The Debate | Opinion | South Asia

The Dangers of Dog-Whistling to Extremists in the Maldives

How “liberal” political actors in the Maldives dog-whistle violent extremists and why it matters.

By Mushfiq Mohamed for
The Dangers of Dog-Whistling to Extremists in the Maldives
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

About six months ago, the human rights charity that I work for, the Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN), was unilaterally banned by the government of the Maldives, with its forced closure declared irremediable through concerted government action barring us from domestic legal recourse. As recently confirmed by the country’s police commissioner, at a press conference on April 16, there is an ongoing criminal investigation into alleged blasphemy against the four authors of a report published in 2016 — including myself, MDN’s executive director, a post-doctoral researcher, and a research assistant. On June 13, a leading Salafi organization in the Maldives renewed calls to prosecute us for blasphemy. Islamist hardliners now appear to be applying the same tactics to a Maldivian women’s rights organization, Uthema, calling for their immediate banning over their shadow report to a UN human rights mechanism. 

The story of MDN’s forced closure is also part of a broader narrative in the Maldives, where politicians, activists, writers, and lawyers who promote open democracy and human rights are targeted with accusations of anti-Islamic activity or apostasy, rendering them at-risk of vigilante violence. When these threats manifest — as they have in the past — in attacks or killings, they are primarily ignored or negligently investigated by the police, resulting in flawed trials and acquittals of the suspected culprits.

This article shows how patterns that appear in mainstream discourse later descend into political turmoil, which results in either acts of vigilante violence or with the government toeing a line set by religious hardliners. The situation is even more volatile with the Islamic State claiming its first attack in the Maldives in April amid the COVID-19 lockdown, a week before the Islamic holy month of Ramadan began. 

The Hate Campaign

Manufactured moral panic begins with opposition-aligned activists, who do not identify as Islamists but knowingly dog-whistle to extremist groups in the country, alerting violent nonstate actors to alleged irreligious activities by the ruling party or human rights activists. These actions also prompt a government response, which almost invariably is to toe the line set by religious hardliners, justified by the rationale that such appeasement will mollify these groups and restrain them from escalating the situation. In effect this cements the claims of apostasy initially made by “liberal” opposition activists and religious hardliners.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

In the case of MDN, an online campaign resulted in clerics exerting Islamist pressure on the government over a three-year-old “otherwise unread” report, which had until then received, at worst, a quietly hostile response when first published in 2016. The writing of the report became a blasphemous criminal act overnight in late 2019 because of a smear campaign. Clerics mobilized otherwise peaceful Maldivian people to protest, calling for violence and harsh punishment against the authors — all without any criminal trial establishing guilt. Some of the protesters called for us to be “burned alive,” and for MDN’s Executive Director Shahindha Ismail to be “killed or raped.”

The 2016 report had concluded that the Maldives had a critical problem of increasing Islamic extremism, with few avenues or resources to curb its rapid growth. It urged revision of the Islamic studies curriculum because school textbooks disproportionately contained narratives glorifying violent jihad, xenophobia, and intra-Muslim discrimination. Moreover, it urged the breaking of the dangerous link between extreme individuals and their powerful sponsors within successive governments.

Effectively, a human rights group operating actively in the country for the past decade, with links to the Maldives’ democratic reform movement, was arbitrarily shutdown for the first time in the country’s history. It reveals a government on tenterhooks even as threats of terrorist attacks increase in the Indian Ocean island nation. 

A Toxic Mix Fueled by Dog-whistling

Something that goes largely unnoticed when smear campaigns erupt is how “liberal” activists unwittingly dog-whistle violent groups in the country. Usually, this is done via comments made to score a cheap political point to boost their religious credentials by egging on a smear campaign. Other times it is meant, as opposition activists do, to intentionally cause harm by alerting violent nonstate actors, or to trigger political turmoil. These networks of unthinking that switch from one context to the other, both online and offline, have previously manifested in calls for vigilante violence and extrajudicial killings of local liberal writers of Muslim heritage perceived as anti-Islamic. Violent groups targeted Maldivian writers like Yameen Rasheed and Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla following such campaigns, where Salafi groups and liberal opposition activists alerted more extremist Maldivian jihadists with links to transnational groups. Supporters of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) also parrot such religious rhetoric.

Opposition-aligned activists who do not necessarily consider themselves Islamists, but rather more as activists and business associates of the opposition, tend to dog-whistle violent extremists more blatantly. However, bizarrely enough, accusations revolving around perceived lack of religious belief or piety can also take place within respective political in-groups as well. 

Faux National Unity

In October 2019, the new Maldivian government, styled as a government of national unity to end years of political instability, decided to suspend the MDN indefinitely. It had been roughly a year since the coalition government came into power. The authorities were directly responding to a smear campaign in September 2019, in which the MDN’s staff and board members were labeled as apostates and linked to the MDP, which enjoys a supermajority in parliament and has its leaders represented in government. 

The online campaign, run by activists and clerics aligned with the opposition, suggested that our 2016 report on the drivers of violent extremism in the country, “The Preliminary Assessment of Radicalization in the Maldives,” was blasphemous and the leadership of the MDN required reprimanding. These groups aligned with the opposition, blatantly dog-whistling to extremists in the country, circulated doctored images of the report. Within weeks, there were Twitter accounts based in Syria, Iraq, and Pakistan joining the Maldivian campaign, calling for vigilante violence against MDN staff, its members, and the authors of the report. Our international partners alerted us to the barrage of overwhelmingly high-risk social media content against us. The Islamic Ministry, and Salafi groups, directly issued sermons over the report justifying vigilante violence. A Maldivian violent extremist with the jihadi nom de guerre Maldifi said in relation to the 2016 report: “Let it be known their ignorance will not grow faint until the sharpness of Islamic Sharia’s sword is inflicted on the individuals who purposely mock and openly insult the Prophet (peace be upon him).” 

As human rights workers in an increasingly threatening environment, we exercised some cautious optimism in early 2019. Threats against individuals, usually based on religious lines, continued without sufficient police, prosecutorial, or judicial action. With the 2012 military coup fresh in their minds, the national unity government sought to prevent another prolonged period of conflict through a mix of conflicting parties attempting to emulate a top-down sense of national unity. The Maldives’ President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih appointed a cabinet that included many prominent figures from outside the MDP, including appointing highly conservative Islamist figures to integral posts, such as the home minister (responsible among other things for the police service) who belongs to the Islamist Adhaalath Party (AP).

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Several factors dictated Solih’s appointment of a diverse government, reflecting not only the MDP’s relatively moderate religious position, but also giving significant representation to much more extreme and conservative forces. First, in seeking to defeat former President Abdulla Yameen, the MDP had collaborated with a wide range of opposition groups in what was known as the Maldives United Opposition. Following the election, several of those other groups were rewarded with positions in government, including former strongman, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s Maldives Reform Movement (MRM) and the religiously conservative AP.

Second, the ruling party generally lacks credibility on Islamic issues in the Maldives, so bringing in a range of more extreme and conservative Islamic groups and individuals conferred a degree of religiosity on the new administration. It is important to note that there is a pervading sense in the country and among foreign observers that in order to maintain peace and security, it is now necessary for the government to pacify and make allowances for the views of the powerful extreme Islamist elements in the country. In effect, the state is outsourcing religious authority to those who hold the most extreme views on religion.

In that same vein, when the online smear campaign instigated political turmoil through calls to “Ban MDN,” the government deflected the issue through an opaque process that eventually dissolved the NGO. The Ministry of Islamic Affairs was the first to react to the smear campaign calling for an immediate criminal investigation. Others, including “liberal” Maldivian politicians, followed suit, seemingly in a domino effect, but on close observation the campaign was clearly contrived. It came as a surprise to me that the ministry decided our report was a “blasphemous” attempt at “disrupting Maldivian religious unity,” especially as I had sat at the Islamic Ministry three years ago interviewing the then-Islamic minister, explaining to him the study’s objectives in detail, while taking notes of his answers. In short, the study was no secret to those in the previous or current government, nor to the religious leaders of either.

Former autocrat Gayoom (in power from 1979 to 2008), viewed as a moderate religious voice, was the first to congratulate the government for officially banning MDN in December 2019. It was unsurprising to us. A few months before that, in August 2019, we launched our program on transitional justice, where torture and killings committed in Gayoom-era prisons would take center stage, with research and advocacy designed to help survivors of torture, enabling them due compensation for historic atrocities. 

One part of the 2016 MDN report was an analysis of the Islamic Studies curriculum taught in Maldivian schools. This section was willfully misconstrued as signifying our supposedly secular agenda, even when we raised Islamic perspectives against extremism in the study. The other half of the report looked at the unofficial networks at play, showing media outlets, literature, institutions, and actors that form the scaffolding on which violent extremist narratives seep into mainstream Maldivian discourse on religion. 

Timing and Foreshadowing

At the time when the move to ban MDN began, the Maldives’ former President Yameen, decisively beaten in elections held a year before, was set to be imprisoned on multiple counts of corruption. The new democratically leaning government introduced measures to curb increasing recruitment to terrorism ongoing in the country, where regional terror outfits brainwash Maldivians to join the war in Syria and Iraq as foreign terrorist fighters. 

Demonstrating public support for terrorism became a criminal offense for the first time in the Maldives in October 2019. Using these amendments to the Anti-Terrorism Act, law enforcement also attained sweeping powers and began raids on suspected recruiters and returnees. It is geopolitically noteworthy that an unprecedented post-war terrorist attack took place in Sri Lanka in Easter 2019. That had imaginably severe implications on threat levels in the neighboring Maldives, bound to Sri Lanka by strong historical and cultural ties. The opposition and religious hardliners, whose work seem to go hand in hand, needed a diversion that could rupture the current political configuration while dog-whistling violent groups into action — “Ban MDN” became that diversion.

Smear campaigns such as those against the MDN begin with the aim of causing political instability, resulting in persecution and violent reprisals. Coordinated attacks to threaten and intimidate individuals and groups on social media, initiated by a few, have previously developed into fully-fledged protests and calls for violence. The cyclical and unstable politics of the past, grandfathered into a modern system of governance, continues to cause periods of conflict exacerbating fears over terrorism. The political jitters that flare up exclude and reorganize, or continue until the opposition’s religiously-charged campaign causes civil unrest, prompting military intervention. These political alliances are made through campaigns of violence and hatred that restructure power relations. It never ends there, as sporadic fissures come to the fore, prioritizing political alliances over a principled approach against extremism contributes to the existing vulnerabilities. 

Mushfiq Mohamed is a lawyer working with a Maldives’ human rights group called the Maldivian Democracy Network. He is a former public prosecutor and a recipient of La Médaille du Barreau from the Paris Bar Association.