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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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