Radical Islam Finds Fertile Ground In Tropical Paradise Of Maldives

Five years after a terrorist attack that killed a dozen foreign tourists in Male, could this idyllic archipelago be transforming into a hotbed of Islamic radicalism?

Mosque in Male, Maldives (Shazwan)
Mosque in Male, Maldives (Shazwan)
Frederic Bobin

MALE – A carefully trimmed beard, slicked-backed hair and a suave demeanor: meet the historic leader of the Islamists in the Maldives, the Muslim archipelago in the middle of the Indian Ocean that has been facing major political instability in recent weeks. Sheikh Ibrahim Fareed tries to lull any suspicion: "We aren't interested in politics." He is the star preacher of the Islamic Foundation, an organization that claims to be purely educational and charitable.

At a time when religious parties linked to conservative Islam are gaining ground in the Maldives – a trend reinforced by the February 7 police mutiny that forced liberal President Mohamed Nasheed to resign – the movements of organizations such as the Islamic Foundation or the Salaf group are being closely watched. Sheikh Ibrahim is used to these kinds of attacks: "Our conferences and seminars are peaceful," he insists.

The Mullah has, however, spent some time in jail during the reign of previous President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, a dictator who got rid of anyone – whether liberal or Islamist – who challenged his authority. A visit to the Adhaalath party offices in the heart of the capital confirms the official line that Islamic organizations in the Maldives are portraying. "We have always been a country of moderate Muslims," says Mohamed Shahim Ali Said, one of Adhaalath's leaders and freshly appointed Religious Affairs Minister in the government created after the February coup.

Adhaalath played a key role in the turmoil that led to President Nasheed's forced resignation. His opponents called him an "infidel" that sold his soul to "Jews and Christians."

Originally part of Nasheed's coalition, Adhaalath left in the fall of 2011 stating that the former president, who advocated a liberal reading of the Koran, was guilty of "anti-Islamic" activity especially because of his wish to limit religious teaching. Adhaalath then joined forces with those nostalgic of Gayoom's regime to force Nasheed out. On the day of his forced resignation, several Buddhist statues, symbols of the island's pre-Islamic past, were destroyed.

Many experts have noted a rise in more orthodox ideas among the population over the past 15 years. One example is the generalization of the hijab and sometimes the burqa in Male as well as the country's other islands. This wave of "grassroots' Islamization is the work of Maldivian students who have come back to their country after studying in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. They have become vectors for Wahhabism and Salafism.

"There is no extremism in the Maldives," asserts Abdul Majeed, an Adhaalath dignitary and former deputy minister for religious affairs under President Nasheed. "There are only ideological factions." He is talking about these new groups calling for a literal reading of the Koran in defiance with local traditions based on Sufi Islam.

Other experts recognize the reality of the Islamist movement while denouncing the political manipulations that allowed it to develop. "This radicalization was fed by certain political parties," says Aishath Velezinee, an activist fighting for the independence of the country's justice system. The fact that religious hardliners worked hand in hand with Gayoom's secular heirs in order to oust Nasheed is proof of the shady games played by some traditional political leaders.

Ties to Pakistan

For many liberal Muslims, Nasheed's forced resignation plays into the hands of extremists because the new President, Hassan Waheed will have a hard time ignoring pressures from the religious allies to whom he owes his position, says an extremism expert who asked not to be identified. The most worrying part is that the current instability, fed by the strong opposition between Waheed and Nasheed supporters "will turn the state's attention away from extremist militants' who are currently under very close watch. According to former Defense Minister Ameen Faisal, there are about 500 of them today.

In 2007, a blast in a Male park injured 12 foreign tourists, an attack that was taken very seriously by the United States and neighboring India, especially since some of these extremists have strong ties to Pakistan.

Azra Naseem, who studies Islamism in the Maldives insists that "a terrorist attack against the tourism industry is unlikely." The industry brings in about 850,000 tourists every year and many religious party leaders or their investors have interests in it. For Naseem, the biggest threat is "a regression within Maldivian society," especially regarding women's rights.

Read more from Le Monde in French.

Photo - Shazwan

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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