Whose Islam?: Religion and Identity Politics in the Maldives

May 30, 2010


What price democracy without religious freedom? Religious extremism raises fundamental political questions for newly democratized Maldives.


The prospect of Jihadi groups gaining ground in the Maldives has been flagged for a long time as a potential source of insecurity in the Indian Ocean region. Its archipelagic nature makes monitoring activities in the outer islands challenging, and there has been a history of using them as a staging ground for illegal activities. (See for instance the section on the Maldives in my chapter, “South Asia’s Small States in World Politics,” in South Asia in World Politics, edited by Devin Hagerty, Rowman and Littlefield, 2005.)

In this blog, we have pointed on at least two occasions to this concern. The first was in the context of an interview by the Maldivian president during which he spoke of Maldivians being involved in the 26/11 conspiracy.    The second was a link to a report on jihadi recruitment in the Maldives.

For Maldivians though, this is a secondary concern. Jihadi activity is only one by-product of rising religious extremism.

Islam came to the Maldives in the twelfth century and its advent forms part of the founding myth of Maldivian society. Islam in the Maldives has traditionally been very liberal and open, and this was especially evident in the freedoms that women enjoyed.

In the later years of the Gayoom regime, the government used support to Islamic preachers and madrasas as one way of repressing the nascent movement for democratization. It also made an issue of Christian missionary activity in the islands, accusing some pro-democracy aid organizations of the same as a way to stop them.

Democracy has, as it will, let the genie completely out of the bottle. The Adaalath Party is part of the ruling coalition and holds the Islamic Affairs portfolio. Adaalath favours Islamicization and holds conservative views on gender issues, opposing for instance, the eligibility of women to contest Presidential elections. But compared to the Jamiyyathul Salaf, their politics are mainstream. The Jamiyyathul Salaf propagates an ultra-conservative Islam and in tandem, these forces inside and outside government are attempting to change the nature of Maldivian society. You might say that the processes, practices and exigencies of democratic politics are undermining the bases of liberal society.

Sudha Ramachandran, Maldives faces up to extremism, Asia Times, November 11, 2009.

The Ministry of Islamic Affairs has regularly invited foreign scholars, preachers and tele-evangelists to the Maldives to address large and small groups on religious matters. This week, Mumbai-based Dr. Zakir Naik visited the Maldives, close on the heels of Dr. Bilal Philips from Qatar.

JJ Robinson, “Feminist group launches letter writing campaign against sponsors of Dr Bilal Philips event,” Minivan News, May 27, 2010.
Aishath Aniya, Comment: An evening with Mrs. Naik, Minivan News, May 29, 2010.

The ideas and interpretations they espouse, with great publicity, are a source of profound anxiety to the very young, liberal, educated Maldivians who now occupy important positions in state and civil society. At a recent conference on the Maldives, for instance, participants spoke about cabdrivers playing propaganda tapes about veiling when ferrying unveiled women around Malé. The question they ask, within and outside their country, in conferences and social media: What price democracy without religious freedom? This is not a question to which their high-profile, activist President Nasheed has provided the unequivocal answer that they want to hear.

In the Maldives, religious freedom is closely tied in with citizenship. The constitution explicitly states that “a non-Muslim may not become a citizen of the Maldives.” The idea that the Maldives is 100% Muslim is also interpreted to suggest that those who are not Muslim cannot be Maldivian. The propagation of increasingly conservative interpretations of Islam are seen not just as changing Maldivian society and especially the rights of Maldivian women, but also as potentially limiting the civil liberties, even human rights of Maldivians generally.

Hilath Rasheed, “Zakir Naik will turn Maldivian against Maldivian – VIDEO,” Hilath Online,  May 26, 2010.
Dr. Zakir Naik and Nazim,” Dhivehimedia, May 29, 2010.

Climate change and rising sea-levels many not be the only threat of extinction that Maldivians are battling. Moreover, just as the Internet provided the easy rallying grounds for the pro-democracy activists, so will it do for this first-order debate about the nature of Maldivian society.

Maldivians in 26/11: The power of ‘security’?

October 28, 2009


President Nasheed stated this week in an interview that Maldivian nationals may have been involved in the November 26, 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai.


Earlier this week, President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives stated in an interview:

Any terrorist attack through the underbelly of India, that is peninsular India, would have to go through Maldivian waters. We will be the first to see what is happening. For example, if we had this equipment, we would have been much more vigilant about what was going to happen in the Mumbai [ Images ] attacks…that is why it is essential to safeguard Maldives’ territorial waters and defend our coastline.

Is it true that the Maldives has a serious issue with Islamic fundamentalists?

Yes, we have a serious issue with Islamist radicals, we know that many are being trained by the Al Qaeda [ Images ] in the northern reaches of Pakistan.

How do you know?

Because several Maldivians have been arrested by Pakistani authorities after they crossed into Pakistan from India. The recruitment of Islamist radicals takes place in the Maldives and their channel of movement is all the way up to Pakistan.

Are you saying that the Maldivians are being trained by the Al Qaeda in Pakistan, in Waziristan?

Yes, they are getting trained there by the Al Qaeda to fight the war in Afghanistan.

You talked about the Mumbai attacks and of being more vigilant about your territorial waters…what did you mean by that?

I believe that the identity of all the dead terrorists in the Mumbai attacks has not been broken down into nationalities. I feel there is a Maldivian connection to the Mumbai attacks.

In what way?

Well, we have information from the families of terrorists who are still in the Maldives about this.

This is, in and of itself, interesting. For one, President Nasheed is identifying the Maldives as a potential terror entrepot to India. Second, he says Maldivians are being recruited into Al Qaeda. Third, by stating that “the identity of all the dead terrorists in the Mumbai attacks has not been broken down into nationalities,” he is pointing to what we don’t know for sure and then adding, “I feel there is a Maldivian connection…” Not the “We know” of security establishments worldwide, but “I feel.”

Presidents don’t draw attention to their countries as places from which terrorists originate; not on the basis of “feeling.” So does he know something that others are overlooking?

Or, is this a “calling attention” motion of some sort? Maldives has been an active campaigner against global warming, but President Nasheed has taken the campaign to a different level by talking about purchasing land for displaced Maldivians and holding underwater cabinet meetings. There is a penchant for the dramatic in these actions that offsets the Maldives’ disadvantages of size and remoteness. Seen in that context, a teaser like this, strategically slipped into an interview with a popular news portal, must be intended to place the Maldives on South Asia’s security agenda.

But there is a broader point here, and one that all of us recognise intuitively. It is, as Ole Waever once wrote, that security is a ‘speech act.’ When you draw anything into the realm of security, it gets the attention it should get anyway. It ratchets up its importance instantly. As scholars, we sceptically debate whether this is what the non-traditional security research agenda is about, at bottom. As activists, we know well that it partly explains the genesis of “human security” reports; they are a way to underscore the urgency of public health, displacement, gender inequity and other humanitarian crises.

What does it mean however, when the President of a country like the Maldives states that its citizens might well be foot-soldiers in one of the world’s most complex security problems? If there are Maldivians involved in South Asia’s many terror attacks, then the Maldives will attract welcome and unwelcome attention. Some positive investment and foreign assistance will flow in, no doubt, but also a great deal more scrutiny and pressure than a small state and fledgling democracy can probably bear. And if it is all based on a “feeling”? What is the cost-benefit analysis of a statement of that? That’s something for all of us, especially for this intelligent President and his advisors to think about.

No One is an Island: India and the Maldives

September 9, 2009


The Indian defence minister’s visit to the Maldives drew attention to the India-Maldives relationship.


On August 20, 2009, India’s Defence Minister, AK Antony visited the Maldives. The visit was preceded by press reports that India would sign an agreement to draw Maldives into India’s “security grid.” This report was carried in sources across India, Pakistan, the Maldives and Sri Lanka.

Commentaries appeared across the media and the Internet:

Maryam Omidi, Military pact provokes stir, Minivan News, August 16, 2009.
Ibrahim Mohamed, DRP advises caution on Indian media claims, Minivan News, August 17, 2009.
Simon Shareef, On joining India’s security grid, Open Salon, August 25, 2009.

It’s another matter that India’s ‘security grid’ might have been a journalistic fiction to begin with. By the time the Indian minister reached the atoll-nation, denials and clarifications were spilling forth.

What was set up during Antony’s visit was a programme of naval and coastal security cooperation which includes both technology and equipment transfers to the Maldives. The transfers extend the Indian navy’s reach beyond its territorial waters.

President Nasheed meets with Indian defence minister, Dhivehi Observer, August 20, 2009.
Times News Network, Antony to give Maldives shield against terror? Times of India, August 20, 2009.
India gives Maldives defence help, BBC News, August 21, 2009.
Maldives can always count on India as a well-meaning friend, says Antony, Dhivehi Observer, August 23, 2009.

Reflections on a changing India-Maldives relationship inevitably accompanied these reports and the visit.

Ahmed Shaheed, Building a Framework for India-Maldives Security Co-operation: An Oceanic Agenda for the Future, Open Society Association, August 22, 2009.
Gamini Weerakoon, Is India eyeing base in the Maldives? The Sunday Leader, August 30, 2009.
Siddharth Srivastava, India drops anchor in the Maldives, Asia Times, September 2, 2009.

India looms large in South Asia and it is not difficult to think of reasons why its neighbours feel bound to pay it attention.

Maldives-India defence cooperation have an important history and its closest moment was probably India’s intervention during the attempted coup in 1988. This naval intervention was critical to the survival of the Maldives’ regime then. In subsequent years, India continued to provide defence support to the Maldives but it had the effect of reinforcing the increasingly unpopular and repressive Gayoom regime. Indian support became a sore point with the growing movement for democracy even as the Indian establishment and intelligentsia chose not to notice the ferment across the waters. The regime change and the establishment of a democratic government seem to have effaced some of the bitterness of that moment.

Why do the Maldives matter to India, apart from good neighbourly concern?

The answer lies in the geography of the Maldives. The Indian Ocean is vital to India’s security, given its long coastline and its central location in this area. The Indian state is wary of all and any “outside” influence here, its long opposition to the Diego Garcia base so sustained as to become ritual. Reports of growing Chinese influence and a friendship with Pakistan are bound to interest India.

More important, I would argue, is the structure of the Maldives. Distance from Male to the outlying atolls is great and covers large stretches of open sea, making it hard to monitor movement in these areas. The Sri Lankan Tamil militant group, People’s Liberation Organization for Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), attempted to settle in this area to build themselves a safe haven. This is the group that volunteered their services to stage the 1988 coup. This need not be the last such instance. Following 26/11, coastal defence has become an even greater priority for India and this extends to assuring that its maritime neighbourhood is a friendly and secure one.

There is potential for cooperation between India and the Maldives in other spheres, and indeed these spheres are salient across the region: climate change, democracy and development.

For the Maldives, the most important survival (ergo, security) issue is climate change. Rising sea levels threaten to engulf and consume the low-lying coral reef islands that make up this nation-state. To ex-President Gayoom’s credit, the Maldives took on a pro-active role on the world stage to raise awareness about this issue. It has been an active participant and advocate in several global fora, including the Small Island Developing States Network. In November 2008, one of the first announcements made by the newly elected President Mohammed Nasheed was that his country would create a fund to buy land for an alternative home for the time when his people would become environmental refugees.

Nicholas Schmidle, Wanted: A New Home for My Country, New York Times, May 8 2009.
Jeremy Hance, Maldives president tells world: ‘please, don’t be stupid’ on climate change, mongabay.com, September 1, 2009

India, with its long coastline which is home to several major cities and large densely populated deltaic regions, should pay attention. Acting decisively on climate change and not getting sidetracked by a politics of blame may be one of the most important signs of genuine friendship that India can show to its Indian Ocean neighbours. India should also take a cue from President Nasheed’s concern about housing Maldivians in the wake of environmental disaster and consider rescue plans for its own island territories in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea.

Unlike the high politics/national security concerns of the Foreign Policy debate blogged earlier, global warming is really a survival issue for communities that are already very vulnerable and for the states whose jurisdiction includes them.

Can India also help the Maldives with its resettlement plans? That is also something for Indian civil society and policy-makers to think about.

To briefly refer to the other two spheres mentioned above: India should lend support to democratic consolidation in the Maldives. Indian civil society organizations focused on democracy and governance issues do not really think beyond their borders for the most part, however, and ignorance about the Maldives is quite common, unfortunately. A change in both of these orientations could cement the India-Maldives relationship further. While the government of India does provide development assistance, civil society should pay attention to initiatives like that of the Maldives High Commission in the UK to set up an International Volunteers Programme to recruit teachers and health workers. India does not have a Peace Corps-like organization but it is time for civil society and possibly academic institutions to think about encouraging voluntary work across the region. Indians do work in the Maldives as employees in these and in the tourism sector, but in this particular Indian moment, it should be possible to find people to take time off to volunteer their time and services.

Defence and traditional security are only one dimension of an inter-state relationship, after all. It’s time to invest in the others as well.