The Maldives’ spotless beaches mask the story of a troubled nation. The country’s former president, Mohamed Nasheed, is in exile in Britain, having been sentenced to 13 years in prison on what are widely seen as spurious terror charges. Protests on the streets of the capital, Male, are frequent. Soldiers recently locked down the country’s parliament in an apparent bid to block a no confidence vote. Violence is also on the rise: earlier this year, a liberal blogger, Yameen Rasheed, was murdered – hacked to death in his apartment block. In the run-up to his killing, Rasheed said he has been targeted by radicalised Muslims incensed at his posts about Islam. The changing situation has led to the Foreign Office recently updating its advice to British tourists, warning them of the threat of violence. British tourists are also now told that terrorists are ‘very likely' to attempt attacks in the Maldives. It’s all a far cry from the paradise islands so loved by honeymooners.
The Maldives is not alone in facing the threat of terrorism but, in an entirely Muslim country so heavily reliant on tourism (it accounts for nearly a third of its GDP), it’s a toxic mix. A single terrorist attack could wipe out the Maldives’ tourist industry, and, with it, the country’s economy. There seems good reason to be concerned given how radicalisation has taken root among disaffected Maldivians. By some estimates, the Maldives has earned the unwelcome title of having sent more terrorists proportionally to Syria and Iraq than any other country in the world. Entire families are believed to have travelled, with one estimate suggesting as many as 200 have made the journey from the idyllic atolls to the godforsaken battlefields of the Middle East. Admittedly, this is dwarfed by the 800 who travelled from the United Kingdom to fight with Isis. But when you consider that the Maldives has a population of 415,000 – fewer than the number of people who live in Bristol – you get a sense of the problem.
The country’s government is keen to downplay the issue and disputes the figure of how many Maldivians have ended up fighting alongside Isis. Mohamed Shainee, a cabinet minister and a close ally of the president, Abdulla Yameen, tells me that the number is closer to 30. ‘Most people go and die in these conflicts and the numbers are very, very small,’ he says. Yet while there is debate about the figure of those who have actually gone to the Middle East, Shainee acknowledges that something needs to be done to prevent the spread of radicalisation in the Maldives. The government has passed laws to crack down on hate preaching in nurseries and schools. Mosques have also been placed under greater restrictions. Those who attempt to travel to fight jihad abroad are now being stopped in their tracks more effectively. But with Isis in its death throes, is this too little too late? And what of those who make the return journey back to the Maldives?
Shainee says that those who do return are being rehabilitated in the hope that they do not spread their radicalised views. ‘Most of them (those who have travelled) are not really well-educated people – so they have to be educated to tell them what is in Islam. The religion is a peaceful religion. We don't call for killing people and we hope that people will be rehabilitated’, he says.
So why were so many Maldivians radicalised in the first place? Shainee is clear: the fault lies with ousted president Mohamed Nasheed, who, he says, ‘came along as a champion of democracy but…messed everything up. He destroyed the economy. He destroyed the social fabric of the country’, Shainee tells me on a visit to London.
Under the watch of the Maldives’ now-exiled president, Shainee claims, a lack of awareness about who was preaching in the country’s mosques allowed the tentacles of radical Islam to take root. ‘For the first time in our history, President Nasheed allowed anyone to preach in the mosques, out in public or anywhere. But earlier we had put some sort of restraint on what people preach and who preaches to the general public, because you have to look at the context. For example, here in the West if the Pope goes on his balcony and preaches something to the people they would believe him. It's the same kind of thing in the Maldives, when imams come out and talk about something, people tend to believe them. But the quality of the imam and what he preaches has to be closely monitored’.
Given that Nasheed was ousted in 2012, it seems difficult to maintain the view that the country’s former leader is entirely responsible for all of the Maldives’ woes. Yet whether Nasheed is at fault, it’s a surprising admission from Shainee that the country’s social fabric has been destroyed. The current government is doing its best to rebuild. Next year’s presidential election could provide an opportunity for some of these wounds to heal. Yet this seems unlikely. Nasheed has said he wants to stand again in the country where is facing a jail sentence. But the government is clear that this won’t happen: ‘There is no way he can be part of the election because he has been convicted of terrorism, and he is going through a sentence of 13 years. So according to the constitution of the Maldives, he cannot stand for election,’ says Shainee.
For now, most tourists to the Maldives remain untroubled by the turmoil playing out in Male. But how long can that last?