Daniel Bosley on the Maldivian State, Gangs, Religious Radicals, and Power Brokers

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Daniel Bosley on the Maldivian State, Gangs, Religious Radicals, and Power Brokers

“If the country experiences another five years of anarchy under the PPM and its allies,” many Maldivians will view “the suppressed stability of Gayoom’s presidency with rose-tinted glasses.”

Daniel Bosley on the Maldivian State, Gangs, Religious Radicals, and Power Brokers

Maldivian Islamists participate in a street demonstration demanding the imposition of Sharia law in the country on September 5, 2014.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Dying Regime

To foreigners, the Maldives conjures up images of sandy beaches, turquoise blue waters, and super-luxurious resorts. While the Indian Ocean archipelago is undoubtedly stunningly beautiful, daily life for local Maldivians has been far from picture-postcard perfect. Decades of authoritarian rule prompted mass protests, which paved the way for democracy. But with democracy came political turmoil. Worse, a cocktail of problems including drug addiction, unemployment, gang violence, and religious extremism is shaking Maldivian society.

British journalist-blogger Daniel Bosley experienced this dichotomy firsthand while living and working there between 2011 and 2019. In his recent book “Descent into Paradise — A Journalist’s Memoir of the Untold Maldives” (PanMacmillan, 2023), he provides readers with a ringside view of the tumultuous events of this period.

In an interview with The Diplomat’s South Asia editor, Sudha Ramachandran, Bosley points out that the Maldivian state is “outsourcing” violence to non-state actors, including gangs with ties to Salafist radicals and drug mafias. These actors were jailed during President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s authoritarian rule. While these forces were kept in check by Gayoom, authoritarian rule kept “a lid on many other freedoms too, which may have released an even more potent form of extremism when the inevitably brittle regime broke up,” Bosley argued. He added that “if the country was still under strong authoritarian rule” today, “it’s less likely we’d see extremists acting as brazenly as they can at the moment, but it’s impossible to keep these ideas in jail for long.”

Your book speaks at length about radicalized gangs that intimidate, attack, and even kill government critics and secular-democratic Maldivians. Could you share your insights into these gangs?

Having lost two friends and colleagues — Ahmed Rilwan and Yameen Rasheed — to Malé’s gangs, it’s hard for me to take an objective view of their killers. But it’s clear the conditions that gave rise to these groups can be traced through the transition from an autocratic and isolated fishing nation to a young democracy with a booming tourism economy.

As income from tourist resorts brought unprecedented economic development throughout the 1980s and 1990s, more people were drawn to the capital, Malé, resulting in overcrowding and unemployment. From here, three factors seem to have preyed on the vulnerable groups of young men collecting in the cramped island city: drugs, politics, and religion.

Drugs had begun to appear in the islands regularly by the 1990s, and the regime of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom responded by throwing large numbers of young men into jail. In a country that had traditionally punished criminals with banishment to smaller islands, the nascent prison system was overwhelmed and its inmates were often brutalized. With ex-offenders considered unemployable, even if incarcerated for petty offenses, they were released with few prospects. Many subsequently gathered into what would later be called “gangs” — to benefit financially from the thriving drug trade but also for social support, status, and identity in a rapidly changing society.

The first gang killing is thought to have happened around 2007, just as the country was preparing for its first multi-party presidential elections. This democratic transition was to provide new and lucrative opportunities for the gangs, both for legitimate campaigning but also for more nefarious activities, which would previously have been handled by the dictatorship’s security services. Very soon, the use of gangs by political parties was becoming widespread, but it wasn’t only corrupt politicians who were finding them useful.

More conservative strains of Islam had been growing in the traditionally moderate Maldives since the 1980s, and al-Qaida was active in the country before the first democratic elections took place. By 2014, it became apparent that a fusion of Salafi-jihadis and gangs had occurred. Major gang leaders, some with conspicuous links to the government, now took on the role of a vigilante religious police just as the Syrian civil war reached its peak, along with the rise of ISIS. This resulted in the forced disappearance of my colleague Ahmed Rilwan and the subsequent murder of our friend Yameen Rasheed.

The degree to which these murders were sanctioned by the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM)-led government (2013-2018) is unclear, though strong evidence of a cover-up was later found. While major gang leaders were arrested for these crimes in 2022, they were all released in the run-up to the recent election and have subsequently had all charges dropped. With political influence and apparent legal immunity, the power of the gangs—spawned during the chaotic transition to democracy—will only grow during the current administration.

You draw attention to the Maldives’ non-violent tradition in your book. But this is so much at odds with what has been unfolding in recent decades — torture, slitting the throats of critics and beating them with machetes/rods, etc. Can you make sense of this?

In comparison to the U.K., most Maldivians are extremely pacific in nature — calm, relaxed, and slow to anger. I’m not the first outsider to have observed this, with many previous interlopers writing of idyllic islands where violence was unknown and where they were told murders simply didn’t happen. While some thought this could be inherited from the country’s ancient Buddhist ancestors, it was just as likely a basic necessity of life on very small islands.

The hothouse nature of such communities means violence can spiral quickly into anarchy – “The Swiss Family Robinson” becomes “Lord of the Flies.” This explains why, historically, the state has always kept a firm hold on the use of force — barring periodic outbursts of unrest, when its grip had become too tight.

As mentioned earlier, the opening up of Maldivian society has resulted in the outsourcing of violence to non-state actors — namely, the gangs, while the proliferation of media outlets means there is now a public record of things that would previously have been hushed up by sultans and dictators. More recently, extreme interpretations of Islam that fetishize and justify performative violence have also resulted in attacks that appear unprecedented in the country’s long history.

The image of a land without violence was probably a blend of aspiration, pragmatism, and propaganda in an isolated society that has always depended on community cohesion and strict control. But while the Maldives, like anywhere else, has always had its share of violence, I think the recent escalation is symptomatic of the islands’ old cultural values being strained to breaking point under the weight of incredible social change.

How do foreign investors view the surging threat of religious radicalism in the Maldives?

Foreign investors in the Maldives are largely focused on the tourism industry which, due to the country’s unique geography, is still based on the “one island one resort” concept. The rapid expansion of these resorts — from just over 100 a decade ago to more than 170 today — suggests these investors don’t yet view religious radicalism as a threat to their profits.

Beyond the resorts, foreign investors are more often deterred by the vagaries of corrupt politics and limitations on foreign control of companies. The Maldives’ most recent ranking on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index was 147th of 190 countries.

The largesse of China and India in recent years has more to do with geopolitics than business, and the investments have continued to grow. China does not comment on local issues and has at times appeared caught out by the febrile nature of island politics. With the Maldives’ only known suicide bomber having taken part in the 2009 Lahore attack, Indian security services keep a much closer watch. But, regardless of any concerns these investment partners may have, neither can afford to abandon this strategically vital Indian Ocean pearl.

“Real power” in Maldives, you write, lies with the resort industry. So why are the resort owners not acting against Salafist radicals, who will threaten tourism and resorts in the coming years?

Maldivian geography provides a unique level of insulation for the resort sector, but fears about a terror attack like the one that devastated Tunisia’s tourism industry in 2015 are understandable.

In 2007, a bomb planted by al-Qaida-linked individuals injured a dozen day-trippers in the capital, and in 2020, three visitors were stabbed — none fatally — by ISIS sympathizers in the neighboring island of Hulhumalé. These, however, are the only known incidents of their kind in the industry’s history. While the ideology and strategies of local extremists are almost impenetrable, up to now they seem more interested in a takfiri ideology, which focuses on perceived “bad Muslims,” and so threatens free-thinking Maldivians, rather than on a broader anti-Western rhetoric that would target tourists.

It is important to note that the recent spate of terror attacks have all been against liberal Maldivian writers or against politicians, adding further weight to theories that the country’s power brokers hold at least some influence on how terrorist intent is being channeled. As for a lone gunman attack, such as the one in Tunisia, the resorts’ relative isolation — not to mention the lack of firearms in the country — means a lone gunman attack like this would be very difficult, logistically.

As a country wholly dependent on tourism for its livelihood, it’s unlikely any terror cell would want to bite the hand that feeds it. The fact that these groups have been appeased by any segment of society may be precisely because they recognize the golden goose must remain sacrosanct.

From your book, it seems that perhaps President Gayoom was right to jail the Salafists. After all, he has been the most successful in keeping a lid on religious radicalism. Do you agree?

It’s hard to say how Gayoom would have coped with the modern brand of Salafi-jihadis. It could just as easily be argued that it was his refusal to allow open discussion of religious issues that made alternative ideas so appealing. What’s more, it was the relentless politicization of Islam from many in his party that helped normalize these divisive ideologies today.

Unfortunately, just as Gayoom attempted to moor the rapidly changing Maldives with his own brand of Islamic nationalism in the late 1970s, the petro-fuelled wave of Salafism from Saudi Arabia was already headed towards the islands. By the early 2000s, the country’s democratic transition coincided with 9/11 and the rise of the internet, meaning the local religious narrative was no longer Gayoom’s to control.

The aftermath of the Arab Spring showed that opening up a society doesn’t only give greater freedoms to human rights groups and pro-democracy activists. Keeping a lid on the Salafis and jihadis would have meant keeping a lid on many other freedoms too, which may have released an even more potent form of extremism when the inevitably brittle regime broke up. Salafis today have significant social influence in the Maldives, but they have made little progress electorally.

If the country was still under strong authoritarian rule, it’s less likely we’d see extremists acting as brazenly as they can at the moment, but it’s impossible to keep these ideas in jail for long. However, if the country experiences another five years of anarchy under the PPM and its allies, I think a lot of people will start looking back at the suppressed stability of Gayoom’s presidency with rose-tinted glasses.

How would you describe Maldives President-elect Muizzu?

Much like the outgoing President Ibrahim Solih, Muizzu is not a confident English speaker, which makes him somewhat inscrutable to most outsiders. Again, just as Solih had been for former President Mohamed Nasheed, Muizzu was a loyal but not particularly outspoken ally of former President Abdulla Yameen, serving as his housing minister from 2012 to 2018. He was also mayor of Malé City from 2021 till he assumed the presidency.

Muizzu is clearly a very pious individual, though rumors spread during the campaign that he was sympathetic to extremist ideologies have remained just that. His campaign of Islam, patriotism, and development offered nothing different than any other candidate from his party would have. His first interview with Al Jazeera was underwhelming, and Dhivehi speakers tell me his ideas are no more nuanced in the local language.

The new president’s headline pledge has been to remove Indian troops from the country after the relentless “India Out” campaign, which was spearheaded by Yameen. Releasing his former president from jail was also a key pledge of Muizzu’s campaign, though Yameen himself reportedly wanted his allies to boycott the election and has already left to start his own party. How Muizzu handles this early, but inevitable, split will be an interesting indicator of what kind of president he will be. While his supporters clamor for Yameen’s full exoneration, the reality is that the sitting president will have tremendous influence on what the courts decide.

Muizzu may prove to be an independent-minded and thoughtful president, or he may be another without the strength or leadership to stop corrupt and radicalized individuals around him from doing whatever they please. Recent history and early impressions suggest the latter, but only time will tell.