By Josh Bowes – Research Assistant SAFN
Pic: WikiCommons – Public demonstration calling for Sharia Islamic Law in Maldives
Extremism in the Maldives is not a new phenomenon. The South Asian country has long experienced Islamist terrorist activity that has been utilized for political gain in an effort to weaken democratic principles and freedom of expression. Opposition to dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in the years preceding 2008 facilitated the strengthening of extremist groups and increased numbers of Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTF’s) fleeing the Maldives to pursue violent goals in Afghanistan, Pakistan and beyond. As democracy emerged following President Gayoom’s rule, the influence of extremism remained strong. In 2021, even the most left-leaning Maldivian political groups, namely the Maldivian Democratic Party, flirted with religious extremists in order to leverage power in government and steer clear of religious dissenters. For decades, especially during the time in which President Gayoom was in power, the Maldivian government was largely interconnected with Islamic identity, but opposition to Gayoom’s dictatorship paved the way for this identity to transform into more extreme versions of Islam. A notable uptick in the perpetration of violence has squandered hopes to diminish the influence of extreme Islamic views in state affairs. If not addressed rapidly, budding terrorists in the Maldives will ignite a larger extremist movement across South Asia, inevitably destabilising the region’s efforts to build multilateral relationships and fragment years of work in establishing growth. A lack of action to counter the rising extremist movement in the Maldives will send the wrong message to many young Maldivians who are desperate to become politically involved.
“..budding terrorists in the Maldives will ignite a larger extremist movement across South Asia, inevitably destabilising the region’s efforts to build multilateral relationships and fragment years of work in establishing growth.”
The celebratory Day of Yoga gathering in June 2022 saw a violent mob attack participants in the Male festivities. The extremist attackers adorned messages that declared the practice of yoga a violation of Islam and desecrated nearby government property. In 2021, a motorcycle bomb attack injured ex-president Mohamed Nasheed. This violent act was carried out by religious extremists who sought to assassinate the president. Between 2014 and 2018, more ISIS recruits originated from the Maldives than any other country. This statistic elucidates the desire of many young Maldivians to work towards an extreme political cause. In 2019, a terror attack in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday left almost 270 civilians dead. The attack was ISIS-inspired and gives the recruitment statistic credence in understanding the pull of Islamism in giving young fighters a religious purpose which has been twisted into violent political action.
“..women have always played a significant role in society and the politicisation of gender identities is not as prevalent as it once was.”
This author interviewed Abdul Ghafoor Mohamed, the Maldivian ambassador to the United States. The ambassador emphasised that the Maldives is a peaceful society where politics and religion are largely intertwined. Radicalism has not been an integral part of Maldivian society, and Maldivians do not accept extreme versions of Islam. He described how Maldivians have ‘moved with the times;’ women have always played a significant role in society and the politicisation of gender identities is not as prevalent as it once was. Traditionally, the Maldives has been very welcoming towards foreigners and peace loving and hospitable to non-Maldivian outsiders but multicultural awareness and acceptance on the archipelago are not widespread. Despite the steps taken by the government to address extremism through the means of educational deradicalization programs aimed at youth as well as a national centre on counter-terrorism, what is needed is a greater aptitude of tolerance and respect for those who have other religious viewpoints and ideas. For over 800 years, Maldivian society has been very homogenous, largely united under one ethnicity and one language. The sectarian difference present in many societies is not seen in Maldives – heterogeneity is not welcomed by many. Therefore, the idea of accepting other ideas that may have been alien in the past is something the greater Maldivian nation must teach its youth and the larger population.
“President Solih’s repositioning from a closer relationship with India over China is a brave move, but one that will hope to be fruitful in accumulating security resources and continued dialogue on initiatives regarding counter-terrorism.”
A continued endorsement of and an inability to enfeeble extremism in the Maldives could prove to be detrimental for the greater South Asian region. With upwards of five hundred to one thousand young Maldivians venturing to war-zones to fight for Islamist causes, the island nation could see less FTF’s and more domestic operatives if efforts to wither out extremist influences are not formidable. The Maldivian government requires even stronger partnerships with the international community, but eradicating terrorist operatives requires an inviolable domestic positioning. Bilateral agreements engaging in counter-terrorism operations offer a progressive step forward for the Maldives to strengthen inter-regional security. On 24th July 2023, Maldives and India met during the Second Meeting of the Joint Working Group on Counter Terrorism, Countering Violent Extremism and De-Radicalisation to reaffirm their commitment in addressing and countering extremism and terrorist radicalisation, especially in the contentious Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Buttressing multilateral discourse on the threat of terrorism in South Asia requires an openness to cooperation using international and regional forums in order to reinforce democratic principles. As discussed on the Democracy Forum debate ‘China’s growing inroads into South Asia’ on 26 July 2023, China’s growing influence in the IOR has allowed Maldives to garner support from its neighbouring nation, but the Maldives must steer clear of allowing itself to become neutralised by larger regional countries like China. Instead, the give-take relationships that the Maldives has with its neighbours should rest on a foundation of preserving regional security. Terrorism and religious extremism remain a gargantuan challenge in the South Asian region but must be marked as a priority in establishing democracy and harmony across the continent. Escalating polarisation in Pakistan amid a scarily large increase in the size of the Pakistani Taliban (Tehreek-e-Taliban) and a continuous instability in Afghanistan are likely spheres of influence for many young Maldivians that are exposed to radicalisation efforts, especially in growing cyberspaces for recruitment. A persistence of the Maldivian government in paying attention to extremist operatives and their political advancements must be diminished with institutional pressure to work towards fair and free politics that eradicates the interests of religious extremists. Current Maldivian president Ibrahim Mohamed Solih has repositioned the island nation to closer alignment with India and the greater Western hemisphere, a strategic move that has produced anti-terrorism efforts, with Britain, namely. President Solih’s repositioning from a closer relationship with India over China is a brave move, but one that will hope to be fruitful in accumulating security resources and continued dialogue on initiatives regarding counter-terrorism. However, President Solih must take a hardline approach in ridding state institutions of Islamist influence and instead harbour sovereignty with a strong Muslim identity that rests on an underpinning of democratic freedoms. This is likely to be a colossal challenge but one that must be undertaken to avoid conflict with religious extremists across South Asia.
*Josh Bowes is a Research Assistant at South Asia Foresight Network (SAFN). @Josh_Bowes1