Radicalism in the Maldives: Should India be worried?

15 Jun, 2015    ·   4888

Roshni Thomas explores the growing phenomenon of radicalisation in the Maldives, explains why India should pay more attention

In March 2015, Mohamed Nasheed the man who led the fight for democracy in the Maldives was sentenced to 13 years in prison. There has been a pattern of regular accusations of corruption against the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) since the now ousted Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed defeated Maumoon Gayoom’s 30 year autocratic rule 2008. Over the last decade, the country has undergone a tumultuous transition to democracy. This wasn’t without a simultaneous rise in religious conservatism. There have been radicalised Maldivians who have joined the Jihad in Syria and elsewhere. Why is this happening in the Maldives, and should India start paying closer attention?

During Gayoom’s rule, restrictions were placed on the practice of other religions. With the sudden change to democracy in 2008, the nation that was under a restrictive rule for three decades began growing more religiously conservative and blaming the MDP government for ruining the sacred values of Islam by bringing in Western ideologies and culture. In December 2011, the opposition parties held a mass rally called ‘Defend Islam’ with 20,000 Maldivians. These protests eventually resulted in the resignation of President Nasheed in 2012.

There have been concerns about the increasing numbers of Maldivians joining jihadist groups such as the al Qaeda and the Islamic State. According to the Commissioner of Maldivian Police, Hussein Waheed, there over 50 Maldivians have been known to be fighting foreign wars. However, the MDP claims that there are about 200. The worrisome factor is that these reported jihadists have been young men and/or couples with infants who travel to Syria via Turkey making false excuses about their journey. There are no organised jihadist groups inside the Maldives but the country has proven to be a fertile source for new recruits for the Islamic State (IS). Bilad Al Sham Media (BASM) is an online media forum run by a group of Maldivians in Syria promoting the IS and praising the activities of Maldivian jihadists in Syria.

The Maldives has a very young population and this may seem to be an advantage but on the contrary, it could be a problem. Malé is unable to provide stable education for its growing young population because of its geography of atolls and its dependence on expatriate teachers. Unemployment levels are high, leaving the youth frustrated. Given the shortage of educational opportunities, many parents send their children to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and those studying theology often end up studying in madrassas, a high number of which are unregulated and propagate radical and extremist teachings.

On their return, these pupils insist that the population follows an undiluted form of Islam in the country. This is one of the main reasons for the increasing grass root radicalisation that the Maldives faces. This has further led to the formation of Jamiyyatul Salaf (JL) and Islamic Foundation of Maldives (IFM). They are conservative religious groups that work with the government to ensure that Islam is followed via moral policing. Their practises are quite unsecular non-secular and they actively restrict the practice of other religions.

Here, it is important to note that conservatism and radicalism and violent extremism cannot be used interchangeably.
So, are the political parties using religion to gain a stronger and broader foothold among the public for their political interests? Democracy appears to be falling into disorder in this picturesque island state and the environment seems conducive to breed extremism.

Given the geographical proximity the two countries share, the rise in the number of Maldivians joining extremist groups is a security concern for India. Besides, stability of the Maldives is strategically significant for India also because of the increasing Chinese influence in the island-nation.

More importantly, Maldivian-origin extremists have in the past carried out their activities in the southern states of India. Moosa Inas, a prime suspect in the 2005 Sultan Park case had travelled to Pakistan via Kerala. Asif Ibrahim, another Maldivian captured in Kerala was there to start a new Maldives-based terror group in Thiruvananthapuram. These instances have been monitored and handled by the Indian government but what about the increasing numbers of radicals inside the Maldives? Can India help curb the phenomenon? While India and the rest of the international community can help, the matter is domestic and needs to be handled from within.

Reportedly, Malé has formulated a new counter-terrorism law – which, among other issues, criminalises fighting in foreign countries –soon. However, this law is yet to be implemented. The issue here is that the Maldives, besides having increasing numbers of religious extremists also has a corrupt, unstable political structure. This simply makes the environment more conducive for radicalism.

India has been quick when Maldives has faced any crisis. While India cannot directly help Maldives combat the problem of radicalisation, it can provide more educational opportunities and security assistance along with the rest of the international community. The balance of not pressurising the country into feeling controlled by the international community but still voicing concern and seriousness over the issues is tricky but needs to be achieved.