By P.K. Balachandran
Top Maldivian officials say that the on-going international propaganda about Islamic radicalism in the country is not based on facts. It is manufactured to bring down the government of President Abdulla Yameen by destroying the tourist industry, which is the main prop of the Maldivian economy.
However, tourism continues to account for 28% of the GDP of the Maldives, and 60% of its foreign exchange receipts. In fact, arrivals have gone up in the past year, says Imjad Jaleel, Chief Communication Strategist in the Office of the Maldivian President.
Explaining the strategy of the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and its Western backers, Jaleel said: “If tourists avoid the Maldives fearing Islamic terror attacks, the economy would collapse and the government of the day would follow suit.”
The MDP, led by former President Mohamed Nasheed, which has the backing of the Western powers, is describing the Islamic aspects of Maldivian culture as a hotbed of Jehadi terrorism. The MDP has been saying that President Yameen is encouraging radical Islamists.
“I am very concerned about Islamization. Yameen is unable to control the Islamists,” Nasheed told Foreign Correspondents in Colombo in September last year.
And the “mantra” about Islamic radicalization is being kept up by the United States and the international media, which for geopolitical reasons, want President Yameen replaced by Nasheed.
The Acting Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Alice G. Wells, told a Congressional Committee on September 7 that “lack of higher educational opportunities, high youth unemployment, rise of social media, and weak institutions all contribute to an environment in which Islamist violent extremism is on the rise.”
She went on to say: “Our work with the government to combat violent extremism remains critically important in a country with a grim distinction. Per capita, it (Maldives) has produced more terrorists who have fought in Iraq and Syria than any other country in the world.”
But Maldivian officials say that the charges are without any foundation whatsoever.
In a conversation with newsin.asia here last week, the Maldivian Ambassador designate, Mohamed Hussain Shareef; the Chief Communication Strategist in the President’s Office, Imjad Jaleel; and Second Secretary Hussain Mazin, said that the Maldives is undoubtedly an Islamic country, but by no stretch of imagination is it extremist.
“True, an increasing number of Maldivian women wear the head scarf and men sport a beard, but these are by no means compulsory. They could well be fashion statements. Maldivian women are found in all professions and at every level,” Hussain Mazin said.
“Religious education is compulsory in government-run schools, but there are no madrasas which teach only Islam. Religion is taught through the indigenous Dhivehi language, but the medium for teaching other subjects is English,” said Jaleel.
The literacy rate for both men and women is 99%, the highest in South Asia.
“Secular education is free for the first 15 years for all. And if a student gets all As in the Senior School exams and he or she gets admission in any university abroad, including Harvard, the State will fully pay for his studies,” Ambassador Hussain Shareef said.
“Health facilities in public hospitals are free for all. There are approved hospitals overseas where a Maldivian citizen can be get free treatment, with the bill being picked up by the Maldivian government. Every person is entitled to get US$ 8000 for medical treatment per year, with extra payment for more expensive treatment,” Shareef added.
With tourism doing well, there are jobs for all Maldivians with many to spare for foreigners. The unemployment is 3.2%, which is the lowest in South Asia.
Negative Propaganda Fails To Cut Ice
Propaganda about increasing Islamic radicalism has not led to a fall in tourist arrivals because tourists have positive things to say about the Maldives and its resorts to others back home, Jaleel maintained.
In fact tourist arrivals have gone up. Comparing the tourist arrivals figure for the period January to June 2016 with January to June 2017, arrivals had gone up from 289,234 to 320,162, a rise of 6.1 %, according to the Ministry of Tourism.
Arrivals from terrorist-sensitive countries of Northern and Western Europe had gone up. In the case of Northern Europe, arrivals went up from 66.739 to 69,345; and in the case of Western Europe from 112.179 to 114, 219.
Arrivals from North East Asia (China, Japan and Korea) went up from 281,252 to 281,261 and from South Asia (principally India), the jump was from 43,789 to 50,295.
The number of bed nights shot up from 3,828,344 in January-June 2016, to 4,161,340 in the same period in 2017. The average period of stay grew from 6.1 days to 6.3.
Maldivian tourism is based on island resorts with each resort having an island to itself. In these self contained and isolated islands, Islamic laws do not apply. Resorts cater to every need of the tourist. The only locals in these resorts are their employees.
If the number and intensity of terrorist attacks are yardsticks to judge whether the Maldives is safe for tourists or not, there have hardly been any such attacks in the islands, in contrast to tourist hot spots elsewhere in the world.
The lone incident was the killing of the anti-fundamentalist blogger Yameen Rashid in April this year. “Stern action was taken and the perpetrators are now in jail,” Jaleel said.
Even if one were to the consider the number of Maldivians going to Syria or Iraq to join the Islamic State (IS), it is comparatively very small “50 to 100 at the most” Jaleel said.
The Maldives does not figure in the tables prepared by the International Center for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) for the year 2015. Out of the 20,730 foreign nationals fighting for the IS in various parts of the world, 1200 were from France, 1200 from Russia, 600 from the UK and another from Germany. By 2017, the number from UK had swelled to 850.
Maldives was not worthy of mention.
US Blows Hot and Cold
While the US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Alice Wells, tells the Congress that the growth of radical Islam in the Maldives is causing concern and that its per capita contribution to IS fighters is the highest in the world, the State Department report for the year 2015 acknowledged that the Maldivian government recognized that “counter-radicalization efforts are a critical component to long-term success against violent extremism.”
The country-wise report on terrorism further said that “a government-sponsored Islamic university was opened in the last quarter of 2015 in Male to promote the academic study of religion and moderate Islam as a counterweight to extremist discourses and messaging.”
The Fiqh Academy, a group of religious scholars under the government’s Ministry of Islamic Affairs, issued a fatwa on August 25, 2015, proclaiming that “participation in foreign wars is not a religious obligation.”
Writing in New York Times on June 18, 2017, Kai Schultz said that the “tourism industry has mostly remained off limits as a target for terrorism.” The author quotes an official in the Tourism ministry as saying that no resort has reported security issues.