The Indian Ocean archipelago state of the Maldives is best known for its scenic and secluded tourist resorts. An estimated 400,000 people live on approximately 1,200-2,000 small islands, grouped into 26 atolls. The tourism industry accounts for 30% of its gross domestic product, with an estimated 900,000 foreigners visiting the country each year. In the past decade, however, the Maldives has experienced political uncertainty and growing religious extremism.
In 2008, the Maldives held its first democratic presidential elections. Mohamed Nasheed defeated Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who had ruled the country for 30 years, winning 54% of the vote. During the election campaign, Gayoom and his supporters accused Nasheed, a Sunni Muslim, of spreading Christianity in the Maldives. In December 2011, after three years in power, Nasheed and his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) faced massive protests by opposition parties, religious groups and their thousands of supporters in the capital Male. Called the “Defend Islam” protests, the organizers accused the Nasheed administration of defiling Islam, arguing that Nasheed promoted Western ideals and culture and restricted the spread of more austere Islamic practices. The protests continued into 2012. On February 7, 2012, a bloodless coup toppled the Maldives’ first democratically-elected government.
Since Islam was introduced in the Maldives in the 12th century, religious practices in the country have been moderate. Yet in the past decade, the country has grown increasingly religiously conservative. This became especially evident following the implementation of political reforms and the transition to multiparty democracy in 2008, which gave a greater voice to religious conservatives and those calling for the rigid implementation of Shari`a (Islamic law) in the Maldives.
This article examines religious conservatism and extremist violence in the Maldives, as well as cases of Maldivians joining jihadist groups. It finds that religious conservatism is on the rise in the Maldives, which could result in more violence and affect the country’s lucrative tourism industry.
A Move Toward Religious Conservatism
For hundreds of years, Sunni Muslims in the Maldives have largely practiced a more liberal form of the religion. Yet during Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s three-decade autocratic rule, the Egyptian-trained religious scholar enacted a number of measures that, at least inadvertently, encouraged more hard line Islamist elements in the country. In 1994, the Protection of Religious Unity Act was passed, which restricted the freedom to practice any other religion besides Islam. In 1996, Gayoom constituted the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (which was renamed the Ministry of Islamic Affairs in 2008) charged with overseeing religious affairs in the country. This body of clerics pressured the government to carry out moral and cultural policing of alleged “anti-Islamic activities.” In 2008, it asked the police to ban night clubs and discotheques for New Year’s Eve celebrations, saying that they were contrary to Islam.
By the end of Gayoom’s time in office in 2008, the dress code for women had grown increasingly conservative, and more and more men grew out their beards. Whereas women used to dress in bright colored clothes, they increasingly wear black robes and headscarves today. On more conservative islands such as Himandhoo, women wear black abayas and face veils. Ahmed Naseem, the Maldivian foreign minister until the coup in 2012, said that the Maldives “had no one wearing headscarves 10 years ago,” but it is common now. From imposing a ban on Christian missionary radio to apprehending migrant service providers for allegedly preaching and practicing their own religion, Gayoom’s regime initiated an era of state-backed religious intolerance and radicalization in the Maldives.
Another factor contributing to extremism has been the role of foreign madrasa education. The offer of free education in madrasas in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia is widely acknowledged as a core means of radicalizing Maldivians locally, with well-meaning parents sending their children off on scholarships to “study Islam.” Students who unwittingly attended more radical madrasas may have returned home to the Maldives, preaching their newly-acquired views. After the Maldives suffered its first terrorist attack in 2007, Gayoom himself warned of this problem, stating, “Maldivians are influenced by what is happening in the world. They go to Pakistan, study in madrasas and come back with extreme religious ideas.”
Azra Naseem, a Maldivian academic and author, argues that grassroots radicalization is happening at a fast rate. Naseem said that the contemporary Maldivian political environment favors radical and political Islam taking root in Maldivian society, especially when political parties and civil society increasingly take refuge in religion. In May 2010, for example, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs published a new set of regulations under the Protection of Religious Unity Act of 1994. The new legislation prohibited “talking about religions other than Islam in Maldives, and propagating such religions,” as well as reinforcing that it is illegal “to use any kind of medium to propagate any religion other than Islam.” Some newly added regulations also made it “illegal to show or spread sound bites of programs on religions other than Islam, and any such literature, drawings, advertisements, music, and songs,” as well as use “any Internet website, blog, newspaper, or magazine to publish such material.”
A major force behind more austere religious practices in the Maldives is the Adhaalath Party (Justice Party). It has controlled the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, with Shaykh Shaheem Ali Saeed as its current minister. The party supports the strict implementation of Shari`a, and it has outspokenly argued that music and singing are haram (forbidden) in Islam. The party has called for an end to the sale of alcohol at the country’s hundreds of luxury resorts, the only places where it is served in the country. It is widely considered the greatest force behind the Maldives’ movement toward religious conservatism. Most recently, Islamic Affairs Minister Saeed, a leading member of the Adhaalath Party, has started a campaign against Christians and what he termed “Freemasons,” alleging that they want to “wipe out” Islam from the Maldives. In February 2013, Saeed warned that “various Christian organizations and missionaries are strongly involved and active in our society. They are working within us and outside, trying to create doubts on Islam within the hearts of young people.”
There are also two religious conservative non-governmental organizations known as Jamiyyathu Salaf (JS) and the Islamic Foundation of Maldives (IFM). These two groups, both considered Salafist, work with the country’s political parties to further the cause of Islamism in the Maldives. The leader of the IFM, for example, is former Guantanamo Bay prisoner Ibrahim Fauzee. In May 2002, Fauzee was arrested in Karachi while living in a suspected al-Qa`ida safe house. He was eventually released from Guantanamo Bay and repatriated to the Maldives in 2005, where he established the IFM in 2009.
These parties and organizations were all part of the “Defend Islam” protests in December 2011, which unleashed a chain of events that culminated in the fall of Nasheed’s government.
Intolerance toward other religious and cultural symbols were manifested during the annual summit meeting of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in November 2011, when Islamist protestors damaged monuments gifted to the Maldives by SAARC member countries. Protestors targeted a Pakistani monument that was given to the Male government because it depicted objects of worship which, according to the protestors, were “anti-Islam” as they negated “the oneness of God.” Protests eventually led to the removal of both Bhutan’s and Sri Lanka’s monuments as well.
On February 7, 2012, a group of Islamist radicals vandalized archaeological artifacts that were mostly ancient Hindu and Buddhist relics in the National Museum. According to the museum’s director, the vandals destroyed “99%” of the evidence of the Maldives’ pre-Islamic history prior to the 12th century. Another official at the museum said that the group “deliberately targeted the Buddhist relics and ruins of monasteries exhibited in the pre-Islamic collection, destroying most items beyond repair.”
The Ministry of Islamic Affairs has, at least indirectly, encouraged such extremism. It has, for example, initiated crackdowns on media outlets for anti-Islamic content. The Communications Authority of the Maldives, on the order of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, blocked the blog of prominent free speech and religious freedom campaigner Khilath Rasheed (also known as Hilath) in November 2011. The communications authority was told by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs that the blog contained anti-Islamic material. In a country where the constitution says that every citizen is a Sunni Muslim, Rasheed’s claim of being a Sufi was viewed as a possible reason for the site’s closure. One month later, in December, 10 men attacked Rasheed, throwing stones at him during a peaceful rally he organized in Male. One of the stones fractured his skull. A few days after the incident, Rasheed was arrested and jailed for 24 days due to his participation in the rally. Rasheed said that he was arrested for “disrupting the religious unity of the Maldives, and was a threat to society.”
In addition to the attack on Rasheed, extremists have directly targeted liberal intellectuals, writers and activists. On January 3, 2011, assailants attempted to kill Aishath Velezinee, an activist fighting for the independence of the country’s justice system, by stabbing her in the back in broad daylight. In November 2010, Aishath acted as a whistleblower when she said that some members of the Judicial Service Commission were conspiring with key political figures to hijack the judiciary and bring down the country’s first democratically-elected government. Authorities never identified the motive behind the attack.
On June 4, 2012, extremists again attacked Khilath Rasheed. In this incident, however, Rasheed almost died after extremists cut his throat open with a box cutter. After the attempt on his life, Rasheed named three political leaders—Islamic Affairs Minister Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed, Adhaalath Party President Imran Abdulla and Jumhooree Party lawmaker Ibrahim Muttalib Shaheem—as being indirectly responsible for the attempt on his life. In July 2012, Rasheed wrote,
“When they were slashing my throat, they uttered the words ‘Mee Shaheem, Imran, Muttalib faraathun hadhiyaa eh,’ meaning ‘Compliments from Shaheem, Imran and Muttalib.’ Even though the three politicians may not have directly ordered the three attackers to murder me, their calls for killing me somehow had a psychological influence on the three attackers to the extent that they did attack me.”
Rasheed has since fled the country.
On October 1, 2012, Afrasheem Ali, a liberal religious scholar and lawmaker, was stabbed to death at his home. He was stabbed four times in the back of the head after he returned home from appearing on a weekly television show. Considered an Islamic moderate, Afrasheem was outspoken in his controversial positions on issues such as the permissibility of playing music and praying next to the deceased. Authorities said that his murder was well-planned, although they denied that it was religiously motivated.
Most recently, a reporter for the MDP-aligned Raajje TV station, Ibrahim “Aswad” Waheed, was beaten unconscious with an iron bar while riding on a motorcycle near the beach area of Male on February 23, 2013. Authorities were still investigating the motive for the crime, but were confident that it was a “targeted attack.”
These incidents, which have all occurred in the past few years, reveal an environment in which moderate voices have been targeted in the Maldives. In addition to this violence, there is also evidence that a jihadist undercurrent may exist in the country.
The Sultan Park Bombing and the Role of Maldivians in Jihadist Groups
Unlike its larger South Asian neighbors, the Maldives has only experienced one terrorist attack perpetrated by Islamist terrorists. A bomb exploded in Sultan Park in Male on September 29, 2007. The explosion wounded at least 12 foreigners, including British, Japanese and Chinese tourists. The attack was aimed at the tourism industry, the lifeline of the country’s economy. Three men—Mohamed Sobah, Moosa Inaz and Ahmed Naseer—were sentenced to 15 years in jail. The men confessed to their roles in the incident and admitted their goal was to “target, attack and injure non-Muslims to fulfill jihad.” Terrorism charges were laid against 16 suspects, but many of them had already fled to Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
After the Sultan Park bombing, authorities attempted to search the Dar-ul-Khair mosque on Himandhoo Island as part of the investigation. Upon arriving at the mosque on October 7, 2007, some 90 masked and helmeted members of the mosque confronted police, wielding wooden planks and refusing to let the police enter. Eventually the Maldivian army took over from the police, and established control of the mosque facility. The stand-off resulted in a number of injuries, and one police officer had his fingers cut off.
One month after the stand-off, a video appeared on the al-Qa`ida-linked al-Ekhlaas web forum posted by a group called Ansar al-Mujahidin. The video, which flashed the message “Your Brothers in the Maldives are Calling You,” contained footage recorded inside the Dar-ul-Khair mosque during the confrontation with police. Counterterrorism analysts at the time suggested that the video was an attempt to attract financing and recruits for jihadist activity in the Maldives.
Even before the Sultan Park bombing in 2007, a number of Maldivians had engaged in violent jihadist activities. In April 2006, a Maldivian national, Ali Jaleel, and a small group of jihadists from the Maldives attempted to travel to Pakistan to train for violent jihad in Afghanistan or Iraq. They were detained, however, and returned to the Maldives. Jaleel later managed to travel to Pakistan, where he and two others launched a suicide attack at the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) headquarters in Lahore in May 2009. An al-Qa`ida video featuring Jaleel’s martyrdom was subsequently circulated as propaganda material.
Jaleel allegedly had connections in the United States. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Reaz Qadir Khan, a naturalized U.S. citizen residing in Portland, Oregon, conspired to provide material assistance to Jaleel in his suicide attack in Lahore. As stated by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District of Oregon,
“According to the indictment, from December 14, 2005 through June 2, 2009, Khan conspired with an individual named Ali Jaleel and others to provide material support and resources and to conceal the nature of such support and resources, knowing they would be used in a conspiracy to kill, maim, or kidnap persons abroad. Jaleel was a Maldivian national who resided outside the United States. Jaleel died while participating in the suicide attack on the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Headquarters in Lahore on May 27, 2009, according to the indictment.”
Khan, who has not been convicted, is currently awaiting trial in the United States.
There is also evidence that three jihadists from the Maldives “planned to create a terrorist group in the Maldives [in 2007-2008] and to send the group’s members to Pakistan for military training,” as stated by the Maldivian news website Haveeru Online. They were identified as Yoosuf Izadhy, Easa Ali, and Hasnain Abdullah Hameedh. At least one of these individuals did in fact travel to Pakistan, as Yoosuf Izadhy was arrested in Pakistan’s South Waziristan Agency in March 2009, along with eight other Maldivians.
Underscoring the threat, former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed warned in 2009 that “Maldivian people are being recruited by Taliban and they are fighting in Pakistan. It’s a serious issue.” When asked how many Maldivians had traveled to Pakistan for this purpose, Nasheed put the number at “a few hundred.” In a country of less than 400,000 people, such numbers are not insignificant.
Despite its reputation as an idyllic paradise popular among Western tourists, political and religious developments in the Maldives should be monitored closely. In the past decade, the Maldives has experienced an increase in religious conservatism, and this has coincided with a number of violent attacks on liberal activists and other citizens who have expressed outspoken support for moderate religious practices.
The country has already suffered one terrorist attack targeting foreign tourists, and a number of Maldivians have traveled to Pakistan’s tribal areas to receive jihadist training. Moreover, evidence exists that jihadists tried to form a terrorist group in the country in 2007-2008.
If the country continues down its current path, extremist incidents may rise, with violence targeted against the country’s more liberal citizens. There is also the risk that extremists could target the country’s tourism industry. The loss of this revenue source would be devastating to the Maldives.
Animesh Roul is the Executive Director and Co-founder of Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict, a Delhi-based policy research think-tank. He holds a Master of Philosophy degree from the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and has a master’s degree in Modern Indian History. Mr. Roul specializes in counterterrorism, radical Islam, terror financing, armed conflict and issues relating to arms control and proliferation in South Asia. He has written for Terrorism Monitor, the CTC Sentinel, Jane’s Intelligence Review and CBW Magazine among others.
 Simon Denyer, “Deposed Maldives President Says Coup has Fueled Radical Islam,” Washington Post, April 19, 2012.
 Neil Merrett, “Maldives Ranked World’s 22nd ‘Most Miserable Place’ by Business Insider,” Minivan News, February 25, 2013; Tom Wright, “Islamism Set Stage for Maldives Coup,” Wall Street Journal, February 11, 2012.
 During his 30-year rule, Gayoom, an autocrat, held elections, winning six of them, yet he never before faced an opponent. See Randeep Ramesh, “Maldives Human Rights Activist Wins Presidential Election,” Guardian, October 29, 2008.
 Vikas Bajaj and Sruthi Gottipati, “Maldives’ Former Leader Calls for Early Elections,” New York Times, February 10, 2012.
 Wright. The “Defend Islam” banners displayed slogans such as “We stand united for Islam and the nation,” “No idols in this holy land,” “No to the Zionist murderers,” and “No to El Al (Israeli) Airlines.”
 Jim Yardley, “Amid Outcry, President of Maldives Steps Down,” New York Times, February 7, 2012.
 “2010 Report on International Religious Freedom – Maldives,” United Nations, November 17, 2010.
 “Ministry Asks Police to Ban Discos,” Minivan News, December 31, 2008.
 John Lancaster, “Islamism Comes to Paradise,” Slate, May 28, 2007.
 Mahwish Hafeez, “Growing Islamic militancy in Maldives,” Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad, Pakistan, 2006.
 Ibid.; Lancaster.
 “Christians Expelled from Maldives,” Christianity Today, September 7, 1998. For information on the deportation of migrant workers suspected of preaching and conversions, see “Prospects of Religious Freedom Appear Grim in Islamic Maldives,” Compass Direct/World Watch Monitor, August 10, 2010; “Maumoon Abdul Gayoom – the Father of Maldivian Extremism,” Dhivehi Observer, October 10, 2007.
 Other observers point to the role of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, which built religious facilities in the country that some allege further intolerance. These facilities include the Islamic Studies Institute, a seven-story-high school in Male built by Saudi Arabia. See Lancaster.
 Wright; Denyer; personal interview, JJ Robinson, editor, Minivan News, March 2, 2013.
 “Maldives Cracks Down on Islamic Extremists,” Radio Australia, October 22, 2007.
 Personal interview, Azra Naseem, Maldivian author and academic, November 6, 2012.
 “New Religious Unity Regulations: English,” Minivan News, May 9, 2010.
 “No One Has the Right to Criticise the Rulings of the Islamic Sharia – Adhaalath,” Miadhu, March 1, 2013; “Adhaalath Party Requests Education Ministry Cancel Inter-School Singing Competition,” Minivan News, April 12, 2012; “Adhaalath was Formed to Work Against the Anti-Religious Activities of MDP – Imran,” Miadhu, January 29, 2013.
 “Maldives Shuts Down Spa Resorts Over ‘Anti-Islamic’ Activities,” Associated Press, December 30, 2011.
 “Islamic Ministry Claims Christians, Freemasons Secretly Working to ‘Eradicate’ Islam in the Maldives,” Minivan News, February 12, 2013.
 The links between political parties and religious NGOs like IFM and JS are clear as they work together in organizing preaching events in the Maldives. Even the outgoing Nasheed-led MDP party worked with these religious NGOs through the Islamic Affairs Ministry to carry out religious activities. For details on the Salafist nature of the IFM and JS, see JJ Robinson, “Islamic Foundation Calls for Death Sentence if Apostate Fails to Repent,” Minivan News, May 30, 2010; Mohamed Naahee, “Religious NGO Jamiyyathul Salaf Recommends Beheading, Firing Squad over Lethal Injection,” Minivan News, February 26, 2013.
 “Ibrahim Fauzee – The Guantanamo Docket,” New York Times, undated; “Maldives Offers to Take Two Guantanamo Bay Prisoners,” Agence France-Presse, May 16, 2010.
 “Mass Protests in Defence of Islam Across the Maldives,” Sun Online, December 23, 2011.
 “PPM to Participate in Mass Protest Against ‘Irreligious’ SAARC Monuments,” Haveeru Online, November 26, 2011; Sudha Ramachandran, “Intolerance Grows in the Maldives,” Asia Times Online, November 23, 2011.
 JJ Robinson, “Vandalism of Pakistani Monument Damaging to Maldives’ Image: Foreign Ministry,” Minivan News, November 16, 2011.
 Eleanor Johnstone, “Hithadhoo Court Orders Removal of SAARC Monuments on Religious Grounds,” Minivan News, January 19, 2012.
 “Footage Leaked of Museum Vandals Destroying Pre-Islamic Artifacts,” Minivan News, January 14, 2013.
 It asked the authorities to remove the “irreligious” SAARC monuments to pacify religious protestors. See Shahidul Islam Chowdhury, “Maldives Removes Idolatrous Monuments from SAARC Countries,” New Age, January 15, 2012; Johnstone, “Hithadhoo Court Orders Removal of SAARC Monuments on Religious Grounds.”
 “Slashed Journalist Claims Attack was Targeted Assassination by Islamic Radicals,” Minivan News, July 2, 2012.
 Eleanor Johnstone, “Blog Crack-Down ‘is Just the Beginning,’ Warns Censored Blogger,” Minivan News, November 21, 2011.
 JJ Robinson, “Prison Conditions ‘Unchanged Since Gayoom’s Time’: Detained Blogger,” Minivan News, January 11, 2012; Eleanor Johnstone, “Moosa Calls for Investigation of Protesters who Called for Religious Tolerance,” Minivan News, December 14, 2011.
 “ICJ Says Velezinee Attack Politically Motivated,” Haveeru Online, January 6, 2011.
 “Velezinee’s Insider Account of How JSC Hijacked Judicial Independence,” Dhivehi Sitee, September 10, 2012.
 “Slashed Journalist Claims Attack was Targeted Assassination by Islamic Radicals.”
 For details, see www.hilath.com/?p=16661.
 He further wrote, “Now how could that happen? An MDP Member of Parliament has confirmed to a Maldivian writer (who is a friend of mine) that after the attack on me, Muttalib commented in Parliament House in front of other Parliament Members: ‘Buneemennu Velezinee aai Hilath maraalaanamey. E othee Hilath maraalaafa’ which means something to the effect: ‘See I told you we’ll murder Velezinee and Hilath. We have already murdered Hilath.’” See ibid.
 Rasheed is presently living in France (self exile). He said he is hoping to return to the Maldives when democracy and a more tolerant atmosphere prevail. See personal interview, Khilath Rasheed, February 2013.
 “MP Afrasheem Stabbed to Death,” Haveeru Online, October 2, 2012.
 “Moderate Islamic MP Stabbed to Death,” The Times, October 3, 2012.
 Mohamed Naahee, “Afrasheem’s Murder was Well Planned, Worth MVR 4 Million, Claims Police Commissioner,” Minivan News, December 4, 2012.
 Neil Merrett, “Police Reject Claims that Assault of Raajje TV Journalist was Politically Motivated,” Minivan News, March 13, 2013.
 “Bomb Blast Injures 12 Tourists in Maldives,” Reuters, September 30, 2007.
 Ali Naafiz, “Sultan Park Bombing Suspect Arrested in Sri Lanka,” Haveeru Online, October 15, 2011.
 “Sultan Park Suspects On Run In Pakistan,” Minivan News, November 8, 2007; “Maldives Suspects ‘in Pakistan,’” BBC, November 8, 2007. In August 2010, the Maldivian government commuted the sentences of Ahmed Naseer and Mohamed Sobah to three year suspended sentences under observation.
 Two suspects, Mohamed Ameen and Abdul Latheef Ibrahim, were arrested subsequently on their return from Pakistan. Ameen was arrested in Sri Lanka in mid-October 2011 after he traveled to the country from Pakistan on a fake passport. In August 2012, Latheef Ibrahim was arrested after arriving in the Maldives on a flight from Pakistan.
 “Policeman’s Hand Severed In Himandhoo Mosque Raid,” Minivan News, October 7, 2007.
 Ajay Makan, “Video Raises Fears of al Qaeda Expansion to Maldives,” Reuters, November 19, 2007.
 “Ansar Al Mujahideen Targets the Maldives,” Threats Watch, November 18, 2007; “Ansar Al Mujahideen Targets the Maldives,” available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=HZipCV7-EXk.
 “Oregon Resident Charged with Conspiring to Provide Material Support to Terrorists in Connection with Suicide Bombing of ISI Headquarters in Pakistan,” U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, March 5, 2013.
 “Terrorists Attack Lahore ISI Office,” The Nation, May 28, 2009. For the video featuring Ali Jaleel, see www.liveleak.com/view?i=e1a_1257529338.
 “Oregon Resident Charged with Conspiring to Provide Material Support to Terrorists in Connection with Suicide Bombing of ISI Headquarters in Pakistan.”
 “Al-Qaeda Associates Active in Maldives: State Department Cable,” Haveeru Daily, December 6, 2010; JJ Robinson, “Leaked Cable from 2008 Reveals US Concerns about Maldivian National’s ‘Unspecified Links to al-Qaida,’” Minivan News, December 7, 2010.
 “Maldives-Based al-Qa`ida Associates Plan to Create a Terrorist Group in the Maldives – WikiLeaks,” Miadhu, December 8, 2010; “9 Armed Maldivians Arrested in Waziristan,” Miadhu, April 2, 2009.
 Sumon K. Chakrabarti, “Taliban in Pak Recruiting our Youth: Maldives,” CNN-IBN, February 8, 2012.