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Maldives faces up to extremism

ICC Note:

Maldives, traditionally a more liberal Islamic state, is becoming a hotbed for radical Islam

By Sudha Ramachandran

11/10/09 Maldives (AsiaTimesOnline)–The Maldives, which is at the forefront of a campaign to get the international community to act on a looming global warming crisis, has a more immediate problem on hand. A rising tide of religious extremism is driving this tropical paradise of a low-lying string of islands down the road to a new conservatism.

What is more, the spread of militant Islam in the country and the appeal of a radical strain of Islam are drawing Maldivian youth into global jihadi groups.

“Hundreds of Maldivians” have been recruited by the Taliban and are fighting in Pakistan, Maldivian President Mohammed Nasheed told the CNN-IBN news channel during his recent visit to India.

An Indian Ocean archipelago of over 1,992 coral islands strewn across the equator, the Maldives is renowned for its emerald green waters and sandy beaches. It has been in the grip of political turmoil in recent years.

A puritanical version of Islam has taken root. Signs of conservatism are more evident on the streets of the capital, Male, today than they were even a few years ago. The number of burqa-clad women has been increasing steadily as has that of bearded men.

And religious conservatives have become increasingly assertive. Ongoing efforts by the government to revise the penal code have come under intense opposition from a small but vocal section that wants sharia law punishments like the death penalty, flogging and amputations to be included. Several public demonstrations supporting flogging have taken place in Male in recent months and those who have spoken against this practice have been threatened.

Among those demanding the inclusion of sharia punishments in the revised penal code is the Adhaalath Party, a constituent of the ruling coalition, which controls the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. Many describe it as an extremist party. But more extreme than Adhaalath are organizations outside parliament, like the Jamiyyathul Salaf.

Registered as a non-governmental organization with the Ministry of Home Affairs and set up to “raise religious awareness and promote the values of Islam”, the Jamiyyathul Salaf is actively engaged in spreading Salafi Islam in the Maldives. In 2008, it declared music to be haram (forbidden) and forced the closing of a school library in Male that had “Christian story books”. More recently, it invited a preacher, Bilal Philips, who endorses girls being married off when they attain puberty, to visit.

Informed sources are of the view that “there is no evidence yet” directly linking organizations like Adhaalath and Salaf with armed violence. “It is mainly to the Maldivian way of life that these organizations pose a threat,” said Halath Rashid, a freelance journalist. “We could lose our liberal, secular and tolerant way of life that we’ve enjoyed for centuries.”

The popular support these organizations enjoy is still limited. Adhaalath for instance failed to win even a single seat in the recent general elections. If they have been able to get many to adopt their brand of Islam it is through intimidation and their tactic of labeling their critics as anti-Islam that they have been able to do so.

The roots of the religious radicalism visible in the Maldives today can be traced to Gayoom’s “Islamification” policies. According to a Maldivian political analyst, Gayoom, “though not an extremist by any standard”, pursued policies that have made the Maldives vulnerable to religious radicalism.

He started the first Arabic-medium schools and replaced the liberal Islamic studies textbooks that were taught with until then with a stricter version he imported from the Middle East. Students coming out of these Islamic schools went to study in Islamic universities in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Flushed with Saudi funds, they returned home to preach a more rigid form of Islam that is alien to Maldives.

If an earlier generation of Maldivians came back to preach, today an even more radicalized lot is picking up the gun. Maldivians who have gone to Saudi and Pakistani madrassas (seminaries) to continue their studies, especially those who studied in seminaries like the Jamia Salafia Islamia at Faisalabad, which has produced several al-Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba leaders, have been drawn into jihadi networks.

The Maldivian government is considering legislation to tackle terrorism. A counter-terrorism bill is in the cards. It has also stepped up defense and security cooperation with India.

In August, the countries signed a pact under which India has assumed responsibility for the archipelago’s security. It will set up a network of 26 radars across the Maldives’ 26 atolls, which will be linked to the Indian coastal command. Besides, a fortnight-long joint exercise between the armies of the two countries was held recently in India which is aimed at achieving interoperability in the event of future joint counter-terrorism operations.

But counter-terrorism cooperation with India or other countries alone cannot eliminate the problem. The solution to countering terrorism is domestic. Nasheed will have to rein in the religious extremists if he is keen to deny terrorism a safe haven in Maldives.

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