The long road from Islam to Islamism: a short history

Maldivian women lining up to greet Gayoom visiting their island during the early days of his presidency. Photo: Images of Maldives Past
Maldivian women lining up to greet Gayoom visiting their island during the early days of his presidency. Photo: Images of Maldives Past


The most clearly visible signs of the fundamentalists’ victory over the Maldivian people’s hearts and minds is in their appearance—in a short span of a decade or so, the female Maldivian population went from one in which only older women (usually at least over fifty) wore a head scarf to one in which approximately eight out of ten women, from teenagers to the elderly, wear it. It is now de rigueur for most men to wear a long messy unkempt beard and clad themselves in Pashtoon/Arabic attire. Even women who do not subscribe to fundamentalist views wear the headscarf for a variety of reasons—to be sexy; to be fashionable; to appease their husband/boyfriend; due to peer pressure; even to hide double-chins. It is a remarkable situation that in the Maldives, mothers and grandmothers have been pressured into wearing the headscarf by granddaughters who wear it. Only a handful of Maldivian women over the age of sixty can now be found without a headscarf. A Muslim woman, it is now accepted in Maldivian society, is not a proper Muslim woman unless they wear the headscarf; and the ‘more Muslim’ they are, the more they cover-up. To turn around the beliefs and outlooks of an entire population—even their very idea of beauty—is no small feat.

The grassroots social networks that the Islamists laid through their presence in the community with shops, prison visits, and the groups established in mosques, were augmented by the formalisation of these networks through political power. Once Adhaalath Party was given control of the Islamic Ministry, it—and those approved by it—began controlling what Maldivians could think, speak and practise as ‘true Islam.’ Any words spoken or written about religion by any individual or party not sanctioned by the fundamentalist Muslims were banned or dismissed as ‘nonsense.’ Only scholars educated in Arab or Pakistani institutes of learning, preferably at institutes that endorse Wahhabism or other puritanical forms of Islam, were given approval to speak of or discuss the religion. The Islamic Ministry also began procuring fundamentalist and radical preachers from abroad such as Zakir Naik of Peace TV, and Bilal Philips, banned in many countries for preaching hate, to address Maldivians. While it can be argued that such people have the right to address their beliefs and views; the tragedy is that only such views were allowed. Visitors who failed to express similarly fundamentalist interpretations of Islam were ridiculed, insulted, and hounded out of the country. When UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay addressed the Maldivian parliament and called for a moratorium on Hadd punishments—especially the practise of sentencing people who have sex outside of marriage to a 100 lashes—Islamist leaders condemned Pillay and rallied their followers to protest outside the UN building in Male’. MPs and prominent politicians jostled each other for airtime to condemn as vociferously and colourfully as they could Pillay’s championing of human rights ‘because nobody has the right to speak against the Shari’a.’ Taking full advantage of the freedom of expression provided by democracy to saturate society with their messages about Islam while simultaneously banning everyone else from speaking of Islam altogether has been one of the most powerful tools used by Maldivian Islamists in their successful campaign to take charge of religious faith in the Maldives.

The real-life social and political networks formed by the fundamentalists and Jihadists is enhanced and made more powerful by their use of social networking on the Internet. Radicals have been infinitely more open to the use of modern communications to spread their messages than non-radical, moderate or liberal Muslims. Compared to a handful of liberal bloggers and one or two Facebook pages promoting secularism and/or discussing more moderate Islam, Maldivian followers of fundamentalist and radical beliefs have scores of websites, Facebook pages and YouTube channels that publish and broadcast their material. They prolifically publish translations of Wahhabi and other fundamentalist literature from all over the world in Dhivehi, and make them freely available for download. There are Fatwas available online on anything and everything ranging from the ridiculous to the bizarre—from the forbidden nature of music, the question of whether it is haram to wear contact lenses when praying, to the manner and frequency for conducting conjugal relations and exorcising demons and have them expelled to Saudi Arabia for conversion to Islam and to calls for violent Jihad in Syria. Public spaces such as ferries between islands, taxis and buses play sermons freely distributed on CDs by radical preachers, forcing passengers to listen. Most of the public, who now either subscribe to the fundamentalist view of Islam or think it is wrong not to, lap it up and believe these messages to contain ‘true Islam’. Others have no choice but to put up with it and shut up. Such monopoly of all religious discourse and knowledge means that when confronted with an issue of national importance such as, for example, the death penalty, a majority of the population is only privy to one side of the debate. Most Maldivians are not even aware of arguments within Islam that Shari’a cannot be applied today because it is impossible to replicate the conditions under which such punishments are justified or those which argue that Islamic jurisprudence allows for the abolition of the death penalty. Controlling what can and cannot be considered true knowledge of Islam, without a doubt, has been the most powerful means by which Islamists’ fundamentalist beliefs have triumphed over the Maldivian Islamic faith and identity that evolved over hundreds of years.


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