Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jul 01, 2022
Trouble in Paradise: Endorsed Extremism and Sustained Extremist Ecosystems in the Maldives

On 21 June 2022, an angry extremist mob disrupted the Yoga Day celebrations in Male, Maldives. The Maldivian police have suspected the involvement of local Islamic scholars and the opposition party, the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) in this violence. This unpleasant episode indicates the extremist challenges and threats that the Maldives continues to endorse. Although subsequent Maldivian governments have shown concerns about extremism in recent years, they have continued to sustain and reinforce the extremist ecosystem for their political benefits.

An Overview of Extremism in the Maldives

Traditionally, the Maldives has practiced a tolerant version of Islam. However, from the late 1970s and 1980s, interpretations of Saudi Wahabism and Deobandism began to be rooted in the Maldivian society. These were exacerbated by two factors: College, education, and mosque funds from Saudi Arabia, and students returning with extremist interpretations of Islam after religious education in foreign countries. These Islamists have often attempted to pressurise subsequent governments to implement policies based on their extremist interpretations.

Gayoom’s political authoritarianism (till 2008) had restricted the activities and influence of these organisations within the Maldives. But his pro-tourism policies and clamp down on the extremists also united them. The Dar-Ul-Khair Mosque became a hub for hardliners and extremists opposing the Maldivian dictator. Their sustained activities and organisation frequently contributed to the number of Maldivian Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTF) travelling to Pakistan and Afghanistan, along with some episodes of domestic violence and terrorism. However, the emergence of democracy in 2008 opened the socio-political space for these elements to seek legitimacy and disseminate their ideology, often disguised in the form of Islamic debates and teaching.

Maldivian operatives too sustained close links with organisations such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS, and have been reinforcing these organisations with young Maldivian recruits.

For the radicalised youth, Maldives has been a land of ‘Kafirs’ (infidels). They have preferred operating, fighting, and dying for Islam in countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Syria. The Maldives, thus, became the world’s largest per capita FTF contributor. Maldivian operatives too sustained close links with organisations such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS, and have been reinforcing these organisations with young Maldivian recruits.

Perhaps this external focus by the extremists has limited the domestic stakeholders from taking the local extremist ecosystem too seriously. Political parties and politicians have rather used religion and extremists for their political benefits. This phenomenon has continued to contribute to the sustained spread of extremist ideology and extremist attacks within the Maldives (refer Table 1). In fact, in recent years, the Maldives police have summed up the total number of extremists in the country to over 1,400 people.

Table 1. Extremist/terror attacks within the Maldives

Year Incident
2007 First-ever terror attack in the Maldives, bomb explosion injures 12 people
2007 A serious confrontation takes place between the Maldivian security forces and the extremists at the Dar-Ul-Khair mosque
2012 Several Buddhist remains were vandalised at the National Museum of the Maldives
2012 Dr Afrasheem Ali, a Member of Parliament and a liberal religious scholar, assassinated
2014 Journalist Ahmed Rilwan abducted
2015 Hundreds of protestors denounce democracy and wave the flags of ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front
2017 Blogger Yameen Rasheed stabbed to death
2020 Three foreign nationals stabbed in Hulhumale
2020 ISIS claims responsibility for attacking/damaging multiple boats in a harbour
2021 A bomb blast targets Nasheed—the first democratically elected president of the Maldives
2022 Extremist mob disrupts Yoga Day celebrations

The Thriving Extremist Ecosystem 

In the Maldives, using Islam as a political tool and flirting with extremism is not a new phenomenon. Almost all political parties and stakeholders have done this to seek legitimacy and political benefits. In 1997, President Gayoom had even drafted a new constitution outlawing all the religions in the country, except for Sunni Islam. Fast forward to 2008, the emergence of democracy has created a stronger nexus between these politicians and the extremists.

Today, extremist political parties such as the Adaalath Party (AP), and extremist organisations such as Jamiyyathu Salaf (JS) and the Islamic Foundation of Maldives work or lobby with various political parties to promote extremist policies and views. They have often (individually or together) demanded the governments to restrict alcohol, promote flogging, implement strict laws for abortion, close massage parlours, censor content, impose restrictions on other religions’ art and culture, forbid music and singing, ban organisations that promote democracy and human rights, etc.

It is also often the case that governments and political parties try to accommodate these demands, at least in part. In a country with a 100 percent Sunni Muslim population, democratic representatives are keen to avoid the tag ‘Laadheenee’ (infidel), which often comes with high political costs. Domestic politics has, thus, compelled them to cooperate with the hardliners, often at the cost of democracy, human rights, and freedom of expression. The situation is so dire that even the most ‘democratic’ and ‘liberal’ Maldivian Democratic Party had banned the Maldives Democratic Network in 2019, and amended the hate crime bill in 2021 to accommodate the extremist demands from its ally—the AP and other organisations.

Legitimacy is also another factor that has contributed to this thriving nexus. Following the first democratic elections, subsequent governments have often shared power with hardliners, like the AP, to appear more Islamic and avoid religious opposition and rhetoric. For instance, since 2008, regardless of the ruling government and the party, the AP or its former members have often been nominated to control the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. This has, in turn, promoted more extremist views and policies across the country.

The situation is so dire that even the most ‘democratic’ and ‘liberal’ Maldivian Democratic Party had banned the Maldives Democratic Network in 2019, and amended the hate crime bill in 2021 to accommodate the extremist demands from its ally—the AP and other organisations.

Political instability and weak institutions have also contributed to this power-sharing and accommodation. Islamists, including the AP, continue to join and leave coalitions based on sheer opportunism and their ability to influence the government, and further their agenda. Thus, despite their inability to win seats in large numbers, they have proven to be effective in forming and dissolving governments on multiple instances. Back in 2012, the AP along with other extremist organisations had played a significant role in ousting the Nasheed government through the ‘Defending Islam’ campaign. The same hardliners even participated in the 2015 May Day protests against Yameen. Interestingly, in both cases, AP was a part of the coalition government before parting ways and participating in the protests.

Finally, the politicians and Islamists of the country are also closely linked with several gangsters and crime syndicates. These criminals are often hired by both the stakeholders to issue threats, intimidate political opponents, silence liberal voices, participate in demonstrations, and promote physical violence. Most of these criminals are also easy targets for the hardliners to further their extremist goals. As a result, over 48 percent of the Maldivian FTF in Syria had some criminal records and affiliation in the past. The governments' links with Islamists and criminals further complicate serving justice or dismantling the extremist ecosystem. Subsequently, out of 188 cases of religious extremism, only 14 were forwarded to prosecution by 2019.

India out? Extremism in? 

The violence on Yoga Day is also a mere example of this thriving and sustaining extremist ecosystem. It is no secret that several extremist organisations had opposed the Yoga Day celebrations by deeming them un-Islamic. But a strong political dimension emerged with Yameen’s sharpened religious rhetoric against India.

On 11 June, Maldives witnessed a mega bike rally with thousands of participants protesting against the anti-prophet remarks made by some BJP officials. The popularity of this rally might have motivated Yameen to use religion to mobilise Maldivians against India. Following the event, he has begun to extensively address India’s domestic problems and communal disturbances in his rallies. This tactical change was necessary for him, as his India Out moment is criminalised and has failed to have a wide appeal.

The popularity of this rally might have motivated Yameen to use religion to mobilise Maldivians against India.

In this context, it is no coincidence that Mohammed Ismail—a PPM official and a crucial propagator of the ‘India Out’ moment—was detained with other local Islamist leaders for allegedly being involved in the Yoga Day violence. The PPM had even helped the protestors with flags and other logistics that were used in their previous rallies.

With this nexus and mutual interests, the India Out moment has perhaps reached a more critical juncture or has even started taking a more extremist leap. As Yameen uses religion to seek legitimacy for his anti-India rhetoric, the extremists see this as an opportunity to ‘Islamicise’ and ‘radicalise’ the society against the alleged Indian threat to Islam and the Maldives; or even worse, to influence Yameen’s government and policies if he wins the next elections, thus, showing that the prevalent extremist ecosystem will continue to thrive and sustain in the island nation in the near future.

This is not to say that the subsequent Maldivian governments have not acknowledged or acted against the prevalent extremist challenges. But, to even start with the basics of the success, the elites will have to dismantle their extremist supply chains and ecosystems. The prospects of which, however, appear bleak, considering that the ecosystem has more immediate benefits than costs to these stakeholders.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Aditya Gowdara Shivamurthy

Aditya Gowdara Shivamurthy

Aditya Gowdara Shivamurthy is an Associate Fellow with ORFs Strategic Studies Programme. He focuses on broader strategic and security related-developments throughout the South Asian region ...

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