The long road from Islam to Islamism: a short history

As Maldives opened up to tourism, the world was becoming more inter-connected. The ripples of what happened in one part of the world could now be felt everywhere. With the end of the Cold War came the end of the bipolar world in which the United States and the Soviet Union kept each other and the rest of the world in check. For years, the US used Afghanistan to wage a war against the Soviet Union, and armed militant Islamists as weapons against USSR as part of its Cold War strategy. Violence in the Israel-Palestine conflict increased with the First Intifada; the first Gulf War was fought; and tensions between the Middle East and the United States was high. Back in the US, any acts of violence committed against Western interests by Middle Eastern actors began to be labelled as ‘Islamic terrorism’, and analysts began to predict a doomsday scenario in which ‘religious terrorism’ was going to annihilate the world as we knew it. In 1993, American scholar and analyst Samuel Huntington published his now famous theory predicting of an impending ‘clash of civilisations’, the worst of which was going to be between ‘the West and Islam.’

Just as Islamist leaders of the past mobilised against various types and forms of regimes they saw as a threat, modern Islamists began to rally the troops against what they saw as US imperialism. This time, the leader was Osama bin Laden and, with globalisation at its height, the effort was truly worldwide. For the first time since King Kalaminja embraced Islam as the state religion of the Maldives, Maldivian Islam became a subject of enormous interest to people in other parts of the world. Maldivians soon began receiving funds for religious education abroad. In contrast to the small numbers of Maldivian students who had previously acquired Arab-influenced education in respected Middle Eastern universities such as Al-Azhar of Egypt, students now left in droves to institutes of learning not just in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries, but also in the nearby Pakistan. Waves of Islamism were about to crash onto the sheltered Maldivian shores.

Gayoom, under whose control Islam was made a central focus in Maldivian life, was determined to remain in full control of all religious affairs. He cracked down on the newly arrived fundamentalist scholars; going to the extent of not just jailing them, but also torturing them in jail. But the days of Gayoom were numbered; and a new wind soon blew across the globe that he was powerless to control: the War on Terror. Despite frenetic denials by the West, the new war was widely seen as a war between ‘Islam and the West’. Led by Osama bin Laden, the nuanced meaning of the word Jihad was hijacked by both sides of the War to denote only one thing: Holy War. Another event of global magnitude—the 2004 Tsunami—became a powerful weapon in the hand of Maldivian Islamists who quickly labelled the catastrophe as ‘God’s wrath’ for not practising the ‘right Islam’. The ‘right Islam’ was, of course, the fundamentalist, puritanical, and often violent, Islam they preached. It was a message many believed. In the Maldives, one of the most peaceful and crime-free places in the world until early 21st Century, the first religiously motivated act of violence in a public place in living memory occurred in September 2007. Radical Islamists detonated an IED in the tourist centre of the capital island of Male’, injuring twelve tourists. The perpetrators fled to the island of Himandhoo, 89 kilometres from Male’ by sea. By the time police traced the perpetrators to the island in October 2007, a large percentage of residents had subscribed to the radical ideology of the militants and were ready for a violent confrontation with the security forces.

Since then many Maldivian Islamists have become a part of the global ‘Jihadist’ movement of militants who travel to conflict ridden areas in the world to participate in what they see as a global Holy War. A Maldivian handpicked by Jamia Salafia was, for instance, funded by an American and trained by Kashmiri Mujahidin to become one of the suicide bombers who attacked the Inter-Services Intelligence headquarters in Lahore, Pakistan in 2009. The same year, Pakistani authorities detained eight Maldivians planning to create a terrorist group in the Maldives. A Maldivian radical Islamist is also reported to have been part of the 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai and, more recently, in late 2013 intelligence that eight Maldivians had been called to join a similar attack on another Indian city sparked a major coastal security alert in India.

Democracy and Islamist radicalism

Maldivian experience with democracy and Islamism demonstrates that would be a mistake to subscribe to the widespread belief that democracy is an antidote to radical ideologies. The transition to democracy in November 2008 proved a godsend for believers in fundamentalist Islam and radical Islamists. The new president Mohamed Nasheed, a former Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience, was determined to end torture in the jails and promote freedom of expression for all. Radical Islamists, as they do the world over, made full use of the freedoms and modern technology to advance their ideology. The Internet, mainstream media—the entire public sphere—was saturated with their messages as they went all in to educate and indoctrinate people. The change from dictatorship to democracy also ushered in multi-party politics, another opportunity for Islamists to further their agenda. Faced with a choice of losing the election to Gayoom or forming a coalition with Adhaalath Party, Mohamed Nasheed’s MDP chose the latter. It proved a fatal mistake for his presidency, and a golden opportunity for fundamentalists. A number of changes followed that tightened their grip on governance and on society at large. Gayoom’s Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs was replaced by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. Under the coalition agreement, most members of staff at the Ministry were members of Adhaalath Party. All Islamic discourse was now officially in the hands of fundamentalists.


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