Looking for Osama in the Maldives.

Looking for Osama in the Maldives.

Looking for Osama in the Maldives.

Notes from different corners of the world.
May 28 2007 7:24 AM

Islamism Comes to Paradise

Looking for Osama in the Maldives.

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Fixing me with a fierce scowl, the imam made it clear I was unwelcome. I can't say I was surprised. Somewhere in his 50s, he wore the long beard and calf-length pants that marked him as a follower of Wahhabiism, the strict fundamentalist brand of Islam that originated in Saudi Arabia. But I was not in Saudi Arabia. I was in the Maldives, the remote and lovely island chain in the Indian Ocean near Sri Lanka and southern India.

True, the Maldives is a Muslim country—exclusively so, since the practice of other religions is illegal—and has been since 1153, when the king at the time fell under the sway of an Arab traveler and ordered his subjects to convert. The islands had been predominantly Buddhist, a faith they shared with Sri Lanka, whose Sinhala language is similar to Divehi, the native Maldivian tongue.

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But if Islam has a long history in the Maldives, it's not the kind of place you associate with hostile mullahs. Quite the opposite, in fact. With a population of just 360,000, the archipelago is dotted with luxurious private resorts—think Robinson Crusoe with plunge pools—and is a magnet for celebrities such as Tom Cruise, who honeymooned there in December. In Male, the cramped little island capital, tourists are relatively scarce. But the atmosphere, at least at first, seems laid-back and globalized. The skyline is dominated by modern, pastel-colored apartment blocks that would not look out of place in South Florida, and the streets are jammed with shiny new motorbikes, many piloted by sinewy young men in dreadlocks and baggy shorts. I even saw one young woman in a T-shirt that read, "Good Girls Don't Get Caught."

Still, there is no mistaking the Maldives' Islamic character. Alcohol can only be sold to foreigners at resorts, and nearly everyone I spoke with remarked on the growing popularity of beards and headscarves. When I caught up with the surly imam in Male not long ago, he was preparing for afternoon prayers in an illicit and supposedly clandestine mosque, which was hidden behind a row of stores.  After he shooed me away, I retreated across the street and watched as a steady trickle of young men—all bearded and sporting abbreviated trousers—disappeared into the alley that led to the mosque. When they emerged a little while later, none of them would talk to me, either.

Some fear the worst is yet to come. In spring 2006, authorities  announced the arrest in Sri Lanka of three Maldivians—two women and a man—who allegedly were heading to militant training camps in Pakistan. Charges have since been dropped, and when I spoke to Fatimah Nisreen, a policeman's daughter who was accused of helping to arrange the trip, she asserted that the man had been escorting the women to Pakistan so he could marry them—something he couldn't do at home. But the 26-year-old also described herself as "totally obsessed with Islam" and acknowledged that she regularly visited an extremist Web site, although she has yet to make up her mind about Osama Bin Laden: "There are things I support, and there are things I can't decide on him."

As elsewhere, the growth of fundamentalist influence can be traced in part to Saudi Arabia, which built a seven-story-high school in Male—the Islamic Studies Institute—whose curriculum runs heavily to Arabic and the Quran.  Moreover, many young Maldivians have studied at madrassas in the Middle East and Pakistan, where some have been recruited by militants. At a counseling center for recovering heroin addicts in Male, I met Ahmed Shah, a former recruit who nervously puffed on a cigarette as he told me of the 31 days he spent at a militant training camp in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, during a break from religious studies in Lahore. The camp was run by Lashkar-e-Tayyba, a Pakistani extremist group that U.S. officials have linked to al-Qaida. Now 28, Shah recalled the camp fondly. "So many Maldivians were training there," he said.

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Blame can also be assigned to President Maumoon Gayoom, an Egyptian-trained religious scholar who has run the Maldives since 1978. In the time-honored tradition of Muslim autocrats everywhere, Gayoom uses Islam to promote his legitimacy—his official biography notes proudly that he designed the calligraphy in the capital's main mosque—while dealing ruthlessly with secular political rivals. Under pressure from human rights groups and Western governments, Gayoom has eased up a bit on the repression and pledged to hold free presidential elections in 2008. But the net effect of his policies has been to create a hospitable environment for extremists. "I can hear people sharpening their knives," warned Mohammed Nasheed, who heads the largest opposition party and was released from house arrest in September, after more than a year in custody.

Nasheed wasn't the only one expressing worry about the fundamentalist trend. "Obviously it is the biggest threat to this country," Hassan Saeed, the attorney general, told me. He voiced particular concern about the latent threat to tourism, citing a 2005 incident in which fundamentalists attacked a Male shop for displaying a Santa Claus in its window.

Several people in Male suggested that I might learn more if I paid a visit to Himendhoo, one of the 200 or so "local islands"—as distinct from the capital—where most Maldivians live. Last fall, an Indian schoolteacher on the island was beaten nearly to death, allegedly because he was a Hindu and an English teacher, and police rounded up 30 islanders for starting an unauthorized mosque, which was then destroyed with sledgehammers. So, late one night, I boarded a wooden fishing boat called a dhoni for a storm-tossed eight-hour voyage.

Himendhoo was less than a mile long, a sleepy, palm-shaded settlement of concrete houses and sandy lanes that were empty of any cars. There were two government mosques, and many of the women wore black abayas and face veils—a fashion statement I hadn't seen in the capital.  My host, whom I will call Majeed, was a young schoolteacher with a wispy beard who had been arrested in connection with the mosque episode. By his account, he and other islanders had decided to build their own mosque after clashing with government clerics over a liturgical matter relating to the dawn prayer. "We are only trying to follow what the Quran says and what the Prophet did," said Majeed, who was jailed for three weeks.

Majeed then took me to see the bungalow where the Indian teacher had been attacked. But he told a different story than the one I had heard in Male, insisting that the incident had been triggered not by religion but by a personal squabble. That sounded plausible, and I began to wonder whether Himendhoo was quite the hotbed of radicalism that had been described to me. In the scheme of things, the prayer dispute behind the mosque rebellion seemed pretty arcane. And while the island was obviously conservative, there was no prohibition on girls attending school or women holding jobs, even those connected with tourism. As we passed by the beach, I spotted a woman in an abaya sitting cross-legged in the shade of a palm tree, weaving mats from fronds. Majeed told me that the mats are sold to resorts for building guest cottages.

But there wasn't time to investigate further. As a foreigner, I wasn't supposed to visit any of the local islands without official permission, and I didn't want to push my luck by hanging around. I had arranged to spend the night on a nearby resort island and catch a seaplane back to Male the next morning. Majeed accompanied me to the beach, where a dhoniwaited in the shallows. Before we parted, I asked a final question: "How do people here feel about Osama Bin Laden?" Majeed smiled bashfully. "I think here we have to support him," he said. "He is the person who is trying to spread the Islamic religion in the world." An hour later, I was sipping a Corona in an open-air restaurant, surrounded by Italians in bathing trunks and bikinis. A sign advertised a discoteca starting at 11 p.m.