Aditya Gowdara Shivamurthy, a Junior Fellow with Observer Research Foundation’s (ORF) Strategic Studies Programme
Known for being a popular tourist destination, the Maldives is facing a lesser-known challenge of extremism. It has more than 1,400 extremists residing within the country and is also holds the world’s highest record for foreign terrorist fighters per-capita. With the growing awareness of this challenge, the Maldives has undertaken various institutional, technical, and legal initiatives in recent years to tackle the problem. However, its reforms weigh thin against its broader domestic structural challenges that fuel extremism. Prevalent political, economic and social conditions, directly and indirectly, contribute to the country’s extremist challenges and even fuel them further.
Being aware of these challenges, the Maldives has undertaken various institutional, technical, and legal initiatives in recent years. Since 2014, it has adopted a zero-tolerance policy on terrorism and violent extremism. It has continued to consistently amend its legal rules to keep a check on terrorism and extremism. Two years ago, in October 2020, the Maldives established its first National Reintegration Centre (NRC) to rehabilitate and reintegrate foreign terrorist fighters and their family members back into society. In May 2022, the government finally agreed to bring back and rehabilitate some Maldivian women and children from Syria.
The Maldives has also began multilateral cooperation with organizations such as Interpol, the UNODC, and most recently, the Colombo Security Conclave. Bilaterally, it has sought financial, logistical and technical assistance from Canada, India, Japan, and the US. It has also initiated military and counterterrorism exercises with some of these countries. The EU has also begun to show more interest. In 2020, the EU provided the Maldives with 2.5 million Euros to increase the island nation’s coordination, institutional capacity and resilience to prevent and combat terrorism.
Yet, these measures have hardly addressed the core structural challenges that fuel extremism in the country. Therefore, this article aims to decipher the structural fault lines in the Maldives by highlighting key problem areas.
The Maldives’ political landscape has, for a long time, contributed to its extremist challenge. Hardline interpretations of Wahabism began to take root in the Maldives in the 1970s and 80s. Gayoom’s authoritarian regime (1978-2008) witnessed several foreign-educated elites holding key positions in the government. His attempt to muster legitimacy by politicizing religion resulted in some policies that continue to impact the country’s social fabric. The 1994 Protection of Religious Unity Act outlawed the practice of any religion besides Sunni Islam; Islamic education was made mandatory in schools; and a Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs was created to promote policies based on interpretations of Islam.
However, hardliners who preached without the government’s approval, or criticized Gayoom’s policies, were severely punished and tortured. This created more space for extremist elements in the country. His tourism policies nurtured strong opposition among conservatives and extremists — especially those educated in Pakistani madrasas. The opposition gained even more ground and legitimacy following the economic devastation caused by the 2004 Tsunami. The Sultan Park bomb attack in 2007, and the Dhar-Ul-Khair mosque clashes further demonstrated the increasing challenge of extremism.
With the emergence of democracy in 2008, side-lined preachers began to disseminate their ideology as debates and lectures. Politicians and political parties have often responded passively to these developments in an attempt to appear more Islamic and avoid the tag of ‘Laadheenee’ (infidel). In a country that is 100% Sunni Muslim, such a tag often comes with high political costs. To appear more Islamic and avoid religious opposition and rhetoric, mainstream parties have often formed governments or aligned and cooperated with extremist parties such as Adaalath Party (AP) and extremist organizations such as Jamiyyathu Salaf and the Islamic Foundation of Maldives. This has resulted in hardline elements being placed in high offices. For instance, the AP has mostly continued to manage the Islamic Ministry since its democratic transition. Subsequent governments in the Maldives have been pressurized or incentivized to shape certain policies based on hardline interpretations. This has often contributed to the further Islamification of the state and society.
Economy Based on Tourism
Tourism continues to be the largest industry in the Maldives. In 2020, despite fatal damage induced by COVID, the sector comprised 15% of the GDP and 23% of the government’s revenues. This overreliance has also partly contributed to the country’s extremist challenge.
The country’s tourism policy has created two different worlds within the Maldives. Starting from Gayoom’s tenure, uninhabited islands have been leased out to resort owners to improve international tourism. These resorts are exempted from the strict local regulations on alcohol and pork consumption and are distanced from the local population. The behavior, habits, lifestyle and dressing of these international tourists have often been a point of debate for several hardline Islamic groups who criticize the resorts as ‘un-Islamic.’ This has encouraged the broader rhetoric of ‘defending Islamic values and customs’— encouraging extremism and seldomly making tourists a target of extremist attacks.
Considering tourism’s political and economic value, these resorts are tightly controlled and regulated. This has resulted in a nexus between the political class and resort owners. Several notable politicians continue to have stakes in the resorts, and vice versa. It is alleged that resorts often fund political parties and their campaigns. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that these stakeholders mitigate the pressure from hardliners and conservatives by often donating significant sums of money to their causes.
The boom in Maldives’ tourism also reflects a broader socio-economic divide. Despite the massive increase in the country’s economy and revenue, it is argued that only 5% of the Maldives’ rich control 95% of the wealth. Many citizens continue to live in congested spaces bearing high accommodation expenses and witnessing corruption and crime. There is also a brewing gap between youth education and the job market. A field research survey indicates that individuals are disenchanted and alienated from the government. This has contributed to a loss in the fate of democracy — making them vulnerable to recruiters and the idea of implementing sharia and fighting for it elsewhere.
Socioeconomic factors have also persuaded individuals to participate in crime, gangs, and trafficking. Here, too, there is a deep nexus between politicians, criminals, gangs, and extremists. Political parties have often hired criminals and gangs to participate in political rallies, silence criticism, further political interests, and muster up votes. Individuals affiliated with crime and gang violence are vulnerable targets for recruiters who promise them a good and purposeful life through jihad and religion. The lack of reforms in prisons and rehabilitation has also furthered the vulnerability of these criminals and drug addicts. Essentially, nearly 50% of Maldivian fighters in Syria have had some kind of criminal background. Politicians have also been accused of letting these criminals flee the country and fight elsewhere. In other cases, individuals affiliated with crime and extremism have enjoyed impunity from politicians. Therefore, out of 188 cases, between 2014 and 2019, only 14 have been prosecuted to date.
The extremist challenge in the Maldives is deeply embedded in the country’s political, economic, and socio-economic factors. These factors have directly or indirectly contributed to the country’s extremist challenges and have also continued to fuel it further. Although there is an increasing awareness and commitment to tackle these challenges in recent years, the state has hardly addressed the core structural challenges of the country. To mitigate its extremist challenges, the Maldives has no alternative but to undergo drastic domestic structural reforms which often come with high political costs for policymakers.
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