The long road from Islam to Islamism: a short history

A man leads his young daughter to anti-government protests in the name of Islam, 23 December 2011. Photo: Aznym
A man leads his young daughter to anti-government protests in the name of Islam, 23 December 2011. Photo: Aznym


The party quickly moved to tighten the grip on education; ensure alcohol was banned from all inhabited islands; issue Fatwas banning music, dancing and other such matters; dictate women’s clothing and behaviour; above all, proselytise, proselytise, proselytise. Unsurprisingly, Adhaalath Party was in constant conflict with its coalition partner MDP. One party was formed to further fundamentalist Islam while the other was—originally, at least—driven by a secular democratic agenda. It is a mark of Adhaalath’s proselytising success that, with a vociferous and radical public having been made to fall in behind its Islamist agenda, MDP conceded to Adhaalath’s demands so often on religious issues that by the time the 2013 election came about, its original ideas of maintaining a safe distance between religion and politics were nowhere in sight. In September 2011, after many squirmishes, Adhaalath severed its coalition with the MDP government, and dedicated itself to bringing down the Nasheed administration. Adhaalath’s role in orchestrating the events of 7 February 2012, which prematurely ended the first democratically elected government of the Maldives, is now well documented. Without Adhaalath and other other fundamentalist radical actors labelling of Nasheed ‘an enemy of Islam’ and creating the discourse of ‘Nasheed’s devious plot to destroy Islam’, it is unlikely that Maldivians would have acquiesced to abandon the democratic experiment so soon after it began. The Maldivian habit of exploiting religion for political purposes successfully deployed many times in the past to bring down governments, remains a powerful weapon in its present.

It is another measure of Adhaalath’s success that it used the freedoms given by democracy to associate it, in the minds of their radicalised followers, with irreligiousness. They also successfully projected democracy as an extension of colonialism, a concept which undermined sovereignty. Largely through their subscription to this fundamentalist rhetoric, a majority of Maldivians remain convinced that democracy is a form of governance that Islam frowns upon, and which no proper Muslim should associate themselves with. A recent study by the NGO Transparency Maldives on Maldivians’ relationship with democracy categorised 75% of Maldivians as non-democrats, or people who do not believe in ‘democratic values’. The Transparency Maldives survey did not explore the relationship between people’s perceptions of democracy and their religious attitudes; if it had, there is no doubt the results would have shown a significant correlation between negative attitudes towards democracy and current religious beliefs of a majority of people.

On 7 February 2012, amidst the chaos that ended Nasheed’s presidency, one of the first actions carried out by the radical Islamists was to break into the National Museum and destroy a number of invaluable artefacts from the country’s pre-Islamic history. It signalled the beginning of a new era of intolerance, xenophobia and radicalism in the history of the Maldives. Within months, Islamists attempted to kill Hilath Rasheed, the country’s only openly gay blogger and human rights activist, and a few months later the same year, they succeeded in brutally hacking to death one of the country’s more moderate Islamic scholars and Member of Parliament Dr Afrasheem Ali.

Since Yameen Abdul Gayoom, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s brother, was elected the new president of the Maldives on 16 November 2013 after the most farcical of election processes, the Adhaalath Party has fallen curiously silent. They are no longer on the streets, rousing crowds into action in the name of religion. It does not mean they are not active—it is more likely a sign that they no longer have to fight the government for the right to further their agenda. This year alone, for example, they have quietly made several significant changes to laws and regulations that solidify their authority over religious practises and beliefs. Last month, amendments were made to the Religious Unity Act bringing all mosques back under the control of the Islamic Ministry and made Islam a compulsory subject in all schools from grades one to twelve. There is little doubt that the syllabi will be under complete control of the fundamentalists. There is a reason such moves are officially condoned instead of met with concern. In 2011 Maumoon Abdul Gayoom announced that his party, then called Z-DRP, shared the same ideology as Adhaalath. Yameen Abdul Gayoom, although not known for his staunch religiosity, was happy to associate with Adhaalath for the downfall of Nasheed’s government and the promotion of his own bid for presidency. Since his government came to power it has ended the 50 plus years long moratorium the Maldives maintained on the death penalty, while failing to express any concern or take any action to stem the normalisation of radical views in society. Now that Islamic fundamentalists have more or less won the fight for the hearts and minds of the people, if not the fight to govern the country, it is very unlikely that the Gayooms will attempt to curb their freedoms as they once did.

How did they do it?

The success of Islamic fundamentalism in the Maldives has been the result of external influences and the exploitation by Islamists of internal weaknesses. Since the borderless and endless War on Terror began, religion has been pushed to the forefront of many national political and social agendas across the world. In the globalised world where national identities are said to matter little and borders even less, Islamic radicals exploited all available means of communication to reach out to the ‘Islamic Ummah’ to unite against a ‘common enemy.’ The Maldives, one of the few countries in the world to bill itself as ‘100% Muslim’ and with a constitution that demands every citizen to be a Muslim, is an attractive prospect for those pursuing bin Laden’s agenda of an Islamic Caliphate. All studies of radicalisation so far analyses ‘Muslim communities’ within societies that are also home to other religions, ethnicities and races. In the Maldives is a whole Muslim population, living in relative geographical seclusion, with relatively little knowledge of, let alone participation in, worldwide ideological changes or debates. Global funders of radical Islamist movements poured large sums of money into changing the entire Maldivian population into fundamentalist Muslims, if not radical Jihadists. In the decade since the War on Terror began, converted fundamentalists began opening up small shops all over the capital Male’. They were usually fabric shops aimed at women. It was a means of establishing a foothold within society. A large number of people—especially disaffected youth addicted to drugs who had been jailed in their hundreds by Gayoom—were specifically targeted by the Islamists. Once converted, the men would return home to do the same with their families. Radicalisation in prisons is now a well known phenomenon in many societies. Maldivian preachers trained in Pakistani seminaries, meanwhile, returned to their home islands where conversion of the entire population was easy. Fundamentalists also recruited local celebrities such as singers and musicians who then gave up their own careers and previous ways of life to become preachers or recruiters themselves. It is by now a well-known tactic of radicals and fundamentalists to recruit people from prisons. In a decade, most Maldivians had changed their religious beliefs to that of fundamentalist Islam, and hundreds of men had been recruited into the radical Jihadi cause.


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