India must help curb rising Islamic extremism in the Maldives

Increasing Islamic radicalisation and the influence of Pakistan and China in the island nation may be troublesome and India must adopt necessary measures to counter their influence at the earliest, writes Jai Kumar Verma for South Asia Monitor

Jai Kumar Verma Feb 07, 2020
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The Maldives, strategically located in the Indian Ocean region, has traditionally been famous for luxury tourism. However, it is also increasingly becoming infamous for Islamic terrorism. Over 173 Maldivian citizens joined Islamic State (IS) while 423 Maldivians tried to enter Iraq and Syria to join the terrorist organisation. As the island nation’s total population is 515,696, it has got the dubious distinction of sending the highest percentage of its citizens to Iraq and Syria to join the IS.

Wahhabi/Salafi Islam started strengthening in the Maldives since 1990, but it was after the tsunami of 2004 that the number of Saudi sponsored Islamic preachers rose exponentially. The preachers propagated Wahhabism; an extremist form of Islam.

The country’s location makes it immensely significant for India’s trade and security, while regional and global powers are also attempting to enhance their influence there. Besides foreign influence, the country also faces internal dissensions and environmental disasters. However, the biggest problem the country faces is rising terrorism, Islamic radicalisation and religious conservatism. The Sufi and Buddhist culture of the archipelago nation has been devastated by Islamic radicalisation.  

From the 1980s onwards, Wahhabi influence crept in after several Maldivian students returned from Madrassas in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Although the then President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was not a radical Islamist, he emphasised the country’s Islamic identity. The 1997 constitution gives citizenship only to Muslims and non-Muslims are forbidden from practicing their religion in public. After Gayoom’s departure from power, the impact of Wahhabi preachers has considerably risen.

Saudi Arabian financial assistance and its effects substantially increased during the presidentship of Gayoom’s step-brother Abdulla Yameen. Riyadh pumped petrodollars into the Maldives as it wanted to establish military bases there to gain an offensive staging point against Iran. Yameen wanted rapid economic development, thus taking substantial financial assistance from Saudi Arabia and China. Riyadh increased Wahabism, constructed mosques across the archipelago nation and an Islamic centre in Male. The Saudis also educated Maldivian religious scholars, preachers and Imams while China poured money into infrastructure projects.

Pakistan, which has emerged as an important exporter of Jihad, also played a significant role in the progression of Islamic extremism in Maldives. Pakistan constructed madrassas and mosques and awarded scholarships to Maldivian students for study in Pakistani educational institutions. These measures have increased extremism and Maldivians were instigated to fight not only in Iraq and Syria, but also in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Kashmir.      

Social and economic conditions in Male are also responsible for the increasing extremism. Large numbers of Maldivians are uneducated and hence, can be easily recruited by religious extremists. More than 43% Maldivians have access to the internet and a sizable number of them were recruited through the internet and social media. Widespread unemployment, gang violence, more than 100,000 persons crammed in one square mile in Male have also contributed to the increase of Islamic extremism. There are a large number of broken marriages and, because of the density of population, several youths live on the streets, from where they are recruited by Jihadists, anti-social elements and drug peddlers.

The Adalat party (Justice Party) and some NGOs including Jamiyyathu Salaf (JS) and the Islamic Foundation of Maldives (IFM) are also responsible for spreading extremism in the country. Initially, only people from deprived fishing communities were associated with extremist organisations, but now young persons from educated and rich families are also joining terrorism.  

The Maldivians allege that propaganda about Maldivian jihadis has been blown out of proportion by the western media. The present government is trying to salvage Maldivians stranded in Iraq and Syria. The people returning from Iraq and Syria need de-radicalization, re-education and rehabilitation in the country and the current MDP government under President Ibrahim Solih is formulating measures to ensure their influence does not spread. 

Increasing Islamic radicalisation and the influence of Pakistan and China in the island nation may be troublesome and India must adopt necessary measures to counter their influence at the earliest. Indian businessmen should enter the tourism industry there to increase their influence. The rise of radical Islam threatened the hospitality sector but still remains the major revenue earner. Yameen used Islamic fundamentalism to keep a distance from India and cosy up to Saudi Arabia.

China, which considers India as a potential rival, is winning over India’s neighbours. China has already occupied Gwadar port in Pakistan and Hambantota port in Sri Lanka. The Communist regime in Nepal is close to China while Bangladesh also has good relations. Hence, India must chalk out a pragmatic plan to win over its neighbours.

China is an expansionist country and, through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), will exploit smaller South Asian nations. With large loans, even the sovereignty of these nations could be endangered. Sri Lanka had to surrender Hambantota port to China on a 99-year lease.

India should help the Maldives in curbing radicalisation by screening extremist clerics, ideologists and lecturers. The spread of extremism through the internet, mobile phones and social media should also be checked. The preachers who radicalise the masses through the distorted version of Islam must be punished. The government must launch propaganda against the propagation of extremism by involving moderate religious preachers, professors, professionals and NGOs. The Maldives is located strategically and Pakistan and China both are trying to increase their influence, albeit in different ways, hence India must take requisite steps to curb their unwarranted influence. 

(The author is a New Delhi-based strategic analyst)

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