By Ishaan Tharoor
September 10, 2014
When the medieval Arab traveler Ibn Battuta gazed upon the Maldives, an Indian Ocean archipelago of more than a thousand coral atolls and turquoise-blue lagoons, he thought it "one of the wonders of the world." He didn't need much persuading to halt his voyage, and assumed the role of "Quazi"--or chief religious judge--for the entire archipelago, deliberating on matters of state while enjoying the delights of the islands' beaches and, as local lore goes, its women.
Ever since then, travelers and honeymooners have flocked to the Maldives for their own bit of paradise. The country's myriad scattered luxury resorts now bring in hundreds of thousands of tourists every year -- in 2012, the Maldives counted over a million visitors, nearly three times the country's existing population.
But there's trouble in paradise, also. This past weekend, some 300 people in the capital city Male -- a tiny, crowded concrete island in the sea -- marched down its main thoroughfare waving the black flags of the Islamic State. They chanted slogans against democracy and held banners that read "Shariah is the only solution," among others. They ended their protest with a prayer offering support to Mujahideen waging jihad around the world.
Malé residents posted pictures of the march on Twitter:
The march wasn't endorsed by any main parties in government, but some see it's a sign that hard-line Islamism is gaining traction in the archipelago.
Islam came early to the islands, swept in by traders riding the monsoon winds. According to the country's constitution, all citizens are required to be Muslim, making it the only "100 percent Muslim" country in the world. The vast majority of the country's citizenry is kept at a remove from its gorgeous tourist spots, since there are strict religious laws prohibiting Maldivians from being involved in the sale or purchase of alcohol. (As a result, most employees at the resorts are migrant laborers from elsewhere in Asia.)
But such radicalization as seen in the protest this weekend is a far more recent phenomenon. In July, an Islamic State flag was raised in a Male square, but removed by police. It's believed that perhaps as many as four Maldivians have made their way to join armed Islamist groups in Syria. There have been fears of infiltration by Salafist groups from Pakistan; in 2009, a Maldivian suicide bomber struck a facility in the Pakistani city of Lahore run by Pakistan's military intelligence agency. In 2013, it took an international letter campaign to prevent authorities from punishing a 15-year-old girl with 100 lashes for the crime of "fornication" after she had been raped by her step-father.
The Maldives has gone through a turbulent half decade in politics: In 2008, one of Asia's longest-ruling dictatorships was ousted in the country's first free-and-fair presidential elections. The victor, Mohamed Nasheed, a democracy activist who had spent years locked up as a political prisoner, was then toppled in 2012 by what he and some international observers still deem a coup. Subsequent elections have restored elements of the old regime to power; Nasheed contested, but lost, and his Maldivian Democratic Party is now in the opposition.
Islamists have played a conspicuous role in the political instability. They were among the forces that called for Nasheed's ouster, accusing him of being a Christian, harboring Jewish connections as well as illegal liquor in his basement (charges that Nasheed rejected as baseless and offensive). Islamist parties have taken to the streets over everything from the existence of massage parlors to demands for a boycott of Israeli goods. An Islamic State flag surfaced during an August protest calling for a ban on Israeli tourists.
Officials in the current Maldivian government issued a statement in late August decrying the Islamic State, saying the jihadists in the Middle East were "using the veil of religion as a pretext for inflicting terror, and committing violations of human rights."
But critics say authorities are tacitly enabling hard-line Islamists to gain sway. Opposition figures have received death threats and cryptic warnings, layered with religious overtones. Ahmed Rilwan, an outspoken journalist and an advocate of free speech, has been missing since Aug. 8; neighbors say he was abducted by armed men and dragged into a car in the early hours of the morning.
In July, Rilwan noted the presence of an Islamic State flag flying in Male:
The government has made strong statements about finding him, but has been unable so far to do so. Some critics suspect its collusion in his disappearance.
Following this weekend's march by Islamic State sympathizers, the opposition MDP issued a statement. "We note with concern that neither the Islamic minister nor the government has taken any action while activities related to terrorism in different forms as well as extremism are carried out in the Maldives," the statement read.
Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.