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MDN banned for ‘blasphemy’, forced into exile

Shahindha Ismail and Mushfiq Mohamed

The Government of Maldives banned the Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN) from the Maldives two years ago in a state of paralysis, to appease religious hardliners within and outside of the government structures. MDN published their assessment on violent extremism in the Maldives in 2016. Three years later, a year into the new President Ibrahim Solih’s tenure, the coalition government made the decision to shut down the organisation on 19 December 2019. It did so despite calls from international groups and governments and despite the stark absence of any due process. 

Then in January 2020, the Maldivian government seized all of the donor funds in MDN’s bank accounts. The authors of the ‘MDN report’ are still alive solely because of the support and assistance of the human rights community outside of the Maldives and the foreign governments that chose to protect their rights.

The “Ban MDN” Smear Campaign

Smear campaigns in the Maldives have an identifiable pattern and modus operandi. A known, and often a well respected, religious group publishes material online accusing another group or an individual of being anti-Islamic. It then gets picked up by violent groups and political opponents. 

The smear campaign against MDN began days after the NGO published its review of the government-proposed amendments to the Anti Terrorism Act in September 2019. It rapidly escalated into a violent protest that moved from online to offline spaces and spread throughout the country. Dozens of people demonstrated on multiple islands calling to burn and kill the authors of the report and ban MDN. The law enforcement, however, was absent from these scenes. 

An anonymous Twitter handle called @SecularErazer began doxxing MDN and its staff as early as August 2019. Twitter posts alone carrying the hashtag #BanMDN exceeded 39,000 by February 2020 and continues to be used today despite MDN’s local deregistration. The smear campaign has now evolved into using MDN as a dog-whistle term to refer to secularism and those who identify as liberal Maldivians. 

“We have to shut you down or we may lose the government” 

“We had to sacrifice MDN, you have to understand what was at stake” 

These are but some of the justifications used at the time by those who took the decision to ban MDN. Official responses from the government to the UN Special Procedures have asked the UN to “view this as an isolated incident”. The government stated that the incident had the potential to cause a threat to national security.

What remains clear is that it was a critical inflexion point for the country. Not a single politician or civil society actor or human rights activist in the Maldives unequivocally and publicly said MDN’s ban is unacceptable, or at least that it was arbitrary in every sense of the word. Fear is a word that was casually thrown around at the time. It is also used very selectively when the perpetrators of violence are interconnected to those behind religious extremists. In a small community like the Maldives, there is barely a degree of separation between corrupt politicians, zealous clerics, and violent groups.

It is the bare minimum to say that human rights workers should be able to work freely and without threats. It should not be controversial to say that people have the right to live and work in their home country. To give back and serve your community. And in a country where violent groups kill, violently attack, or force into exile journalists and activists—it is even more important for state officials to reiterate these simple truths. If this is the reality of the strangled media freedom and civic space, what does it mean for those vulnerable individuals and groups whose rights they defend?

The truth is, banning MDN was due to more than just a lack of principles and values or a lack of respect for the rule of law. Local politicians and NGOs directly benefited from MDN’s forced deregistration. 

The Roots of Sectarian Violence

It goes without saying that those who would most benefit by silencing MDN are those religious hardliners profiled in the 2015 MDN report on the drivers of violent extremism in the Maldives. The profiles are supported with evidence of violent extremist content those individuals and organisations have been promoting in the country for years without interruption. These include messaging in government-approved sermons and other informal mediums. 

Regardless of whether MDN is silenced or not, the evidence in the report has been with the authorities for over six years. To say the least, the only people the government and violent non-state actors have come after are the authors of the report and the organisation that commissioned it. The violent extremists profiled in the report remain free and continue to spread the radical ideologies in the Maldives. This has resulted in dozens being forced to flee the Maldives since Solih took office, afraid for their lives after being targeted by violent groups. 

Three groups that greatly benefited from the persecution of MDN were Salafi groups, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, and violent extremists. On 11 October 2019, Sheikh Ilyas Jamal, an official at the Islamic Ministry publicly said: “We were very concerned when this report surfaced. When we look at the report we see very dangerous matters. The introduction itself says this research was foreign-funded. We know the writers were well-paid. How can such research be conducted in a 100% Muslim country?” The Islamic Ministry official then went on to use a hadith to urge vigilance over “the enemies of Islam.” It did not matter that this was not a religious publication, but a study conducted by an NGO based on human rights standards. It was seen as heresy. 

A video sermon from Salafi cleric, Abdul Salam, leading an organisation named Jamiyya Salaf, speaking at a mosque threatened the Maldivian government with consequences if it did not ban MDN: “I say to the security services, counter-terrorism agencies, People’s Majlis, and the President; we, the scholars and advisors, cannot prevent ‘(violent) youngsters’ (from harming people) living in this country, who believe we a have a right to criticise Islam and the Prophet. (For that reason) we call on the authorities to prevent people who promote these rights.” In the Maldives, the word “youth” is sometimes used synonymously with young offenders in criminal gangs.

In November 2019, we came across a video sermon on the MDN report, accusing it of offending the Prophet and criticising Islam, published by a Maldivian radical cleric Al Akh Abu Amru Al Maldifi. The so-called sermon raises concerns about the “threats from within” against Islam and the Prophet. The speaker in the sermon believes that the government functions under “the infidel democratic system” and that it is backing the authors of the MDN report. It further goes on to use a hadith to support acts of terror against the authors of the report, calling on “the lions of the Ummah” to defend Islam against such enemies. “This is a golden opportunity to show the strength of your faith without heeding those who manipulate the religion to support these apostates”, the speaker said at the end of the sermon. 

A Dhivehi-language video sermon on YouTube channel ‘Naseyhai’ depicts MDN as deceptive “enemies within”, in a similar vein. The speaker mentions ongoing battles against Islam. He warns the audience of apostates who have “Muslim (or Arabic) names”, campaigning against Islam using modern tools and the language of human rights. “They make NGOs under different names, shield them with the rule of law, and effectively implement planned activities against religion”, the speaker says in the video that is still online. The video ends with a call to violence by “the warriors of faith who will defend the faith against those who sow religious discord through secularism.”

The Unusual Government Response

Firstly, the government got votes to fool the public into thinking some religious battle had been won, and that the Maldivian faith was promised protection from criticism. The local council elections were a few months away. Senior government officials and political figures congratulated and expressed relief that the government had banned the human rights organisation. They portrayed it as a win for pious Muslim Maldivians. 

Maldives’ long-serving former dictator, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom tweeted: “I give thanks to the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Community Empowerment for banning MDN, it is a relief for Maldivians who love Islam and the Holy Prophet.”

Even those belonging to supposedly democratic camps applauded the government. There was no mention of the vigilante violence suffered by those merely suspected of blasphemy. Criticism of religion, the establishment decried, is a red line one cannot cross in the Maldives. And with sentiments such as these being recreated by this government donning an honorary democratic badge, how are we to say that this ‘democratic’ Solih government is any different from the previous ‘authoritarian’ governments? 

Former president Abdulla Yameen said the same about journalist Ahmed Rilwan’s forced disappearance and writer Yameen Rasheed’s brutal killing: They were asking for it. Never mind what was actually said, the perception that someone wronged religion was good enough to make them fair game for violent mobs. 

For example, many are unaware that MDN had, in April of 2019, begun advocacy on transitional justice in partnership with a US-based legal advocacy INGO. One of the primary points of advocacy was to include the atrocities from the second republic. Of course, that would put former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in a difficult situation. He was the only former leader alive and active in politics. MDN had testimonials from thousands of torture survivors from his regime. Despite being at odds with the principles of democracy and human rights, Gayoom is also an influential member of the current government coalition. 

In an unprecedented act of political violence, local journalist Ahmed Rilwan was forcibly disappeared in August 2014. He was last seen leaving for Hulhumale from the Malé ferry terminal. It reshaped the reality of risks for journalists and activists. In September 2014, MDN published a report containing the findings of a private investigation into the disappearance. From then onwards MDN and its staff began receiving violent threats. None of it was thoroughly investigated.  Police regurgitated several findings in the report eighteen months later, representing them as “new evidence.” This was the first time the authorities publicly admitted Rilwan was, in fact, disappeared by force, a truth that was covered up for almost two years. The findings in the MDN report connected the abductors of Rilwan to the then President Abdulla Yameen and his Vice President Ahmed Adheeb.  

The Rule of the Lynch Mob

Secondly, it gave a clear signal of the consequences awaiting those defending the rights of minorities and condemning corruption. Civil society must not cross that line and if they do, their very existence, let alone their activism, will not be tolerated. And the Maldivian state is unable or unwilling to afford them any protection. It is the law of the jungle, not the rule of law, that applies to such individuals. Lynching by angry mobs become a very real possibility. None of it will be investigated, and no one will be prosecuted for inciting the violence.  Human rights protection and due process take a backseat to the appeasement of religious hardliners and to the State’s need to weaponise anti-blasphemy laws against critics. This reinforced the fear President Yameen engendered by enabling the killers of Yameen Rasheed, Ahmed Rilwan, and MP Dr Afrasheem Ali—killings inspired by extreme religio-political ideologies. Indeed, Yameen’s government and that of Solih use the same rhetoric to justify the continuation of such injustices. 

The Maldivian government has ensured that critical voices are muted using the age-old technique in the islands: buying their silence through jobs and kickbacks. Most vocal critics of the previous government, including star activists of MDP and yesterday’s champions of justice for Ahmed Rilwan and Yameen Rasheed, are now on the state’s payroll. MDN’s critical report was conveniently useful when in opposition, and for them to position themselves as allies in the US-led war on terror. But once in government, it only served as a barometer of what is acceptable criticism of extremism. With the slow and slimming chances of justice for Afrasheem, Rilwan and Yameen, the powers that be sent another clear message to dissidents: We will not hesitate to use your pain and losses to fool the young and the impressionable, and discard you when it is politically inconvenient.

The pressure of the sheer terror incited by the collaborative efforts of non-state parties and the government successfully created the space that isolated MDN and its people. It is perhaps understandable that colleagues, friends and associates disassociated themselves from MDN. After all, their lives – and livelihoods – were at risk. What was also revealed in the process was how willing former leaders of the organisation were to distance themselves from the organisation when it needed their support most. What mattered were not the principles at stake but the positions of power they now held in the government. The power they were willing to use only to protect themselves, the new government and, especially, their new positions within that government. 

The very first official of the state to publicly declare that the complaint against MDN was “serious” and a “priority” was the Commissioner of Police Hameed, who had only resigned from his position as the Vice-Chairperson of MDN earlier in the year shortly after his appointment at the Maldives Police Service.

He despicably failed in his attempt to appear unbiased when he completely ignored the violent mob operating against the individuals at MDN in broad daylight. It was one of the most unilateral investigations conducted by the authorities yet. No investigating officers ever put a single question to the accused. Current Prosecutor General Hussein Shameem was the Chairperson who led MDN’s Executive Committee when the report was published in 2015. But, true to form, he wasted no time in distancing himself from the organisation. As a licensed religious scholar, he was asked to review the report at the time of publication, which he claimed he duly did. Once it was condemned by other ‘religious scholars’, however, he maintained complete silence on his associations with MDN and the report itself.

The Dysfunctional Society

What of the civil society actors? Why did the Maldivian human rights community remain silent when their fellow human rights defenders were terrorised? The civil society landscape in the Maldives is one where solidarity only exists as a word. Blinded by prejudice, civil society actors seem unaware of the dangerous precedent they have set for themselves. Their deafening silence speaks of self-preservation. Their continued actions—to depict MDN’s ban as an isolated incident that justified the government-led excesses, the violent smear campaign from the opposition, and the mob rule of violent groups—crystalise their blatant complicity in the whole saga. In keeping with the public mood at the time, a Maldivian academic based in Australia, researching violent extremism, was quick to discredit the report as “methodologically poor,” and presumably, therefore, worthy of being treated the way it ultimately was. Had any of the authors of the report failed to make it safely out of the country, it could well have been the first time that an author had been killed for methodological weakness.

The Maldivian civil society is faced with the most common challenge that civil societies everywhere do—finding reliable financing to sustain their legitimate human rights activism. What may be somewhat different in the Maldives is that no local donors exist for groups that work on civil and political rights. While the dysfunctional civil society landscape is worthy of a closer look, the result is a division caused by the extremely unhealthy competition for foreign funds that mainly come through diplomatic missions assigned to the Maldives and Sri Lanka. An important point to note here is that those funds also mean the livelihoods of many NGO workers in the Maldives. Few NGOs compete for the minuscule funding from these sources. It means that the activities, campaigns and advocacy of NGOs are decided by external donors; not Maldivian island communities, or grassroots movements. Human rights groups have truly made a Faustian pact with the Maldivian government to shield it from criticism over unlawfully banning MDN.

The Arc Towards Justice  

One can argue several possible different ways that MDN could have reacted in the face of the terror that erupted around them two years ago. It was, however, a situation where a small organisation was left to fight an entire political system for its existence without any support on the ground. 

If there was any possible reaction that would have yielded a better result, none was offered in the scram for safety against a mob operating with full impunity. The persecution of MDN and individuals advocating for equal rights would not have been possible without the collective amnesia and hysteria on the ground. 

The deregistration of MDN’s legitimate human rights advocacy will continue to taint the Maldives’ human rights record. It is however not a wrong that is irreversible. The government can still, and must, reverse that flawed decision in order to create an enabling environment for human rights defenders and to prevent further incitement of hate and violence in the guise of religion. 

Mafia state behind the tourist paradise

by Mushfiq Mohamed

Two years ago, in November 2019, the Deaths and Disappearances Commission (DDCom) published its report on Dr Afrasheem Ali’s killing on 2 October 2012. It was the first time the widescale operations of violent groups associated with religious beliefs was acknowledged and detailed by an official source in the Maldives. When the war in Syria escalated in 2012 and Maldivian foreign fighters flocked to the conflict zones in the Middle East, the Maldives was in a state of disarray, a military-backed coup against the first democratically elected government had created a power vacuum and heightened disorder. The news of young Maldivian jihadis and their families fleeing the country saturated the media. 

It was a time when transnational Salafi-Jihadist groups were not only dividing into factions based on ideological differences but also multiplying for the same reason. The stories of Maldivians leaving to fight in Syria and Iraq seemed linear, unlike the mutually constitutive disaster of today, where the jihadi outflow is now rippling back, or on their way back to home – with or without the Maldives government’s knowledge. 

The State of Maldives is an organism with its unique memory and trajectory, consisting of multiple cells programmed to spit and swallow the non-conforming, the dissidents, the undesirables. If the new mutations contradict pre-existing hereditary (dis)information, they must be stamped out. And what better way to enforce these unwritten rules than through society’s disaffected? – reintegrating through repentance by eradicating free thought

The state is protecting several individuals named in the investigative reports, leaving them free to conduct alleged terrorist activities, to issue violent threats – often openly on social media –and to build their capacity to follow through on the threats.

The DDCom lines of enquiry 

The DDCom’s investigation followed four main lines of enquiry. Whether Afrasheem’s murder was politically motivated and perpetrated by officeholders in the previous government. Whether his murder was a result of internal party politics and competition. Whether the assassination was carried out to unduly influence the 2013 presidential elections. Whether Afrasheem was extrajudicially killed because of differing religious views.  

Three individuals were investigated. However, the prosecution only submitted charges against two, and only one was convicted in January 2013. The prosecution did not appeal the acquittal. The investigation was incomplete, as DDCom stated in its report, the police investigation had not identified those who planned the murder and more importantly their motives. 

The DDCom found itself in an impossible situation with many of the suspects who had fled the country to Syria and Sudan with the help of the acquiescent former government. What’s more, witnesses began refusing to give statements, fearing for their security and safety, without an existing witness protection regime. 

Extremist jihadi groups have been operating in the country for a while. The bombing in the Sultan Park was their doing. Al-Qaeda cells operating in the Maldives are divided into small cells each with a name like A, B,C,D. Members of Cell A has no knowledge of who is in Cell B. Each cell has an Ameer. Each Ameer does the recruiting for their own cell.

Anonymous Witness No:1, testimony to DDCom

The secret witness told investigators that he had been recruited by Al-Qaeda in 2011. “In 2014, when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the ISIS Caliphate during Ramadan (on 29 June that year), the local Al-Qaeda leadership broke into factions.” According to the DDCom report financing, evangelism, and other activities are controlled by three different wings of the groups. They believed that the Muslim Ummah must wholeheartedly accept al-Baghdadi as the Caliph, and it was their religious duty to do so. 

Speaking about the financers, the witness said, “for instance, they believe all lawyers are disbelievers, their blood and property are ‘halal’ (or fair game).” The financers’ Salafi beliefs, he said, is deliberately hidden. “Their speech would be casual. They would not greet saying ‘Assalam Alaikum’ when they speak over the phone. They would not sport a beard. Even if they did, it would appear casual.”

Religious conflict, the other pandemic 

The picture is much more complex and one that is constantly moving. As the secret ‘former radical’ witness revealed, the terrorist cells are backed by a network of business (the financers) and shielded by political actors (the beneficiaries). Criminal gangs and their infiltration of politics have been researched and documented. And in a country whose nationalism is religious, sectarian violence is a useful technique to silence those who make the powerful uncomfortable. It is political parties that have created a market in the underworld landscape, giving these violent groups a sense of purpose and income for doing their bidding – whether it is intimidation and killing of political opponents, or providing security when a rival gang is used by a rival party to intimidate a member of one’s party. 

The perception of who is a criminal and who is not is unilaterally decided by the cash flow into party politics. Those accused of criminal activity have learned from politicians and religious leaders that involvement in local politics is the only way to ensure immunity from prosecution or imprisonment.

The DDCom report goes into detail about the financers and those leading operations of the terrorist cells in the country. Unapologetically naming names and uncovering covers. In a country with so little social mobility, blood-lusting vigilantism is a business that makes bigger bucks per hit. Through the secret witness’s testimony, the DDCom was able to dissect the dynamics of the splinter. “Now that this group has split into factions, the ISIS faction is led by [name redacted]. The other Al Qaeda faction, which gave its allegiance to Jabhat al Nusra, operates in Syria and Iraq. That faction is led by [name redacted]. The next in line in that faction is [name redacted], and [name redacted] under him. He maintains that the “Jabha” faction is “led by [name redacted], who lives in Feydhoo in Seenu Atoll. He is native to Feydhoo in Addu Atoll—he owns the fabric shop on the island.” The witness added: “Before the group [Jabhatal Nusra] split, a businessman [name redacted] joined it and became its primary financer.” 

Non-violent Salafis inform the Salafi-Jihadis, meanwhile opposition politicos and their social media fodder normalise religious violence through the mantra of ‘they deserved it for offending religious sensitivities.’ The opposition, who do not appear or identify as Salafi, exploit these fissures adding another layer of legitimacy to the threats first expressed by fundamentalists and violent extremists. This works like clockwork; social media then fuels and expedites the chances of stochastic attacks or expulsion fearing persecution. 

The A-Z of ‘the Horsemen of the Apocalypse’

A villain in a play can be effortlessly made into a hero in six simple acts. First, show the villain in their most grotesque form; juxtapose it with the villain’s perspective, humanise them. Add layers of redeeming qualities to the character as the story goes on. Now introduce villains way worse than the original villain. The first villain, less villainous than his new colleagues, then goes through a series of events that demonstrate s/he has turned over a new leaf and is now making the choices only a hero would. And voila, the villain is a hero. 

Based on the Maldives experience, the entire process gets so much easier if you provide the masses with some novel entertainment. See, for example, the Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

In March this year, Maldives Twitter was both enamoured and disgruntled when a red-bearded horse whisperer, W, who obtained permissions to import horses and start an equine business in the southern city of Addu. Horse riding is not what brings tourists to the island nation where 99% of the territory is sea. Some social media users praised W, liked and retweeted his posts knowing full-well he was one of those named in DDCom’s 2019 report. The announcement of his new equine business was announced almost a year after W had been named as a leading financer of Salafi-Jihadist activities in the country. Who could forget V and his bros, who abducted Maldivians suspected of being religious or sexual minorities in June, a few months before Rilwan’s abduction in August 2014? He, too, chose the enterprising path, opening a gym and rebranding as a spearfishing fitness-warrior. 

Another individual, X, who was charged but acquitted for the forced disappearance of Ahmed Rilwan, the journalist and blogger who was abducted in 2014, contested in MDP’s upcoming internal elections but was disqualified after pressure from Rilwan’s family. “Innocent until proven guilty”, the party said in defence, after using the family’s tragedies to win the 2018 election. The former Prosecutor General did not appeal the acquittal. X was also seen playing bodyguard during President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s campaign. Another MDP activist with gang connections, named in the DDCom report, Y, who was one of the two individuals prosecuted for Afrasheem’s murder but acquitted, has also wiggled his way into local politics as an MDP activist. He is currently one of the activists campaigning for those running for MDP’s national congress.  

The other, Z, a PPM council member from 2013 until March 2019, openly threatened slain writer Yameen Rasheed on Twitter on 24 December 2011 in Dhivehi: “The blood of disbelievers like you is halal for all Muslim Maldivians.” He did not stop there. Z came back a month later with more threatening tweets. “Those who need to be exterminated from this country”, he tweeted after tagging seven individuals, including Yameen and Ismail Hilath Rasheed, an LGBTQI+ blogger whose throat was slit in a near-fatal attack in June 2012, five months after the tweets with death threats. Z is a well-known lackey of former president Abdulla Yameen. He was summoned to the DDCom in December 2019. Z also contested—but later dropped out—in PPM’s race for the parliament in 2019.

The 2019 DDCom report annexed text message exchanges between the slain MP and cleric, Afrasheem and the former Islamic Minster, Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed, that contradict his statement given to DDCom investigators in December 2018. Shaheem claimed to the DDCom that Afrasheem’s TV Maldives appearance on 1 October 2012—a few hours before his killing—was a last-minute request from Afrasheem. Although, as DDCom’s 2019 report states, text messages from 12 September to 1 October 2012 show that Shaheem organised and offered the TV slot to the late MP. Further to that, the DDCom report states that these events hauntingly demonstrate that Afrasheem was intensely distraught and given an ultimatum to publicly repent within a specific period, or violent gangs would not hesitate to resort to vigilante violence.

To the bitter end

These examples show the collision and convergence of the political, the financial, and the criminal. In the Maldives, forgiveness and a clean slate is given to the most unforgivable. Will they leave many a wreath for the murdered Maldivian writers, or will those who threatened them while they were alive be celebrated? 

Few came to Afrasheem, Rilwan and Yameen’s defence. How can a person claim to have the authority to take matters into their own hands and kill or threaten with full impunity? Why did no one ask him what authority any individual has in policing another’s faith? More importantly, why are those who incite and act out violence and hatred left without prosecution?

It appears that many still believe in the “their blood is halal” rhetoric, or don’t care to counter it. That individuals, fashioning themselves as religious warriors doing god’s work on earth, can threaten people with death and play with their lives as they wish if a religious line is crossed. To make sense of the increasing political violence in local politics, the links between criminal gangs, the police, politicians and clerics need to be investigated further. If action is not taken based on nuanced evidence of terrorist financiers and their enablers, the details and witnesses disappear, relegating justice solely into mythical dimensions. 

To be, or to conform, that is the question

by Azra Naseem

On International Human Rights Day 2011, a group of young Maldivians met in Lonuziyaaraiy Kolhu, Male’, to silently protest their lack of religious freedom. A similar protest had been held on the same day in 2010. Article 9 of the Maldivian constitution requires that all citizens be Muslims; and the State imposes an ever-increasing litany of punishments on those seen as falling short. Should the State fail in its ‘religious duty’ to punish such transgressors–as the aftermath of the small yet impactful protest revealed–Dhivehi Salafi Jihadists are ready, swords drawn, eager for their internal domestic Jihad: to maintain the ‘100 percent Muslim country’ status of the Maldives. 

The 2011 silent protest marked the first physical altercation between Salafi activists and secular-minded Maldivians. On that December afternoon, Ismail Abdulraheem Adam, a Salafi Jihadist who would later be deported from Turkey while attempting to enter Syria, was among many such warriors who followed the protestors to Lonuziyaaraiy Kolhu. Abdulraheem hit Hilath Rasheed, a journalist and prominent blogger, on the head with a rock, cutting him.

It was the first in what would become many violent attacks on anyone in the Maldives insisting on advocating for rights not recognised by, or contrary to, Salafi beliefs, practices and teachings. Since then, two people linked to the protest have been murdered, another barely survived an attempted decapitation, and almost all the others who participated have been threatened, harassed, have no choice but to live in fear, or have had to flee the country. The attack on the protestors also set the tone for all future investigations into crimes committed by Salafi Jihadists and their non-/less-violent brothers: nobody will be punished; not even in the face of overwhelming evidence to convict.

Police knew who attacked who and why on 10 December 2011. They arrested no one.

Five months later, on 10 May 2012, Abdulraheem, acting with two fellow Jihadists, attacked Hilath again. “Repent, repent! We don’t know, the public doesn’t know, you have repented!”, they shouted, hitting him around the head, surrounding him with motorcycles.

Only weeks later, on the evening of 4 June 2012, they returned to slit his throat. Three Dhivehi Salafi Jihadists, waited for him to return home from work late at night, cut his throat with a Stanley knife, and left him to die outside his home. 

Hilath lived to tell the tale; but no one listened, really.

Allowed to get away with murder, the Jihadists widened their campaign to rid Maldives of any citizens that dared contradict their manhaj, or disagreed with their teachings. They found their next prey within a few short months.

MP Afrasheem Ali was a politician with a doctorate in Usul al-Fiqh from the Islamic University of Malaysia noted as a rising star in conservative politics. For several years after he returned from Malaysia in 2007, Maldivian Dheenee I’lmverin–dominated by Adhaalath Party and other Salafi influencers such as Jamiyyath Salaf–ostracised Dr Afrasheem for “contradicting the manual of the Salaf al Salahin”, for suggesting music may be as pleasing to the ear as the sound of Qur’an, for not using the appropriate language to address the Prophet Muhammad, and among other things, for saying beards are not necessary for men. Basically, for not aligning his thinking with Salafi thinking. Afrasheem was banned from expressing his opinions and forbidden from leading prayers unless he repented. Endorsed by Adhaalath and other Salafi leaders, followers harassed Afrasheem online and on the streets, sometimes violently, once in a mosque in the presence of his young son. His religious opinions—which included endorsement of practices dominant Salafi clerics rejected as bid’a—were deemed unfit for the Modern Maldivian Muslim. A definition that must be approved by Salafi leaders to be accepted as true.

In the early hours of 2 October 2012, Afrasheem returned to his apartment on the south-eastern waterfront of Male’ after appearing in a late-night show, Islamee Dhiri-ulhun, on state television. He parked his car, entered his apartment building, and was walking up the stairs to his flat when three Jihadists attacked him on the stairwell. He had finally given into the immense pressure on him to conform or else; and agreed to appear on public television to repent. The station, channel and programme on which he should do so was decided by those demanding this public spectacle of him. Adhaalath Party held a special screening in their headquarters to gauge his performance. The killers knew exactly where he would be and when that evening. Afrasheem tried to explain his aqida on TV that night; and he apologised–for expressing his own opinion. However well-informed, considered or well-intentioned it was, it was not valid for it contradicted The Most Learned Men of Salaf Jamiyya, Adhaalath and other such groupings.

Despite the apology, Afrasheem was unable to save himself. They still cut his throat.

When the news of his murder reached the leader of Salaf Jamiyya, he responded: “It was an atrocity in Islam to kill Afrasheem after he had admitted to his sins and after he repented last night”. Without repentance, he had been fair game.   

Afrasheem has now been dead almost 10 years. It is now known Dhivehi Salafi Jihadists, operating domestically as one among several Al-Qaeda cells, were behind the planning and the execution of Afrasheem. They have not been prosecuted.

The dust may seem to have settled on the murder of Afrasheem’s death with no consequence for those who laid the plans and paid for it. Society, on the other hand, paid a heavy price. No religious scholarly longer dares publicly challenge the Salafi doctrine in the Maldives.

In July 2014 Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi of the ISIS declared an Islamic Caliphate from Iraq, further emboldening Maldivian Salafi Jihadists, both as foreign fighters and as local warriors on a holy mission to cleanse Maldives of the secular and the shirk. Less than a month later, in the early hours of the morning of 8 August 2014, Jihadists kidnapped Ahmed Rilwan, a journalist and blogger. At the time he was covering the activities of Maldivan Jihadists flocking to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq as a journalist for Maldives Independent. One Dhivehi Jihadist in Syria accused Rilwan of not being a proper Muslim and issued a warning that his days were numbered.

Just as the earlier Jihadists waited outside the homes of Hilath and Afrasheem with their sharpened blades hidden in the darkness of the night, they waited for Rilwan outside his home in the early hours of the morning. Instead of decapitation on the spot—the apparent goal behind both previous attacks—they kidnapped Rilwan, bundled him into the boot of a red car, forced him onto a boat, took him out into the open ocean, and made him recite the Shahadha. Then they decapitated him. 

Rilwan’s family only learned of his fate in 2019, years after the Jihadists abducted him. They are still campaigning for justice. In vain.

On this day four years ago, Salafi Jihadists picked their next target: Yameen Rasheed, 29, a blogger and writer who not only disagreed with the Salafi vision for the Maldives but also often satirised various aspects of it online. Yameen and Rilwan shared more than an ideological kinship; they were also bound by strong ties of friendship. After Rilwan’s forced disappearance in 2014, Yameen dedicated much of his energy towards campaigning with Rilwan’s family for justice. In vain.

On 23 April 2017, Yameen returned home from work in the early hours of the morning. The Jihadists were waiting for him in the darkness of the stairwell inside Yameen’s apartment building. They stabbed him 34 times in a frenzied attack. His cries for mercy fell on deaf ears. The young writer died in hospital later that morning. Yameen’s family now dedicates much of their energy to campaigning with Rilwan’s family for justice. In vain.

Salafi Jihadists are allowed to kill non-conforming Maldivian citizens with impunity. 

A Maldivian citizen that openly criticises Salafi beliefs, teachings and practices—does not matter whether you are a pious Muslim; a scholar of Islam; a ‘moderate Muslim’; a relaxed one; a lapsed one; an apostate or an atheist—can be, has been, and will be killed. And the Jihadists who kill them will remain unpunished. The reason is simple: the government and most of contemporary Maldivian society accepts death—or at the very least expulsion from society—as a suitable form of punishment for citizens identified as insufficiently Muslim, anti-Islam, or Enemies of Islam. ‘LaaDheenee’ people, marked as such by Salafi influencers according to their own criteria, are made into figures of public hatred to such an extent that Jihadists feel they must kill them to rid their society of Kuffars, and the public feels convinced the killing was for the ‘greater good’ of the ‘100 percent Muslim’ country.

That is why the courts of law in the democratic republic of Maldives are failing to deliver justice in these killings. According to the religious ideology that dominates the entire government and state apparatus, and most of society, true justice has already been done. By killing these men.