Perth,April 27, 2016 (Alochonaa): In December, 2015, 12 people related to one family from the Maldives left for Syria, reportedly to join the ISIS. They included four sisters, three brothers, the wife of one of the brothers, two of the four sisters’ husbands, their two-year son and a six-month old daughter. The eight siblings come from the remote island of Kondey, with a population of just 544 people, but lived in the capital, Male. This is just the latest reported case of foreign fighters from the Maldives going to Syria. The Soufan Group, a think tank monitoring the flow of foreign fighters to Syria, says the official count (based on government, the UN, or academic sources) for the Maldives is 200, however, the official Maldivian government count fluctuates between 20 and 100.
This month, the country’s Counter-Terrorism Centre said the count was at most a two-digit figure. Based on media reports of actual cases since 2014, there seems to be a steady flow of Maldivians going to Syria since at least mid-2013. So far, the government has failed to stem this flow but that does not mean the government has not taken measures against violent extremism. After all, the numbers from other parts like the Western Europe also climbed between 2013 and 2016 despite international efforts to stem the flow. When it comes to states like the Maldives, gripped by political turmoil, there is the politics of radicalisation further aggravating the issue.
In the Maldives, problems include: 1) “Block thinking” where people do not bother to understand complexities; 2) Trivialisation of violent extremism by the government; 3) Instrumentalisation of religion by all political parties; 4) Radical political gangs susceptible to “Islamisation”. Religion’s Big Story in the Maldives: The Context As far as Islam is concerned, the really big story coming from the Maldives is the fragmentation of the religious consciousness. Anthropologist Clarence Maloney observed in the 1970s that Islam in the Maldives was limited to washing, fasting and praying. What he meant was that Islam was largely a minor practice. There was no talk. No conversation. No arguments about religion.
Today we have the phenomenon some have called the “objectification of Muslim consciousness”. Islam has become the centre of vigorous disagreements and the object of talks, disputes, and theorisation. It has become an object of conspiracy theories and sensationalist journalism. Disagreements are not just between Salafists and non-Islamist Maldivians. Fragmentations exist within Islamists and Salafists, on issues of women’s rights, democracy, human rights, and violent jihad. In short, different groups envision different utopias for the country. That is the broader sociological reality of religion in the country. We don’t yet know the precise implications for democratisation in the country, however, we know that most Maldivians support democracy. Most associate it with such notions as freedom of expression and assembly. We also know Islamists have so far failed to translate whatever support their ideology has into votes. But we don’t know the long-term implications of the fragmentation of the religious consciousness for the broader security in the Maldives and other countries, including India.
I take up here the story of the politics surrounding radicalisation that facilitate violent extremism. The Politics of Radicalisation Block thinking and radicalisation On 29 September 2007, a group of Maldivian terrorists detonated a homemade bomb at Male Sultan Park, injuring 12 tourists. Since the Sultan Park terror attack, no act of terrorism has taken place inside the Maldives. Maldivians, however, have joined violent jihadi forces in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and now Syria. It is not clear how, if at all, the people behind the 2007 attack in Male are connected to today’s jihadists. According to Maldivians who joined Al Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, the Maldives is not a strategic priority for them. Instead, an Islamic state in the Indian subcontinent, they argue, can be a more fruitful goal. If such an endeavour can be successful, ‘conquering Maldives would be as simple as a blow from the mouth from a mountain of India’. To be sure, for them, the Maldives is under jahiliyya (irreligious darkness, as in pre-Islamic Mecca), ruled under a taghut (idolatrous) system. Maldivians, they believe, must refrain from participating in elections. Still, 90% voted in the 2013 presidential elections.
At least, then, the Maldivians who joined al-Nusra don’t support any political party in the Maldives. They condemn President Yameen’s government. It can hardly be true the Yameen government or his party, the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM), directly supports them either. Moreover, there is an ideological disconnect between these Maldivians in Syria and the modernist Islam espoused by former President Gayoom of the PPM. The non-religious modernism of the Maldivian generation educated at the American University in Beirut (which includes President Yameen) is a far cry from the religious ideologies of violent extremism. President Gayoom might have attended rallies by Sayyid Qutb in his student days in Egypt. But ideologically he is closer to the reformist Islam of Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani and Muhammed Abduh that aspired to show Islam was fully compatible with modernity.
The point is Maldivian groups like Jamiyyatul Salaf/Al Asr, the Islamist Adalat Party, the PPM, Sharia4Maldives, Maldivians in ISIS and al-Nusra, are not ideologically the same on all issues. Yet some in the current opposition, and the sensationalist media, reports don’t bother to make these discriminations. That is an outcome of the tendency to lump together all who do not support secularist ideologies in a single fold. That is an example of what Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls “block thinking”. Under block thinking, differences and discriminations do not matter. “Islam” is taken as a monolithic unit and seen as somehow antithetical to secular modernity and dangerous to politics.
I think there are several dangers associated with this kind of thinking. Consider for example a possible implication when we lump Maldivian foreign fighters in Syria together. We know that Maldivians who have joined al-Nusra or would desire to join al-Nusra would not necessarily like ISIS. There is a pretty sophisticated treatise by one of the Maldivian fighters in al-Nusra (who died in Syria) decrying ISIS and its ideology of an Islamic State in the current mode. Maldivian fighters who are with al-Nusra continue to portray ISIS as a deviant group. The implication of this is huge if one is serious about understanding who may be behind ISIS or al-Nusra recruitment from the Maldives. It may not be the same group. Consider another example. Sheikh Adam Shameem of the Salafi NGO Al Asr is accused of recruiting people for violent jihad without credible evidence. It is true he does not support secular democracy. He may condemn Western atrocities in Muslim countries, or even support jihad in principle.
He made a prayer on Facebook for Muslim foreign fighters, including two Maldivians who died in Syria. But the reality is he has a complex view on jihad, including the defensive violent jihad. Shameem condemned the Sultan Park bomb attack, condemned Maldivians joining extremist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and reasoned the command by an amir as a condition of violent jihad, and argued jihad becomes an individual obligation upon citizens of a country only in cases of foreign aggression (or when commanded by their leader). In another piece he says people should go for violent jihad when requested by the people of a Muslim country under aggression and when the neighbouring countries are incapable of helping them. Thus, if we fail to make these differences and engage through alternative discourses but instead demonise, we don’t help the cause of counter-radicalisation. More importantly, through the failure to make differences we may fail to differentiate between potential allies for counter-radicalisation and the real culprits behind violent extremism. That’s the first aspect of politics of radicalisation in the Maldives: block thinking, sometimes informed by secularist biases. Trivialising Radicalisation President Yameen’s government does not appear to be seriously working to stem the flow of foreign fighter from the Maldives. The fact that at different times, depending on the political platform, the government has said different things about violent extremism is a matter of grave concern. The openness with which some jihadist fighters have operated in social media supporting violent jihad, and their continued interactions with local people, is another indication of how radicalisation is trivialised.
If an individual like myself (not even with a primary focus on radicalisation) could know that Ahmed Atheeq from Addu atoll went to Syria, and could find his Facebook page by asking a friend, and for months could read his Facebook updates supporting violent jihad and encouraging violent jihad, that is an indication of how the government trivialises the issue. The police force is disproportionately mobilised to meet the narrow political ends of the government of the day, and a counter-terrorism centre was only established in February this year. Their focus is not on the job. Political trivialising of the issue of radicalisation is then the second aspect of politics of radicalisation in the Maldives. Instrumentalisation of Religion The third aspect of politics of radicalisation is political instrumentalisation of religion in general by all parties. Politicians instrumentalise Islam in selfish ways. The PPM portrays political opponents in the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) as Christian missionaries or anti-Islamic secularists. This is done to incite local religious sentiments. But the MDP, in turn, portrays the Maldives as a hotbed of fundamentalism, encouraged by the PPM and/or the Islamist Adalat Party, depending on the time and alliances. The MDP uses this approach to solicit international support and it appeals to some Indian and western audiences that see the Muslim world through the lens of the War on Terror.
In reality, both the PPM and the MDP have been ready to make alliances and flirt with puritan Salafists. Part of this instrumentalisation is to do with the nature of the electoral system. The Maldives has a majoritarian electoral system that requires 50% +1 vote to win the presidential election. The winner-takes-all system for parliamentary system also encourages tactical partnerships. This, together with the competitive nature of elections since 2008, has meant that otherwise non-religious parties have a strong incentive to solicit support from every segment of the political and religious spectrum. The Islamist Adalat party became part of every government not because of popular votes but because of their coalition with major political parties. But parties have also solicited support from more the puritan Salafi end of the spectrum that, in principle, supports violent jihad and portrays Muslim issues in a Manichean worldview of Good (Muslims) vs. Evil (West/Israel). The outcome of the free reign and state funding given to puritan Salafists in exchange for political support, is that Salafi activism and outreach has grown at mindboggling levels. We do not know the extent of public support for Salafist ideologies but if one subscribes to some of the Salafist views, even though one may not be a violent extremist, one may be more sympathetic to violent jihad, or one may be more susceptible to religion-based recruitment for violent jihad.
That is, at a minimum, how political instrumentalisation of Islam is related to radicalisation. Islamisation of Gang Members The fourth aspect of the politics of radicalisation is related to the rise of gang politics. “Islamisation” of gang members may be the most significant route to the journey to Syria. An assessment on gangs in 2012 suggested that all political parties use gangs for politics ends. Partly as a result, no government has seriously tackled the issues of youth delinquency and their radicalisation in gangs. In recent years, gangs have become dangerous political instruments. It is suspected that politicians sponsored gang members in the murder of parliament member Dr Afrasheem Ali in 2013 (ahead of presidential election primaries) and in the abduction of journalist Rilwan in 2014. This dangerous connection between gangs and politics, and the related political failure to address the issue, has opened gangs to a totally different and new phenomenon. The concept of “Islamisation of radicalism” explains this because a lot of today’s violent extremists joining groups like ISIS are already radicals before they get “Islamised”. Several Maldivians who joined ISIS came from backgrounds of past (non-religious) radicalism, crime, and gangs. These people were already radicals before they were “Islamised” to become foreign fighters. The 2012 gang assessment also indicated there were no links between religious figures and gang members (who distrusted the country’s religious scholars). This suggests “Islamisation” of gang members is a more recent phenomenon. These facets of the politics of radicalisation may not be surprising in a state gripped by deep political turmoil since 2003 but unless the politics of radicalisation is managed, it will be difficult to address the real issues of religious radicalisation and “Islamisation” of non-religious radicals.
**Azim Zahir is a Phd student at the Centre for Muslim States and Societies. He is conducting research on Islam, secularism and democratisation.