Originally Published 2013-06-11 00:00:00 Published on Jun 11, 2013
In Maldives, if the mainline polity has failed in fighting a process now being projected as contributing to religious extremism, militancy or terrorism, the global community too has failed to distinguish between a return of Islamic traditions and the advent of Islamic extremism, and act accordingly.
Maldives: Islam, nationalism and 'Islamic nationalism'
Addressing a terrorism seminar in the second half of May, Maj-Gen Ahmed Shiyam, the chief of the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF), was reported to have flagged concerns about threats of terrorism in the country. The MNDF had confirmed reports that some youth had joined foreign terrorist groups and many of them were untraceable, the local media reported him as saying. He did not clarify how current his information was -or, if he was referring to past episodes, some of which at least are in the public domain. Either way, there is cause for concern.

At the valedictory function of the same three-day seminar, Attorney-General Aishath Bisham reportedly traced such threats to the September 2007 'Sultan Park blast' in the capital, Male, and said it was the 'first indication' of terrorism taking roots and spreading. She admitted that a small country like Maldives could not fight terrorism on its own and appealed for international assistance in the matter. Considering the large spread of the atolls-nations, across 950-km of the Indian Ocean (North-South), with 200 inhabited islands in a total of 1200, and a sparsely spread out population of 350,000-plus, with urban Male alone accounting for a packed 100,000-plus, AG's Bisham pointed reference to 'international assistance' could not have been misplaced, particularly in the context of the country's heavy dependence on resort-tourism, which could cut either way.

The seminar, organised by the US Bureau of Diplomatic Security -- the security and law enforcement arm of the US Department of State -- was aimed at training senior police officers in counter-terrorism.

'Sultan Park' and beyond

For an Islamic nation that had taken extreme pride in its religious moderation, Maldives was shocked by the 'Sultan Park episode' in which at least 12 foreign tourists, comprising eight Chinese and two Japanese and Britons, were injured. At the height of the pro-democracy movement raging at the time, the incident was initially sought to be projected as an effort to upset foreign tourist arrivals, which has remained a major source of national income and revenue for the government.

However, investigations led to the arrest of three Maldivian men, who reportedly confessed to their crime, which was to "target, attack and injure non-Muslims" as part of (global) jihad. A related raid on a mosque in the Itimadoo island was resisted and the MNDF had to be called in -all unprecedented as the 'Sultan Park blast', by Maldivian standards. Some of the wanted men were believed to have escaped, possibly to Sri Lanka and (then) Pakistan, and have remained untraced.

What was more shocking to ordinary Maldivians were subsequent reports in 2009 that the US-led security forces had arrested some nationals along the troubled Af-Pak border while on a post-9/11 anti-terror operation. Reports had said that they were trained in Pakistani madrasas. It is unclear if the arrested persons included those who had escaped from Maldives after the 'Sultan Park episode' or were fresh recruits. Before those arrested at the time, a Maldivian national, Ibrahim Fauzee, with alleged links to Al Qaeda had been detained in the Pakistani port city of Karachi, as early as 2002, and detained for a time at the notorious Guantanamo Bay prison of the US in Cuba.

Fundamentalism and/or extremism?

A nation that had adopted Islam as the State religion centuries ago, and continued with its islands-traditions and customs unaffected by the conservatism of the faith's birth-place, Maldives to date does not however provide for citizenship to non-Muslims, that too of non-Sunni stream. The much talked-about democratic reforms, leading to a new Constitution and multi-party elections in 2008, did not include 'religious freedoms' however. If anything, visiting UNHRC Chairperson Navi Pillay's references to 'religious freedoms' and women's rights kicked up a furore in the country in late 2011.

The status quo has continued since, though from time to time, individual political leaders and parties particularly the present-day Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and its leader and former President Mohammed Nasheed, have been voicing concerns in this regard. While the religion-centric Adhaalath Party (AP), or 'Justice Party', is blamed for some of the alleged ills of the 'Islamist politics' purportedly gaining ground in the country, they nonetheless have had their presence in successive governments -those of Presidents Maumoon Abdul Gayoom ('pre-democracy' era), Nasheed and incumbent, President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik.

What has not gone unnoticed over the past couple of years is the 'leadership role' played by the AP in putting together a motley group of religious NGOs and anti-Nasheed political parties in what came to be named as the Maldives National Movement (MNM), starting off with the sub-plan called the 'December 23 movement', contributing in no small way to President Nasheed leaving office on 7 February 2012, to be succeeded by his Vice-President Waheed. With the group members sharing power in the Waheed Government, too, it became easier for the AP this time to spearhead the demand for the cancellation of the Male airport construction-cum-concession contract with the Indian infrastructure major, the GMR Group.

The AP campaign had commenced even when the party was a part of the Nasheed dispensation, after the MDP had accommodated the party which had fielded a routed candidate in the presidential polls of 2008 -and sort of jettisoning existing electoral allies with a substantial electoral-base. The party was thus opposed to the Nasheed Government's initial decision to sanction liquor-permit to an upcoming star-hotel in Male, against the prevailing 'resort-centred' licensing scheme that had excluded 'inhabited islands' in the first place. The AP also opposed the Government wanting to accommodate a Guantanamo Bay detainee, offered by the US, and inviting Israeli farm experts to the country.

All these positions the party had taken in the name of Islam, linking 'nationalism' to the argument, as in opposing the 'GMR contract'. It's another matter that the AP was very much a part of the Nasheed Government when the latter signed the GMR contract, and began protesting loudly only after it had quit the same. The combination had begun working after AP cadres protested -and reportedly damaged -- statues interpreted to be bearing non-Islamic icons donated by SAARC member-nations at the summit venue in southern Addu City. It provided the trigger for the 'National Movement' to demand too soon President Nasheed's exit first, and the axing of the 'GMR contract', not very long after.

Independent of what the AP or other allies may have claimed at the time -or, some of them even now -the 'December 23 movement' and the 'anti-GMR protests' have to be seen only as a part of a process, where religion was used to serve a political end. In context, 'nationalism' as an argument may have had a greater bearing in Maldivian minds, given the history of the Male airport, past exapansion, etc. Otherwise, given the inherent contradictions among political parties and non-political groups, and their divided leaders united only on the anti-Nasheed platform at the time, religion alone could have provided the cementing effect -and the AP served a purpose.

This much became clear not long after the Nasheed exit. Senior non-MDP political leaders were known to have commented that it was now for them, and not the NGOs, to take things forward. Not very long after, at the height of the AP-MNM protests, demanding GMR's exit, President Gayoom's Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) quit the National Movement, blaming its leaders for targeting party leaders from public platforms. Differences over policy issues had begun showing, but the AP-MNM had its way on the GMR issue, after all, given possibly the weight attaching to the original arguments that the PPM, among other partners in the Waheed Government, had originally subscribed to, both inside and outside Parliament.

By hindsight, it needs to be acknowledged that in the case of the anti-GMR protest, 'nationalism' per se was the focus of the political campaign. But the early lead provided by the AP-MNM -without being challenged by stronger political parties forming the ruling coalition -has since given a combination image of Islam and nationalism to the party's campaign. Today, the AP is a strong ally of incumbent Waheed as he contests the upcoming presidential polls of September. At the other end of the coalition is a liberal entrant in the Dhivehi Rayyathunge Party (DRP), originally founded by President Gayoom ahead of the 2008 polls, from which he exited to found the PPM, later.

More recently, the AP said that it would oppose the controversial Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) proposed by the US, but did not, noticeably, say it as loud and as frequently as it had protested the Nasheed dispensation on the 'SAARC-centric' religious issue, and the GMR contract, which was a commercial proposition, where 'nationalism' rather than other charges, like alleged corruption, found only a second place. The AP timidity on SOFA may have had to do with the party's proximity to President Waheed, who has since said that his Government would not sign the agreement on the lines proposed by the US.

In this background, the question arises if political issues pertaining to Islam and 'nationalism' could be confused with 'Islamic nationalism', which is what is seen to represent extreme, if not extremist politico-religious thoughts on the subject. Or, if efforts in Maldives by parties like the AP to revive the 'Islamic way of life' should be equated with a call for jihadi, per se. Opinions differ, but it may be safe to weigh each independent of the other, and see if the twine at all met, or is likely to meet -and if so, how and more so why.

It should be recalled that AP leader Sheikh Imran, addressing MNDF personnel ahead of the Muslim fasting month of Ramzan in 2011, had equated jihadi as a military tactic capable of adoption in the modern era. Criticism did abound at the time, though mostly in private corridors, both on what he said and about the wisdom of allowing him to address the troops in the first place. As coincidence would have it, with increased politicisation of the party since the 'anti-Nasheed protests' that commenced later that year, there is lesser vehemence on religious fundamentalism that bordered on extremism. There is also reported resentment some of the party's early adherents to the likes of AP slipping away from the original manifesto of restoring 'Islamic values' in the midst of increasing modernity, to don an unintended political role.

Global trend, local needs

On the streets of Male, the Maldivian capital that accounts for a third of the nation's population, 'religious fundamentalism' is often identified with the increasing presence of men with flowing beards and women with dress that cover them from head to foot, barring the face. While it certainly is a new trend in Maldives, it may have to be contextualised to the emerging global trend, post-9/11, where Muslims as a people needed greater reassurance that has not exactly been forthcoming from other nations and peoples.

In this 'communication era' that the 21st century is, the globe has shrunk into a 'global village', for ideas of multi-party democracy, for instance, to penetrate an isolated, if not insulated islands-nation like Maldives. The same has also facilitated other ideas too to spread across a nation that anyway has been proud of its Islamic identity, even more than the moderate form that has been in practice, owing to the centuries-old isolation.

The world has seldom acknowledged the fact that despite perceptions to the contrary, Maldives has a modern education system for over 30 years now, tuned to the Cambridge scheme of the British model. It would have gone up a further notch or two, if modern education, still confined mostly to the A-Level, had improved to include higher education in arts and science streams, as also engineering, medical and other professional courses. The low population and long distances within the spread-out country have made such vertical expansion unviable in a way.

For the outside world to confuse Maldivians 'returning' to their religious roots, whatever the reason, with the advent of extremism, may be misplaced. At the height of the pro-democracy movement in the country, and even more so after the controversial exit of President Nasheed on 7 February 2012, protestors on the streets of Male and elsewhere in the country were seen sporting long beards (men) and flowing dress (women, including teen-aged girls). Even if the former could be linked to public protests against the 30-year rule of President Gayoom, the latter definitely was a reflection of the protestors' perception of modern democracy, politics and governance -keeping personal religious beliefs, private.

Despite all this, 'religious education' in Maldives for three decades now has been confined to a few hours in the week in normal schools across the country and to a few special institutions for the purpose. Teachers come from across South Asia, mainly South India, and religion has been no bar to recruitment. The madrasa-type of education, as mistakenly understood, is mostly unavailable in the country other than in select institutions-confined exclusively to religious teachings, not jihadi or militancy. Though not intended that way, it may also serve as a niche area of professional education, as well.

In this background, a few families and/or students wanting to undertake madrasa teaching migrate to countries such as Pakistan, where young minds may have got easily influenced. Equivalent madrasas teaching the form of Islam that is being prevalently acknowledged in Maldives are available in some parts of India, not everywhere. With the spread of knowledge over the past decades making preferred form of Islam the focus of choice in seeking out overseas madrasas for higher studies, greater access to Indian madrasas with modern educational tools, for Maldivian students, for instance, could make a difference, after all.

Politicising Islam, 'political Islam'

The question is not just about politicising Islam, or 'political Islam'. It is also about politicising 'political Islam' to run down one another, in electoral terms, just as religion and caste, ethnicity and culture, language and demography have all become electoral tools elsewhere in South Asia. To consider if all of it would contribute to an ideology obtaining a driver's position in a nation's scheme of things is one thing. To confuse it for the nation, and refusing to consider the (theoretical) possibility of pragmatic politics likewise moderating the ideology in terms of the middle-path is another.

In Maldives, where all registered political parties together do not account for even half the number of registered voters totalling 249,000-plus, and the AP lagging far below many others, figures speak for themselves -- saying a lot about the need for moderation and middle-path. It is more so in terms of the vast bank of 'non-committed' voters, where the 40-plus per cent youthful population, if frustrated by the politics of the present, could look elsewhere for deliverance. That is when religious fundamentalism and/or extremism could appeal to many, not possibly otherwise. The nation's divided polity cannot fail them any more after promising a lot and not living up to it.

In Islamic Maldives, it would have been the equivalent or left ideology/militancy in more 'secular' political environs, elsewhere in South Asia and the rest. The likes of AP and its non-political or apolitical NGO companions could then be the beneficiary, by default -caused by the failure of the more established parties to stand by their commitments, cadres and people. They need not be the benefactor to a process that is now being projected as contributing to religious extremism, militancy or terrorism. The cause for the latter course, if at all, lies elsewhere -both nearer home and afar, if the mainline polity failed Maldives as the global community has failed to distinguish between a return of Islamic traditions and the advent of Islamic extremism, and act accordingly.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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