To the outside world, the Maldives is synonymous with romantic beach tourism. But the calm azure waters of the Indian Ocean belie a conflict between tourist idyll and reality.
The fatal stabbing of blogger and satirist Yameen Rasheed in April has exposed a government content to ignore rising extremism and attacks on journalists while wielding religion as a political weapon against opponents of President Abdulla Yameen. For a country strategically located on one of the world’s most critical oil routes, the Maldives’ swing toward fundamentalist impunity has global consequences.
About 1 million tourists arrive in the Maldives every year. The mainstays of the industry — and the biggest spenders — are those from Western Europe, particularly Britain, France, Germany and Italy, who are lured by images of a hedonistic tropical paradise.
The real Maldives is something else. Local islands are demarcated from resorts, not just geographically, but culturally and financially. The country calls itself “100% Islamic,” enforces Sunni Islam on its citizens, limits freedom of expression, bans alcohol (outside the resort islands) and imposes Sharia punishments for “crimes” such as “fornication” (sex outside marriage).
The resorts trade in dollars, while locals must contend with the overvalued Maldivian rufiya, which is pegged to the dollar but exchangeable only on the black market. Half the population of 350,000 is compressed into Male, the tiny 5-sq. km capital, a congested candy-colored concrete jungle far removed from the picture-postcard image of bucolic isolation. In a country famed for marine life and sea sports, few locals can even swim.
Yameen came to power in 2013 with the support of fundamentalists after successfully painting his liberal democratic opponents as heretical. He has since imprisoned or driven into exile much of the opposition. This includes his half-brother Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who oversaw the rise of tourism and ruled the country for 30 years; and Mohamed Nasheed of the progressive Maldivian Democratic Party. Nasheed was a former political prisoner who unseated the aging and autocratic Gayoom in a presidential election in 2008, but was toppled in a coup orchestrated by the old regime in 2012.
Gayoom and Nasheed, once bitterly at odds, have allied themselves with a steady stream of former officials who have fallen out of favor with Yameen, who still controls the institutions of state — particularly the police and judiciary. However, the population is another matter. Local council elections in early May saw an unexpectedly overwhelming victory for Nasheed’s MDP, which secured up to 70% of the vote in 21 of the 23 largest urban constituencies.
With foreign reserves of $224.7 million — equal to less than two months of expenditure — Yameen’s government has warmly embraced financial support from Saudi Arabia, much of it earmarked for mosque development and the training of imams. The administration has also been accused by Al Jazeera, a Doha-based media group, of corruption, including abetting up to $1.5 billion in money laundering.
The violent street gangs of Male have long accepted money and immunity in exchange for dirty political work. But in the past few years, these gangsters have merged with radicalized youth groups and grown considerably more confident and international in outlook. Despite this, the government has adopted what appears to be a “live and let live” policy toward hundreds of Maldivians leaving to fight for fundamentalist Islamic groups in Syria, including entire families.
Cheering for al-Qaida
“Take a stroll around: Everybody here has a brother, a cousin, a friend in Syria,” wrote Italian journalist Francesca Borri, last year. “While the world watched the  Olympics, in August, Male watched the battle for Aleppo. Cheering on al-Qaida.”
Rasheed, a full-time information technology professional who wrote a blog called “The Daily Panic,” was one of the few public commentators to use his own name. He died after being stabbed 35 times outside his home on April 23. Rasheed had diligently reported threats he had received over the years to the apathetic and politicized police.
His good friend Ahmed Rilwan, a journalist with the Maldives Independent newspaper, was kidnapped at knifepoint outside his apartment on Aug. 8, 2014, never to be seen again. Rasheed had led the movement seeking the truth behind his friend’s disappearance, receiving many threats over this investigation, as did Rilwan’s family. By late 2016, Rasheed confided to friends his concern that those threatening him had begun to emerge from anonymity, becoming more brazen.
After his death, gleeful threats circulated on Maldivian social media: one featured a knife on an elaborate blood-splattered poster featuring Rasheed’s photo and several red balloons, mocking the image used by his friends and family in their search for justice.
Rasheed was critical of those who sought to twist the country into a violent, fundamentalist theocracy. His arch nemesis was hypocrisy, his greatest opprobrium reserved for those hardline Maldivian sheikhs and moralizing politicians found sozzled in the bars of neighboring Sri Lanka every weekend.
An international outpouring of sympathy after Rasheed’s murder, from foreign embassies, the United Nations and journalist rights groups, prompted the government to issue platitudes and promises to investigate. But four days after the murder, President Yameen declared in Dhivehi, the Maldivian language: “We will not allow people to freely post blasphemous writings on social media … There will be people who would not hesitate to do anything to individuals who are believed to be hate-mongers.”
Western tourists sipping pina coladas and sunning themselves at resort beaches would have been dumbfounded had they witnessed pro-Islamic State demonstrators, waving black flags, marching through the capital unchecked as early as 2014. The culture of impunity emerged in 2012, after a mob rampaged through the national museum, a popular tourist attraction, smashing to powder all evidence of the historical Buddhist civilization in the Maldives. Despite abundant high-quality closed circuit television evidence, no one was prosecuted for the crime.
Maldivian police investigating Rasheed’s death claim to have made several arrests, but are politically compromised. Serious questions of credibility hang over the case. The crime scene was hastily cleaned and repainted before any evidence was gathered, and Rasheed’s family has called for an international probe.
With IS now in retreat in Syria and Iraq, the prospect of trained Maldivian jihadis returning home should be keeping the government awake at night. Instead, it appears to be abetting rather than checking rising extremism. A Tunisia-style shooting attack on resort guests would shatter the carefully cultivated perception of the country as a beach paradise, and overnight render it unable to feed itself; Tourism indirectly accounts for 70% of the economy.
But the ramifications extend beyond that. The Maldives sits on a chokepoint for one of the world’s most important oil shipping routes, between East Asia and the Gulf. Tankers traveling between the Straits of Hormuz and the Straits of Malacca move 15 million to 17 million barrels of oil a day through the passage between the Maldives and India’s Laccadive Islands, supplying China, Japan, South Korea and other countries with much of their fuel.
The Maldives is far from being just a pretty place to have a beach holiday; political stability in the islands is of global geostrategic importance. The tragic murder of Rasheed and evidence of spiraling, unchecked jihadism shows the country is hurtling toward anything but peace. International attention has so far focused on the existential impact of climate change and rising sea levels on the low-lying island nation, but other threats are far more immediate.
“I’m not particularly afraid of death … But I’d always wanted nature to get me. Not some idiot mullah foot-soldier with a knife,” Rasheed tweeted in August 2014. He might well have been speaking for the Maldives.
J.J. Robinson is the author of “The Maldives: Islamic Republic, Tropical Autocracy.” (Hurst, 2015)
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