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Hindu dharma is implicitly at odds with monotheistic intolerance. What is happening in India is a new historical awakening... Indian intellectuals, who want to be secure in their liberal beliefs, may not understand what is going on. But every other Indian knows precisely what is happening: deep down he knows that a larger response is emerging even if at times this response appears in his eyes to be threatening.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Islamic Radicalisation of Maldives

R. Upadhyay

Tourist brochure describes Maldives as a paradise. Perhaps due to the natural beauty, this country of 1192 small coral islands in Indian Ocean was known as Maldveep (Garland of island) in ancient Sanskrit literature. With 100 % Sunni Muslim population of over three lakhs, area of 800 square kilo metres distributed across atolls and islands, having more sea than land in its occupation and historical roots in South Indian, Sri Lankan Sinhalese and Arab communities, it remained isolated from the influence of modern world for centuries. Situated at a distance of about 450 miles southwest of Sri Lanka and nearly 300 miles away from the southern coastline of India, both the countries are its nearest marine neighbours. Because of its Location on the major marine routes in Indian Ocean, its geo-strategic importance can be understood.

Before the advent of Islam in the island its natives were practising Buddhism. Islam was initially introduced largely in its southern area in 1127 AD but the then tolerant Buddhist ruler did not give any patronage to conversion. However, in 1153 the Buddhist king Dhobenei Kalaminj Siri Bavanaadheettha got converted to this faith and imposed it on his subjects. Although, with the introduction of new religion Maldives also faced the challenge of Arabisation, the influence of pre-Islamic past remained the bedrock of its socio-political philosophy till it came in contact with the wider part of modern world.

Maldives has all along been an independent State except for a brief period of about 15 years under Portuguese occupation in 16th century and under British protectorate from 1887 till 26th July 1965, when it got independence. It reverted from Sultanate to a republic on 11th November 1968.

After reversion of Maldives from Sultanate to a republic, its first president Ibrahim Nasir opened up the country for tourists and foreign investments. The growth of tourist industry in this Muslim country was somehow not palatable for the Islamist establishments from all over the world. However, when Abdul Gayoom, who is educated in Islamic jurisprudence from Al Azhar University in Cairo became president in 1978, he changed the role of religion significantly and irreversibly transformed the traditionally tolerant society into an increasingly radicalized Islamic society. Since the tourist industry was the backbone of national economy, it was not possible for him to close it but due to his Islamic educational background, religion occupied a front seat in his politics. He sent a significant number of youths to Islamic institutions in countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan and India for Islamic studies.

With huge funding from Saudi Arabia for Wahhabisation of Maldives Islamist zealots on their return from Islamic institutions became loyal collaborators of the regime and began an intense indoctrination for Arbisation of the island in the 1980s. Describing the indigenous cultural symbols like native names, language, greetings and attire as ‘Jahiliya’ (Age of darkness) they “began insisting that it was sinful to call God anything other than Allah” (maldivesroyalfamily.com). This made the Maldivians culturally restless as Arbisation of language was an assault on their vocal chord that was accustomed to pronounce ‘Maaiyraskalaange” for the term God. Although, they tried to ignore the dictates of Mullahs, they succumbed to the threat of Islamist preachers who said that non-pronouncement of Allah by Muslims would send them to hell. Gradually, this cultural conquest forced the traditional Maldivian culture disappear from the island. Traditionally, some parents used to send their children for Islamic education in countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia solely for their solid moral foundation but after Gayoom came to power promotion of anti-Semitic and hate-Israel teachings in Madrasas increased religious sentiments. “Now we are in evil times and teachers train children in fanaticism and bigotry in Islamic schools” (Ibid.).

Since its independence, Maldives adopted a policy not to allow military base of any world power although the Wartime British air base on its Gan Island in Addu Atoll continued till it was unilaterally given up in 1976. It had even rejected the proposal of Soviet Union for access to its military base in the island following the withdrawal of the British. India too never felt the need to actively harness the Maldives’ strategic potential in Indian Nation. However, when Gayoom became the president, he adopted the policy of multilateral and bilateral approach, which was quite visible during the coup against him in November 1988 which he could overcome with help from India. He sent an international appeal for political and moral support but sought military appeal only from India, as he wanted to keep the island away base from extra regional powers.

It is said that President Gayoom used Islam as a tool to marginalise his political opponents. In his presidential address to the nation on the occasion of country’s national day, he often blamed opposition for their alleged motive to bring other religions to the country. The 1997 Maldives constitution designated Islam as the official religion and law prohibits the Maldivian citizens to practise any religion other than Islam.

In 2003, posters praising Osama bin Laden appeared on the walls of a school in the Edyafushi island. A shop displaying photo of Sant Claus was attacked in 2005.

Gayoom often projected himself as supreme propagator of Islam which progressed at a remarkable state under his last thirty years continuous rule. He had repeatedly stated that “Maldivians are born Muslims”. During his tour to India in 2005 while addressing the Maldivian students he asked them not to deviate from the strict Islamic policies set by his government and advised them to “strive hard to avoid the influence of new ideas including liberalism, tolerance and outspokenness” (Minivian News). Speaking in Male on April 10, 2005, he said “Islam and freedom of this country are interconnected” (Ibid.).

“Among the roughly 180 countries of the world, Maldives is placed in the sixth position, concerning intolerance and harassment against minorities” (Ibid. dated June 12, 2005). Government of Maldives stresses that “belonging to anything else but the Muslim ideology would be against Maldivian tradition” (Ibid.).

The first Islamist terror strike was in Sultan Park of Male, the capital of Maldives on September 29, 2007 targeting the foreign tourists in which about a dozen of them were injured. Maldives police believed that the blast was a plot of Islamic militants against the tourist industry of the country. Even President Gayoom admitted that Islamist terrorism has begun to affect the peaceful image of the island. He ordered a ban on entry of Mullhas and Islamic clerics from outside Maldives without any invitation from the authorities. His government also cracked down on religious dissent banning foreign preachers and unlicensed prayer groups (AtollTime.com).

Although, a Safari clad clean shaven Gayoom has been trying to prove his moderate image, he cannot escape the responsibility of the growth of Wahhabism in Maldives which is the root of terrorism. His commitment to the promotion of hard-line Islam, constitutional ban on the practice of any other religion except Islam, the growing popularity of beards and veils, and dictates of Mullahs to shun music, to stop listening to music and watching T.V. are indications that Maldives is creeping towards its Talibanisation. Reports about growing number of youths from Maldives supporting the militant philosophy of Jihad also suggest the rise of militant Islam in this country. Sultan Park incident has not only confirmed it but has also sent a signal that Islamist terrorism which starts from Pakistan has discovered a new route of terrorism via Maldives to support the Islamist groups in southern Indian states, where a number of terror attacks took place last year. In the absence of adequate security forces and advanced arms and equipments Maldives may not be capable to destroy the sleeping cells of terrorists.

India occupies the core position among South Asian countries and therefore, its natural concern is to protect its national interest from the inevitable consequence of the changing geo-strategic influence in the region. It is already facing the challenge of Mullah-Military alliance in Pakistan, Bangladesh and from the growth of Islamic radicalism in Sri Lanka. But Maldives, an integral part of South Asia and a member of South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) has failed to construct a secular structure during last thirty years rule of President Gayoom, which allowed the extreme Islamist groups of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and India to transform the Islamic society of his country to a more conservative nation and active form.

India is thus facing the unabated challenge of Islamist terrorism that get embedded in neighbouring countries. This should be cause for concern.

(The author can be reached at e-mail ramashray60@rediffmail.com)

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