Religious extremism in the Maldives is the long-term result of the previous government’s repression of religious debate and learning, Minister of Islamic Affairs Dr Abdul Majeed Abdul Bari has said.
“As Muslims, Maldivians were keen to learn about Islam”, Dr Bari told Minivan News. The country’s education system as well as certain government policies, however, shut the door to such knowledge.
Dr Bari said many Maldivians were forced to travel abroad to seek religious enlightenment, and several ended up at the “wrong type” of institutions.
Some Maldivians attended the religious schools or ‘madhrasaas’ of Pakistan, targeted in the US-led War on Terror as ‘breeding grounds’ for terrorists. In addition to those indoctrinated at the madhrasaas, Dr Bari said, several Maldivian extremists were radicalised over the internet.
Dr Bari’s conclusion that some Maldivian extremists were radicalised online is in line with emerging Western literature on the subject as well as new anti-radicalisation laws in the West.
The Violent Radicalisation and Homegrown Terrorism Act 2007 passed by the United States House of Representatives, for example, identifies the internet as one of the main tools through which extremists spread their ideology.
The export of Dr Bari’s approach to rehabilitation was recently discussed on the popular American news blog, The Huffington Post.
Although Dr Bari was quoted in the article as having said his programme was successful in rehabilitating “hard-core terrorists”, he clarified that it was aimed at extremists.
“There are no hard-core terrorists in the Maldives. There are extremists, but no terrorists”, Dr Bari said.
The line between terrorists and extremists are too often blurred in both Western media and its policies, he added, as could be seen in the US-led military invasion of Afghanistan.
Dr Bari’s own definition of a ‘terrorist’ is “someone who commits violence against innocent people in the pursuit of a certain goal”. Harming innocent people, be it during peacetime or war, Dr Bari said, “is against the teachings of Islam.”
“If an American in the Maldives was harmed by someone who is angry with the policies of its government, that would be wrong”, he said. As practising Muslims, Maldivians should welcome and protect visiting Americans as they cannot be blamed for their government’s policies, he said.
The only known incident where extremists had crossed the line into terrorism in the Maldives was the bombings at Sultan Park in September 2007.
The confrontation between extremists and police in Himandhoo in October 2007, he said, may have been officially categorised as ‘terrorism’ but it was not a terrorist inciden t:”It was a violent confrontation that could have been avoided had there been discussion and dialogue.”
How to deradicalise
Dialogue is key to Dr Bari’s approach to the rehabilitation or de-radicalisation of extremists.
“We approach known extremists on friendly terms. Ministry-appointed scholars make the initial contact with known fundamentalists, meet them on their own terms and establish a rapport. This is followed by discussion and dialogue through which they come to realise that, in many cases, they have been misinformed about the teachings of Islam”, Dr Bari said.
All the people who were involved in the confrontation at Himnadhoo have now “fully reintegrated” into the community as a result of the programme, he said.
Dr Bari was unable to determine how many people in the Maldives have been categorised as ‘extremists’ in the Maldives. Neither was he able to provide the criteria used to define a person as an extremist: “It can be seen from a person’s behaviour. What they say and what they do”.
Dr Bari earned his doctorate at the University in Saudi Arabia’s Islamic University of Al-Madinah, focusing his research on a critical analysis of Fath al-Bari’s commentary on Sahih al-Bukhari.
Asked if religious discussion and debate should now be allowed more freely given the consequences of repression in the past, Dr Bari replied that any such debate “should be within Islam.”