Maldives : Climate Doublespeak and The Great Deformation

Humay Abdulghafoor

Maldives is sinking – a nation in peril!

Maldives is climate vulnerable – fighting for survival on the frontline of climate change!

Maldives faces climate disaster dangerously on the brink of an existential crisis!

Maldives has no higher ground to climb to save its people!

Maldives has declared a national climate emergency!

Maldives calls to make ecocide a crime at the international criminal court!

Maldives enacts a climate emergency law!

Maldives represents climate ambition at the Climate Vulnerability Forum!

Maldives pleads to be “saved” at the UN FCCC COP, vociferously and incessantly every year without fail, trying “to be heard” by the world.

Maldives is a leading voice of the at risk AOSIS and the sinking SIDS!!

Maldives continues to tell the world about its existential crisis, a situation not of its own making, but created by “developed” nations and the great carbon emitters of the world, declaring : “We are paying with our lives for the carbon someone else emitted.”[1]

Make no mistake, stated “climate champion” of Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed: “If we do not act now we will lose our coral reefs, we will lose our beaches, and I’m sure tomorrow it will be you.”[2] 

One would imagine that the Maldives, this unique earthly paradise pleading to the world to be saved from climate disaster will join any effort to save itself. 

That would be the logical action of anyone teetering on the brink of an existential threat.

But not the Maldives.

Self-identifying as unique in every way, including its millennia long history, culture, identity and its centuries old 100% Muslimness and great sense of absolute piety, Maldives finds itself unable to tell the glaring truth about itself, to itself. Instead, the country indulges in climate doublespeak internationally while dredging itself into its own early grave.

The leadership of Maldives, starting with the country’s apparently immortal leader Maumoon Abdul Gayyoom, with his style of “development” of the country has always left a trail of irreparable damage to natural heritage and  ecosystems. His successors have followed him.  Each as destructive as the other, at the same time imploring the international community to take urgent action to save the Maldives.

Addressing the UN General Assembly in October 1987, a few months after a devastating wave surge caused significant damage to the Maldives in April that year, Gayyoom said, “we in the Maldives have seen and lived through grim experiences which could be the indicators of the dire consequences of global environmental change provoked and aggravated by man.[3]  In his wisdom, Gayyoom left a legacy of reclamation and destruction of pristine reefs and lagoons, destroying these natural defences as development solutions in his imperiled nation.  Seventeen years later, the December 2004 Asian Tsunami provided ample proof of the power of the Maldives reefs, mangroves and other natural coastal ecosystems to protect the country from climate events. These ecosystems effectively took the full force of the tsunami that blasted at its shores without warning at 500km/hour at “the speed of a jet plane” that December morning, saving countless lives and reducing the death toll.

Gayyoom is the great leader that “developed” Male’, the world’s most congested city slum to the ocean edges of its reef, exposing this low-lying capital city to climate disaster.  He is also the leader that created several other zones of ecocide, including the now infamous Thilafushi apocalyptic waste dump and toxic bomb on a once pristine reef, off the south-western coast of Male’.  Thilafushi is a disaster that has been oozing pollution, contaminating the ocean and its associated marine and human food-chains for decades. He also embarked on an allegedly “safe island” created by destroying another large pristine living coral reef system north-east of Male’, gobbling up nearby Farukolhufushi island in its wake.  Gayyoom, dubbed “a man for all islands” is the indisputable forebearer of the great deformation and distortion of the natural environment of the Maldives.

In 2008, President Nasheed replaced Gayyoom. The Island President outperformed Gayyoom’s rhetoric and doublespeak to tell the world about the Maldives’ vulnerability to global climate change disaster.  He rapidly rose to “climate champion” fame by holding an under-water cabinet meeting, to visually explain how Maldives could well become the next Atlantis.  He too became a leader of the great deformation, embarking on reclamation projects that made Gayyoom’s look like “sixth form projects”.[4]  Across the country, Nasheed launched a campaign of ecosystem degradation and decimation fueled by a political rhetoric of housing need and grand infrastructure developments that left communities bereft of their natural coastal defences.  Global dredging companies were handed multi-million dollar contracts from public debt, and mobilised quickly for “development”.  These trans-national companies happily destroyed the natural reefs and other coastal defences of communities. The communities, led by their saviour-politicians, seemingly unaware of the role these ecosystems played in their survival in the Indian Ocean. The two-millennia long historical indigenous knowledge of human settlement and survival in the ocean archipelago had become forgotten history.

Yameen Abdul Gayyoom arrived in 2013, embarking on an even grander scale of ecosystem degradation – simply because he was the President and he can, so he did. This particular Gayyoom enjoyed the services of trans-national dredging company Van Oord that decimated Maldives during the global coral bleaching peak year of 2016, “with care”, and impunity.  While the coral reefs bleached to near complete loss across the country, dredgers conducted funeral rites by allegedly conducting reclamation over a 600km project footprint, giving the reefs no chance, let alone to recover.  President Yameen is globally known for his involvement in Stealing Paradise, a corruption scandal of a magnitude thus far not documented in such detail in the Maldives. This Theft of Maldives is reported to have involved the liberal, generous – and criminal – distribution of reefs and lagoons to the easiest bidder who wanted a piece of paradise, intent to create money selling paradise, mostly by creating artificial islands requiring intensive reclamation, loss and damage.  Examples of these abound in North Male’ Atoll, with the involvement of global names such as the Waldorf Astoria. This wave of deformation of Maldives has transformed the visual natural beauty of the country to something unrecognisably ugly and unworthy of the label, “paradise”. The erased marine biodiversity and habitat loss is out of sight and out of mind, while resort developers busily green-washed their artificial dead zones.

Not satisfied with the nationwide acts of ecocide by global dredging companies like BoskalisMT Højgaard and Van Oord, President Yameen chose to invest in the country’s very own wrecking machine, a suction hopper dredger baptised “Mahaa Jarraafaa”, received from China in 2017 with great fanfare.  Its first victim was the island of Kulhudhuffushi in Haa Dhaal Atoll which is one of the largest such ecosystems in the country. The island lost its climate resilience to an airstrip, dispossessing sustainable community livelihoods of hundreds of families in the project’s wake.  The tarmac was laid in the middle of its ancient white-mud wetland and mangroves which made up the island’s groundwater recharge, flood-water drainage and climate defence systems. The island just happens to be the largest urban centre in the north of the country, located in a “tsunami high risk” zone.[5]  Kulhudhuffushi now experiences increased flooding and damage to property on a regular basis.  Civil society calls to conserve the wetland’s remaining part continue to be ignored. This case exemplifies the depth of (dis)regard for the Maldives’ climate vulnerability expressed by its climate-champion leadership over the decades. As reef systems were blasted and macerated by machines, the Maldives trembled under the pressures of dredging developments.  Young Maldivian blogger Yameen Rasheed (brutally murdered for his courage to express his thoughts) left us this satirical yet apt observation in his blog The Daily Panic in 2016. “Deriving perverse pleasure from blowing up a ten-thousand year old coral reef may seem excessively pornographic. But when accompanied by tea and refreshments, it is a downright adventure.”  

The impunity with which ecological damage was done in Yameen Gayyoom’s administration continued unhindered, following the election of President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih in 2018.  This latest island president is content with the ecosystem degradation inflicted by unchecked reclamation.  The administration engages in patchy public relations activities at opportune moments to ‘protect the environment’.  Declarations are made protecting specific areas, while advocating a policy of protecting “one island, one reef and one mangrove” in each of the 20 atolls in the country, which is closer to public mockery than public policy!  Not to be outdone by his climate champion predecessors, President Solih is yet another saviour who gives his own ghost-written speeches about the government’s desire to save the country’s natural beauty.  Speaking at the opening of the parliament in 2019, he said:  “To preserve the tropical beauty of the Maldives and safeguard the archipelagic nature of our island nation, the Government will give special priority to protecting our natural environment.”[6]

Exhibiting his definition of environmental protection, President Solih’s 3+ year administration has engaged the services of the long-established Maldives State owned enterprise (SoE) MTCC Plc to wreak havoc on the country’s natural environment.  The company celebrates its business of irreversibly undermining the climate resilience of communities as a matter of national pride.  Like other disaster-capitalist ventures, MTCC boasted record profits at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, a trend which continues in 2022, making the President giddy with a sense of achievement and calling the company a “role model”.  What the narrative conveniently sets aside is the inconvenient truths of the irreparable harm MTCC has been consistently unleashing on the country, the actual cost of which is never counted or accounted.  These projects generate repeat business, as they leave the people of Maldives wide open and exposed to climate disasters that have to be rectified with more unsustainable remedial projects from public debt.  President Solih is the current climate-champion of the Maldives giving his full commitment to the great deformation of the Maldives.   His government is forging ahead with another record-breaking project that threatens to destroy over 2km of coral reef ecosystems impacting marine wildlife and habitat including several marine protected areas.  This is the government’s wonder-project, the Gulhifalhu Port Development project, contracted to Boskalis Westminster without a bid in 2019. The project is facing civil litigation in court at the moment.  The latest in the continuing acts of State sponsored ecocide is the sudden and ad-hoc initiation of a multi-million-dollar reclamation project to join Shaviyani Atoll Komandoo with its neighbouring island Mathikomandoo, on the eve of a parliamentary bi-election.  The climate resilience of this already destroyed island and its people is the last thing on the leader’s mind if at all, the priority being the parliamentary seat at stake.

A notable attribute of successive Presidents at the helm of the Maldives’ great deformation is the complete lack of interest to assess the damage they inflict on the country’s finite coral reef ecosystems, as they indulge in their doublespeak at international fora.  Maldives shows no interest to study its own ecosystem degradation, loss and damage, but stand eager to lead the call for others to act and provide funds to climate vulnerable nations, notably to itself.  Maldivian governments act entitled to such funds, with no semblance of accountability for its own self-inflicted destruction, evidence of which is collected and studied mostly by those outside the country.  This complete disregard to the realities of science is the real death-knell to the Maldives.

As the UN Secretary General announced “Code Red for humanity” and the UN IPCC heralds a bleak future for nations on the frontline of climate change, the Maldives is set to arrive at that place of irreparable environmental doom by expediting that horror on itself before the global climate systems do.  The Maldives is wilfully tipping itself into the climate crisis.  The climate champions of the Maldives are in fact, irreverent self-harmers, killing the nation’s own lifelines and immune system to sustain their immediate political and business greed, at the expense of the country and people they are elected to govern.

Maldives is being sunk by its “climate-champion” politicians.

[1] Comments by former Maldives’ President, Mohamed Nasheed, the CVF’s Ambassador for Ambition, following the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Working Group I contribution to the Sixth Assessment Report, The Climate Vulnerability Forum, [undated – circa August 2021],

[2] Lecture by His Excellency President Mohamed Nasheed, at Freie Universiate [sic] Berlin, The President’s Office – Maldives, 11 March 2010,

[3] Address by His Excellency Mr Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, President of the Republic of Maldives, before the Forty Second Session of the United Nations General Assembly on the Special Debate on Environment and Development, 19 October 1987, Friends of Maldives (web archive),

[4] Words used by President Nasheed at a stakeholder function in Male’ describing coral regeneration projects in Maldives 

[5] Detailed Island Risk and Vulnerability Assessment, HDh Kulhudhuffushi, Ryan Pvt Ltd / Ministry of Energey and Environment, November 2013

[6] Unofficial translation of the presidential address, 2019, The President’s Office – Maldives, 7 February 2019,

About the author: Humay is a concerned citizen trying to raise awareness about unchecked environmental degradation in the Maldives. She is a volunteer for the Save Maldives Campaign @SaveMaldivesMV

    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. 

      The abyss stares back

      The Abyss Stares Back

      Azra Naseem

      The Taliban conquered all of Afghanistan on Sunday. Twenty years of US presence to democratise Afghanistan failed to achieve anything. The millions of lives lost as a consequence of the war have amounted to nothing. The 20 billion spent on training the Afghan military and police ultimately only enriched the defence contractors. Most are baffled by the failure of the US to see this coming. But then again, maybe the US did see it coming, they just didn’t care. 

      US ‘failure to see’ they were achieving nothing in Afghanistan is not a surprise for an observer of the situation in Maldives where conservative Islam has annihilated traditional Islamic practices, replacing them all with various strands of Wahhabi and Salafi ideologies. The revolution in Maldivian religious beliefs has taken place in full view of the world, including the United States. It has done nothing—has it failed to see what was happening in front of their eyes? Or did they just not care?

      When George W Bush invaded Afghanistan to destroy “Islamic terrorism” and “smoke them [“Islamic terrorists”] out” of their holes in Afghanistan, the ultra-conservative Islam of the Taliban was alien to Maldivians. In the twenty years since the world has become a place where the toxic fumes of the Islamist ideology that Bush’s “armies of the willing” stoked in their mission to smoke out the terrorists is now stifling the entire world. From Muslim communities in western Europe to central Asia and small villages in Indonesia to cities and tribes in remote parts of Africa, conservative Islamic ideologies—and their more militant interpretations—have wreaked havoc on societies. Everyone working in the name of making the world a better place.

      The Maldives is an important example of how damaging the invasion of Afghanistan has been to countries near and far. In the late 1990s, when a handful of Wahabbis and Salafi clerics began to appear and proselytise in Male’, the capital of Maldives, society saw them as abnormal. They were seen as an extremist sect of Islam, that interpreted Islamic teachings differently to the understandings Maldivians learned and maintained over eight hundred years of being an Islamic state. But the Maldivian mindset changed over the next twenty years. The change became more dramatic as the increasing number of Maldivians who began travelling to Pakistan and Afghaistan for religious education returned home, and when they began to receive more funding from conservative and militant Islamic sources that were pitching themselves against the US in the War of “Us” and “Them”. The narrative of a War Against Muslims led by America—which, as any good narrative contains within it kernels of truth—made it possible for once abnormal practices to become normalised within a very short space of time. It allowed Salafi activists to operate uninterrupted in the Maldives, it provided the motive for many young disaffected listless people to be recruited to the cause, to become “Soldiers of Allah”. The newly “democratic” forces in the name of freedom of speech failed to even monitor the spread of such conservative religious ideology in the Maldives. Politics and religion, instead distancing themselves from each other as can be expected in a democracy instead fell into each other’s arms as corrupt politicians and businessmen made pacts with conservative Islamists for their own gain, letting the people’s minds be saturated with such teachings from morning till night, from every media outlet, on every public platform in the country. 

      What was once abnormal in the Maldives twenty years ago is now normal, what was once extreme is now customary. That is why several MPs and every democratically elected president bar one continues to maintain there is no Islamist extremism in the Maldives. Extreme is normal. This revolution in Maldives is almost forgotten by the international community now although it is still in the making. For the last 20 years the United States has dealt with the Maldives as if it has always been a society that adhered to such religious conservatism. Context has never been a strength of US foreign policy. Until the War on Terror, US interest in the Maldives was negligible. Funding was on average just around the US$100,000 mark annually. Once the “endless” war began, for the US the only value Maldives had was whatever minuscule strategic value it could offer as the tiniest of cogs in its war against “Islamic terrorism”.

      The US focus on how the Maldives could contribute to winning the war against terrorism meant the US focus on Maldives was entirely as an “Islamic country”, ruling out any other way of seeing it. This narrow focus failed to see the Maldives also as a country trying to rid itself of authoritarianism and become a more tolerant and liberal democracy. This struggle, which once brought together the Maldivian people to rise up as one against inhumanity, was lost to the greater movement to make Maldives a part of a conservative network of Islamic emirates in Asia. Liberal voices who wanted the human rights enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights to be part of the Maldivian transition in the early 2000s were side lined in the rush to appease the clerics. As the Bush and the rest of the international community put conservative Islam on the top of their security agendas, the importance of such ideologies and their leaders grew in the politics of small countries like the Maldives. (And, as we see now, in large countries like Afghanistan, directly under the nose of their army and strategists.) The fight for a tolerant liberal democracy that could gleam as a beacon on the ocean for modern Islam across the world wasn’t even allowed to begin before it was killed by the conservative ideologies that want to take Maldives in the opposite direction. Conservative Islam was allowed so much space in the new Maldives, it stifled any other thought, any other idea and muzzled any other expression. Like the frog that will quickly jump out of the water if it is hot at first touch but sits in slowly boiling water unconcerned while it kills him, Maldivians slowly embraced as normal what they once abhorred as abnormal. Today it is normal not to be outraged if a person is killed for not being Muslim enough. Today it is normal to fight for the right to hate in the name of religion. Today it is normal to promote the “circumcision” of young girls. Today it is normal to call for the beheading of anyone who is not a cis-gendered heterosexual. Today it is normal to believe it is perfectly alright—if not a religious duty—to kill any Maldivian who is not a Muslim or is not Muslim enough. Today it is normal to try and blow up a former president because his leadership was not religious enough. Today it is normal to hunt down and smoke out any Maldivian for having thoughts the clerics find offensive or kufr. Today it is normal to think that first thing you should do when you buy a parrot is to teach it the Qur’an. Today it is normal to kill in the name of God and to punish by death those who do not believe what is right, as decided by the clerics.

      It seems as if the US has not seen any of this, or maybe it does, but simply does not care. Once it was the US’ focus on the War on Terror, funnily enough, that kept the US from seeing the Maldives as anything but an ultra-conservative Muslim society like Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan from the very beginning. It failed to support or care about strengthening democracy in the Maldives, instead focusing on strengthening the military and law enforcement capability in identifying terrorists. The US is/was aware that the Maldivian civil society fighting for democratic rights is under threat from both the government and the religious community. Yet, it has chosen to work with the conservative religious authorities to sideline the few remaining liberal voices in Maldivian civil society, turning its back on the opportunity to stand up for human rights. How to call for a more tolerant society while in cahoots with those whose very reason for existence is to stifle–or forever silence–such voices? The US doesn’t pause to ask such questions. It continues to proudly train Maldivian police and military, failing to acknowledge the fact that neither have been effective in either preventing terrorism or stopping recruitment to Jihad. It fails to see that, just as in Afghanistan, the efforts to ‘infiltrate, ‘turn’, ‘invite to true Islam’, whatever you want to call it, have been successfully continuing at all levels of Maldivian government and state for the last ten years and more.

      More recently there has been a new shift in policy. The Maldives is now of interest to the US as not just another Islamic country in its fight against terrorism, but as a strategic partner in its upcoming confrontation with China. This is obvious in the sudden rush to the Maldives by then-Secretary of State George Pompeo just before the end of Trump’s presidency, and the surprise declaration that Male’ will have an American Embassy. It was about the new classified defence agreement between the Maldives and the US, no doubt allowing a strong India-US defence presence in the Maldives to counter China’s influence. The “Islamic Terrorist” that George W Bush described as an Evildoer he was hunting in Afghanistan is now passé in the eyes of the US. Its new enemy—defined by its interests (as its friends are)—is now the Communist Party of China. 

      Before this shift in its security thinking, the US didn’t care about the human rights of Maldivians because its foreign policy assumed the Maldives was the homogenous “100 percent Muslim country” its conservative politicians parroted. Now it doesn’t care about the human rights of the Maldivians because Islamic Terrorism is no longer the biggest enemy of the United States. Dealing with conservative Islamic ideologies is now a “Muslim problem”. Just as it did not see the truth of what was happening in Afghanistan – the infiltration of the Taliban into all levels of government and state – it does not see (and neither is it interested) that the same wheels are in motion in the Maldives.

      Ultra-conservative Muslims, especially of the Salafi and Wahhabi persuasions, are part and parcel of the current government and state. Such ideology is rife at the intellectual level where liberal Islamic thought has been completely obliterated. It is rife in universities where lecturers and heads of school are free to describe FGM as an Islamic duty, or that marital rape is non-existent. It is rife in the death of a culture which once tolerated different forms of gender and sexual orientations, which once allowed freedom of thought, if not expression. It is rife in schools where children are taught to hate the non-Muslim Other. It is rife in government which is occupied by Salafi-backed politicians. It is rife in parliament where members cannot pass a bill against spreading hate in the name of religion. It is rife in families where women are increasingly kept home, increasingly covered up, and increasingly accepting of themselves as “Slaves of Allah” and no more. It is rife in the future as increasingly girls are being taught to be humble and modest before the man, and before the government. It is rife in the increasing acceptance of child brides, of stigmatisation and hatred of any woman who does not conform. It is rife in the absence of people power that can revolt against injustices because to do so is increasingly accepted as rising up against the Divine.

      It is rife in the possibility that the Islamic Emirate of the Maldives is just as likely to be real as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is today. Both projects have been in the making for years, right in front of our eyes. But the Islamic Emirate of the Maldives will still “surprise” most, including the US.