past two-and-a-half years should cause concern among security experts and those studying the spread and acceptance of Saudi-sponsored ultra-conservative Islam across South Asia.
Spread over 90,000 square kilometres and 1,200 islands south of the Lakshadweep Islands, the Maldives has for centuries been on the trade route from East to West and vice versa. Considered a major tourist destination with its azure waters and silver sands, the Maldives gets more than a million tourists annually. Declared an Islamic country in 1997 by dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom who successfully managed to attract foreign tourists while keeping the local population insulated from “corrupting influences”. Islam was propagated and mosques built to counter growing liberal Opposition.
Now his half-brother Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom has gone ahead in not just restricting but scuttling democratic voices, and in recent days closed down the islands’ only newspaper. Simultaneously he has got Saudi Arabia’s orthodox monarchy to finance, dictate and brainwash Muslims into believing and accepting an Islam that has been alien to them. Ironically, Yameen says Saudi Arabia will help with propagating “moderate” Islam!
The Indian government has watched with serious reservation the manner in which Yameen has rolled out the red carpet for China and the treatment of Indian companies and existing investment like, in say the Male Airport project, which was struck off. While growing Chinese presence and Yameen’s open embrace of Beijing should cause alarm, it is the widening footprint of Saudi sponsored radical Islam in Maldives that needs investigation by security experts.
With Islam as its official religion and strong laws in place against any attempt to challenge existing religious beliefs, the majority are now forced to follow an 'Arabised' version of Islam that Saudi Arabia professes as “true” Islam.
In last two years the Saudi Arabian embassy has come up in Male, President Yameen has made three trip to the kingdom, and officially the two countries have signed agreements that would allow Riyadh to build mosques, send clerics and Imams to teach and train Maldivians “true” Islam, and spread ideas across the archipelago’s Muslims who follow less restrictive religious and social practices.
Just the way Saudi money has helped indoctrinate millions across South Asia, including in India and across the world, a similar campaign has been unleashed with much zeal by the Saudi government across the Maldives. The recent suicide attacks in Brussels revealed how an innocuous decision by a Belgian government decades ago that laid out a red carpet for Saudi radicalism now threatens to consume that country and rest of Europe.
Counter-terrorism is an area where India and Maldives have decided to join hands, and New Delhi expects to assist Yameen. In last few years Maldivian radicals have been found to be active in Kerala, which is the route for money and men passing through. In 2007, a radical Muslim arrested by Kerala police was said to be an accused in the Malé bomb blast. The historic connection between the Maldives and Kerala has now become an umbilical cord for the transmission of ultra-conservative Islam that threatens not just the Maldives, but Indian security as well.
The growth in the number of mosques, adoption of headscarves and burqas by more women, and the free flow of Maldivians to Syria and Iraq to fight along with radical Islamic groups has become a visible sign of the path the island nation of 350,000 people has embarked on. Imagine in this background the government of President Yameen decides to embrace Saudi manufactured ultra-conservative Islam and supplant it amongst his people. Indian foreign secretary S Jaishankar played down the number of Islamic State recruits from the Maldives saying only 40 had joined the group.
It is pertinent to note that Kerala has itself for decades been a hotbed of radical Islamic groups.
The point of concern is that why should Maldives — a country that had and still retains a very “liberal” attitude to Islamic beliefs — should be officially pushed towards ideas that are alien to that society. Saudi notables ranging from then Crown Prince and now King Salman to Shura Council chief, Islamic Affairs Minister, official clerics and many other ministers have made a beeline to Malé in less than 24 months.
In 2014, King Salman as Crown Prince pledged $1.2 million to build 10 mosques across the country and donated $1.5 million to the health sector and $1 million to the Islamic ministry’s Waqf fund.
The Maldivian minister of Islamic affairs Ahmed Ziyad deputed to actively transform the country gave a strong indication of what the government had entered into when he said Saudi Arabia would help maintain “religious unity” and would not look away when the island nation faces “challenges” from western influence.
Ziyad was quoted as having said, “Maldives and Saudi Arabia are 100 percent Muslim countries. We do not want any change to this percentage, and neither would the Maldives… Opening up to the world does not mean a change in a country’s essence”.
Ziyad said Saudi Arabia would help the Maldives improve the collection of Zakat, an Islamic tax, publish books on Islam in English, expedite ongoing mosque projects and train Imams.
Maldivian scholars will now have more opportunities to visit Saudi Arabia and learn from them, he added.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has just returned from Saudi Arabia where he was honoured and treated like a royal. Given that over 2.5 million Indians work in the Gulf kingdom and as the top exporter of crude oil to the country, India needs to be careful in dealing with the issue.
However, Saudi financing of radicalism in India was and remains a major problem that needs to be tackled through identification and control of money flows and check on its end use. While India gears up to sign an agreement on counter-terrorism with the Maldives, it would be pertinent to start discussions on the threat posed to India by radical Saudi ideas, and initiate steps to break the Kerala link with Saudi-Maldives radicalism.