Maldives' history with radical fundamentalists makes govt's courting of Islamist groups dangerous

The Maldives, a tiny Indian Ocean country, has been facing political turmoil for the last week, ever since President Abdulla Yameen declared a State of Emergency and ordered the arrest of former president and his half-brother Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

Yameen, who has ruled the Maldives with an iron fist since winning democratic elections in November 2013, has put in place a string of extreme legislation, including criminalising defamation, stifling the press, even summoning armed forces to discipline MPs in Parliament.

However, it's his courting of Islamist groups and parties that is of the most concern, given the country's entire population is Muslim and has a history of being a fertile breeding ground for Islamic State recruits.

File image of Maldivian president Abdulla Yameen. AFP

File image of Maldivian president Abdulla Yameen. AFP

Islam in Maldivian politics

Using Islam as a tool in Maldivian politics started way back in 2012 when then president Mohamed Nasheed was forced to step down in what his party described was a "coup d'etat" following months of protests by Islamists against his version of "Liberal Islam". At the time, with the Arab Spring toppling several liberal governments in the Muslim world, Maldives also went the way of the protesters.

Two years later, Nasheed gave an interview to the Independent, where he said that up to 200 Maldivians are currently fighting for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. "Radical Islam is getting very, very strong in the Maldives. Their strength in the military and in the police is very significant. They are using the Maldives military to train their people," Nasheed was quoted as saying in the report.

The Maldivian Muslims owe their allegiance to the Sunni sect and several international experts have warned of the disastrous consequences the Yameen government's decision of being soft on terror could have. For a country with a population of less than half a million people, the mushrooming of even small-scale terror cells could have major repercussions.

Nasheed also gave an interview to the Foreign Policy magazine last year, where he said his administration did "everything it could" do to curb the spread of extremist Islam, but rued that the pendulum has swung since Yameen took charge. "When we were younger, a very liberal Islam was the mainstream in the Maldives. We've now accepted Wahhabism as the mainstream and Islamic State as the extreme. We will soon accept Islamic State as the mainstream, and God help us where the extreme would be," he had said.

He accused the Yameen government of playing with fire for short-term political gains. "Yameen feels he can deal with the Islamist threat later but first he wants to consolidate power. He has the Islamists with him and he can't do away with them," Nasheed alleged, in the interview to Independent.

"I don't see the government taking any measures against the Islamic State flag being displayed on the streets and all the indoctrination going on. They are very short-sighted. Their thinking is that Islam has a lot of support and you can whip up more (political) support with religion," he added.

Social changes

And it's not just the politics of Maldives that's being influenced by the Islamists, there are also social changes being witnessed on the streets. Society for Health Organization, an NGO working on women's issues in Male, told Huffington Post that the rise of Islam in the country has not been good for women. "The veil and the burqa are things that are becoming more forced. When we were growing up, we didn't see this so much. We have started to see women covering up more and more," they said.

The Islamists are already insisting that women remain subservient to men in the archipelago, which has been 100 percent Muslim for centuries. What's more, they are even taking to social media to spread the message. As one anonymous source told the Huffington Post, "There's no freedom here, no freedom of speech, no freedom of religion. You have to be Sunni. The Constitution says that if you are not Muslim then you are not Maldivan."

The silver lining

However, all is not lost yet. Despite gaining much ground, the Islamists haven't been able to crack the political puzzle. As reported by The Conversation, the main Islamist party, Adalat, has never succeeded in elections. It is currently in the Opposition, incidentally in an alliance with Nasheed's Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), which actively pursues a form of "Liberal Islam".

Moreover, unlike in other Islamist countries, Maldivians are solidly in favour of democracy. In a 2015 survey, 62 percent Maldivians said democracy was the best form of governance and 77 percent said it was best suited for the Maldives. They also associated democracy with freedom of speech and assembly.

It's an indication that despite a history of dictatorship and despite a coup d'etat throwing out the previous elected government, the citizens insist on having a democracy. It's also a suggestion that President Yameen's attempts of having an authoritarian form of government may not last as long as initially thought.

Updated Date: Feb 07, 2018 15:38 PM

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