By Praveen Swami
Sep 24, 2018
First, the palm trees that lined Malé’s
streets disappeared, cut down to exorcise the evil spells that swelled their
trunks and spilled into the island’s thick, tropical air. Then, the giant
crocodile caged in the children’s park was dragged away for slaughter. The
two-century-old coral mosque in the city was moved to make way for an ice-skating
rink. Eggs and coconuts were found buried in cemeteries; chickens were
In the islands, everyone knew what these
acts meant: someone was practising Sihuru, the dark art of raising demons --
the renegade version of Fanditha, the officially sanctioned witchcraft whose
practitioners are licensed by the government.
Through these dark arts, the Sri Lankan
witch-doctor Asela Wickramasinghe sustained the power of his master, Maldives
President Abdulla Yameen. “We invited the devil to destroy the power of
Yameen’s opponents and win others to his side,” he once bragged. “Look at the
results. That’s the proof.”
Now, as the news comes in of Yameen’s
decisive defeat in an election he strived to rig, it’s clear the spells and
incantations weren’t powerful enough to ward off the anger that stemmed from
the violent suppression of political opposition — and spectacular corruption
marked by the opaque selling-off of entire islands at throwaway prices.
India, as well as key global actors like
the United Kingdom and the United States, have made no secret of their relief
that a government that sought to shore up its legitimacy by giving China
unprecedented access to the Indian Ocean islands has been voted out.
But the story isn’t over: Yameen’s dystopic
regime has inflicted lasting harm, allowing Jihadism to sweep over the islands,
destroying its polity and culture.
The Rising Power Of Jihadists
In the autumn of 2016, Ali Shafeeq left his
home on the small, Indian Ocean island of Kandholhudhoo, telling family and
neighbours he was “going on a vacation”. He was arrested days later at Islamic
State-run safe-house in Istanbul, waiting to be smuggled across the border into
The United States’ intelligence services
passed on information showing Shafeeq intended to join the estimated 250 other
Maldives nationals who were fighting with Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
But this summer, after prosecutors couldn't
submit any credible evidence of Shafeeq’s activities—a failure facilitated by
their decision not to seek it from Turkey—he walked out of prison.
Incredibly, this was Shafeeq’s third
catch-and-release encounter with the government. In 2007, he was jailed for the
alleged role in bombing tourists at Male’s Sultan Park but released in an
ill-advised political reconciliation bid. Two year later, he was handed over by
Pakistani authorities after being held near the border with Afghanistan.
Yameen’s government, its critics allege,
soft-pedalled action against jihadists like Shafeeq, using them to silence
critics, like the assassinated journalist Yameen Rasheed, and to bolster its
religious credentials. The impunity game is an old one, but Yameen carried it
to new levels.
This April at least one jihadist who had
posted online images of himself fighting in Syria, having moved there with his
wife and child, was found living back at home by the newspaper Mihaaru.
In 2008, Maldives national Ali Assham,
alleged to have been involved with the Lashkar-e-Taiba network attacked the
Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru, was deported from Sri Lanka to
Maldives. Despite Indian demands, he was never prosecuted and now lives in
Ali Jaleel, who in 2008 became the first
Maldives citizen to carry out a suicide bombing, was briefly jailed two years
earlier — only to emerge within weeks.
Ganja, Gangs and God
"Every night for three nights,"
Saaba Shifazee recalls, her son “had a dream in which he’d see himself in
battle alongside the Prophet." Then, one morning in 2008, Hassan Shifazee
woke up and decided to throw away all his music CDs. He quit playing football
and stopped hanging around Male’s streets with friends from the Majeedia
School, smoking Ganja. Instead, he started devoting himself to religious
studies, spending time with local preachers.
In 2015, Hassan Shifazee was killed
fighting Syrian troops in the town of Jericho, alongside the armies of Al
The soldiers of jihad in Maldives are
improbable recruits to the ranks of the pious: drawn from powerful street
gangs, many discovered Islam in prison, are mentored by fundamentalist clerics
protected by the regime and put to work by its enemies.
Put together, Male street gangs -- Masodi,
Kudahemveiru, Bosnia, Buru and Petrel -- are thought to have contributed over
100 fighters to jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria. Inside jail, preaching
groups like Adam Shameem’s Odyssey of Dawa, Ibrahim Fareed’s Islamic
Foundation, the Jamaat-ul-Bayan, and Jamaat-ul-Salaf are active.
Fuvahmulak island resident Ahmad Munsif,
killed in 2016, had multiple drug-related run-ins with police and in 2012 spent
time in prison for attempting to assault a police officer. His time with
Islamic clerics, though, led him to clean up. In October 2014, he headed to the
Islamic State with his wife, Suma Ali.
Long a crossroad for trade across the
Indian Ocean, Maldives’ culture had relatively a relaxed attitude to personal
freedoms. In the 14th century, the great traveller and cleric Muhammad Ibn
Battuta recorded his frustration at the disinclination shown by local women to
cover up. “I strove to put an end to this practice and commanded the women to
wear clothes, but I could not get it done,” Ibn Battuta wrote.
Islamism began to gather force in the
Maldives after 2004, after the Indian Ocean tsunami claimed hundreds of lives
and destroyed entire communities.
As the scholar Aishath Velezinee has
recorded: “Men grew beards and hair, took to wearing loose robes and pyjamas,
and crowned their heads with Arab-style cloth. Women were wrapped in black
robes. Goats were imported, and fishermen gave up their vocation to become
“Preachers began touring the islands, armed
with cash from Islamic charities who had arrived from Pakistan and the Middle
East,” said slain writer and analyst Yameen Rasheed. “Their message was simple:
Maldivians were paying for their sins and must atone to avoid Allah’s wrath.”
A Culture of Hate
In more ways than one, the Maldives
government has laid the foundations for this jihadist tide. The state’s
textbooks promote violence. The Class IX Islamic studies textbook tells
students “performing jihad against people that obstruct the religion” is an
obligation. It promises that “Islam ruling over the world is very near”.
Promising a caliphate, the textbook says, “This is something that the Jews and
Christians do not want. It is why they collaborate against Islam even now.”
In early 2012, his al-Nusra obituary
recorded jihadist Shifazee participated in an Islamist mob which attacked
Male’s national museum. Emerging from the Dharamavanthu mosque, the mob
destroyed a priceless ancient head of Buddha. The head, perhaps ironically, was
the only part of the statue to have survived after terrified villagers on the
island of Thodoo attacked it soon after it was discovered by archaeologists in
1959, believing it to be a demonic totem.
Perhaps worse, the country has seen regular
attacks against the arts, even its own heritage. A hotel was recently forced to
remove underwater sculptures on the grounds it was promoting idol-worship —
though, online commentators were quick to point out, the same concern did not
apply to giant billboards of President Yameen.
Ensuring jobs and economic opportunity as
well as transparent government is key to giving democracy the legitimacy it
needs—and keeping a generation of angry, disenfranchised young people away from
Islamism. President Mohamed Nasheed’s government made some efforts in this
direction from 2008 to 2012 but proved unwilling to buck the religious right.
From 2013 to 2018, Yameen swung the other
way, patronising religious reaction in pursuit of power -- and proved that he
could get China to provide the dollars needed to make this project work. His
defeat marks an opportunity, but Maldives faction-ridden opposition now needs
India and its allies need to be aware that
an election alone won’t bring the Maldives back from the abyss Yameen’s took it